The world is a diminished place now, as my beloved grandmother, Bettye Planque Wedeking Horrall, died last week, aged 98 years and 51 weeks. She was our “Mamoo,” the matriarch of our very close family, the moral compass of all our disparate generations. She was also just plain tremendous fun, always laughing from the beginning of her long life to the end.
She was my mother’s mother, and as I get older, I see more resemblance among the four generations of our family’s little girls. There is something in the twinkle of our eyes, I think. Here is my mother, aged six.
Mamoo’s family name began as the Germanic “Planck” but the 1930s brought about a change to the more Frenchy spelling of “Planque.” She was the adored baby of the family, little Betty, adding the “e” to the end of her name as a teenager wanting to be just a little different. It didn’t take an extra letter on her name to achieve that.
She married my grandfather, Loyd Wedeking, as a very young woman and proceeded to produce a beautiful family with first my mother, Suzanne, then her little sister Linda Jane, and finally a little brother, my uncle Kenneth, named for my grandfather’s brother. Here they all are, in brilliant 1975 garb, in the sprawling garden of their magical southern Indiana home, Five Green Acres.
I loved that house more than any place in my childhood: there was a riding lawnmower, endless Big Wheel cars for us to roar around on, a birdbath to monitor, woods to explore, and a completely magical rope swing from which my brother fell twice, breaking the same wrist each time. I never had such bad luck.
While Mamoo was not a very enthusiastic cook, she was a superbly welcoming hostess. We children longed for the weekends spent with Mamoo and Grandpa, and my parents felt much the same, since my father’s parents were far away in Arizona and in any case he felt much closer to my mother’s family. Mamoo welcomed the arrival of every one of her eight grandchildren with sensible, unsentimental rejoicing. She was not a hugger or a kisser, as befitted her generation. But she adored us all. Here she is with tiny me, just hours old in a February snowstorm.
So many, many times we motored down to Washington to be together. I don’t think any extended family ever had more fun than we all did. Here we are in 1967, at Christmas, complete with my Aunt Linda’s husband Uncle Dick, Uncle Kenny’s lovely wife Aunt Mary Wayne (the beehive! and I think Tramp, their dog), my big cousin Steve, my big brother Andy, and little me, in my mom’s arms.
What did Mamoo do to make our time together so much fun? She was rather plump in all the right cozy places, with softly curling brown hair and eyes always laughing. She provided my mother’s and aunt’s beloved china dolls complete with all the gorgeous 1950s clothes she had made for them: dresses in silky blue-flowered material, starched net petticoats peeping out from under little flannel skirts, hats and stockings and little shoes of real leather. She sat us — my little cousin Amy and I — in the big dramatic bathtub surrounded with black shiny marble walls, and sat with us as we splashed together, washing the walls industriously with shampoo. We were the “Naked Baked Club,” my cousin and I, invented under Mamoo’s watchful, loving eye. As we got older, she produced even more interesting activities like going through the boxes of letters my mother had written to her from college, and her diaries.
She tied on half-aprons with ruffled edges and produced large meals of simple, delicious food around their big oval table, presided over by my large, laughing grandfather. There were copious meatloaves and mashed potatoes with plenty of gravy, little glass and silver dishes of olives and celery sticks, big bowls of buttery green beans and my grandfather’s traditional basket of plain white bread, without which a meal was not a meal. My grandfather convinced all we children that the endless supply of little sweet pickles on their table came from his hidden “pickle bush.” There was never a pair of funnier, sweeter grandparents. Strict, to be sure — we children behaved nicely. But no wonder my mother and her siblings brought us there to Five Green Acres over and over for loving weekends, Christmases, Easters.
Under the giant evergreen tree in the background of this photo, Mamoo hid endless dozens of real Easter eggs, plus the plastic colored ones that broke in half to reveal foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, plus Easter baskets, little stuffed bunnies, for we cousins to find. I will never forget the Easter morning when, scrambling under the tree for eggs, we came upon one of those stuffed bunnies. And then it hopped away. Magic!
