51 Things about My Mom

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Nellie Harper with her five oldest children: Margaret, David, Dorothy, John, Jim

 

51 years ago, May 7, 1968, my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an undiagnosed case of Addison’s Disease. She was an extraordinary woman and a magnificent mom. Her legacy continues. Since most of you didn’t know her, please let me introduce her to you. I may have some facts mixed up; please feel free to correct me if you know better.

1. Her name is Nellie (Stover) Harper. Many female descendants have Nell for a middle name. The son on her lap in the photo above became a grandpa a few days ago. His granddaughter’s name is Juliet Nell, “Jules” for short.

2.  Nellie was a farm girl. She worked her way to a college degree by ironing and milking the college’s cows!

3. She was an introvert by nature who welcomed people and seldom knew solitude.

4. Gardening was in her blood.  Vegetables, flowers, she loved it all.

5. She gardened in a dress. With sturdy shoes.

6.  Her hair was long, but always in a bun.

7. She was the first one up in the mornings.

8. She was no slouch intellectually. Her friend told me about an astonishing moment she witnessed when Nellie was stirring noodles, a toddler hanging on to her legs, while nursing a baby. My dad came in the door. “Nellie, did you study your Greek today?” he asked.

9. My dad was wholly incapable of refusing anything free. (That’s where I get it!) He brought home bruised apples, government-issued dry milk, wilted produce, etc. She took these offerings, cut away the bad and transformed the good into dinner.

10. When she was not enthused about a situation, she had two default responses. There was the chuckle. And there was the sigh.

11. Once she took a millinery class to learn how to make herself a hat. Women wore hats to church back then.

12. The first three years of my life, Nellie functioned as a single parent. My dad had a teaching job in another state and came home twice a month.

13. After getting married, my folks lived in Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. Most of Mom’s family was in the Yakima Valley of Washington.

14. She wrote weekly letters to her family. Besides a brief time when her sister’s family lived nearby, she only saw her mom and siblings again twice in her lifetime.

15. I remember seeing her cry only once: when hearing new that my oldest brother was in the hospital with a concussion sustained while playing college football.

16. She was a no-nonsense disciplinarian. I received spankings. And stern words. One night we had grits for dinner.  I had to eat my “no-thank-you” portion. But I didn’t swallow. So grits remained in my mouth 45 minutes until my mom asked me a question and I couldn’t respond. Then I swallowed.

17. Like many other families we went to church with, our family hosted college students for Sunday dinner every Sunday. We made enough for 6-8 extra people. Always.

18.  There was a rule in our house: No reading at the table. Someone caught in “story grip” always challenged the rule, sneaking the book under their shirt, holding it on their lap and reading a sentence on the sly.

19. My mom and I flaunted the rule when I was the only one coming home from school for lunch. We both propped our books in front of us and read to our heart’s content, while we ate our lunch!

20. She made lunches every morning. It took an entire loaf of bread to get the job done.

21. One of her abiding characteristics was cheerfulness. She lived life with a smile and a song.

22. The radio on the kitchen counter was dialed in to WMBI, the Moody Bible Institute radio station.

23. She carried an extra ~ 30 pounds into middle age. In letters to my Dad she bemoans her weight. We never noticed.

24. She and my dad both had clean, consistent cursive handwriting.

25. Every summer of my life, she packed up clothes and our family went to Bair Lake Bible Camp in Jones, Michigan. She cooked every single day, which my father managed the staff.

26. Mom and Hallie Southland fed a hundred campers with a frugal budget. A huge Hobart mixer (floor model) stirred up dough for homemade hamburger buns and crumb topping for apple crisps.

27. On Monday afternoons Nellie and Hallie poured a cup of coffee and worked through a menu and food orders. I loved to sit on a stool next to Mom and observe these planning sessions.

28. All the kids were basically on autopilot in the summer. We saw our folks if we got in trouble. We roamed the woods and swam in the lake. And bought sugar-laden items at the Snack Cabin.

