Frances Eckert Frei was mostly easy going, non secretive, very open, honest, and yet, somehow, a little hard to know. She did not define herself with her own narrative like my father did. Where as he would boil interesting tidbits of life down into packets of entertaining stories, her past life would just leak out, a little here, a little there, sometimes in short little bits, sometimes in long rambles where a young boy like me wondered what the point was. You had to collect it over some time to realize her depth and the forces that created her.
At the time of her birth, long before the second world war, her mother was 30 and her father was 51. It was just the three of them in a cute little farm house with a hand pump well out back. The place was shaded by two giant oak trees and was surrounded by rolling grassland, usually tall and sometimes harvested by sharecroppers for a fee. Her father, Joseph Eckert, would go to work by day in nearby Richmond Virginia as a sheet metal fabricator. Not much was said by my mother about him. Perhaps not much was known. It’s difficult to say how he influenced her. My grandmother, Gertrude, impressed upon young Frances to keep from bothering him or getting in his way. It may have even been explained that ‘he did not want children around’, although I doubt that was actually said. Children glean the way things are with impeccable hearing. One of the few things my mother ever told me that he said to her was “you could eat an apple through a picket fence”. Of course it didn’t help that Frances had somewhat buck teeth as a young child. Before one labels him as a very bad person, he was not abusive other than the lack of empathy for the needs of a little girl when it comes to love and fragile self image. I doubt that he meant harm. I suppose that this was an unintended way in which he influenced her. He did provide for her and even built toys and such for her to play with.
Joseph Eckert died when my mother was only 11. Now it was just her and her mother. My grandmother never learned to drive and the car was sold. Things really were quiet now.
On their way to work, the neighbors a little farther up the dead end dirt lane would give Frances rides into town, where she would walk the rest of the way to the catholic school she attended. She had to leave very early in the morning and stay rather late, as she was always politely working into their schedule. No different than in her earlier childhood, Frances had to entertain herself. This, she never complained about. It was just her life. The only mischief I recall hearing about was when she and another girl were tasked to kneel in the empty church and pray so as God was always kept company. Unbeknownst to the nuns, they sometimes chased each other around the pews, giggling as they went. Though I feel that this could have been a gateway to a life of crime, I never detected that my mother was at all remorseful about this.
With an upbringing such as hers, she had to invent for herself who she was and what was important to her. Is this a more pure window into humanity? Am I overthinking this? I postulate that we all need a sense of awe for something… and love. Though she was a believing catholic, I never got a sense that religion was the well that she drew from. In that, she did what she was supposed to. Her deep spiritual needs seemed more wrapped up with running barefoot through the grass, the tall yellow grass of the fall, swaying in the breeze in waves as the wind swept up the hill around their little farm house. These are the happy things that she told me.
What I also noticed was a deep attachment to certain holidays and all the preparation and rituals that went with them. Through this, seemed a clinging to powerful feelings from childhood, feelings that had seen her through. Sometimes, she combined nature and holidays. With Good Friday, she used trees as stand ins for the stations of the cross. With Christmas, Frei Christmas Traditions, the tree was of utmost importance. It had to be large, extremely full and thick, with lots of crooks and forks in the trunk. The focus was a little hidden mystical world inside, not the shiny ornaments on the outside. In the crooks of the trunk, she would hide little stuffed birds, old wood carvings from Germany along with some small glittery things. Handmade items were a premium. It made a small child, one like me, spend a lot of time peering in, trying to find all of the hidden things.
Upon graduating from high school, she got a job with a large tobacco company in Richmond doing secretarial work. Her school taught this well. She quickly bought her first car and was taught to drive by either an uncle, or the neighbor. I’m not sure which. For someone who didn’t get out much, who sometimes had trouble with self esteem which was taught in early childhood, she always had a way of accomplishing what needed to be done, when it needed to be done.
She met a young army man at a church dance in Richmond at the age of 21. Three months later they were married. Shortly after that, his army time came to an end and she moved to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Though they eventually ended up in a beautiful wooded setting and she had close friends, she never proclaimed St. Louis to be her home. She was forever from Virginia.
During the time that I knew her, I felt that my mother had a split personality when it came to self confidence. As an only child of a single mother that was not employed or worldly, Frances became the sole breadwinner, bought a car on her own, stepped up to all the skills and gumption needed to take care of business. Yet. Being kept out of a father’s way, and remarks about ‘eating apples through a picket fence’ leave deep marks I suppose. Looking back, it was interesting how my mother would swing back and forth between boldly taking care of business and being completely deferential. As a child, I felt rather sensitive to her plight. I remember questioning her when she signed her name “Mrs. Robert Frei”. “Well who are you in that?”, was my thought. Years later, I noticed, with no fanfare at all “Frances Eckert Frei” showed up.
Frances was a joiner, and a tryer. If there was something interesting to do with people, you could generally count her in. I feel that it served her well. This, she passed on to me. She passed many things to me. She had a cadre of good friends. Our father loved to roam around the country, Mexico and Canada, exploring with the family while camping as we went. We did this camping thing as a well oiled machine. Frei Family Adventures . I don’t remember my mother being the one to suggest going on these trips but she never protested. She seemed to enjoy the simple lifestyle with a closer connection to the outdoors. The tighter family unit that this way of living created was another pleasant thing. She didn’t talk about it much, she just did it, and well. Later, when I was an adult, I remember that she could be counted on to join me on the back of my tandem bicycle. Several times, we would join a weekly group ride comprised of male hammerheads. It must have looked rather odd seeing a group of guys, all dressed up in kits, trying to outdo each other at high speed, with one 70 something year old lady with spindly arms and legs flying along with them on the back of a tandem. I’m not sure if they got as much of a kick out of it as we did, but they were nice.
Frances loved books but would rarely read them on her own. She read many long books to me when I was young, well beyond the age where I should have been reading them on my own. Perhaps this is spoiling a child but we both got a good deal of enjoyment out of the arrangement. Later, after my father’s eyes went bad, she read books to him. With no fanfare, as usual, she left a long trail of her own writing. They were in the form of notebooks, letters and postcards, but I don’t remember any of it being about her younger life or about her deeper feelings.
She never wanted to be a burden or put people out. She could take care of things herself. She would say “when I get old, do like the Eskimos did and put me on an iceflow and let me drift away”. Of course she didn’t mean this and we all laughed, perhaps a little uneasily, but she said it enough times that I feel that there was at least a little meaning behind it.
You can’t sum up someones life in a few pages. I worry about doing a disservice to her to even try. My idea here is to lay the foundation of where she came from, who she was and what made her that way. Of course this is all in the opinion of her youngest son. She was more of a typical good mother with my three much older brothers. By the time I came along, I might have been more of a friend. Again, just my opinion.