On Monday night (June 9th), I received an 11:45pm call from my brother that our mother, Marilyn Kregel, breathing had changed: shallow, less grounded. I shared this with my wife and we, in bed, prayed for her. The prayer was simple: I asked that Christ would receive her spirit and the journey would be full of love. As soon as we ended the prayer, my brother called back to let us know that she had died.
This phone call was not a shock.
Her body, for the last couple of weeks, had been shutting down slowly. Plus, about two years ago, she had demonstrated signs of an accelerated dementia. My Mom was fading fast. That Monday night, she slipped away.
I said it wasn’t a shock, but I also wasn’t prepared for her passing. Honestly, who is ready for the passing of a loved one? We’ll say labels like “relief”, “a good end”, or a “gentle passing” but that is to describe the journey of the deceased from this world to the next; it does not describe the what it’s like for those of us left on planet earth. Yes, it was expected but I wasn’t ready. Nor should I be, otherwise grief wouldn’t be grief.
She was ready to leave; I wasn’t prepared for her to go.
For those who knew my Mom, this fit her like a pair of comfortable runners. She left this Earth when she was ready. For me, getting her to do anything outside of her will was next to impossible; including dying. For most of the time, this worked; including her passing.
Marilyn Antoinette Kregel was born on June 13th, 1936.
She was born in Flint, Michigan. This was the Flint before the government poisoned the water, before Michael Moore, and before “Roger and Me”. For my Mom, Flint was a mythic place where kids ice skated to school in the winter. During the summer she would ride horses through the rain. Flint was where immigrants could come and work hard and own a middle-class home. Flint, for my Mom, was a good place, a model city for America in how to live well with your neighbor.
Her childhood was similar to that of whenever the writer and radio personality Jean Shepherd would talk about his childhood.
She grew up during World War Two. Her parents left their Polish village Roswodow to live and work in America, before the Nazi invasion and Poland became the playground for the War. Not much was said about their village, other than the guess was that Jews and Polish and Germans lived together in peace. Mom’s parents left for the opportunity of America, with fond memories of their village. My guess, as history suggests, things changed with the rise of Hitler.
Mom was embarrassed, often, by her parents who spoke little English in the home. This is a normal impulse with teens seeking to be as American as possible while their parents transition slower from their old world.
Her father worked for General Motors, mounted his American flag any chance he got, and did everything to be American. And yet he was Polish. She remembered him as a kind man, who was strong enough to cry when he was happy and didn’t give himself to the American bravado of his day. His hobby was playing drums in a polka band at Flint’s Polish Hall, until he came home one too many times a little too tipsy from his gigs.
My Mom’s Mom was a seamstress. Rumor had it she was jailed for going on strike and protesting the unfair wages given to women. As the story goes, she and her fellow seamstresses were striking outside of their business and the police came. They threatened to turn the hose on them. My Mom’s Mom stood up front and center, chanting the protest to the police and the hose went off by accident. It knocked her over. She rose to her feet (in heels) and the crowd was silent. She then looked down the police officer and yelled, “Is that the best you can do!?!”
She was arrested and then released.
I have no idea how factual this story is, other than its one of many stories so true that it’s beyond real.
When I was ordained as a Baptist Minister, my Mom called me and wondered if pastors or priests had a union. I told them churches didn’t work like that.
She grew nervous. “People have to look out for each other. Who looks out for pastors? If you don’t have a union, you’re by yourself. You can’t trust any companies to watch out for you.”
I asked her about her parent’s pride in working with General Motors or her love of working with TWA. As a member of the Silent Generation, she quickly grew quiet.
After the long pause, she just reaffirmed, “You work together. That’s what unions do. They help us to be kind, if done right. I’m sure there are unions that don’t work. But the ones that do make kindness happen.”
I then told her there was no such thing as a pastor/priest Union.
My Mom spent her childhood in Flint. She spent her Saturdays watching the double feature matinees at the local theatre, except when there were ringworm outbreaks spread by the headrests of their seats. Her older brother, Richard, played baseball and rode his bikes with his gang of friends, keeping the neighbor safe from Nazis, pirates, and Vikings. She attended the local Catholic church, being brought there by her favorite Aunt.