Through all our times together, Mamoo told stories. Some were from her childhood with her adored older sister, my Aunt Tootsie, who had perfect pitch and could play any song she’d heard, on the piano, first time perfect. All Mamoo’s family were theatrical, dramatic and musical. Mamoo herself was the only person I ever heard who whistled with real vibrato. She told us of Aunt Tootsie’s cataclysmic elopement as a teenager, the death of their father when Mamoo was only 16, their struggles with the Depression, the perennial lack of money. Many of these tales followed the classic lines. “When we were children, if we got even ONE ORANGE in our Christmas stockings, we felt lucky indeed. And that was to SHARE!”
She and Grandpa remembered every funny thing their children had said, and the stories were aired with every family gathering. One of her favorites was the Thanksgiving when my Uncle Kenny sought out Grandpa, napping after the massive meal. “He came up to your grandfather and tapped him on the shoulder until he woke up. Then he said, ‘Daddy, would you like a piece of turkey?’ “Sure,’ Grandpa said, just to get rid of him. After he ate it, your Uncle Kenny said, “Daddy, could you chew that piece of turkey? Because I tried to, and couldn’t.’” Then Mamoo would shake with laughter.
She and Grandpa traveled the world, never neglecting to visit us, staggering in the back door of my childhood home, nearly hidden behind enormous piles of Christmas presents. When we first visited them in their downtown hotel, I asked my mother, “What IS a hotel, anyway?” She answered patiently, “It’s a big building with lots of little rooms, where people stay when they are visiting.” We trooped into the lobby, waited for the elevator (my first) and got in. As the elevator wafted toward Mamoo’s floor, I said in a tiny voice, “This sure IS a little room!”
Then one chill December day shortly after our Thanksgiving with Mamoo and Grandpa, I came home from school to find my mother in the doorway, terrible and tall with her face red and blotched with unbelievable tears. My mother never, ever cried. “Your Grandpa, my Daddy, has died. I must go be with Mamoo. Dad will take care of you guys.” And she was gone. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter, watching my father fold laundry with totally unaccustomed awkwardness, hearing him tell the awful tale. “Grandpa went to the hospital for his retirement physical, the day before he was going to retire. He was on the heart machine when it suddenly went off like crazy. He died of a heart attack right then and there.”
Mamoo told us the story from her perspective later. “I was expecting your grandfather home for lunch as usual, and the time got on. Just as I was starting to worry, there was a knock on the door. It was the doctor, walked down the hill from the hospital with the news.” Later on, a wing of that hospital, and the little road leading to my grandparents’ house, were named after my grandfather who had been the kind and loving optometrist in that little town all his adult life.
It took Mamoo a long time to recover her twinkle, after that. Once when we were visiting her after the funeral, I saw a calendar on her kitchen wall. Written on it for the day before, and several days before that, was, “Alone. Again.” They had been married just over 40 years.
She came, as always, to our plays and musicals, and we went often to see her, knowing that nothing could comfort her for her loss, but fearing to leave her alone. The months crept by in a new sense of loss and change. I was twelve years old.
Then, after a period of mourning, Mamoo sat us all down to tell us an extraordinary tale. “Your grandfather’s best friend, Lon Horrall, has come to me to say that he loves me, and would like to get married. So we think we will.” It was a love story that made their ages completely irrelevant. Lon had survived two wives, bravely soldiering on in their social circle in that little Indiana town, secretly nursing a passion for my grandmother, we all decided. Then when tragedy struck, he was there to pick up the pieces.
Mamoo and Lon began a new life together, we gained a new grandfather — the only one the little cousins really ever remembered — and several stepcousins. We grew up under Lon’s slightly stricter but equally loving gaze, feeling profoundly grateful to him for saving Mamoo from her widowhood, and offering a second chance at happiness.
The summer family reunions, a tradition since the grandchildren first started arriving, continued. Mamoo and Lon treated us all to a gala dinner, the air ringing with many stories being told all at once.
