Marion Nelson – 1922-2014

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.
Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This, the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is also a principle in statistics. From Wikipedia – the Anna Karenina principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

My mother Marion Nelson died last night. She passed away after 91 years. I looked up the meaning of “passed away” – it is a euphemism for the act of dying – a nice way of saying something that is unpleasant to discuss head on. She was at her nursing home in Pekin, Illinois. My brothers Peter and Chris were at her side. I was here in Paris – there wasn’t time to get there, and the situation was uncertain. I spent a restless night and didn’t really perceive any of my feelings except relief that her struggle and suffering were finally over. But I knew that if I waited some idea would come to me about the meaning of all this.

Mom and I shared the view that every possible deficiency should be avoided. I could be wrong, since my father was also a formidable planner, but I’m pretty sure that my mom and I had the market cornered on worrying – and to the extent that worrying alone can prevent deficiencies, voila! In an attempt to avoid every possible deficiency, I of course nixed the idea of moving to France. Fortunately I am married to someone who does not recognize the importance of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle – so we moved here in spite of my grave warnings.

On Mom’s side of the family, we are German. I studied German in high school and back then could actually convey my thoughts, though a trip to Munich in the ’70s convinced me that there was a limit to my abilities. German was the logical language to study in our family. It’s a somewhat harsh sounding language, and though the German’s started World War II, still I loved the connection it gave me with the important non English roots of our ancestry.

Mom, on the other hand, studied French – I have no idea why. Here in Paris, I have her French books. Her address is dutifully recorded in the binding of each, 1115 W Nevada, Urbana, IL. I have her notes in the margins. The pictures, which represented some remote possibility in her lifetime, are of places that I have visited and readily recognize. Though I am no expert, in most cases I understand the French. It’s reassuring to me that I have brought the memory of her to a place where, despite the family’s logical connection to German, she sought to study. When we notified our relatives about our crazy idea of moving to France for a year, my mom was the first to cheer and encourage us, though she must have wondered whether she would live to the end of the experiment.

We don’t exactly know what constitutes a happy family, though perhaps it is a case where you can recognize an unhappy family when you see one. Our upbringing was not all wine and roses. My mom was the enforcer. If you follow hockey in the NHL you might have some idea of what that looks like. Certainly my recollections of childhood feature her as one who would enforce the part about “woe to that man by whom the offence cometh”. I think my brothers know that too. Still, mom was wonderful in her own way. We could bring her any modern idea that excited us, and she would become excited about it too. There was always that youthful exuberance without the fear that the standards of social etiquette would crumble.

We’ve scheduled the funeral, and I’m now planning an unexpected return to the US. Conveniently the timing works with everything else we were planning to do here. It’s funny how in spite of our family having spread all over the country (and now the world), the memory of our parents binds us together now more tightly than when we were younger. We were never the smartest kids, and we were always aware that many other families enjoyed a greater economic fortune than ours. Still, every day here I have a coat of my father’s to protect me and some French textbooks of my mother to remind me of the adventure yet to come. Were I to reconsider my life, I really wouldn’t want to have it any other way.


Add Yours
  1. Wendy

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss (another euphemism for act of dying). But it is a loss non the heart and spirit.

  2. Randi

    Dearest Hugh, this is so beautifully written, I plan to read it again and again, I am so sorry that you have lost your mother. I will always love her for giving you to me, and to the world, for we are all lucky people beacuse of her.

    Much love, Randi

  3. Wendy

    Our deepest condolences for you and your family. Nothing prepares us for this moment.. though it is the one think in life we all face. I suppose it is something we can’t practice.. fortunately.

    All best wishes,
    Wendy and Jessie

  4. Margene Smaaladen

    My condolences Hugh. Beautifully written….I can relate to so much of what you wrote about families. How wonderful that your Mom cheered you on with the idea of moving to Paris!! Thinking of you…


  5. Jan Hiatt

    Beautifully written, Hugh. I can see her as an NHL enforcer with you three; and yet her strong opinions about a woman’s rights resonate with me today. She may not have shared them with the “boys” but she did with me. I will miss her.

