BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | MAY 9, 2021
Marge would have been 100 years old this year, in August. We were never sure whether she was born on August 1 or 2, but after a century it really doesn’t matter.
I loved my Mom and each passing Mother’s Day, I learn just how much.
Marguerite Ellen Brown was reared and went to school in Sioux Falls, SD, born there in 1921 to Earl and Veronica Adams-Brown. Earl and Veronica brought her up in a strict Catholic household during the depression with four younger brothers. It was a tough male-dominated environment.
All of the siblings served in World War II, except the youngest, Uncle Jack. Howard was a Navy pilot in the Pacific theater. Earl joined the Army and served in General Douglas MacArthur’s elite honor guard. My sister’s granddaughter Isabella found in her research that brother Richard Leo (Dick) lied about his age and joined the Army in 1942 at the age of 16.
Marge waited tables in a downtown hotel before joining the Marines (yeah, the Marines inducted women and didn’t give them separate identities, like the Army’s WACs and the Navy Reserve’s WAVEs). She served on Marine bases in North Carolina and rose to the rank of Sergeant.
It was there that she met and married a younger Marine named Clark Wendell Johnson, the son of Oscar and Rebecca Jenkins. The somewhat rebellious young lad grew up on a farm just outside of Danville, IL, and was for a time shipped out to an uncle and aunt in Chicago in an attempt to tame his spirit before joining the Corps.
Clark and Marge came home from the war, settled in Danville with their three children, Carol Ann, Michael Steven, and Gary Lee. Sometime in the early 1950s, Clark dropped Marge and us off in Sioux Falls while he set off for Southern California to find work as a sheet metal mechanic. He never came back. For a long time, Mom never acknowledged that she and Dad were divorced. In the eyes of the Church, they weren’t. She never remarried, and to my knowledge never dated for the rest of her life.
She started over from scratch. She had to buy a car and barely knew how to drive. She got a temporary teaching certificate and began teaching grade school in a renovated military barracks on the grounds of the Sioux Falls Airport and Air National Guard. She paid her way through Augustana College part-time and got her teaching degree. Over the next 28 years, she taught school and reared three children on a South Dakota teacher’s salary that floated just above the poverty line.
We lived for a short time in a trailer behind Grandma’s home on Spring Avenue and eventually moved in with her. It was just a couple of blocks from St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the Catholic grade and high schools we attended, oblivious to the tough time Mom had paying the tuition, books, and fees. We all went to mass at St. Joseph’s every Sunday, sometimes in clothes made by Veronica. She was a professional seamstress and I can still visualize her sitting so upright at her Singer sewing machine every day except Sunday, first in the dark windowless basement of a department store and later at home, making men’s suits and taking in alterations from a local men’s clothing store.
Growing up we had food on the table, clothes to wear, toys, and bikes. We had a roof over our heads for which she gave up some of her own identity and much of her individuality. We had a disciplined upbringing, comfortable and secure in a house we shared with tenants, some of whom were like family members. Our friends were always welcome. They called her Marge. She volunteered for Catholic Daughters and that was just about the extent of her entertainment.
She was always there for us. She sacrificed more than we ever appreciated and looking back, more than we ever knew. Love was never outwardly expressed—that is just the way it was—but we always knew it was there.
We went to work from about age 10 at all kinds of jobs typical for the times and the place. We sold newspapers on street corners, worked as ushers at the local theater, bailed hay, and babysat. Gary and I caddied at the local country club for the town’s upper crust, spending our time between assignments in what we affectionately called the caddy hole, a smoke-filled basement with one filthy toilet, a cement floor usually strewn with unwanted lunch parts, and a steep hill in the back that served as a nasty initiation platform for new recruits.
Mom drove us to and from our jobs, Cub Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, to the public pool, and lake where we ice skated. She packed lunches and made sure we didn’t spend all we earned. She nursed us when we were sick, hovered over us while we did our homework, and paid for music lessons, dance lessons (for Carol), which she couldn’t really afford. She washed our clothes in a tub washer with one of those hand-turned ringers in a dark furnace room. Clothes would be hung on a line in the backyard for all to see. She ironed everything, the towels, sheets, and pillowcases. She mowed the lawn with a big, heavy electric mower until we were old enough to take over. It was the same with shoveling the sidewalks in winter and tending to the garden in summer.
Sometimes she would find it necessary to protect us from Grandma, who could be overbearing and understandably resentful that we had invaded her home in what would have been her retiring years.
Mom tried to be the disciplinarian her mother was, but she just wasn’t good at it. She would whip us with a leather belt on rare and deserving occasions, but you could tell from the lame force of the blows her heart just wasn’t in it.
There was much about her sole parental responsibilities with which she was uncomfortable and unsure. You could tell. When it came to teaching us about life, she often demurred, seemingly not yet sure herself what it was all about or what to tell us, especially when it came to the birds and the bees. She and Veronica were convinced that Elvis was an evil presence in our lives. Sports were discouraged. But for some reason, she tolerated my trips to the pool hall, butch wax in my hair, and rolled-up sleeves. My sister stepped in with dance instruction and some dating tips.
Marge lived a long life of 86 years, seldom if ever asking anything of us until toward the end. We, more so my sister and brother than I, were always there, making sure she had a decent place to live and the help she needed. Mom liked Carol best, the only girl and the eldest, and then Gary, her baby. Carol will deny that. She also had the favored relationship with Grandma, who guided her into womanhood.
Marge died in a nursing home in a room shared with a roommate who wasn’t all there. It wasn’t a pleasant departure from the good earth, but I suspect her devotion to God and the prospect of eternal life in a far better place made it all tolerable. It may have also been made better by her satisfaction with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, although our homes were never clean enough or well-organized enough.
We called her the White Tornado. Later in life she discovered within her a reservoir of helpful hints about housekeeping and child rearing and seldom hesitated to share them. She probably took satisfaction as well in what she had accomplished, what she was able to do with so little on which to start.
This being her 100th birthday anniversary, it is a special Mother’s Day for all of us, one filled with only good memories and the deeper affection you have for parents with you only in spirit. The affection runs deeper when you’ve benefited from the wisdom of aging and the knowledge that so much was given to you so unconditionally when you were oblivious to it or had a limited capacity to appreciate it.
When Marge was alive I thought about her often, but not every day like I do now. I talked with her a lot, but not as much as I want to now. I knew about her life, but after she left us, I discovered over time that there were a hundred questions left unasked, curiosity unquenched, and so much unsaid. I occasionally reach for the phone to ask her a question or tell her something before realizing there’s no one to answer. The same is true for my Dad, who I was fortunate enough to get to know well in later life.
It is sad in a way that so much of the life of someone so much a part of you, is actually still mysterious and always will be. I missed the opportunity to be more connected to her and my past. But then, maybe Marge would not have wanted to engage in a lot of self-reflection and recollections. She was a product of her faith and the ‘greatest generation,’ to which she belonged. She was humble and introverted. It was never about her. It was always about us.
And that is what is so good about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Grandparent’s Day, for all who have unselfishly fulfilled those roles in one way or another. On these days, it is not about us, but just about them.
Thanks to Gary and Carol for their recollections over time.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.