On Sunday, Brett and I drove to his hometown of Geneva, Illinois. We’d been invited to a tribute/dedication for Brett’s Great Uncle Marsh (1906-2003).
Marsh, whose real name was John Marshall Butler, was Brett’s dad’s mother’s brother. His family knew him as “Marsh.”
Marsh had grown up with his sister Leah, Brett’s grandmother. When they were both young, their father left the family. Their mother became a single mother, much more unusual in those days. To support her family, she took a job at the Fabyan Estate in Geneva.
I don’t know much about the Fabyan Estate, except for that it was eventually donated to the city of Geneva as a park. It is a huge place and includes rose gardens, scenic bike paths, Japanese gardens, the historical Fabyan home, and lots of beautifully landscaped areas.
Fabyan Park is a big deal in Geneva and the neighboring cities of St. Charles and Batavia where Brett grew up. Over the years, Friends of Fabyan, a civic community group was formed. Since he had grown up as a young man on the estate, Marsh was tapped as the “local historian” for the group.
Uncle Marsh lived to be 97 years old, still in full control of his faculties, so he was able to add a great deal of knowledge to this local group as they wrote books and articles on the fabled Fabyan family and estate. After his death in 2003, the group decided to honor him by dedicating an antique sundial, located in the Fabyan Rose Gardens, in his name.
However, before they could do so, the sundial was stolen by local vandals and sold off for its metal parts. So the Friends of Fabyan went on a long search to locate a replica of the sundial. Finally, in 2009, they were able to find a similar sundial and plan the dedication.
Brett and I were honored to attend the ceremony. Since Marsh’s sister Leah had married Ernest Soderstrom, and the Soderstroms had Robert (now deceased), Ernie, Al (Brett’s dad), Paul, Kenneth, Ruth (now deaceased), and Rick, there were a lot of second generation Soderstroms present at the dedication.
Not to mention, the third generation (Brett, his cousins, and second cousins), and even a fourth generation (their children).
The ceremony itself was wonderful. There were a couple of funny moments, too. The Friends of Fabyan knew how much Uncle Marsh enjoyed banjo music, so they hired a banjo player to provide the music for the dedication.
Unfortunately, the banjo player seemed to think he was giving a concert. He went into (great) detail before each song and then played and played and played. Eventually, one of Marsh’s sons went up to the event organizer and whispered, “Do you have a hook? Otherwise, he’s just going to keep playing!”
She tactfully managed to edge him (reluctantly) off stage. She then gave a little history of Uncle Marsh, most of which I had never heard.
She talked about how he used to strap on ice skates in the winter and skate the length of the river down to the nearest town. He would do the family shopping and skate back, his arms laden down with bags. She mentioned how he would go with the Estate Supervisor, Jack “the sailor,” to fix areas around the estate, often employing secret progressive methods, so as not to offend the old-fashioned Fabyans.
She even spoke about how forward-thinking Uncle Marsh became a mechanic when the horse and buggy was still the main mode of transportation.
After her tribute, Marsh’s two sons and several of his grandchildren gave touching speeches about their father and grandfather. Al, Brett’s dad, was tapped to give the Soderstrom tribute.
Now, I have to stop here and say Brett’s dad may be the least emotional man I’ve ever met. I’ve known him for almost thirteen years and have not seen him cry once. He’s a wonderful man, kind, caring, jovial, generous to a fault, but definitely not over-choked with emotion.
However, as he stood on the steps of the sun dappled sundial podium, he broke down as talked about his Uncle Marsh and his mother, Leah.
He gestured around the lovely rose garden where we were seated. “We are surrounded by oak trees. Uncle Marsh and Mother Leah were like these oak trees, strong and steady. We are their acorns, their heritage, and we must follow their example by keeping our history strong and nurturing our own acorns.”
I couldn’t help looking over at Brett and smiled to think of my almost 40 year old husband as his father’s little acorn.
Brett’s dad had to stop speaking several times to regain control of his emotions. His intense admiration for his uncle, and overpowering love for his mother was expressly evident. I was moved to tears.
After all the tributes, and yet another mini-concert by the (somewhat egotistical) banjo maestro, the Friends of Fabyan presented honorary memberships to Marsh’s two sons and all of the Soderstrom brothers present – Ernie, Al, Paul, Kenneth, and Rick. Brett’s Uncle Rick even drove all the way down from Canada for the event.