29. One Christmas, my present was a new wardrobe for my Barbie doll, hand stitched by Mom. This makes me smile. I never had daughters, but I’m not exactly pro-Barbie.

30. One Halloween, I was a witch! Black drapery and a pointed hat fashioned by Mom!

31. The thing is this: she had seven children and every single one knew down to their bones her unwavering love.

32. She delighted in this story: the third grade teacher warned the fourth grade teacher about my brother. “He’s always reading.” The fourth grade teacher replied, “Great! I’ll make him the class librarian!”

33.  Mom had two older half-brothers and three younger brothers. They all adored her. On a 1967 family visit to Yakima, one brother asked her help by trying on a coat, implying it was for someone else. He then bought the coat and gave it to her.

34. In 1981 Curt and I moved to Klamath Falls, OR, about an hour from her half-brother Herbert. When I wrote Herbert and Hazel and told them who I was and that we lived in the region, they came to see me the same day they received my note. We spent several weekends with them. **

35. Mom also had a sister. Her name was Lenore, but everyone called her Smokey after a comic strip, Smokey Stover. Aunt Smokey lived in Portland, OR, and was very kind to (young adult) me. I never got the impression that Mom and Smokey were close.

36. Mom’s mother-in-law was a domineering type. Opinionated and kind of bossy. I was too young to witness how Mom reacted, but I think she just got very quiet.

37. Nellie was a good friend to many. Her house was open and welcoming. She was other-oriented and was genuinely interested in others. She fed people, hosted visitors; she opened the door with a smile.

38. In Lombard, we lived next door to Dan and Margaret Ball. After the kids all left for school, Mom would clomp up the back stairs to Margaret’s kitchen and they would share a cup of coffee and visit. Margaret’s stories are treasures to me.

39. I loved my mom’s coffee breath.

40. Two things my mom absolutely refused to do: worry and gossip. If any conversation veered towards gossip, Mom would stop the talk and  pray for the person being discussed.

41. She trusted that God would supply all her needs. They raised seven kids on a tiny income.

42. The only time we went out to eat was when a child graduated from high school. It’s staggering to imagine how many meals she fixed and put on our table. We did get ice cream cones on the way home from a school event.

43. Our house was comfortably messy. When we came home to a clean house the first question was, “Who’s coming over tonight?” That said, she made her bed every day.

44. An obituary: “Nellie Harper was well and affectionately known for her simple, spiritual witness…. She was a woman of marked Christian simplicity and transparency…. all [young folk] received a mother’s welcome and reciprocated her affection. Nellie was a fragrant Christian.”

45. My dad signed her 1942 college yearbook: “Dearest Nellie: This year has been one of the best of my life all because of you….The Lord has made me supremely happy and you enter largely into that reason. We can praise Him together.”

46. She was skilled in domestic arts. Sewing, mending, canning, baking, washing, ironing. She made a Spanish Cream dessert, served in fancy water goblets, for Sunday dessert.

47. Nellie did laundry with a wringer washing machine and hung the clothes on a clothesline. When the weather was nice the line stretched between the house and the garage. When the weather was not nice, she used lines strung across the basement.

48. She was tall (5’10”?) with big feet. I remember we had to drive a few towns over to a shoe store that carried size 12? (11?) in a narrow width.

49. We all took music lessons and necessarily practiced simultaneously in various parts of the house. The cacophony! Mercy! 

50. Nellie excelled at studying her children and encouraging their strengths.

51. She was a kind woman.

 

 

 

 

** A tragic postscript: Herbert and Hazel Stover’s great-granddaughter, Jama Harms, 19, was murdered in 1995 about two miles from my house. I had no idea she even lived in the area and the family connection had sort of dissolved after Herbert and Hazel passed. It is one of the handful of unsolved mysteries that La Grande is notorious for.

 

 

50 Years

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I woke up this morning to my brother’s Facebook update.

Psalm 62:8 (AV): Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.      My father read this to our family 50 years ago after the totally unexpected death of my mother, Nellie. Perhaps the most important event in our family’s history.
I still miss her.

