Tag Archives: Family

Mother-In-Law Jokes


I’ve never told a mother-in-law joke or even laughed at one; I’ve never found them funny. My late mother-in-law was a saint.

Pauline Maryann Houser was born the oldest of two daughters in Mena, Arkansas, to Anderson and Kathlyn Houser. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. Instead, she was swept off of her feet at 19 by a handsome, WWII B24 gunner seven years her senior. Gordon MCleary was four years and one divorce beyond the war, though he never really left it behind. Their first son was born the year after they married; 13 other children followed over the next 24 years, a total of twelve boys and two girls. Sadly, they outlived two of them. After my own daughter’s critical illness last year, I have no idea how they survived their deaths.

Life was never easy for Mom, but she didn’t let it break her. Dad drank, to fight his demons from the war. With that many kids, the month always outlasted the paycheck. My husband remembers being hungry at the end of the month…leftovers were a new concept when we got married. You can’t really keep a house nice with twelve growing boys, since you never know when you’ll find freshly hunted squirrels or car parts in your kitchen sink. There was no way to referee all of their daily conflicts. I think that it’s nothing short of a miracle that she kept them all in one piece, let alone clothed and fed, until they reached adulthood.

But the most amazing thing about Mom was her disposition. Through it all–the poverty, the child loss, the shenanigans by her kids–she was the sunniest person I’ve ever known. In the 25 years that I knew her, I can count on one hand the number of times that I heard her speak ill of anyone. Those rare occasions were reserved for ex’s who had hurt her kids, her unforgivable sin. No matter what they did, she deeply loved and fiercely defended each of her children. She was the epitome of a loyal, loving mother.

I miss her greatly every day, but especially on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and Christmas. She loved me like a¬†daughter, and I wish I could again tell her how much she meant to me. Mom – you are missed, you are loved, and you made a difference.

“The heart of a mother is a deep abyss, at the bottom of which you always find forgiveness.” ¬†–Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Home


There were two especially dark times when Megan was ill. The first, unsurprisingly, was when she was sickest. You can tell when doctors aren’t sure your child is going to make it from their pained facial expressions and the careful words they choose when they answer your desperate questions seeking reassurance. The other bad time was after she came home the first time, when the worst of the crisis had passed for the moment.

For the first time in the two months since our wee hour race to Little Rock with only the clothes on our backs, we could all eat dinner at home together and sleep in our own beds. It was almost bliss, marred only by the knowledge that it could end at any moment. The next few weeks were a much needed relief, if not exactly normal. There were the grueling, twice a week Little Rock trips for chemo, including one sudden trip by ambulance:  a fever is dangerous in someone whose immune system has been wiped out. But otherwise, we were together and home, beginning to recover, physically and emotionally…until the call. I knew by then what a bone marrow transplant meant. It meant splitting our family in two again, only this time for up to a year. A year of significant uncertainty and risk. A year of juggling holidays and birthdays and school and work. A year of trying to keep things normal for our other daughter. A year of trying to keep myself together, shaky as I was after what we’d already been through. It was a blow that nearly knocked me down. But you do what you have to do, especially when it’s your child. I picked myself up and sadly packed for a year. We drove the 600 miles to Cincinnati and did our best to settle in.

A month later, with Megan improving, her doctor shocked us during a routine check – she could go home! This time the packing and long drive were joyous. We were home, together again. We ate dinner together. We spent the holidays at home. And I told myself that I would never take these simple privileges for granted again, though I sometimes have since then. On this second anniversary of our long drive into the frightening unknown, I am thankful. Thankful for my daughter’s remission. Thankful for the meals we eat together. Thankful for laughter and sharing the small talk of the day. Thankful to sleep in my own bed. My teenage girls already know, from having had their lives suddenly blown up, that boring is good. I am so very thankful for this boring day together.

