The Real Phee
In early 2015, when the idea of My Mother’s Friend first meandered into the crevices of my mind, I knew I’d eventually be writing about a prisoner of war camp just outside of Algona, Iowa. And then I knew it would be a love story. And within minutes of that decision—maybe even seconds—I knew my protagonist’s name: Phyllis Anne “Phee” Swensson. I would name her after my mom.
Phyllis Anne “Phee” Pohlson was born in Ottumwa, Iowa ninety-six years ago today. In the company of her parents, Elmer and Mary, and her younger brother John (Bud), she grew up in a modest home on the north side of town, not far from Anne G. Wilson Elementary School. As a child, she took piano lessons and enjoyed hanging out with her Swanson cousins who lived nearby. In the spring of 1943, she graduated from Ottumwa High School. Except for a few weeks after her wedding (they lived in Cincinnati) and three months in late 1952/early 1953 (El Toro Marine Base in southern California), Mom lived in Ottumwa her entire life.
In June 1948, Mom was almost twenty-three years old when she married Dad who was by then a World War II veteran. (I’ll write about Dad on his birthday next February.) She raised five kids (I'm number two), loved on six grandkids, and lived with Parkinson’s disease for almost 17 years. Born in that modest home on Grant Street, she breathed earth’s air for eighty-one years, five months, and seven days. She wasn’t perfect—no one is—but to me, she was perfect in all the ways that counted.
When I began working on this blog a couple of weeks ago, I tried several times to get it “just right.” After failing miserably, I dug out the box of “memorabilia” from Mom’s and Dad’s funerals and found the wonderful eulogy our brother Peter wrote and our brother Chris read at Mom’s service at First Lutheran Church on February 6, 2007. It perfectly encapsulates Phee Johnson’s life as a mother and grandmother. With my siblings blessings, I am pleased to share it with you here. Following the eulogy are several of my favorite photos. I’ll meet you at the end.
There are five of us. We are Julie, Sally, Peter, Nancy, and Chris, but if you’d ask any of us to say our names, we’d more likely tell you we are Duie, Tala, Petie, Nanny, and Rissie, childhood names that have stayed with us into adulthood and by which our Mom would call us until the day she died.
Pastor Kister gave us an impossible assignment yesterday—to come up with some stories, anecdotes, one-liners, or whatever we could come up with to describe and explain our Mom. But how can you do that? How can you take the 81 years of life of someone who had the most profound impact on all our lives, distill it into a sound bite, and still have it mean something?
We started talking, and we all had specific examples of times when our Mom would do this or say that, and how she managed to keep a family of seven running smoothly. It can’t have been easy, but Mom made it seem like it was. Nancy asked her once, after her son Judd was born, how she was able to do it, when having just one child was proving to be an interesting challenge. Mom replied with a sigh, “I was tired for 20 years.”
She probably was, and with good reason. We all kept her hopping. Five babies in ten years will do that. But never, not once, did we get the sense that anything she was doing was not 100% worth doing, or that anything we were doing was anything less than wonderful. If we knew nothing else while we were growing up, we knew we were loved, completely and unconditionally. In every instance, she was there for us. There were countless band and chorus concerts, plays, recitals, solo day contests, swim meets, and so forth that demanded as much time for her as they did for us, but she, along with our Dad, was there for all of them. She always knew exactly what each one of us needed even without our ever saying it. When we were sick, she was the consummate caregiver. She held our heads when we threw up! Everything she did spoke of the deep and uncompromising love she had for all of us.
Mom was a master communicator. Her letter-writing prowess is world-renowned, and it was something in which she took great joy. She wrote letters by hand nearly every day of the week and stayed in nearly constant contact with people far distant from Ottumwa. Whenever any of us was away for any reason—church or music camps, college—we would hear from our Mom all the time. We could never feel homesick because home was always waiting for us in the next day’s mail. She even wrote to several of us—and more than once—when we were on our honeymoons! Her writing included vacation journals that made you feel as if you were actually there when you read them, and nearly fifteen years’ worth of journals that she kept, writing faithfully nearly single night just before going to sleep. She knew the power of a well-turned phrase. or better yet, a hundred well-turned phrases.
Our Mom was a woman of many talents. She was a natural, gifted musician. We’ll hear examples of some of this talent today as we listen to songs she wrote while just fiddling around on the piano. Our Mom fiddled on the keyboard and out came complete compositions. But her other artistic talents included mastery of fine needlework, drawing, painting, and even short-story writing. Each of us has at least one example of her handiwork in our homes that we are proud to display as objects of fine art.
But she was a perfectionist, too, and was demanding of herself even while being forgiving of her family. If there were several ways to accomplish a task, be it doing the laundry or driving to Iowa City, she knew the best way to do it. Du remembers a time when Mom was working on a needlepoint rug as a gift for her and started the whole thing over when she was nearly finished simply because a piece of the backing wasn’t turning out exactly right.
Her unconditional love extended to each of the additions to our families as we grew them. Each new son- or daughter-in law was greeted with open arms and shown the same love as any of us. And when grandchildren started showing up, a more proud and doting grandmother could not be found, even with the smallest things, such as counting freckles or slicing the cantaloupe into cubes and serving it with toothpicks, just because. Each person was given exactly what they needed to feel not just loved, but special.
No one is perfect. That’s an impossibility. But if there was ever anyone who exemplified grace, wit, class, compassion, and love, it was our Mom. She guided us by her example. And as Sister Ta says, “My most proud moments are when people tell me I remind them so much of my mom.”
I still feel that way today.
1920s . . .
1930s . . .
1940s . . .
1950s . . .
1960s . . .
1970s . . .
1980s . . .
1990s . . .
2000s . . .
Mom died on February 1, 2007 in the room she shared with Dad at the nursing home. When Joe and I arrived at the Des Moines airport a few days later, there was snow on the ground, and it was cold—below zero cold at high noon. After the funeral (the last two photos above are from that day—Mom's kids, nieces, nephews, and grandkids), some of us went bowling. We were sure Mom would have approved.
I suspect some of you are wondering what Mom would think about My Mother’s Friend. I am confident she would be thrilled to pieces that I’ve written a historical novel that takes place in Iowa. She’d love the connection to her Swedish heritage, and she’d especially love the music theme. And I know she’d love the love story. Would she also approve of my naming my protagonist “Phee”? I’ll have to ask her when see her again. (Maybe it was her idea.)
Blessings to all.
(This is Sally’s Blog #25, dated August 25, 2021, about her mom who was born on August 25, 1925. Sally should probably play the lottery tonight.)
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.