It’s rather awful to think of my mother’s death as a relief, but it is. She’s been dying by inches for years now. Bedridden, she lost the use of her hands and most of her ability to speak. For the last year, she’s been unable to swallow and so been fed through a tube. The horror of it is, as far as we’re able to tell, she hadn’t lost her wits. To think of that brilliant woman reduced to the condition of a baby, and aware of it—there are no words for how awful it makes me feel to think of it.
Alice was born March 26th, 1934 at Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, the second daughter of Harry Lambert and Elizabeth (Beth) Lambert (nee Clark). In her early life, she lived on the family farm near Wisconsin Dells with her parents, older sister Mary, and two brothers, James and John.
She was a graduate of Wisconsin Dells High School, Class of 1951, and married schoolmate Harold E. Rihn (Sr.) in June of 1953. They took up residence at 1032 Church Street, Wisconsin Dells, where they lived for more than fifty years. Their marriage produced five children: Gregory, Harold Jr., Teresa, Michael, and David. Alice was a good mother to us. She kept house for us and for Dad’s grandfather, George Zinke, whose house it had been, and who lived with us until he himself went to the nursing home. She and Dad had the classical dynamic of Dad as the disciplinarian, and Mama as the one who kissed things and made them better, but they were always a united front. You couldn’t get around one by asking the other. Mama was the rock our family was built upon to the extent that, when cracks did show, it was terrifying. The night my father came home and said he had been laid off by General Telephone is etched in my memory as the first time I saw Mama cry. We children were too small to understand what had happened, but knew it was bad, and we were afraid. My most striking recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis was my mother’s outburst of fear that Kennedy and Khruschev would kill us all. I really didn’t appreciate what an atom bomb was, but knew that if it made Mama afraid, it was serious. Ironically, the only other time I recall her crying was the day Kennedy was shot.
Mama loved to read, something shared by Dad and Grandpa as well. She had a large number of Barbara Cartland white covered paperbacks, one of the few authors she bought rather than getting from the library. She loved mysteries, and very frequently the catch from the library included Agatha Christie or something by John Creasy or one of his pseudonyms. It was Mama who first gave me Sherlock Holmes (the science-fiction was from my father’s side--). She had little time for other hobbies of her own, putting up with ours and Dad’s being a full time job. Model trains, model cars, model planes, scouting, hamsters, and tropical fish came and went and were taken in stride. She went bowhunting with Dad, and the two of them were early members of the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association. (My father designed the WBA crest that is still in use, a black and white stag’s head against a yellow arrowhead.) She occasionally shot trap, later, but never cared for it as much as Dad did. When Dad followed in his father’s footsteps and took up RV camping, she gamely went along and, I think had some of the better times of their life exploring our country until they got too ill. (I know that Mama went to Niagara Falls once—I don’t recall if it was a trip with a girlfriend, or their honeymoon—and might have gone over to the Canadian side. If so, that was the only time she ever left the US.)
There must have been times when we were on the ragged edge of poverty, but we kids never realized it. My father went years without regular work, keeping us going by self-employment in radio and TV repair, grocery delivery, newspaper distribution, and other jobs. There must have been times when Grandpa’s railroad pension was the only regular money coming in to keep eight people going, but we were never hungry, cold, or ragged, and every Christmas there were presents under the tree. I blush now to think how bratty I was when I didn’t get the particular toy I had wanted, when we were probably lucky to get any at all. Mama’s management kept food on the table and coal in the bin, and if clothes were sometimes hand-me-downs, they were good ones.
When we children were old enough for Grandpa Zinke to watch, Alice helped support the family by working various jobs, including as a waitress for local restaurants, as a hotel cleaner, and for some years as an assistant cook and server for the grade school hot lunch program. For several years in the 1960’s, Alice was the “inside” person for the family egg business. Dad collected eggs from area farmers. Alice would grade, sort, and box the eggs for sale, and Dad would deliver them to the grocers who sold them.
For the greatest portion of her working career, Alice was employed by Snow White Garment Company in Baraboo, a firm that made nurses’ uniforms. She worked cutting the fabric that was to be sewn into clothes. Cutting fabric took skill, and was not without its dangers. One day she took off part of the tip of her left forefinger with the cutting blade. She was a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, followed her husband’s example in becoming a union steward, and eventually was president of her Local. For a couple of years, while I was going to college at Baraboo, we commuted together, as I later did with my father going to Madison, and I think to some extent we were friends as well as son and mother.
Snow White eventually went out of business due to overseas competition. Alice took advantage of a government program to retrain “displaced” workers, graduated from an Insurance training program at Madison Area Technical College, and found work as an insurance underwriter. It was during this period that she suffered the first of a number of mini-strokes that eventually lead to her disability retirement.
After Harold Sr. also retired, they continued to reside in Wisconsin Dells, until increasing disability and the difficulties of managing winter cold caused them to move to a nursing home, first in Wyocena, Wisconsin, and later to the Karmenta Center in Madison, where Harold Sr. passed away in 2010. We are grateful for the excellent and sensitive care they both received at Karmenta.
Mama was raised Catholic, but left the church (or was pushed away) when she married Lutheran Harold. Dad’s later feud with the Lutheran pastor meant that church wasn’t a part of our lives much. She went back to the Church after retirement, and I hope she found some solace in it since.
Alice is survived by her sister, Mary Edmonds of Wisconsin Dells; five children, Gregory Rihn, of Milwaukee, WI; Harold E. Rihn, Jr., of Mineral Point, WI; Teresa Schroeder, Brookfield, WI; Michael Rihn, Tiburon, CA; and David Rihn, Madison, WI; six grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters. also named Alice).
Alice Rihn was a good a mother as a man could have. She was a loving and patient wife, a dedicated and loyal worker, and a leader among her peers. She was wise, strong, and caring. She will be sorely missed.
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