Angels I Have Known

godSoon after Christmas last year, I was cleaning up my house for company when I was struck with the need to stop and take a moment to pay tribute to someone in my life who seemingly came from out of nowhere to remind me of the presence of the divine.

For several months I’d found my spiritual connections frayed and sparking dangerously, not unlike the strands of lights that we try to squeeze ONE more season out of. I’d been trying to use old outdated equipment to hold up the tree of my life and found that the combination had become hazardous. I hadn’t really put up decorations and was struggling to make it through the holidays.

In the midst of my cleaning spree I came across a shoebox. When I opened it I felt my spirit return to my body.

In the box, I found the angels I thought I’d lost… these were not just any angels, but a group that represent the most extraordinary angels to grace my life. These ornaments were made from the material of the wedding dress my mother wore when my parents were married in 1948, a beautiful satin that now adorns little hand-stitched figures with varying shades of yarn on their heads that represent the many colors of hair in my family.

In 1966, after years of struggle with mental illness and finally incurable cancer, my mother passed away when I was not yet three years old. It was a time of great turmoil for my father and my four brothers and sisters, one of whom was only eleven months old. In coping with his own pain, our dad inadvertantly encouraged us to deny ours by trying to forget that difficult time.

After a couple of years of attempting to manage our brood on his own with the help of many generous church members, it became clear that this situation was impossible for Dad to handle. A colleague of his, a fellow minister whom he’d been friends with in seminary, suggested that he meet a woman from his church out in California. “What the hell, why not?” said Dad. Maybe those weren’t his exact words, but I’m sure they were his thoughts. He’d grown weary of the well-meaning efforts of his own congregation to “set him up” with somebody new.

This woman, a self-described “California Sun Goddess”, had three daughters of her own. She and Dad wrote letters back and forth for several months, comparing notes about what was important to them. He flew out to California from Michigan. She returned the visit a month later to be introduced to his world, and when she met me and my little sister, her decision was made — “Someone has to take care of these babies.” After a six month, mostly long-distance courtship, they decided to marry.

Now, more than forty years later, having uprooted her daughters from the world they had known to start a new life half way across the country, taken on a family of eight children (she was an only child herself), and after working for years as the primary breadwinner while nursing my father through heart disease, my “new” mom still serves energetically as the matriarch of our family, for 18 years now by herself. She will celebrate her 80th birthday this summer.

As I sat there holding the little satin angels in my hands, I thought back to our visit with Mom at Christmas. When I walked through her front door I realized the stunning degree of dedication she had shown in making sure that my real mother would not be forgotten — that a part of her would always be in our lives.

There, on her tree, in addition to those she had already given to me and my seven brothers and sisters a few years earlier, were dozens of satin angels! She must have made a hundred of them out of the wedding dress. Painstakingly hand-sewn, she had devoted hours and hours of her time to create a memory of a woman most of us had hardly known to try to replace the painful memories with something tangible and beautiful.

momWith this gesture, this profound act of giving, the angel that is my stepmother restored my spiritual strength. I realized that her presence in my life has fulfilled the adage that “When God closes a door, He opens a window” and she is the sweet, cleansing breeze that flows gently through it.

On those days when I wrestle to define my own spirituality,  I know that I  must sometimes listen a little harder to hear the quiet angels in the crowds of clamoring voices.

I am so incredibly blessed that in my stepmother, Karol Kusch Fenner, I have the perfect example of whom to listen for….

Thanks, Mama….

You are that still, small voice in the crowd.

  1. January 6, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    What beautiful angels… both the satin ones and your mother. It is nice to see her bright and genuine smile again. It’s been a long time.

  2. Jackie
    May 6, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman. I loved working with her when I was student teacher in Walpole School many years ago. Those angels are a reminder that your mother is in heaven. It takes a special person to keep another’s spirit alive. Can’t believe she is going to be 80!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Barb
    May 6, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Ellen, beautifully said. You’re so lucky to have two angel-moms….and they were, indeed, both beautiful. The angel ornaments are beautiful heirlooms to have and to cherish at Chrismas!

  4. B Grant
    May 7, 2010 at 12:11 am

    What a beautiful story Ellen. Once again, you bring tears to my eyes. You are truly blessed in so many ways and I feel blessed to have you as my friend!

  5. Becki
    May 7, 2010 at 2:21 am

    What a kind, creative, and generous woman you were raised by–and what a beautiful story this is.

  6. Tom
    May 7, 2010 at 2:24 am

    Wow, this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read … may I share it with my congregation via the email list we have? This is extraordinary.

  7. May 7, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Please do share it, Tom. My mother is one of the most humble people I know and the world needs to know her better…

  8. Ashley
    May 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Ellen – This is such a beautiful story! I have not seen your mom since I was a youngster living in Walpole. She looks amazing! No way she’s going to be 80! Angels are all around us – we just need to take the time to recognize they are there! Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. Terry
    May 7, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Your stories always send chills down my spine. You are very lucky to have 2 such incredible moms. But I’m sure they feel just as blessed to have you for a daughter. Thank you for sharing that beautiful story.

  10. Mel
    May 8, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for this. It makes me feel a little better about the fact that I AM a stepmother.

  11. Anonymous
    May 8, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Ellen, after my mom (Dolores (Hill) McGuirk) passed on I had dolls made from her wedding gown when she married my dad. Dina, Darcy, Derek and I all have angel dolls to remind us of our beautiful mum. We are lucky to have had such loving women in our lives; I love hearing this tribute to Karol, she is a very special lady.

  12. May 9, 2014 at 5:03 am

    Thanks for sharing that, Denise. I remember your mom so well. I can still hear her voice. These angels are wonderful remembrances.



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