And then, in a moment during her teen years, her mother decided she was tired of being around the Polish people of Flint. They packed up and moved to La Habra, California.
My Mom graduated from High School and did a stint of Jr. College before she found her true love: flying.
She became a stewardess (they didn’t have Flight Attendants back in 1963) for TWA.
These were the days of weight, height, and waist measurement requirements. TWA was the pinnacle of sophistication, run then by the socially agile Howard Hughes. The rules were many: stewardesses were not allowed to be seen in their uniforms near or in bars or doing anything socially questionable. She, when in lay overs, were to be incarnations of the greatness of TWA.
Her father was proud to be an American and an employee of General Motors; my Mom was proud to be associated with TWA. Both generations, back in the 1960s, believed that if you worked hard and obeyed the rules, the company-in turn-would take of you.
She worked the lines that took the GI’s back from Vietnam to home. The hurt, the sick, the wounded, the fed-up, the traumatized, and the broken all rode her flight back to America. This, I think, instilled an idea that she wasn’t just a pretty thing serving drinks to globe trotters. She served drinks, flirted, smiled, and was kind to soldiers who needed to see goodness in the world again. Flying became her mission.
She was always proud of TWA.
She met my Dad while gearing up to fly. When she met him, she wrote back to her mother that she met her first hippy. This was when they lived in San Francisco. He became a police officer and my Mom continued to fly.
When she became pregnant with my older brother, the company fired her.
Being a pregnant woman, the official reason was that one who was pregnant would weigh down the airplane and make it dangerous for everyone. But we all know the real reason: it did not fit the 1960’s glamour of the stewardess.
From 1970-1983, she stayed at home to raise my brother and I. She worked at Alpha Beta Supermarket and as a receptionist at our local hospital. Growing up, TWA still cast a shadow over our family. She couldn’t fly, couldn’t leave San Jose, and remained as a Mom. She was sad. For those who knew her since the 1980’s, you would know that her stories were all about flying.
As a stewardess, she could calm down the world of the plane’s cabin. She could smile, joke, listen, and most problems could go away. Planes go to the best places: exotic locations or home. Most everyone liked the girl who brought meals and/or drinks, unless there was something deeply flawed with them. As a Mom, life was less certain.
I flew on a couple of flights where she worked. This was her identity, her story. There are places and moments in our lives when we are most ourselves. They are “Jacob Ladder” moments, when Heaven and Earth connect in full HD vision. The inside of the plane’s cabin was my Mom’s holy moments.
And in 1983, she returned to TWA. She joined a class action lawsuit against TWA for wrongful termination and won. She returned, but not welcomed warmly. In order to receive the labor force of the “Remos” (returning mothers), wages had to be cut. During that first year, he luggage was “lost” twice and experienced a barrage of hostility from her flight crews. But she flew and soon it became a passing storm.
In the mid to late eighties, Carl Ichanpurchased TWA and decided to cut wages almost to half. My Mom, along with the majority of Flight Attendants (no longer stewardesses) rose up and went on strike for three years. She never was struck down by a fire hose, but her part time job was picketing TWA.
After three years, a settlement was made and she returned and worked with “Scabs” (those employees who flew the routes while the previous employees picketed). Returning, she flew again.
In 1992, my Mom survived an airline crash. It was out from New York and the pilot, lifting off 30 feet in the air, realized they couldn’t make it and returned to the air strip. The flight crew got all of the passengers off without anyone getting hurt. Minutes after the evacuation, the entire plane was engulfed in flames.
After the trauma of surviving this crash, she returned home and received a chilly reception from my Dad. She came home, met him at the doorstep, embraced him, and said she was happy to be home. He shook her off and said he needed to go back to bed because he had to get up for church the next day. For Mom, this was the moment she realized her marriage was over.
My brother called me, about two weeks ago, with the news that a fever had sent my Mom to the hospital and she was no longer talking. My Mom wasn’t talking?, I asked with shot.
For me, that was when I knew she wasn’t much longer for this world. For Mom to lose her speech was like Superman losing flight or John Henry losing his hammer.