  6. Susan Troxell

    Beautiful words, of love, life, family and loss. So wonderful to have those textbooks with her hand written notes on the sides. Your fathers coat to keep you warm. There are no words that can express the loss of a parent. She is at peace. Sending you and Brenda heart energy and love in this most difficult and sad time.

    Susan Troxell

  7. Lora Hart

    How beautifully put. Harry and I are so sorry for your loss. We send you both many loving thoughts .


  8. Steven Brown

    Wow. We at the ’69 version at RCHS have a rocket scientist and, now I see, a writer. I hope you had the reasoning to write your mom from time to time so she could see your beautiful mind at work. I was fortunate enough to have said ” I love you mom. ” enough times that when she also ” passed away” I felt the inevitable pain of loss, I didn’t feel the pain of lonely. I filled my heart with her when she was here and can now still enjoy her company. I pray you are as fortunate as I. I feel your pain of loss and with wet eye, I forward my thoughts and love.

  9. Kay Minton

    Sorry for your loss. Your thoughts about your Mom and family were beautiful. May you and your family have strength to get through this time, enough hugs to sustain each of you, and peace for you all.

  10. Sara

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Aunt Marion and my memories of her since I heard this morning. She was oldest of the three Volkens girls and I knew her much better than I knew Aunt Lois. I always thought of my mom, Carolyn, as the serious one, but Aunt Marion always had a twinkle in her eye; she even laughed at my dad’s lame jokes and puns! One of my favorite memories was traveling back to Illinois the summer I was 16 without the rest of my family. I spent several hours sitting on the couch talking with Aunt Marion about everything under the sun. At one point during the evening, she called me Car-Lo-Sara; she laughed and said that for a moment she had forgotten who she was talking to and felt like she was talking with one of her sisters. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me! Even the last time I saw her, only a few days after she lost Uncle Bill, and moving into a different apartment, we talked for a long time, remembering Grandma, Grandpa, and my mom–she still remembered how to laugh! I will miss her! I hope she says hi to mom for me.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Sara – I know what you are saying about Marion. Everybody I knew would tell me how she was just the sweetest person. You as a mother know that the kids don’t go home at the end of each day, so to keep some semblance of good order and discipline you have a different relationship with them than when you are an aunt (or a grandmother – I know you know that relationship too). Mom used to wonder at how I could say things to Grandpa Volkens that she never could have gotten away with. For some reason he didn’t blow his stack at me. Later in life mom would lament that she had been too hard on us boys – almost an apology that I never would have accepted. Both parents (who don’t know how to be parents) and children (who don’t know much anything) are put in the impossible situation of having to constantly administer God’s grace to each other (for the mistakes of the other party) all the time – and most of the time we fail at this, so life can sometimes be a struggle and many families come apart as a result. The words for thank you in French (merci) and in Spanish (gracias) reflect this need much more than the English.

  11. Sara

    Hugh: Your comment about your dad’s coat struck a chord with me; those kind of things speak to me as well. I have a sweater of your dad’s that reminds me of him every time that I see it or wear it; I have a little jewelry from mom, and other little things from Grandma and Grandpa Volkens that bring me comfort when I see them. No matter that they are gone; memories of them will continue to bring us comfort throughout our lives!

  12. Laurie Tolman

    Our deepest condolences Hugh. You write with such love and humility, thank you for sharing the meaning of family and life with us all. We wish you safe travels as you journey home to celebrate your Mom’s life. Our best to you during this sad time.

    Laurie and Jeff

  13. Ann Pyles

    My sympathy goes out to you and your entire family, Hugh. I know what it means to have a suffering parent finally at rest. May the good memories of your Mother and the rest of your family give you solace.

  14. Meredith Green

    Hugh and Brenda,

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Hugh, your email about your mother was beautiful and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing.
    I hope that you’re able to stop in Poulsbo on your trip to the US. We miss you.


