Grief: Lessons, advice from funny mother always at the ready

  • Susan, center, with her funny, dear and pretty mother and brother Nic, about 1950.

    Susan, center, with her funny, dear and pretty mother and brother Nic, about 1950. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

Posted11/9/2019 6:00 AM

It's a good idea to draw on positive role models from childhood for strength when dealing with grief. Personally I often think of my funny mother. Not funny "ha ha" but funny unusual.

Mother was way ahead of her time. She was born in 1921 on a farm in Oklahoma. She was the third daughter of four children, and was always sympathetic to third children. She thought they were in danger of being overlooked and needed special attention.


She became a tennis player, a pilot, married a great man -- my father -- and was a championship golfer (in the local setting). She was flamboyant and a little outrageous at times, had lots of friends, was a generous hostess and dinner party giver and was great at raising young children, especially girls. So I was the beneficiary of all that.

When she was a young woman herself, she used to go from the farm into their nearby town to her grandmother's house in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and change into her tennis clothes to go to her tennis matches -- since at the farm there was no wearing of tennis clothes. Too modern.

It was the Depression when Mother was growing up, and she finally dropped out of college and went to work at the Air Force base in Cimmaron, Oklahoma, some distance away, where she met my dear father, a flight instructor from Minnesota. They married toward the end of the war so they were World War II veterans. They moved to Minnesota where my father went into business with his father, and where I was born and raised.

So Mother brought her forward-looking ideas to her marriage and child rearing. I was one of four -- two girls and two boys. It was a safe, small town, affluent growing up. Big house, private rooms. Happy memories.

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Thinking back, it was a big mix of decades and ways of life. Mother was a 1940s-1960s housewife in some ways but never conformed to small town northern Minnesota. She was a free thinker, I think. When Elvis became the rage, I was 11. She thought Elvis was just fine and allowed me to buy records, learn to dance, buy movie celebrity magazines. She opposed her friends who thought Elvis was a bad influence.

She let me charge to her account at the local department store so I could go there while walking home from school and buy whatever I liked or needed. Because Mother was raised in the Depression, she remembered being "without" and didn't want us to experience that. The Great Depression of the 1930s marked people rather deeply. If I bought new clothes, I always brought them home and showed her. She always approved. She taught independence. She taught me how to make pecan pie. Quite a mother.

She taught me how to entertain, indirectly by observation. I remember their parties, orchestrated by my mother. Usually a big buffet, the huge dining room table spread with ham, roast, turkey, salads. Everything. She also made a pretty, but strange, "salad" in those 1960s days that was really more a dessert than a salad. It was a huge tall clear glass bowl with layers of graham cracker crumbs, cherry jello, cherries, whipped cream, bananas, etc. Mother was a very good cook and went for the pretty and showy when it came to food presentation, which is OK. Good for me because I have a large family and, even though we did not cook as children, I saw what she did and how it looked. So later with my own large family, it was no problem cooking for many people and setting a nice table.

She was not so good with older teens when we started getting more independent, but I understand that. She taught me how to golf. And she was always there when it was important and I needed her, even as an adult.

So the point is -- if you have an important mother, father, other relative or adult from your childhood, then draw on their advice, lessons, and examples for strength in dealing with and managing grief and hard times. I do -- and I often think of my funny mother.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a Ph.D. in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College, and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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