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Kowalewski: Honoring my mom’s dying request: ‘Tell my story’

By Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski - | May 15, 2024

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski

Six months before my mom died, she began writing memories in a spiral-bound notebook. Once multiple myeloma took away her ability to write, she handed me that notebook and asked me to tell her story. In honor of my mom’s request, I’m sharing snippets from her childhood in her own words. But first, I’ll make a brief introduction.

Beatrice (aka Beatie) Emma Powers Marsteller was born Feb. 24, 1941, on Ensor Road in rural Monkton, Maryland. She was one of 10 children growing up in a home with no running water or electricity, was named after one of her father’s previous girlfriends (as were her five sisters) and quit school after seventh grade to help support the family. She told me her life really began after she married Dad at age 17. Before that, life was hard.

I guess I am about 7 or 8 years old when I can remember things. I think it was about then my grandmother came to the house to deliver our baby brother who was born dead. We had to go upstairs and be very quiet. I remember Grandpa making a pine box for his burial. He was put up on the hill above the house.

We were very poor. Our upstairs was not finished. We did not have real beds. They were straw tick mattresses. We slept three and four together in the winter to keep warm. We had no heat in the house — just a stove downstairs. Some kids wet the bed. We just kept putting layers of anything we could find to lay over the wet because we did not have sheets after a while. Sometimes there were maggots in the bed. We also had bedbugs. Mom sat upstairs for hours killing them. They smelled very bad. We still had to sleep with them.

Most of the time for our supper we either had cornbread and milk, pinto beans, or a pan of fried potatoes. In the summer, Mom would go out and pick wild greens for our supper — like poke, dandelion greens, and some other weeds I have no name for. Also in the summer we had a garden and then we had green beans, fresh potatoes, spring onions, corn on the cob. What a treat.

We were picking berries in the weeds and bushes and briars. I stuck my arm in a hornets nest. Bees all over my right arm. It was about the size of two arms. No doctor of course. Just had to suffer with it.

Dad was a drinker but only on weekends. On Friday evening when he came home from work, of course he stopped at Park Inn to get his whiskey. When he came down the walk to the house, we all knew and dreaded the evening. Maybe it would start out with not liking what Mom had fixed for supper. He had been known to just throw the dinner right out the door. Then all hell broke loose. He had a temper and just got like a wild man. His eyes got crazy. We would run and hide. He threw things against the wall then he would chase Mom but she couldn’t get away from him. He hit her. We all just cried because we were all scared of him. This would happen every weekend.

Mom was always very stressed. I can think of many times she would be doing something and tears would just be rolling down her cheeks. But she never complained.

I can’t remember too much about school. I just know we didn’t go very much and were not very liked. The truant officer came to our house at least once a week. Mom always made an excuse for us — she needed us at home or we didn’t have shoes or clothes to wear.

Beatie earned her GED high school equivalency at age 34. If she were here to see her granddaughter, Michaela, graduate from medical school this week, she, like me, would marvel at this feat just two generations removed from such a traumatic, impoverished childhood. Michaela and mom are a lot alike — incredibly resilient humans who can do hard things because of their exceptionally giving hearts, driven work ethics and commitment to justice for all.

Rest assured, Mom, your story continues to be told through the lives of your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dr. Michaela Marsteller Kowalewski, resident in rural family medicine, will make sure little girls who put their arms in hornets’ nests won’t have to “just suffer with it.”

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski is a sociologist and vice provost for High Impact Educational Experiences, Faculty Excellence, International and Graduate Programs at Weber State University.


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