  15. Richard B. White

    Dear Hugh,
    I am so very sorry to hear of your tremendous loss.
    I admire your beautifully written “Masterpiece” of your Mother Family ….very well done.

  16. Donna Etchey

    So sorry for your loss Hugh, beautifully written. Your mother sounded like a very wise woman who raised a very wise son.

  17. Pat Ryan

    Dear Hugh,
    We are so sorry to learn of your mother’s death. The eloquence of her life is summed up in your own and in your brothers’ lives. Shared memories and the tangibles she has given you (her books) will keep her always close to you. And we’re glad you have them.
    Our love to you and Brenda,
    Matt and Pat Ryan

  18. Hugh Nelson

    Just a note to thank everyone for the heartfelt comments. I appreciate each one. I also spent some time fixing some deficiencies I saw in the article – the apple does not fall far from the tree.

  19. Rick Anderson

    Mom ami,

    A beautiful place to be. In a most beautiful way you’ve shown us Paris in more than one way, through different lives. Your mother and father are with you, keepsakes for journeys.

    I am sorry. I will remember your mother in my prayers, and you and Brenda throughout my day.

    See you perhaps in Paris…

  20. Jacqui

    Hello Hugh and Brenda,
    We are so sorry for your loss. Our mothers sound like they were a lot alike.
    Our thoughts are with you.
    Jacqui Bailey, Ray Bauer and familey

  21. Rosie and Gypsy

    Hugh – again, so so sorry…..our parents passing away gives us pause and thoughts of living life to the fullest, which you clearly ARE doing! And, it makes us, sometimes, think of our own ‘time’……. When my Aunt died, the last person of that generation in my family, one of my brothers, at the mass, said, if we were the British Army in the Revolution, we are now the front line……and we all turned and looked at our oldest brother! When people life full wonderful lives, and they were surrounded by a loving family, we can only be thankful to God for allowing us time with them here on earth! We love you, Hugh…..our thoughts and prayers are with you, Brenda and your entire family.

  22. Bev

    Hugh – So very sorry about the passing of your mom. The end of life should not be slow and painful, but that is often how it plays out, and I am sorry for that. I am so glad you had all the years that you have had with your mom, even though she was not always close by. Certainly you will have the wonderful memories of her and those only seem to grow as the years go by. Your writing is truly impressive, and I am sure makes each one of us think of our own folks and the relationships we have shared. A life well lived is all we can hope and strive towards. My love to both you and Brenda. Bev

  23. Katie and Joel Nilsen

    What an absolute beautiful memoir of your mom..of your childhood and your family.
    Safe trip home.

  24. Ardis Morrow

    Dear Hugh: Yours is the most beautiful eulogy I have ever read. She has to be so proud of you.
    I still miss my mother after all these years so I can deeply sympathize Time does not
    heal, we never forget but it does become bearable. I am sure you have enough happy
    memories to last your lifetime. So take care of yourself and concentrate on remembering
    the fun times. Eventually the peace will outlast the heartache as the warmest memories

  25. Rob Gelder

    Hugh, Our sympathies for your loss. Thank you for sharing this moment through your eyes and words.

  26. Dianne Rodway

    John and I are thinking of you and admiring your ability to write on such a confusing and difficult subject, the loss of a parent. My mother tells me “Dianne, they aren’t lost, they are dead!” I’m not sure what I think about her message there. I’d rather say: I’m thinking of you during this time while you make your life now after the loss of your mother.
    Big hug,

  27. Pat Christensen

    Dear Hugh & Brenda,
    Such a beautiful and eloquent tribute to your mother. My sincerest condolences on your loss.
    Pat Christensen

  28. Kathy Gallaher

    Hugh and Brenda;
    No matter your age or where you are in life, the death of a parent pulls you back to childhood memories and the love that parent shared with you. I am so sorry for your loss. I am glad you have the books from your Mother so you can look at them and remember her,
    Lots of love;

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