“If the only prayer that you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  –Meister Eckhart


Grandparents

My late grandmother made this small nativity, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. We had another casualty this year…the donkey fell off of the mantle directly onto the tile hearth, entirely missing the soft carpet directly in front of it. I was very lucky he broke into only three pieces. Some Gorilla Glue and poster paint later, and he looks nearly brand new. He looks significantly better than poor Mary, who suffered an identical fate nearly twenty years ago, on a mantle four houses and three states ago. I reconstructed Mary from many more pieces and no paint on hand, a job my husband labeled as hopeless. But the set means a lot to me, and you can’t have a nativity without the mother of God.

Unpacking the Christmas decorations every year is a walk down memory lane, but I look the most forward to the family pieces:  this nativity and another cheap plastic one from the same grandmother when I was very small; a ceramic lighted tree made by my other grandmother, and which will one day be my Christmas tree in my nursing home room; the lighted Christmas bells which hung over my grandparents’ door when I was very small, and now hang over ours; and the little wind-up Christmas carousel we found in my late aunt’s things when cancer took her way too early. If I ever die in a house fire, it will be trying to save the Christmas boxes.

Grandparents are special, and these things bring back many happy memories. They are all gone now, but I had the special blessing of knowing all four of my grandparents as an adult. There was grandpa who always happily made the effort to saddle up the horses for us kids to ride, and his feisty Irish wife; theirs was a true 60-year love affair. My other grandmother was an amazing cook, forever ruining me on store bought cookies and sweets. I easily turn my nose up and walk away from them to this day…compared to grandma’s, they’re not worth eating. But her husband, one of only two people to have shown me complete and unconditional love, was the one who made all the candy at Christmas. Peanut brittle and divinity and homemade caramel corn and both chocolate and peanut butter fudge. I never knew he was the candy maker until a couple of years ago…I always just assumed it was grandma. So again this year I’ll dig out the family recipes and think of where I come from. I’ll think of happy childhood memories, and I’ll miss these strong people who helped shape my life, giving me both roots and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. I miss them, but a part of them lives on. Here are two of grandpa’s best recipes–you’ll be glad if you choose to give them a try. Happy holidays!

Peanut Butter Fudge

Bring 2 c. sugar and 2/3 c. milk to soft ball stage (until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a soft ball, generally after about 15-20 minutes of slow boil).  Quickly add in:

1 c. marshmallow creme 

1 c. peanut butter

1 t. vanilla

Pour immediately into foil lined 8×8 square pan, let set.

Grandpa Kaufman’s Caramel Corn

1 c. butter

2 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. light corn syrup

1 t. salt

1/2 t. baking sofa

1 t. vanilla

6 qt. popped unsalted/buttered popcorn (about 1 1/2 c. unpopped or 3 microwave bags)

Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add baking soda and vanilla.  Pour over the popped corn in a large roaster, mixing well. Bake one hour at 250, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from pan quickly, before it sets up.  Cool completely, break apart.


Trophies


They played The Old Rugged Cross at my grandfather’s funeral; my mother had remembered him asking for it some years before. I’d always liked the song, one of the routine invitationals from the Baptist church of my youth. For the rest of my life, I will think of him wistfully when I hear it. Before we drove out to the country cemetery following the funeral, the Mennonite minister gathered our small family in a circle and prayed. He repeated the song’s refrain, drawing from it that we were the final trophies that grandpa had laid down. I’ll never forget the lightning bolt power of that simple analogy.

