Previously, I had stated, “And thus ended the year 1991 Anno Domini.”
Not entirely, though!
The year 1991 is also the year Millie leaves us. Millie and John have a minor argument, and invariably, it gets blown out of proportion. Things are tense for a few days, and Millie needs a break.
Two of her sisters are in Granite City, and Millie longs to see them. After mentioning it to us one evening over dinner, Mildred drives down by herself the next day. Mildred’s determination and quick decision surprise us, though John is less so! She stays with her sisters for a few days and drives right back, all by herself. No pit stops, nothing. Enjoying her visit, amazed and thrilled Millie that she could do it. John was on the phone with his Aunt Dorothy throughout her stay, ensuring Millie was doing okay.
She was in high spirits when she came back. Did not encounter any problems with the car and did not get too tired to make any stops along the way. A stunned Millie cannot stop talking about it. If only she had done it more often all these years. She never thought she had it to drive to Granite City and back. Seventy-seven years young and thriving!
Shortly after her return, the exhilaration of making the solo trip wears off, and Millie moves out. She has had enough of “John Phillips’s wild ways” and me. She wishes to return to the assisted living home she had moved out of and is looking forward to spending time with old friends.
I want to remind her of her advice a few years back. Brian’s knack for getting into trouble was getting to me. Millie advised me to laugh it off “Otherwise he will drive you to your limit.” She advised me to keep beer handy. “It’s very relaxing.” Of course, staying half-lit is relaxing. She remembered the time when the doctor prescribed beer for her to get her milk to flow for baby John. Best advice ever: doctor’s orders. Despite the lengthy divorce procedures, Millie had smooth sailing through the first few months of Baby John. I wanted her to remember her sagacious advice, but I held back.
A few months later, Mildred becomes ill. A coughing spell results in a slight slip on a few drops of water. It results in a nasty fall. EMTs take Millie to Edward Hospital in Naperville. Millie does not want to call John; she calls Jason instead. Jason senses the urgency in her voice and visits her the same evening. Mildred tells Jason where she has hidden her diamond ring, which Jean Gephardt had given her. It has a lovely two-carat diamond worth a pretty penny in the 40s. Before he died, Jean had told Millie that this ring was like an insurance policy for her. If she ever needed money, it would be worth several thousand. Jason retrieves the ring and calls Dad as well.
During a visit, Jason asks her what she wants to do with the ring.
“It is yours. I want you to have it.”
Later that year, Jason proposes to Kris Johnson with Ma Millie’s ring.
Millie lies in a coma, drifting in and out. The doctors and nurses keep her comfortable. They suggest putting her on the “iron lung” to save her. John asks the doctors if his mother could leave the hospital after their heroic efforts. The doctors’ verdict is a firm “no”. John rejects the suggestion, stating his mother would not want to make a circus of her dying. The nurses go about whispering about this “horrible’ son, willing to let his mother die. John, of course, hears about it. When Mildred has one of her waking lucid moments, John drags a couple of nurses to her and tells them to ask her wishes. Mildred responds, “Heck no! Just let me go.” A few days later, Mildred dies in the early hours of a balmy summer morning. The year is 1991.
Mildred had long expressed her plan to be buried next to Jean Gephardt, the love of her life. In fact, before Jean died, he had bought two graves, one for him and one for Mildred. Over the years, Mildred had mentioned this to John and me a few times. Despite having remarried, her love for Jean was alive and well. A very upbeat person most of the time, Millie had her sad moments, too. Her spirits recovered at the thought of one day lying next to Jean forever. Another point Millie made a few times was there was to be no showing at the funeral.
The Sunset Hill Cemetery, outside of St. Louis, is ready to receive Millie. They set a date for the funeral and informed the local relatives.
Jean’s son had sold off the grave next to his. John was ready to buy a plot for Mildred. The Funeral Director looks up family records and informs John the Lodwig family owns six graves. Grandpa had bought these before he had died. They had used three for Grandpa, Grandma, and Ray. A surprised John rolls his eyes heavenwards with a “Thank you, Grandpa.”
John declares that no one other than him will go with the coffin for the funeral services and burial. The rest of us should stay at home and carry on as usual. John states that’s what Mother would have wanted. “Yes, sir,“ we silently salute and hold our protests.
At the cemetery, John visits the plot of land and cannot spot any headstones. The Funeral Director removes some dirt from the toe of his shoe and uncovers an illegible stone. John shakes his head and orders two beautiful large headstones with a LODWIG engraved on the top. There is room enough to engrave several names. For now, the names to be engraved are Mary H, John M, and Raymond J on one and Mildred Ruth on the other. The paperwork can show Mildred as a Zuppan, but the headstone will carry her as a Lodwig.
This turn of events delights John, as he changes Millie’s name from a Zuppan to a Lodwig. He goes “te-he-he,” thinking he has now one-upped his mother. He has always resented Millie being a better golfer than him, but now he feels he has outdone her. The remaining two graves, and John makes no bones about stating it, are for him and me.
Mildred’s friends, sisters, and their families as well attend the funeral. Quite a few old-timers remembered Millie and came to pay their respects. John orders an enormous bouquet of yellow roses to be placed on a closed coffin. John walks into the funeral parlor escorted by the Director. Seeing the open casket, he turns to the gentleman, sputtering, pointing at Mildred.
Icily, he says, “What is this?”
“The relatives requested it.”
“My mother wished otherwise. But since you care for their wishes, you can present them with the bill.”
The casket is closed immediately. The flowers returned to their rightful place at the top of the coffin. Pin-drop silence ensues.
Later, John tells me. Mother looked beautiful in her favorite blue dress. She loved that dress–it mirrored the blue of her eyes to a deeper hue. And I remembered when she showed me how to cha-cha in that same dress.
We had returned home from dinner at Benihana’s. It was a special occasion. Along with Brian and Jason, we were celebrating Millie’s 75th birthday. She was in a bubbly, bouncy mood- two martinis would do it, and the blue dress. They had fixed the first martini to perfection, just as she liked, with a touch of vermouth. John felt relieved that Mother didn’t embarrass him by sending back the drink.
The young man preparing our dinner was doing a juggling act with the salt and pepper shakers. He had missed catching one shaker as it brushed past Millie’s forehead and landed on the floor. Profuse apologies followed. Mildred said she was fine and did not want a fuss. Her birthday dessert, complete with a candle, came with an extra martini “on the house.” The evening ended, and we were ready to leave. We walk out, Millie on John’s arm, me between Brian and Jason following. The manager held the door open for Millie with a small birthday package compliments of Benihana’s.
Back home, Millie does a quick cha-cha. So does John. I exclaimed, “Wow! Do it again.” I try to mimic. And Millie walked me through at a slower pace. The three of us cha-cha some more till I get it down pat.
And so, it ended – a glorious evening, a glorious life. One, two, three, cha-cha, one, two, three, cha-cha all the way to a waiting Jean on the other side.