As I watched the five remaining Soderstrom sons gather on the sundial steps, blue membership folders in hand, I couldn’t help but marvel at their shared respect and affection in honor of their uncle, but even more the deep love and loyalty to their mother that shone through.
I had the privilege of meeting Uncle Marsh several times before he passed away. I remember him as being soft-spoken and very sweet. I was relatively new to the family, and when I took his photo, he looked around and said, very nicely, “Who IS that girl?” I had to laugh.
After the dedication, we spent time with the Butler and Soderstrom families. It was a wonderful time of catching up, and both Brett and his dad were as proud as peacocks, showing off my pregnancy to anyone who would listen.
On our way back to the car, the chairperson of the Friends of Fabyan stopped us to wish us luck on our impending arrival. She was also the second person (ever) to rub my pregnant belly (to be honest, I love it when people do that. I know it drives some people nuts, but if I could, I would hire people just to rub my belly. I think it’s so cute!).
She asked us what we were having. When we told her about the Soderstrom’s extensively male birthright, she laughed.
Being a historian herself, she told us about a locally prominent woman who had two boys and when she gave birth to a third boy, she refused to go near him for ten days. She was so mad he wasn’t a girl! Then she told us about a former mayor of Geneva who had six girls and lamented his lack of a son.
“I say whatever you get, be happy,” she advised us with a smile.
On our way back home, I told Brett how moved I was by his father’s speech.
“The Soderstrom boys love their mothers,” he said.
I leaned back in my seat and reflected on Brett’s love for his own mother.
Brett was an “oops” baby, born after his mom and dad thought they were “done.” Still, Brett’s mother cherished her baby very much.
Brett was DEFINITELY the baby of the family, and while this threw the typical wrench in the works when it came to his four older brothers and sisters, it cultivated in him a deep appreciation for his mother.
Over the years, Brett spent a lot of time with his mom. They became good friends. She was saved only a short few years before he came to know the Lord, and how she REJOICED at news of his salvation!
Brett was fiercely protective of his mother and revered her greatly. He was also very affectionate, giving lots of hugs and always speaking highly of her. If Jean had been anyone else, it might have annoyed me as Brett’s young wife.
But Jean was one of the most genuinely sweet and caring people I have had the honor to know. She was tender and kind in all her ways. It would have been nearly impossible NOT to love her. Instead of judging me for marrying her “baby,” Jean welcomed me warmly into the family and lovingly referred to me as “her daughter by marriage.”
Brett was devastated when his mom passed away unexpectedly in December of 2005. Her death hit him like a ton of bricks, and even now his grief will trickle out in poignant moments. Just a few short months ago, we were aglow in our pregnancy news and discussing how we would tell Brett’s dad.
Brett looked wistfully into my eyes and said, “Mom would have loved this.”
I teared up and patted his hand. “She would have loved to know her baby is having a baby.” He nodded his head and swallowed his sorrow.
It may surprise you, knowing how close Mom and I are, but Mom wanted a son. She always defends herself by saying she wanted the Trotter name to be carried on. She says this in spite of the fact that my Uncle Jimmy Trotter, Dad’s brother, had THREE sons!
“But none of them have had sons,” she’ll protest.
I don’t mind that my name’s not Nathan and that I’m not a boy. Mom and Dad waited eleven years for me, and I think they were pretty happy to have me at all.
And Dad definitely wanted a girl. He used to joke with me, “You’re the one time I got what I wanted!”
When I got married, Mom wrote a wonderful vignette for our wedding program. She quoted the book of Ruth, where Naomi tells Ruth, “You are better to me than seven sons!” It was our own little inside joke.
Being an only child, the devotion I had/have for my parents was experienced through female eyes. I had heard the old saying, “A son’s a son until he takes a wife. A daughter’s a daughter all her life.”
I found myself prematurely anxious to learn I was having a boy. With all the hubbub, I was beginning to worry the love, affection, and desire to be close to my parents would be absent with Sam. I had visions of him running from me straight out of the womb.
This weekend did much to put those feelings at rest. Watching Brett’s dad and uncles relive their mother’s love, even a half century later, and knowing the special relationship shared by Brett and his mom, brought me great comfort.
I hope Brett passes this lesson on to Sam – “The Soderstrom boys love their mothers!”
And what a wonderful bunch of Mama’s boys they are.