That feisty, Italian woman they had the chance to know

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Posted Thu, Dec 17, 2015

Pauline grew up in rural Minnesota with five brothers and five sisters.

Pauline Zehmisch grew up in rural Minnesota with five brothers and five sisters. [Photo courtesy of Bruner family]

WESTMINSTER, Colo. — Pauline Zehmisch loved her coffee scalding hot. She’d holler at restaurant servers, claiming the cup was too cold when it’d be served to her at a perfectly drinkable temperature. She was the type of woman to yell at family members, call them stupid for a wrong decision and then take them out to dinner the same night.

“She’d always tell me, ‘don’t be stupid like your mother,’” said Karen Bruner, her granddaughter.

She wasn’t for the sensitive soul. But, as the saying goes, maybe everything happens for a reason – especially if you peer into her past.

Early life

Pauline grew up in rural Minnesota with five brothers and five sisters. Her father, Carl Mainella, was a business owner while the children maintained the home. It was the early 1900s, a time when death from childbirth was much more common; Pauline’s mother and aunt both lost their lives to it.

A middle child, Pauline was raised by her eldest sister, Rosie, but that didn’t mean she was left without any hard tasks. The children learned how to clean and cook, including killing chickens for dinner. The housework continued even after her father remarried a woman he met while on a trip to Italy.

“I remember [that] she didn’t speak a word of English,” said Carolyn Rafique, Pauline’s daughter. “She didn’t pay any attention to the kids. She’d go and close herself in her room.”

 “Hello, Ohio!”

Once a teenager, Pauline budged her way out of the house and on to Ohio. Rafique and Bruner couldn’t explain why she moved there. They speculated that it may have been because of a romantic interest.

Pauline’s father Carl Mainella, was a business owner while the children maintained the home. [Photo courtesy of Bruner family]

Pauline Zehmisch’s father Carl Mainella, was a business owner while the children maintained the home. [Photo courtesy of Bruner family]

She’d marry a man who thought it best to lay fists on a woman than to work through anger issues. It was only a matter of time before the beatings came with grave consequences. Pauline suffered a miscarriage. Only few people, such as her sister Marie, would know of her misfortune – she kept the incident hidden even from her daughter.

“My mother was so mad when she found out that Aunt Marie told me,” Rafique said.

“She [Pauline] didn’t like to talk about her past,” Bruner said. “She was very tight-lipped about it because her family gossiped.”

Pauline’s first marriage and ended soon thereafter. She had bigger plans.

Bigger Plans in The Big Apple

Pauline found her fresh start in The Big Apple. The close proximity of family members and the promise of a good job in the city enticed her. Little could she know, though, that only more hardships would come.

Pauline met Rafique’s father, Clifford Zehmisch, during a heavy night of drinking. Like a typical Las Vegas party movie, the two married that same night and woke up without realizing what they’d done.

“It was so out of character for her to do that,” Bruner said.

And the marriage didn’t last long. Pauline’s second husband was a drunk. Luckily, Pauline landed a job at the phone company where she would make her career, moving her way up from telephone operator to supervisor in her 34 years there.

She had no idea, however, that she was pregnant when she accepted the job. In the 1940s, a time when women endured even fewer legal rights, if she mentioned the pregnancy to her potential employer, they probably wouldn’t have hired her.

Zehmisch became a single, working mother, something almost unheard of in those days. She did the best she could for her child, sending her to a private Catholic school, yet her financial situation meant for Rafique a childhood similar to her own – cooking, cleaning and taking care of the household.

As a single, working mother, Pauline Zehmisch did the best she could for Rafique, sending her to a private Catholic school, yet her financial situation meant for Rafique a childhood similar to her own – cooking, cleaning and taking care of the household. [Photo courtesy of Bruner family]

“She had to hide her pregnant belly. In those days you’d get fired for being pregnant,” Rafique said.

When Pauline knew she’d soon be in labor, she discreetly requested two weeks off. She had Rafique and returned to work.

She raised Rafique with Zehmisch until, while drunk, he decided to go for a stroll with his infant child.

“That was the last straw,” Rafique said. “He was drunk carrying me and she was running down the street after him. She was afraid he’d drop me on my head.”

Tough Love

Zehmisch became a single, working mother, something almost unheard of in those days. She did the best she could for her child, sending her to a private Catholic school, yet her financial situation meant for Rafique a childhood similar to her own – cooking, cleaning and taking care of the household. An only child, Rafique often felt lonesome in part due to her mother’s style in parenting.

“She was stern. She didn’t grow up with very much affection,” Rafique said. “She wasn’t the type of person to put her arms around me and hug me and tell me, ‘I love you.’ I had to be the one to go up to her.”

But Pauline’s love could be seen through the way she acted. She was the type of person to be more willing to criticize for any wrongdoings – and criticize Rafique she did – but if her daughter needed help, she was there. Married at age 19 with three children, Rafique struggled with finances, and Pauline would step in to foot the bill for her grandkid’s clothes.

The Hard Road

Pauline met her final fix in 1987 when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. She went down the only way she had known – through the hard road. The 81-year-old tried one round of chemo, but it was too rough on her body.

“She had her own apartment at that time,” Rafique said. “I remember when she burned the Ramen soup – she said she put water in it, but there was no water – that’s when I knew it was the last straw. I asked her if I could give up her apartment.”

Rafique took her mother under her care, and a gleam of hope arose when Pauline began eating more food – an aspect she struggled with because of the disease. But Pauline grew worse.

“She developed pneumonia, and eventually fell into a coma,” Bruner said.

Pauline never woke up. She died on Thanksgiving Day in 1988.

Though she didn’t show much love, her presence touched at least a few lives. She was the voice of reason for her only granddaughter, Bruner, who saw the tiny 4’11” Italian woman as her pillar of strength. And so on that day of thanks, her tearful family was evermore grateful for the feisty, cool-mannered woman they had the chance to know.

 

About Rachel Bruner

Rachel Bruner is a Denver-area writer

View all posts by Rachel Bruner

One Response to “That feisty, Italian woman they had the chance to know”

  1. Ashley Says:

    I think you mean “scalding hot,” not “scolding hot.” Other than that, it was a pretty enjoyable piece.

    Reply

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