Today after a traditional Catholic Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth’s West End (my mother-in-law was born, raised and lived in the shadow of the ore docks and would never, I repeat never, call the West End “the Lincoln Park District”), my four sons and four of their male cousins will carry Grandma to her place of repose. There will be tears. There will be hugs. There will be the perpetual mist of a June day in Duluth. There will be some holy words of comfort from the priest. And then, slowly, inexorably, we will move on with our lives. Family gatherings, events, weddings, baptisms, confirmations, birthdays: All those times when Grandma would usually be present will roll on without her. Or, at least her physical presence.But she’ll be there. Mercedes Ann Privette, a woman I’ve known as my mother-in-law for nearly thirty-three years, will be there in spirit. I know this why? Because Merc never missed the chance to have a good time.

My favorite picture of Merc and me is otherwise occupied today. If it wasn’t pasted up on the picture board at the church, awaiting the continuation of the wake we began last night, I’d share it with all of you. It’s a photograph taken of Merc at the reception, on the day I married Merc and Don’s third child, Rene’ Kathleen Privette. We had a big wedding at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Duluth. That was back in the days when the Catholic and Episcopal Churches, at least locally, got along well enough to allow joint weddings. We had a Catholic priest and an Episcopal priest do the service. It was pretty cool. And it made Merc smile. She would, I’m sure, have preferred that her daughter stayed within the Catholic Faith, within the soft, comforting familiarity of Catholicism rather than join me in Protestantism. But she never vocalized any such thing. Not a once. Not at a baptism or a confirmation or any other event she attended at our church. Anyway, back to the picture. There’s a much-younger-looking me in my white tux pants, and white ruffled shirt (sans jacket, tie and vest) holding Merc by the hand as the two of us jitterbug to the Mike Myers’ Band. Merc’s concentration is not on her new son-in-law. It’s not on the crowd watching us shake it. It’s on the floor, watching her feet, making sure every move is just right. Her long salmon colored gown is shifting with her hips. Her perpetually white hair, piled high on her head (not unlike the ever-present blue headdress of Marge Simpson) is perfectly straight and regal: totally and wholly unaffected by our gyrations. Despite the pressures and the anxieties attendant with putting together a big wedding, that photograph, more than any other in our wedding album, reminds me of why I married Rene’: She, like her mother, loves a good time.

These past few weeks, during which an ear infection went from being an annoyance to plunging my mother-in-law into a coma (from which she never revived) have been anything but fun. The body that lay in St. Luke’s Hospital hospice, the body the chart said was Mercedes Ann Privette was, in some fashion, that of an imposter.  For me, when Merc stopped being able to laugh at my stupid jokes, when she stopped being able to flash anger at me if I tread too close to her beloved Catholic church in our discourse, when she no longer could amaze me with her encyclopedic knowledge of dead movie stars, she simply stopped being. Her heart kept at it for another week. But the woman I knew as the mother of my wife wasn’t there as her four daughters and son gathered to say the rosary at her side.

What I will remember, rather than the sadness of the last days, is Merc’s final trip out to our place in Fredenberg, the site of many, many family gatherings over the years (including Merc’s 80th birthday party). Rene’ picked her mom up and brought her out to relieve some of Merc’s anxiety about having moved (separate and apart from her husband, who was placed in the Benedictine Nursing Home due to his health) out of the family home into Heritage Haven Assisted Living. The idea was to take my mother-in-law’s mind off her new circumstances. We ordered food from the Eagle’s Nest Resort. Merc predictably chose baked chicken. I popped the cap on a bottle of Miller High Life for her (she always loved a beer or two with dinner). Then, after finishing our food, the three of us settled in on our front room couch to watch “Giant”, a great old movie starring Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor. Merc couldn’t really see the screen all that well: Her eyes had been failing for years. But she followed the dialogue and added bits and pieces of movie trivia throughout the flick. She was supposed to be back at the assisted living by ten. Ten o’clock came and went but the movie wasn’t over. Merc and Rene’ conspired and Merc stayed until the credits were rolling. She was late. She’d missed curfew. But, what the hell? She was 86 years old and entitled to a little mischief. I gave the little woman with the high white hair a hug, feeling for the last time that slight, slender girl who once danced and roller skated with abandon during her single years.  And then, she was gone.

Today will be hard on my wife and her sisters and her brother. It will be hard on the eight grandsons who carry Mercedes to her place of repose. It will be hard on the granddaughters. It will be hard on Donald, her husband of 59 years who is left behind. It will be hard on me. My dancing partner is now cutting a rug in another venue.




  • Janet Flom:

    Rene’ and Mark and Matt& Lisa and Dylan and Christian and Jack —

    Love and hugs and all good memories to you, today and always.


    • Mark:

      You guys really do need to check in with us when you’re in this part of the state. We miss you. Thanks for your thoughts on this tough day.

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