Tag Archives: Memories

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



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


I had the opportunity recently to drive alone for 4 1/2 hours to central Kansas, most of it in the dark. It was kind of surreal once the sun went down and full darkness settled in. That part of eastern Kansas is sparsely populated, and the small arc from my headlights was often all that was visible as I sped down the lonely highway. An occasional yard light would float over the horizon to remind me that hardy souls have chosen this remote life. Some of the lights turned out to be false oases…co-ops with only propane tanks and no permanent inhabitants…and I would feel even more alone. Every little bit, a solitary tree near the road would slowly watch me pass his post…a silent, gentle giant reminding me that we are never really alone. The stars, plainly visible without city lights to dim them, were my only constant companion. But for most of several hours, the only visible sign that I was making progress toward my destination were the passing road signs and dashes zipping by on the pavement. The only frightening part of the journey was the bloody massacre of thousands of bugs, attracted to their doom on my windshield by the only light for miles around; it wasn’t a pretty sight in the morning light. Near the end of my journey, a massive lightning storm on the distant horizon broke my boredom. I later learned that it was hundreds of miles away, but it still put on a good show. As I drove, the isolation was comforting. I’m a Kansas girl, raised in the country. I don’t need civilization to feel safe.

I reversed the trip two days later in the daylight. People from the city say that there’s nothing to see on that drive – I disagree. I studied shapes in the clouds as I drove–there’s no better place to cloud watch, where you can see the whole sky at once. I passed dilapidated farmhouses (including one with an outhouse), houses built of rock, white country schools and churches, and red barns…just the color they should be. Some of the churches had small cemeteries, and several farmers had painted big old American flags on the sides of out buildings. One driveway sported a crudely painted sign that read “Thanks to our troops”. Motionless oil wells sat frozen among the hay bales and cattle, and I got to see the corn crop being brought in. One sign said “farm fresh eggs”, and another shaped like a giant, white cow announced an upcoming fall festival. I even got the best view that I’ve ever had of Kansas’ only nuclear power plant, which had frightened me since the news stories from its construction during my childhood. But the best part of the drive is that this time of year is sunflower season, in the sunflower state. They filled the ditches on both sides of the road, so thick that if I had a dollar for every flower that I passed in that 100+ miles, I’d be the richest person in America. That day, in spite of the modest boredom of that lonely drive, I kind of was.

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”  –Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz

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