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It Took My Grandmother’s Death to Finally Appreciate My Mom’s Incredible Strength

My grandmother never got her driver’s license. She stayed at home (quite literally), kept the house clean, the fridge full, and her children well-disciplined. She instilled faith and responsibility in her children, and she ran a tight ship — a ship that housed 11 children. Together, those 11 children produced 47 grandchildren, who in turn, popped out 50 great-grandchildren — for a grand total of 108 offspring from my amazing grandmother and her hardworking and handsome husband. Yes, 11 children, 108 offspring, one home, and one amazing woman at the head of the ship we call the Mehrtens Family. The amazing woman who led this ship was named Nanno.

I’m not sure if the name made the woman or the woman made the name, but “Nanno” to me connotes strength. It says, I’m tough on the outside but soft underneath. I have a tough, thick skin and demand respect. When she talked, you listened, and didn’t want to disappoint her. I have seen the name associated with the meanings Grace (Ann) and Honor (Honora or Norene). Nanno lived up to her name. She was a woman of grace, honor, and faith. Recently, she passed away peacefully of old age in her home, surrounded by loved ones. She was 94. What I witnessed in the days of her services was life-changing for me.


The author as a child with her grandmother, Nanno. (Photo Credit: Suzanne Hayes)

As I arrived at my grandma’s funeral, I was handed a program for the funeral mass. The back page of this program listed Nanno’s quotes — those quintessential things that my aunts and uncles most remembered their mom saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your shoulders. You’ll live! Wait until your father gets home! And: Offer it up to the souls in purgatory. As I read these quotes, I thought, My mom has said all of these things, too!

I thought of my mom again at the end of the service when I heard her laugh loudly from across the church. The priest spoke of my grandmother’s hospitality and mentioned the “FHB rule” that the Mehrtens clan would adhere to when guests would make their way to the dinner table. FHB means “family, hold back.” The 11 children were instructed to “hold back” and be sure the guests had enough to eat first. I fell in love with this idea. What an amazing manner to teach children, and what an amazing, bonding moment for these 11 children to chuckle over at their mom’s funeral: The “FHB rule.” My mother was clearly touched.

I sat for a minute and for the first time in my life imagined what life as the second sibling of 11 must have been like for my mom. I imagined my mom making sacrifices to care for younger siblings, growing up a little too fast, and struggling to share her mom time with 10 other siblings. (And I think three kids is hard work!) Suddenly, I understood my own mom just a little bit more. I appreciated her more — and quite honestly, I wanted to know more about that childhood.

See, her childhood, and her mom and dad, are such a huge part of who she is today. I had never taken the time to think about it, to imagine it, to feel compassion and gratitude for all of her experiences that have made her who she is: an amazing and wonderful woman who has been my rock for far too long. A woman who will drive 30 miles just to help me with housework or who will drop everything to listen when I call, heartbroken again. A woman who has been there for me through my hell and back. A woman who has become more loving, more compassionate, and more patient every step of the way — and, like most moms, a woman who doesn’t always see her own beauty. A woman also named Nanno.

I appreciate my mom a little more today because, through my grandmother’s death, I got to know both her and my mom a little better. My grandma lives in my heart and in my mom’s heart forever. Not only that; she lives in our lives, too, in the lessons, the sayings that shape us, the values that define us. My grandmother is living strong in the hearts and lives of 108 people and counting. RIP, Nanno V. Mehrtens. Thank you for giving me the mom I got, and shaping the children I am raising.

There is a romantic song with lyrics that say, “Old Mr. Webster could never define, what’s been said between your heart and mine.” It has always been one of my all-time favorite song lyrics. I always processed those lyrics in the romantic sense, but today, those lyrics are simply perfect for the love that is shared between mother and child. There are no words to define such love.

This post was written by Suzanne Hayes.

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