A Reflection on My Mother-In-Law

An hour into a visit with my mother-in-law and we had covered all the news of relatives, family, health issues, and the weather, past, present, and future. Politics, current events, religion, music, poetry, books, movies, my studies or work—none of those were on the table unless I wanted a monologue. How were we to fill the two or three days of our visit, stretching out like a sea before us with only a few islands of planned activities dotting the horizon? It was meal times that anchored our days; they provided us with tasks for which we both knew our roles. We could work purposely, comfortably together. However, once the dishes were washed, dried and put away that relief ended. The clock hands slowly rowed us on to the next eventful island.

I never really knew her, I told myself. In fact, I convinced myself that there was little to know. She didn’t really know herself, so how could I know her?

In many ways this was true. Ada was born into an Amish family in Big Valley, Belleville, Pa. As an only daughter coming precisely in the middle of four sons, her main role would have been to help her mother, who by all accounts was not a warm or nurturing person. According to a classmate, Ada struggled with schoolwork and missed many days at the little green one-room schoolhouse where she walked from her family’s farm. That she had not excelled as a scholar evidenced itself in her halting reading, in her diaries, and in the letters we received from her, full of awkward sentence fragments and amazing spellings.

Excelling in any way was not an Amish virtue; to excel was to call unseemly attention to one’s self. To be humble and self-effacing was of much greater value. Expressing strong feelings, reacting with enthusiasm, leading in any visible way, indicated pride and a desire for attention. In a girl those behaviors were doubly bad. How could she have learned to know herself when any uniqueness was suspect, and individual feelings were brushed aside in favor of what was best for the community as a whole?

She was a dutiful daughter, assisting at home, working away from home to earn money for the family, and continuing to offer financial support and household help even after she was married. She became a dutiful wife, doing her best as one baby after another arrived, each one sucking out a little more of her meager selfhood. My husband remembers her crying on the phone to a friend because another baby was on the way. Surely eight was enough, but then came nine and ten and eleven. She believed she had no choice—birth control was “against nature.”

The farm she and her husband Jake bought framed her life. They lived in the big, old, inconvenient brick farmhouse that came as part of the purchase, making use of the bonuses—a summer kitchen with an enormous iron kettle where she canned jars of green beans, beef, peaches, pears and cherries, and a “cave” or cellar good for storing apples and root vegetables over the winter. She filled her days with preparing breakfast, dinner and supper; washing and mending; gardening, canning and freezing. Sundays were for church and visiting or perhaps a nap, but even Sunday was never a full day off. Hearty meals were still needed for Jake and the boys, whose morning and evening chores knew no Sabbath.

I’m not sure I even want to imagine washday for eleven farm children, barn clothes as well as school and church clothes. The wringer washer stood in the basement. Freshly washed clothes needed to be carried in a large basket up the stairs and outside where she hung everything on the clothesline to dry. Then, at the end of a long day of washing, in the era before “wash and wear,” the baskets of ironing must have looked like gigantic hay stacks casting a shadow over the next few days.

Thinking of those stacks leads me to wonder how many pairs of jeans she must have bought in her lifetime, how many pairs she mended and mended again. Did she have a magic number after which jeans were considered beyond repair—a three times and you’re out rule? Or did she go on to the fourth or fifth mending? And socks—they would have doubled the jeans in number. Mending them could have been a full-time job in itself. The clothing of Arlene, the only daughter, provided a variation from all the bought jeans and shirts for the boys. Ada would not have considered ready-made dresses for her. Did sewing for Arlene bring joy or worry? I never heard her talk about it, but I imagine her standing in the store with bolts of fabric, fingering various ones, trying to picture which one would do justice to her pretty, bright-eyed little girl.

Coming from generations of plain and practical people, Ada gave holidays a vague nod at best, and barely acknowledged birthdays. She did not buy her children many toys or books or games, nor did she know how to highlight each one’s uniqueness, with one noticeable exception. She knew by heart the specific food likes and dislikes of each of her eleven children. Even when they were all gone from home she catered to them. She had to have corn as well as peas at Christmas dinners because one person didn’t like peas. She had applesauce as well as cranberry relish because someone else didn’t like cranberries. If she prepared sweet potatoes she also prepared mashed potatoes. Food was the one sanctioned way to indulge her children’s individual tastes.