I’ve begun slowly laying down my own trophies. In a few years, we’ll be empty nesters…I intend to be ready. I’ve already weeded down the holiday decorations to only what we use every year. Twenty years of Disney VHS tapes have gone to Goodwill. I recently went through the only trunk of the four in our house which wasn’t empty. Jammed with papers and keepsakes, the minimum age of every item in there was 30, with an average closer to 50. I got rid of two large trash bags of cards and newspaper articles and momentos, but it still seemed full when I was done. I can’t yet bring myself to part with the doll my late aunt brought me from her trip to Russia, or the glass bells my late mother-in-law gave me when we were first married. I found the shoe box, which must be older than I am, containing the old plastic toys I played with at my great-grandfather’s house as a small girl. It is my only memory of him; he died when I was four. I got rid of the broken cow and small doll that were in the box, but I kept the handful of cowboys and Indians…they went back in their ancient shoe box in the trunk. When our son was here last month, we went through the last few boxes of his old things. That was hard:  it’s one thing when it’s a distant family member that you barely remember vs. your baby. It killed me to get rid of the memories he didn’t care to keep, but I knew it’s pointless to try to hold onto the past. I did quietly tuck away in my closet a few of the castoffs–a plastic bag of GI Joe accessories; a Hot Wheels carrying case, full; and a tiny pair of cowboy boots. Those memories now smile down at me from a shelf when I get dressed in the morning. Still, I know that one day I will part with them, too…I’ve only postponed the inevitable.

As I slowly draw closer to the end of my life, I will eventually part with my grandmother’s china, which a couple of times a year I go through the effort of washing by hand both before and after using to enjoy yet one more family dinner on. I’ll eventually give away the glass rocks in my yard which grandma got on a trip to Pilcher, Oklahoma with her retired sisters. Those eight siblings stayed close their entire lives, and the rocks make me smile not just because they’re pretty, but because they remind me of them laughing together at all of those family reunions. I will eventually, one by one, part with the treasures in every room of my house which are meaningful to me. As I do, it will be ok, because it will mean that I’m about to be reunited with those who gave them their meaning.

“Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them.”  –Bob Dylan


Uncanny

Do you know who this man is? Neither do I, but I feel like I should. This picture popped up when I Googled the tiny cemetery in rural Oklahoma where my great-grandparents are buried. It’s the spitting image of my great-grandfather, but it’s not him. Great-grandpa lived to be 100, and I was blessed to know him as an adult. Humans are hard-wired to recognize those we know. Though the resemblance is uncanny (my mother says “amazing”), I know it’s not him.

So who is he? The Internet associated him with a country cemetery of maybe 350 residents, of whom I’m related to a meaningful percentage. Plus he’s looking at me with my grandmother’s eyes and her brother’s face…he’s got to be a relative. We have no idea who he is, and there’s no one left who would know. The last of my great-grandparents’ twelve children–ironically their oldest–died five years ago at 100. My guess is that he’s my great-grandfather’s father, after whom he was named, and who’s buried in the same cemetery. The resemblance between them is too strong for him to be anything else. According to his headstone, my great-great-grandfather died in 1925. Anyone who might remember him would be at least 100. I doubt that person exists.

His face has stayed with me since I found the picture; it bothers me that I don’t know for certain who he is. He looks just like a man I grew up loving, a man who attended my wedding. We must be related, yet he is lost to time. I suppose that’s the fate of us all. We’re here for a brief instant, then the day comes when the last person who remembers us is gone. It is sad, but it is life. Already I’ve lost friends and loved ones at this halfway point of my life. Yet I remember. I remember them with fond memories; I will see them again, all too soon. And I will learn who the man in the picture is, and we will remember together.

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”  –Antonio Porchia


Cemeteries

(Mennonite Cemetery, Kingman KS)

I’ve always loved cemeteries…to me, they’re places of peace. When I was ten or twelve, I’d ride my bike to the cemetery a mile outside of my small farm town and walk in the quiet under the shady trees. I’d read the barest of details about its inhabitants, carved into rock, and wonder what their stories were. Usually the only sound was the Kansas prairie wind, as few cars passed by out in the country. It was a peaceful place to get away, and ponder the meaning of life and how difficult it is to grow up.

My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in country cemeteries…they’re wonderful places to visit. One of them is a couple of miles from my father’s boyhood farm in central Kansas. My great uncle is buried near my grandparents. He was never the same after his service in the European theatre in WWII. Grandma told me that he panicked in a foxhole, and his buddies had to hit him on the head to knock him out so that he didn’t give their position away to the Germans. She also called him “shell-shocked”, whatever that meant. Whatever happened over there, Uncle Donald spent his adult life in a nursing home. We saw him occasionally at holidays. I always liked his innocent nature, even though I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with him.

