By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
For Dan Cryer, losing his mother at a young age meant he also lost all memories of her in
But the former Findlay man wanted to rediscover this “gentle mystery woman.” Through letters and diaries and newspaper archives, he was able to reconnect with his mother, Pauline Spitler Cryer. Those efforts are documented in his latest book, “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues from the Heartland.”
“My effort was to recreate her — who was this mystery woman? — and to discover everything about her millieu,” Cryer said in a telephone interview.
Cryer, now 75, has lived in New York longer than he did Ohio, moving there in 1972 to work as a reporter for Newsday. But years ago, Findlay was his home along with his parents, the Rev. Don and Pauline Cryer, and two brothers and a sister. His father was pastor at First Methodist Church, now St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church. Cryer’s family had lived at 401 W. Sandusky St., a two-story structure where Open Arms domestic violence shelter’s administrative offices are now housed.
In the first chapter of the book, Cryer said that “Being a P.K. (preacher’s kid) was mostly a blessing. It guaranteed me parents who loved me, pats on the head from kindly church ladies, and, in the grandest scheme of things, an inside track on salvation from sin,” he wrote. His greatest act of rebellion as a child was to skip choir practice and hide under the church pews for an hour.
Cryer played tennis near Donnell Stadium and read biographies of famous people in their younger days, loaned from the Findlay library.
But life changed in 1942 when Cryer was just 8. His mother died unexpectedly at a hospital in Boston.
“And in our grief, my siblings and I just kind of shut out all memories of her,” he said.
Even his older brother, David — now a stage, television and film actor and singer — who was 16 at the time “had virtually no memory of her.”
“So over the years, and unfortunately too late, I began to think, ‘Who was this mystery woman, my mother,'” Cryer said. “We don’t have any memories of her.”
Life went on, he said. His father remarried, and Cryer and his siblings grew up and had their own families. Cryer has two daughters.
“When my older daughter was 8, the age I was when my mother died, I said, ‘What if I were to die, she wouldn’t remember me? How could that be? I’ve done all these things. I’ve taught her how to ride a bike, read her books.’ And that really started me searching,” he said.
Cryer began to seek out information from his father, who was then living in Dayton.
“Of course by that time he’s remarried. He feels loyal to his second wife. And most of all, it was too hard for him to do,” Cryer said. “He erased all memories as well.”
Cryer had little to go on until about a decade ago, when he discovered that his sister, Kathy, had some of their mother’s diaries. She had kept a journal beginning her freshman year in college and continuing through the birth of her first child.
Cryer said his parents grew up in the Hoytville area and met at Jackson Township High School. They both attended Bowling Green State College, now Bowling Green State University, where Pauline majored in home economics.
“I went through college yearbooks and discovered that both of my parents were vice presidents of their senior class, different years, and I didn’t know that,” said Cryer. “And my mother was said to be very shy. I said, ‘Wait a minute. She can’t be shy if she’s vice president.'”
He also learned that Pauline had loved to read novels, her interests ranging from the Revolutionary War to the old South.
“So she clearly was very curious about lots of things. She had a very curious mind,” he said.
After graduating in 1931, Pauline taught four years at Whitmer High School in Toledo before marrying Don, who was studying for the Methodist ministry. They married June 16, 1935. Nine months later, David was born.
Don graduated from the seminary in 1937. His first parish was a small church in Toledo, followed by churches in Carey, Westerville and then First Methodist in Findlay. The family grew by three more children.
Pauline became ill in 1952, according to Cryer’s book. Symptoms included fatigue and severe headaches.
“She had high blood pressure and today, this is something that can be easily controlled with medication. And in that era, they didn’t have those drugs,” he said.
In 1952, there was a remedy, at least for some people, called sympathectomy, said Cryer. He explained that this surgery involved removing some of the nerves in the sympathetic nervous system near the top of the spine.
Pauline traveled to Boston for treatment by one of the country’s leading experts in the field, Dr. Reginald Smithwick.
“His record was very successful,” said Cryer. “My mother was not one of his successes.”
It was a two-part surgery. After the first operation, Pauline seemed to be fine. But before the second surgery, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
“My brother David was an end on the high school football team and in October 1952, he caught the winning touchdown pass to defeat Toledo DeVilbiss. That was on Saturday, so the family is on a high note. David is a hero in town,” Cryer recalled. “On Wednesday we heard from Boston that our mother passed away.”
A few years ago, Cryer discovered letters that his mother and father had written to the children from the hospital.
“I always thought, ‘How come she didn’t write to us?’ Well, she did,” he said.
The letters had been kept by his grandmother, then passed on to one of his aunts.
“I do hope you all are getting along fine at home,” Pauline had written to her children. “I just know you four never quarrel and are helping grandma all you can. Please do, for my sake! … Much, much love to all.”
Cryer said he also researched the subject of children and grief, and attended a panel discussion on funerals.
“One of the men said something about how he really disliked these celebration of life services because they don’t really take the subject of death seriously. He said, people are laughing and telling stories. I, however, had the exact opposite reaction,” said Cryer. “I said, ‘We should have done that. We would have remembered then.'”
Cryer decided that it wasn’t too late. And three years ago on Aug. 16, 2016, he organized a celebration of life service for Pauline. The event was held at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church and attended by family and friends, including Marylynn McClelland, who had been the flower girl at his parents’ wedding.
“It was just very moving, a very redemptive kind of thing to do,” said Cryer. “And that’s the last chapter of the book.”
He said he feels like he knows his mother much better now.
“I have much more a sense of a lively person with a lively curious mind,” he said. “I don’t have this vision of this shy, reticent person, kind of quivering in the background. She was a very active, intelligent person, interested in the world.”
The book is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s website. Cryer will also present a program at the Hancock Historical Museum at noon on April 28, 2020.