Jake, an anxious little man, insisted on conformity that brooked no exceptions. Wayne remembers his mother’s tears on a Sunday drive to church, when Jake scolded her because he thought her new dress was not plain enough: it had small flowers on it rather than being a solid color. She had few places in her life to bud, let alone blossom. But like the persistent weeds that push through sidewalk cracks, her potted plants pushed some beauty and joy into her life. The windowed porch outside the kitchen barely contained the prospering profusion of geraniums, begonias, African violets, baby tears, jade, philodendrons, palms, and ferns over which she hovered. In the yard peonies, iris, hostas, roses and annuals followed each other in procession throughout the summer. She nurtured all her plants; she knew them all by name, and she shared them generously with others. I rarely came away from a visit to Ada without a start of a begonia or, a beautifully potted fern. Her flowers, as she referred to them whether or not they bloomed, were the one thing she could show off to visiting neighbors and friends without being censored—after all, God made them.

As her children grew up and moved away from home, Ada finally began to have some disposable time. Quilting became her passion: she pieced colorful tops, and spent hours and hours making tiny, uniform stitches on quilt tops stretched out in the quilting frame set up in her living room at the farm, or later in the basement family room of her new house. A perfectionist, she was known to spend additional hours after a day of quilting with others, taking out stitches she deemed too big or sloppy and replacing them with her own diminutive, uniform stitches.

From time to time she showed glimpses of her inner life. On a number of occasions she commented that we, her daughters-in-law, had much more information about raising children than she ever had. “We just did the best we could,” she would say with sadness in her voice. I imagined her as a young mother, eager to do her best, but overwhelmed with responsibilities and not even aware of the world of books that might have helped her had she enjoyed reading or had the time to sit down.

Another glimpse of her deeper self came through in a single word. She generally noted in her diary the day each child was born, stating simply that Allen or Norman or whoever was born today, perhaps giving the time or some other small detail. There was one exception, stated in her succinct and grammatically awkward way, “Lydia stay [home from church with] baby Wayne and I.” As with each of her children, she expressed in her writing no joy at his birth. She didn’t comment on how cute he was or how much she loved him, but on this one occasion she used a qualifier, baby. It was as much of an endearment as she ever allowed herself, one lone word carrying the weight of all her unspoken love.

Her pluck and determination showed up in a story she remembered and told often, always laughing until she had tears in her eyes. It had been summer and there were bushels and bushels of tomatoes to take to the cannery. She could easily drive the family car with automatic transmission, but this trip required the old farm pickup with a crotchety stick shift. Eleven-year-old Paul went along to help load and unload all the baskets. The trip began well enough, but at the stop sign at the top of a hill near Moselem Springs she stalled the truck. She started the engine and once more stalled. There sat Ada, who never wanted to get in anyone’s way, who never wanted to be singled out or noticed, not only blocking any traffic that might come along, but in danger of rolling back down the hill if she couldn’t move ahead. Paul, who had driven the truck all over the farm but was too young for a license, was full of confident, manly advice. “Put the throttle all the way to the floor,” he instructed, “and let out the clutch.” With great lurching and spluttering she finally made her way through the intersection and on to their destination. For timid Ada, that must have felt like a hero’s journey, a conquest to savor.

One weekend all the sisters-in-law plus Arlene gathered for an overnight at a retreat center. Ada accompanied us. That evening we sat around in our cabin conversing in the casual way women do when all distractions and responsibilities are far away. As we talked about our children, and ourselves someone asked her how she had managed with so many babies, so close together. Her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know,” she said. “It was hard . . . I don’t know how to say it . . . I just can’t say . . .” her voice trailed off. None of us tried to explore that further. I regret that in that moment I felt more irritated at her inability to verbalize than sympathetic with her obvious pain. I wanted her to have fought for herself, to have stood up for her rights, to have made more of a place for herself in the world, rather than to have silently endured. I blamed her with the self-righteous judgment of one who had not yet faced her own demons.

One of the happier glimmers of who she really was came at a sadder time. When she no longer even spoke, so deep was she into Alzheimer’s, she would sit and sift through a box of old snapshots. Most she passed over with no recognition or interest, but one she always held up and laughed about, making sounds as if she were talking. It appeared to be that of a couple, a smiling young woman and her boyfriend with his arm casually draped over her shoulder. But she was the young man, suit and bow tie borrowed from a brother perhaps, a fedora covering her hair. I imagine it as a somewhat daring Sunday afternoon diversion from the usual parlor sitting. Some string of connections in her frizzled brain still held on to this memory, and now uncensored by the rules that bound her life, allowed her to laugh.