I sat down my girls and told them the news. Tears came as we told them that Grandmother Kregel was going to die soon.
I pulled out my computer and opening a picture of my Mom, one that was taken recently and one they would remember. I then said we’d play a game, “Let’s pretend whatever you say to the picture, Grandmother Kregel can hear and understand. Say whatever you want to say to her.”
Our youngest and I said our wishes aloud; the rest of the family thought them, using the time to give a silent prayer. After we looked at the image of my Mom, we left the computer and continued on with our days.
A few nights later, I got the near midnight call from my brother that she had passed.
Mom’s stories were light, fluffy, made you feel good about yourself, and let you enjoy yourself. She learned this by being a stewardess (and then as a Flight Attendant): laugh, giggle, listen, and then put your seat in its upright position. Through chuckling tales, she could get you to do what she wanted you to do and you didn’t mind.
Her stories were about life and had simple morals. One time- when she was young and living in La Habra- she had to transport a Tikki statue from a joke shop to a Luau party in her friend’s back yard. With this plaster god dangling out of her back seat, she drove down the Californian freeways. Moral: every adult, at some point in their lives, should own a convertible.
Mom’s favorite celebrity was Peter Sellers. She never wanted to hear about the real man behind his persona, rather she just loved him in his movies. Other than a few rare films, Sellers never challenged, confronted, or menaced the establishment. He made movies perfect for airplanes: light-hearted romps that caused you to forget you were on a flight going for an intended destination.
My Dad also told stories too, but they were different. I am my father’s son and I suffer from the same malady he had which I call “The Nathan Delusion”. This delusion is that you can get away with saying anything as long as it’s told as a story. As a Priest and a communicator, I have come the painful realization that people can see exactly where you’re going and if they disagree with your proposals, will be 3X as angry.
My Dad’s stories were dark, full of anger or shock or horror against the known universe. There were villains in his stories- sometimes races or whole people groups- and the good didn’t always survive. They taught but also provoked.
My Dad once came to a Parent Weekend at my VERY conservative Christian University. For lunch, I left him just long enough to refill my drink and when I came back, he was winding down his story: “And then ol’ Jimmy received 30 rounds in his chest and it took his body to unload all of the pints of his blood to die.” The table who heard this story were missionaries, southern Baptist ministers, and stay-at-home Moms. My Dad also had moral to his story: When all of United States tells you to put down your gun by San Jose’s Finest, put down the damn gun!
I could talk to my Dad about my faith. We wildly disagreed and would fight. However, fighting with my Dad over religion was kind of like wrestling with a beaver in a bog: you get dirty, you do things you weren’t going to do, and half-way into the fight you realize the beaver is enjoying himself.
I could never successfully talk to my Mom about my faith. Her stories about being Catholic were about the smells of incense, the shape of the rector’s nose, and the lunch she had after Mass. For her, Christianity was about making her do things she wasn’t going to do. And Marilyn would only do what she chose to do.
My Dad told stories to pick fights; my Mom told stories to avoid fights.
My Dad was Wagnerian in moods, Byronic with his plans, and Faustian in his meanings. And he married a stewardess (who became a Flight Attendant). They were a cocktail of gas and Gatorade in the making.
Plus, there was Mom’s then partially diagnosed alcoholism.
They kept the ending of their marriage silent from everyone. They were part of that generation that never said their marriage was in trouble for fear they might look like they need help. My parent’s generation always confused me: none of them ever wanted help but were always willing to help others. I mean, how did anything ever get done? If no one got help, but only helped…that’s just bad math.
My parents waited for me to graduate from University to separate. When I asked my Dad why they waited so long, he told the joke: “One day, an elderly couple faced a judge to end their 76-year marriage. When asked why they waited so long, their answer was simple: ‘We had to wait for our kids to die first.’”
Like the elderly couple in the joke, they waited as long as they did because of their love for me and my brother.
I have a tradition that on most nights that we end our day as a family by me telling stories to our daughters. One night, my eldest daughter asked me if my parents ever told me stories. “They were amazing story tellers,” I said. They asked for some of them and I launched into a sort of “greatest hits” from my childhood.