When I elected to go to graduate school in Pennsylvania, Mamoo and Lon stepped in immediately. “I don’t know why you want to leave the good old Midwest for some snooty Eastern town, but as long as you do, we might as well drive you and your things out there.” And they did, all 900 miles of the journey, and since there was not a hotel room to be found when we arrived, Lon slept in the car, and Mamoo on the mattress from my bed, on the floor. “I didn’t sleep a wink,” she said proudly in the morning. “Oh yes, you did,” I rejoined silently to myself. Mamoo had a fierce snore.
We got married, one by one, and Lon and Mamoo were there to celebrate with us. Here we are at my wedding, in the ecru dress Mamoo had made for Aunt Linda, which my mother had worn, and which was refitted for me.
As indeed, Mamoo always was there to help. As strong and rather old-fashioned as Mamoo was about her opinions of right and wrong, nothing was stronger than her love for her family. That was never clearer than just before our wedding, when we bought some old, sweet furniture at the summer reunion in Washington. “Now, how are you kids going to get that furniture out to New Jersey?” she asked sternly. “I guess we’ll hire a van,” I said. “Nonsense. What a waste of money. Lon and I will drive out, and deliver it to you.” And they did, those two nearly-80-year-olds, staying under our unmarried roof with perfect, if slightly disapproving aplomb. And I can assure you that each piece of furniture went in the spot where Mamoo thought it would look best.
Mamoo grew softer as she grew older, and there were hugs, with her soft and powder-fragrant cheek against mine. And nothing could keep her from doting on her first great-grandchild, my daughter Avery, completing four generations of our family.
Several years later, it was my little sister Jill’s turn for a beautiful wedding.
Mamoo and Lon lived out their twilight years with great, quiet happiness. We moved to New York, and then to London, and my visits with them became fewer and fewer. I listened with great nostalgia to my mother telling me about Thanksgiving dinners I was missing, family reunions I was missing. Avery never really knew Mamoo and Lon very well, but I have no doubt she feels she did, because I just might have inherited my grandmother’s penchant for telling a story, over and over.
Four years ago, Lon had a heart attack from which it was obvious he would not recover. They were separated. His family stepped in to provide a nursing home for him, and my family settled Mamoo into a nursing home of her own, staffed by loving ladies and gentleman who never tired of telling us what a wonderful guest she was, regaling everyone in the middle of the night at the nurses’ station with tale after tale of her family life. When Lon died, my family went to tell her. “Oh, what a shame,” she said, shaking her head. “He was a lovely man. So hard-working.” We think she had retreated into a place where she was still married to my grandfather, remembering his best friend with fondness, rather than the second husband to whom she had been married for 30 years.
I last saw Mamoo a year and a half ago in her nursing home. Her memory was failing then, but only for the present-day. The past still made perfect sense. “Well, look who’s here!” she exclaimed. “Now, honey, did you bring John and Avery with you?” We talked about London and her visits there with Grandpa in the 1950s and 60s, and Avery’s school adventures and our new home, of which I had brought pictures. She wanted to discuss, as always, the placement of each piece of furniture, the arrangement I had made of books on shelves, what sort of neighborhood it was. She was herself, indomitably curious and sharp.
But nothing can last forever, as we found last week. We all talked about her condition in the days leading to her death. “She is peaceful,” my mother assured me, and we knew we were fortunate. She had had a long, impossibly happy, generous, funny life, leaving behind three children, eight grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren and another on the way, due any day. She died on February 1, just six days before her 99th birthday.
Intangibly, what Mamoo left behind more than anything else were her love of life in all its complications, her love of the past, her determination to keep it alive, and her love of her family. Her death is, really, a loss without any need for grief. Nothing was left undone or unsaid. She died as she had lived, full of appreciation for whatever life had to offer. Yesterday my band of bellringers rang for Sunday services in her honor, my beloved teacher reading out her name. Everyone gathered around and asked me lovely questions about her life. And for once, in my ringing I made no mistakes. How touched and amazed she would have been to know.
Goodbye, Mamoo, and thank you.Print This Post