In January, Dan and I talked about 2018 being the fiftieth year.  FIFTY. years.

Somewhere (WHY didn’t I copy it down?) recently I read about a man in his nineties who still mourned his mother’s death who died when he was a young boy. I spoke aloud, “I get that.”

No one has ever told me “Get over it”  but no doubt some have thought it. Oh, my friends. Bereavement has no expiration date.

Grief is a daily companion. A few calendar days make it acceptable to press the un-mute button, to give voice to the grief.

My friend Curtis said yesterday, “I was raised in the soil of sorrow.”

Some want an easy cure, a quick fix; some hate feeling uncomfortable; witnessing affliction is awkward. So they rush the mourning process and roll their eyes to silence the sobs.  They avoid minor keys. They cover pain with inane words.

It’s a delicate dance.
Acknowledging the lament without permanently lodging in it.
Expressing my hope without repressing my grief.
Growing in gratitude while voicing my groans.

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Ecclesiastes grows more precious (well, more understandable) to me every year.
A season for everything. A time to mourn.
A time to be born, a time to die.

So this is today’s 50th anniversary plan.  I will honor Nellie Harper’s memory by imitating her. I will plant my garden and make a meal to take to some friends who just moved.

I often listen to audio books or podcasts while I do chores. While they enrich me, I can use them as a narcotic. Today I will listen to the neighborhood collared doves, rustling leaves, and barking dogs. I will soak up memories of mom. I will hum her favorite hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, while I push seeds into the ground.

I will have a one-sided conversation with her, describing her ‘grands’ and her ‘greats’. I will say how I finally like coffee after all these years. I will review new and old mercies. I will remember her smile, her chuckle, her sighs. I will wonder if she ever ever guessed how much she impacted her world.

I will pray. I will sing. I will plant. I will weep.

She’s Not Here, A Short Story

phoneThe young girl sat up in her bed, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, threw her hair off her face in one easy motion, and scrambled out of bed.  It was an early Saturday morning in May. The house was hushed.  With the stealth of a burglar she tiptoed down the hallway and carefully descended the creaky stairs.

After some domestic disarray, the ten-year old clung to the solid comfort of this familiar routine.  She turned on the stereo, adjusted the tuner, and turned the volume to its lowest setting. Grabbing some throw pillows, she dropped to the floor inches from the speaker, flat on her stomach, her elbows in the pillows and her hands cupped under her chin.

The next two hours brought radio programs for children.  Thirsty for story, she drank in the drama while the rest of the house slept. Midway through the last show the jangle of the telephone pierced the quiet.  Like quicksilver she jumped up and grabbed the receiver before the phone rang again.

“Hello,” her high childish voice could barely be heard.

“Hi! Is your mommy there?”  the other voice trilled.

“Mmm…no,” she whispered tentatively.

“Would you leave her a message, please?”

“’kay…,” her voice wavered.

“The chair she had reupholstered is finished and is ready to be picked up at the shop.”

 “Thanks. Good-bye.”

She replaced the receiver and returned to her position on the floor.

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~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The next Saturday was the same. The family slept while the young girl listened to Aunt Bee, Ranger Bill, and Sailor Sam. She took every precaution to listen without waking them.  Once again, the clatter of the telephone shattered the solitude. She darted to the dining room side table and grabbed the phone before the second ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello!  I’d like to speak to Nellie Harper!”

 The girl paused; she finally said, “She’s not here.”

 “Well, listen hon, this is the upholstery shop calling, and I called last week and left a message.  I told her when she brought it in that it would be ready in two weeks, and this chair has been in the shop for a month now, and I really need your mom to pick up this chair.  Would you puh-lease let her know?”   Her voice was a mixture of artificial sweetener and ill-concealed irritation.

 “Hmmm.”  came out in hushed tones.

 “Thanks, hon, I really appreciate it. You have a good day, now.”