My great-grandparents are buried on a dirt road cemetery in Oklahoma, just across the Kansas state line. Great-grandpa participated in the great Oklahoma Land Run as an infant in a covered wagon. He and grandma farmed until he was 55, when his doctor told him to sell the farm and retire to town due to his poor health…he lived to be 100. They’re buried on the same flat, windy, treeless prairie where they raised their 12 children. It is a fitting resting place.

My mother’s parents are buried in a Mennonite cemetery in southern Kansas. If it hasn’t rained, you can navigate the rutted, hilly dirt road the four miles off the highway, passing by the spot where the one room school that grandpa attended used to stand. Though we’re related to a third of the cemetery’s residents, I can’t be buried there, as I’m not a member of the local church. It’s always been an exclusive club:  grandma harbored resentment her whole life for having to earn the church’s approval to marry grandpa, due to her suspect Nazarene faith. But she’s now a full member, buried next to her daughter, who she tragically outlived. I miss the three of them so much…even today, decades after they’ve been gone, I can’t stand on that quiet prairie without breaking down.

I don’t visit the cemeteries often, as I don’t believe my loved ones are really there. When I do, I don’t go for them–I go for me. I go to remember, to honor, to immerse myself in the cycle of life which foretells my own fate. I go to remind myself of what is important, though it is in the past. I still find peace in these places, though it’s a more mature peace than that of a teen on a bicycle those many years ago.

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”  –Emily Dickinson


The Farm


A train whistle is a time machine for me.  My father’s parents lived on a farm when I was young, before retiring to a small mountain community in the Colorado Rockies when I was ten.  We drove the hour to the farm once a month to spend the weekend.  A city girl, I loved that farm, with endless adventures to be had.

The old, two-story farmhouse was quaint, with quirky corners and two porches to explore.  We pretended the tiny, empty milk house was a playhouse, when we could overcome our fear of spiders.  I picked at the old oak upright piano, unaware that 25 years later my grandparents would haul it 500 miles to my house in grandpa’s horse trailer.  Grandpa always kept at least two horses at a time over the years:  Penny and Lady and the two white horses, Dixie and her daughter Cookie (my favorite).  I loved riding the horses, though I paid for it with my allergies.  But the piece de resistance was the barn.  Big and red and full of hay for the horses, it was a dream-come-true playground for a city kid, with its nooks and crannies and hay loft to jump out of.  The pony sleigh, the pond, the creepy dirt cellar, and the occasional goats and geese meant that it was impossible to be bored at the farm.

Back to the train whistle.  Just across the dirt road leading to the farm driveway was a railroad crossing.  The train came by at least twice a day, but I was too young to bother learning a train schedule.  Our cousins taught us to be naughty and place a nickel on the train track.  Later, after the train had come by, we’d try to find our flattened nickel.  Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t.  But at night, tucked into one of the two upstairs bedrooms with our cousins, we heard the train whistle in the distance as we fell asleep.  It was a foreign, yet comforting sound.  I’d lay awake wondering if I’d be able to find my nickel in the morning.  To this day, the sound of a train whistle takes me back to the dark quiet in a modest Kansas farmhouse.

I drove by the farm a few years ago after grandma’s funeral.  She was laid to rest with grandpa a few miles away, in a country cemetery where you can watch the wheat grow, and the only sound is the wind.  Both the farmhouse and the barn were smaller than I remembered them from 40 years ago, and the current owners had painted that poor barn the same white as the farmhouse.  But the rest was just as I remembered it.  I was tempted to get out at the train tracks and look for nickels, but we were tired from the long day.  Instead, I contented myself with driving slowly by the old place one last time.  And in the distance, I heard the faint whistle of a train.

“What is a farm but a mute gospel?”  Ralph Waldo Emerson