Looking back, I think I only told them my Mom’s stories.
I’ve done that a couple of times since that night. After most of the stories I heard from Mom and told my girls, the youngest of my daughters remarked, “It sounds like your Mom was a really kind woman.”
Yes, she was.
Newly separated, she flew. TWA was absorbed by American Airlines. She was welcomed into the new system, but found as a woman just turning 60 (it took Marilyn many years to turn a decade) this was a difficult transition. Plus, her hub was New York (the same hub the four flights had that were lost in 9/11).
She retired. Confronted with an empty house and the inability to fly, a painful truth came before her eyes: ever since she was a teenager, she needed to drink. She could make the world feel comfortable about themselves, but drinking allowed her to feel comfortable inside her own skin.
And she couldn’t stop drinking. She would try and then it would cause her stress and then she would drink again. After a terrible mix with her wine and some new medicine, her physicians told her the change she did not want to make: quit drinking.
This news from this appointment caused her to march over to the substance abuse ward at her local Kaiser Hospital. She asked the receptionist where the latest recovery group was meeting and the receptionist said there was already a meeting in progress. So, purse in hand, she barged into the meeting.
The meeting in a round circle were people sharing when they had their last drink. When it came to Marilyn’s turn, she declared, “This morning.”
“A relapse?” the facilitator asked.
My Mom then realized you can’t relapse from something you never started, so she had to say some of the most painful words in her life: “I need help. I need to quit drinking and I don’t want to.”
Detox was the next step. She entered the process and, in her mind, it was the closest thing to Hell she had ever experienced. And she attended AA and came to another painful realization: she couldn’t quit on her own and she needed help.
The God of her childhood and her former Catholic faith came back to her through AA. She prayed, she surrendered she changed, and she did things she never wanted to do…all for the first time in her life. And this God, this Higher Power helped her.
Mom always believed God was a kind and loving God, but not one she would willfully follow. With AA and her meetings, the path of sobriety was one where changes were full of the kindness and love of God.
Instead of cocktails at the hotel bar of her lay over, she would go to the Apple store and learn how to use her computer; instead of sitting at home with a drink, she took trips with her fellow retired TWA crews (she even flew in a hot air balloon and travelled the country); and instead remaining the same she discovered the redemption of change.
Marilyn Kregel flew again without the aid of TWA.
When I moved to Canada, I saw her less. We would do our weekly phone calls on Monday, but her life was full as a retiree. My Dad would make appearances in her life and their friendship grew, not as lovers but fellow survivors of this harsh thing we call life. “Separating from your Mom was the best thing saved our marriage,” he remarked to me.
Slowly, over her last decade as she took several years to turn 80, she slowed down. Memories faded. She could no longer be the Flight Attendant she once was, the good neighbor, or the storyteller. We made the painful decision for her to live in a care facility and she grew to love this as her new home.
I am a firm believer that what lasts the longest in our lives are our core virtues or vices. If we are anxious our whole lives with moments of calm, when our memory fades we will end our times in fear; if we are generous with moments of greed, we will keep only the memories of other people’s successes; and if we are loving, love will survive no matter what our brain does.
The night Marilyn passed, the last willful action she did was smile at the care workers. For Marilyn in the midst of her dementia, kindness survived. Kindness and her exit was on her own time table, not anyone else’s.
She flew away from this world as a Flight Attendant.
We are planning a Memorial Service, but it will be in the Fall. For those who wish to come, please stay tuned on social media. We, as a family, really appreciate the prayers and support we’ve received. Thank you. This will take a while for grief leaves when it’s good and ready.
For those who are good at math, you can deduce she missed her _____ by four days.
See the film A Christmas Story.
I kid you not!!!!! He wore sandals, braids, and quoted weird authors.
Here’s a quick note. Ichan is one of the villains of this story. He made his millions by buying weaker companies, selling them off in cheap parts, and displacing thousands of workers. He did this throughout the country, getting wealthier at the expense of other companies. Presently, he is now an economic advisor to President Donald Trump.