~     ~     ~     ~      ~     ~

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A week went by.  The light was lasting longer, birds were chirping in the trees, and  school was winding down.  Summer had almost arrived, though the markers of seasonal change were little noted in that house.  Again, the young girl woke up early Saturday morning, crept around the squeaky spots and kept her rendezvous with the radio.

She wasn’t surprised when the phone rang; she answered it as she had done before.

“Hello,” spoken softly, so softly.

 “Hi!”  spoken in the tone of one eager to check off items on her list.

 They both recognized the other’s voice; they both had the script memorized.

 “Honey, look, is your mommy home this morning?” came the coaxing plea.

 “No.”   The single syllable dangled in space with nothing to support it.

 Exasperated, the woman on the other end of the line raised her voice.

“Well, where is she?  I’ve called, I’ve left messages, and still Nellie has not picked up her chair.”

She clipped each word shorter than a buzz cut.

The moment of truth could be delayed no longer.  The words that were stuck in the child’s throat, words that could not be spoken the previous Saturdays, words that were impossible to say, even today, were forcefully dislodged.

 “Ummm………she………well……..ummmm.   She died.”

 “Ohmygosh, she died? She died?  Your mommy died? What happened?  Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  Was she in an accident?  She died?  I had no idea.  Oh, honey, I’m so very, very sorry.  Oh dear.  I–am–so–sorry.”

 “No…..she…….just……died.”

The silence was more uncomfortable for the girl than for the woman.  She sensed the shock, the awkward drop, the conversational vertigo of the voice on the other end.  The ten-year old knew she would have to bridge the gap and end this call.  The girl found her voice and began to comfort the caller.

“It’s all right.  You didn’t know.  It’s okay. No one told you.  I’ll tell my daddy about the chair when he wakes up, okay?  He’ll come to your shop and get the chair.  It’s okay.  You didn’t know… Good-bye.”

She walked back to the stereo, turned the radio off, sat down on the floor and sobbed.

 
[Originally posted November 2006]

Five Seven

img022Five Seven. An unforgettable date. We may not remember Three Twenty-Three (her birthday). I don’t even know her wedding date (the year was 1945). But this day, oh I know Five Seven. The calendar starts fomenting emotions around the third or fourth.

I revisit my last goodbye as I trotted towards the car, facing forward out the front door, head turned on the final step as I sing-songed my farewell: ♪♫♪ Bye Mom! ♪♫♪  I see my father waiting for me at the edge of the school grounds, and I hear the deadly quiet when we entered the house.

Last night when I read about Kara Tippett’s family’s first event without her I burst into sobs. Have you followed Kara’s story? Her shimmering grace, her honest struggle, her big love. I look at her kids and I know a small piece of their story. The oldest girl, who will mother her siblings the rest of her life. The girl and boy in the middle whose grief might get overlooked, who will consider their dad’s cares. The youngest girl, the focus of concern for all, the girl who turned six this week.

Although Five Seven can never be the second Sunday in May, it is always in the suburbs of Mother’s Day. Sorrow scoots over and makes room for gratitude. For too many, the grief of Mother’s Day is the ache of having had a mom who couldn’t or wouldn’t, but clearly didn’t express love and kindness. Their focus is on breaking the chain of affliction, expunging the critical words, watching others to figure out how to be a good mom.

I learned the goodness and kindness of God through Mom. Sure, she taught us and corrected us; but she sang while she laundered, she cheerfully plowed through sandwich-making every school day morning, she wrapped her long arms around us, she prayed. What didn’t she do? She never gossiped, she didn’t complain, she didn’t worry, she didn’t fear. Sometimes she sighed, and I know she groaned. But she lived a simple, authentic life, a small life really, that influenced many for good. And she loved me, this I know. To know your mom’s love is a gift of unfathomable magnitude.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

Nellie Arlene Stover Harper
3/23/1920 — 5/7/1968

Mom, Migration, and Graduation

Nellie young

Mom was raised in Wapato, Washington, in a farming family in a farming community. Her father, a widower with two sons, married a much younger woman who had immigrated to America from the Netherlands. They had two daughters and three sons. Mom was the oldest.