Ada did many loving things for her family, but saying, “I love you,” was not part of her vocabulary. One morning I sat at her quilting frame helping to quilt a top for my mother, hoping that my stitches wouldn’t be taken out and redone. Jonathan, her three-year-old grandson, played happily, riding around on a tricycle while we stitched. He circled the table and in passing her said, “Grandma, I love you,” with little boy candor. She didn’t respond. He circled the table again and when he neared her said with more urgency, “Grandma, I love you.” She may have said a few words to him, but did not give a direct response. He circled again and then again, making the same declaration each time. Finally, when it was clear that he would not let this go without a response, she replied, “I love you too,” in a flat and uncomfortable voice. I wasn’t sure for whom to feel the most sadness, the little boy who offered so freely with so little response, or the grandma who clearly loved her grandson, but would have done almost anything to avoid the discomfort of telling him so directly.

One day when she was in a restive stage of Alzheimer’s, finding it impossible to be still, her ever-moving fingers found the hem of my skirt. She turned it up and began picking at the stitches, pulling my skirt higher and higher as she worked at the hem. Not wanting my skirt to be pulled up to a point of embarrassment for my father-in-law who sat opposite me, and also wanting to preserve my hem, I reached out and took her hand. We sat that way, side by side on the couch, for many minutes. The conversation, which did not include her, continued as if nothing had happened, but there we were, holding hands. I thought of all those tired, worn hands had done in her lifetime, all the meals cooked, socks mended, garden rows weeded, quilt stitches sewn, babies held. Never had she held my hand nor had I thought of holding hers, but there we were, two women, separated by age, education, travel, life experiences, and now by illness. Still we were linked, not just because I was married to her son, but because our hands could express the connection we had never been able to articulate.

It was after she was gone that I began to gain a more complete picture of who this woman, my mother-in-law, really was. Wayne went to be with his grieving dad immediately after her death. In the time they spent alone together Jake began to tell stories none of the children had ever heard. He told Wayne that his family had not wanted him to marry Ada because she was from a family that didn’t seem to do very well—“was sloppy” were his words. Jake felt sorry for her, however, and married her in spite of his family’s reservations. Did she call out the caretaker in him developed through his alcoholic family system? Was it because he thought she had no other chances? He didn’t say. I wonder if Ada knew about his family’s reservations. If so, what would it have been like for her to make her way in the large Kurtz clan?

Jake also told another more distressing story. When she was a teenager she milked for a farmer whose wife was not well. Apparently, this farmer assumed that along with the farm help sexual favors were his for the taking. When or how he took advantage of her Jake did not say, only that no children were conceived as a result of the abuse, a word Jake did not use. He, Jake, “forgave her, and married her anyway.” All the years of their marriage that secret was held between them. I wonder how it shaped and contaminated their life together. Even more, I wonder how it cramped and inhibited her. Did anyone ever tell her she was not responsible? I doubt it. Within the “rights” afforded her in her conservative Mennonite community with its restrictions for women, how could she look at herself as entitled to state her wants clearly and directly?

I look at a picture of my three-year-old granddaughter, round face, blond hair parted in the middle and French braided, like an Amish girl’s. Her eyes sparkle as she runs in the grass, chasing her adored uncle. I remind myself that at one time little Ada probably looked a lot like her great granddaughter, equally full of life and spirit. I wish someone had given her the encouragement and support to live out that lively spirit rather than telling her to shush it, to hide it behind drab clothing, expecting her to carry more responsibility than any woman should need to bear. At the same time, I give thanks for the cracks through which her irrepressible spirit found ways to shine.

About the Author

Kathleen Weaver Kurtz

Kathleen Weaver Kurtz grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and is a retired Mennonite pastoral counselor. All of her life she has listened avidly to the stories of her grandmother and mother who grew up in traditional Mennonite communities. She is using retirement to write both chronological accounts and creative reflections on family members and her own life. Gardening, pottery, travel with her husband, and time with grandchildren fill out her days.