Wednesday, August 20, 2008


There is no relationship as precarious as the one between an in-law and a parent. If you have made any mistakes in raising your children, your in-laws are going to be the first to point it out. The virtues of your children are taken for granted, but the faults are always blamed on the mother. The relationship between mother and a daughter-in-law could probably be compared to that of Russia and the United States. There can be a cold war, a stony silence that forbids any close friendship, a frosty alliance that is outwardly calm, but with each meeting followed by a barrage of criticism from both sides, or an all-out war that leads to loud recriminations and angry words.

We were spared all that as I grew up on the farm for, despite any feelings of resentment they may have had, each in-law became a necessary part of the family. Like it or not, they became Aunt This or Aunt That and were considered as stationary as a bedpost or an oak tree growing in the yard.

Eventually, as the years passed, my mother had eleven in-laws, eleven people who arrived on the scene and were included in our frequent gatherings. Since Harlan (Deed), Helma and I were the youngest of our family, our spouses didn't appear until my parents were older. The wives and husbands of the ten older children appeared much earlier and were a vital part of my childhood.

Divorces were not so common back then, so we had only one divorce. When Harry and Lily parted company, it was difficult for everyone. Lily had been around for so many years and had even acted as midwife for the births of the younger children, excluding mine, which was attended by a doctor, the first baby that my mother had with a doctor in attendance. The remainder of the twelve children were delivered on a farmhouse bed, even Helma's birth, where she weighed about two pounds and was placed in a cigar box on the door of the kitchen woodstove, wrapped in a man's handkerchief.

For some reason, my mother went blind after Helma's birth, and her vision was blurred for months afterward. Thankfully, her vision improved and she didn't wear glasses until she was very old, even though she probably needed them. When you don't have the money for things like that, you do without them.

As I grew up, the wives and husbands of my sisters and brothers were as close as siblings, an important part of my childhood. When Harry married Jewell, his second wife, it was easy to know her and love her. It took a while for the other women to accept her, for they felt disloyal to Lily, but Jewell ignored all this and was persistent in her offers of friendship. Soon all became friends and life went on as before.

I have been blessed by my current daughter-in-laws, whom I love as though they are daughters. I try to stay out of their lives as much as possible, while still maintaining a solid relationship with my five sons. I have grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren who fill my heart with pride. At the same time, there is a difference in the way these children are raised and the way I raised my own. There is also a whopping difference compared to the way the children at the Farm were brought up.

There were no video games back then, just a movie once in a while. The movies were mild stories of adventure and eternal love. I grew up with Dick Haymes crooning to Betty Grable and both walking off into the sunset, lovers forever. I had a wild crush on Clark Gable and had daydreams about becoming the future Mrs. Gable, matriarch of Hollywood. Later, I deserted Gable for Tyrone Power. Today, at age 77, I have a throbbing infatuation for Robert Redford.

Most of the time we ran in the woods and the fields of the farm like a group of wild Indians, with the exception of Donna and Helma who had reached pre-teenage and were practicing as beauty queens, arranging their hair and experimenting with fads that included pinning brooches on the hemline of their sweaters, wearing bobby sox, and trying different shades of lipstick. Somewhere around here, I have a picture of Helma with her lips so red they stand out like a signal flag. Both she and Donna were beautiful girls who sniffed at climbing the trees in the orchard and roaming the fields with the rest of us, which they considered juvenile and silly.

Imagine my mother with that many grandchildren growing in various age groups around her, preparing food and making sure that even the little ones were fed. Every Sunday, the planks were set up around the dining room table, and the men were fed, then sent along the way. Then the kids would be placed around the table, supervised by the women, who ate last and as my sister-in-law Gerry said, "were lucky to get the crumbs."

My brothers always took great delight in this large group of kids. Both Bud and Hubert were young enough to play games with us occasionally. At the same time we liked them and loved to have them join in, we were a little afraid of them. Bud had a quiet demeanor and never showed his anger, except for a stern admonition to behave! Hubert, however, was explosive when he became angry, his green eyes flashing as he glared at the offenders. It was like being attacked by an alien green strobe, sending perilous waves through your body and threatening to annihilate you.

When Pop was working out in the fields or in the barn, he never paid any attention to the children. When he came back into the house from the fields and sat in his old green chair, the children swarmed around him. I spent the first few years of my life sitting on my father's lap. I would twirl his hair and play with his fingers, for the wrinkles on his finger joints were as stiff as clay and would stand up in points when you molded them. He would chuckle and tease and play with the kids as they surrounded him with their enthusiasm. Then he would rise and go to his pipestand and we knew that the playtime was over.

Harry, being the oldest child, had a certain dignity the rest of the brothers lacked. He never paid attention to a child, but always defended that rascal Ronald and let us all know that Donna was the most beautiful girl in the world. Donna was the beauty of the family, her tanned face symmetrical, her blond hair hanging in curls down her back. Later, she would dye her hair jet black, wore it in a bun at the nape of her neck, and looked like a Spanish princess. I asked her once why she never went to Hollywood or New York to try for fame and fortune. "Those places are filled with beautiful women," she explained, "But here, I get more attention!" That was true, because I have walked down the street with Donna, and had people halt her to compliment her. It was always a lesson in humility for me.

Somehow, Harry took a liking to me, and decided that I was "cute." When I was a middle-aged woman, he would visit me in my home. Since I never was prepared for company, I was at a loss as to what to serve Harry for lunch, so he and I would enjoy a peanut butter and jam sandwich before he went on his way. His opinion that I was "cute" lasted to my middle years. If there was anyone around when he visited me, he always put his arm around me, chuckled and asked them, "Isn't she cute?"

I'm not sure that a cute, middle-aged matron was what I wanted to be, but I never had lunch with Harry that I didn't feel thirty years younger than my actual age.

Herman was the second or third oldest child. Honestly, even I get confused on the order of birth. Was it Harry, Herman, Homer...or Harry, Homer, Herman....? I was never quite sure. Herman liked to talk and would stand by the woodstove in the living room and talk about his plans. He always had plans and his dream was to have his own farm. He wanted to raise horses and cows and, like Pop, he wanted to be independent. Like Pop, he wanted his farm to provide all of his family's needs. Pop was so adamant on this point that he hated to give Mom any money for groceries. He felt that the produce from the garden, the occasional pig that was butchered, and the ever-constant supply of corn should be enough. Mom held out for sugar and oil and flour from the grocery store, but Pop disapproved of these transactions. It got so bad that Mom would ask me to go shopping with Pop, so off I went to the grocery store, where my doting father never questioned my fondness for such staples as sugar, flour and salt.

Mom never played with the children, even though she labored all day to feed them. She had a stern outlook and she maintained a few favorites. Eldin, Herman's boy, always was her pet and she favored him with extra helpings. Helma was also given an easy berth through life. Mom never saw much of a future for me. Here I was, this plump little gypsy with the stringy hair, the huge eyes, like a cross between a wombat and a dollop of vanilla pudding, always running through the fields or sitting engrossed in a book. Mom was a very feminine woman and didn't quite know what to make of me, nor I her. We lived in a state of distant disdain, but she never disturbed the boxes and boxes of stories I scribbled and collected in a corner of my bedroom, nor did she ever take down the hundreds of pictures of Clark Gable that I tacked onto the bedroom wall!