Hers was a life of rising early, milking cows, doing chores, watching siblings, weeding gardens, canning produce, cleaning up. Evidently it was also a life of reading and studying. After she graduated from high school, she studied one year at Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles).

She wanted to transfer to a recently established college in Dayton, Tennessee, named after William Jennings Bryan. She was offered a car ride across the country—before the interstate highway system—, so she decided to check it out. Her mom was doubtful. She wondered how Nellie would pay for tuition and books? The admissions director had the same question, asking her what skills she had. “I know how to milk cows,” Mom offered. It just so happened that the college had cows but lacked knowledgeable milkers. So she was hired. She earned money ironing and eked out a degree with academic distinction.

She also met my dad, whom she called “Johnny.”  She wrote in his yearbook: “Labs, water fights, Gutenburg trips, Sun. Piano playing, Street meetings, Dr. Gregg, or reading together, I’ve enjoyed it all and been blessed by it. He has been extra good to us, hasn’t He? Ps 103 — Nellie. I Cor 15:58

It’s a wonder to me that Mom started in the Yakima Valley of Washington and ended in Lombard, IL, two states over from Ohio, where her father began his life. And I, raised in Lombard, settled a few hours south from where she lived.

I’m gobsmacked that this quiet girl took it upon herself to ride halfway across the nation to go to an unknown college. I hitched a ride with friends to go to one year of Bible school in Los Angeles. My plan was to establish residency and go to UCLA. I never stepped on the campus, frozen with fear. If I had but asked, a dozen people would have been willing to help me navigate both the mass transit and the admissions process.

So Mom migrated, milked her way through school, and graduated. She never knew that her oldest son became both a scholar and a dairy farmer. I imagine a conversation today between her and David, her intelligent questions and thoughtful replies. She would chuckle and sigh, “Farming sure has changed.”

Mom left her mark at Bryan. Reading her senior yearbook, I find these benedictions:

Your life has been a blessing and joy to us. — Eugene Rosenau

I’m unable to tell you what your daily work has meant in my life! — Cleo Graham

I’ll never forget what a friend in need you were. Knowing you has really enriched my life. —Dorothy Borror

I’ll never forget your beautiful smiles. — Delbert Baker

Thanks for letting me sleep in your bed overnights-even if there were stones in it! I could never tell you what a blessing you’ve been to me this year. I really enjoyed my frequent visits to your rooms. — Miriam Levengood

Years later, I’ve been told, Mom was in the throes of a nursing baby, dirty diapers, hungry toddlers, and active preschoolers. My dad arrived home, scooped up a child, and asked the most pressing question on his mind: “Did you study your Greek today?”

Yesterday, on the (46th!) anniversary of her death, I talked to my husband about my mom. A sob caught in my throat, and I admitted, “I still miss her.” He nodded and said, “One day you’ll never have to miss her again.”

Never Used to Your Absence

Nellie Harper 3/23/20 – 5/7/1968

 

My mom’s death from an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder was sudden. There were no good-byes other than a casual “bye, Mom!” tossed over the shoulder as I left the house.

As I re-read some of her letters, I notice how she said good-bye to my dad, a college professor teaching in another state. And, these many years later, she continues to instruct me.

 

 

I miss you here – really seems lonesome without you – just a few weeks like we had in Sept. spoils me.  But since I love you so much I know that it will always be that way – I don’t get used to you being away, I just wait for you to come home.

Je t’aime beaucoup, beaucoup…

Now I must close – surely do miss you.  Guess I didn’t write partly because I was just too lonesome and didn’t want to sound too sad.  Those spells come when I feel as though I just have to see you, and anticipating a week end without you seems too much.  I just must not think ahead to weekends but take each day as it comes.  And the thought of you using so much time and energy and losing out on your studies just to come home doesn’t cheer me any either.  All in all it is not the most satisfactory situation, but it is the best one for us now or else the Lord would change it, of that I’m sure.

Must close for now.  I do love you and, like Danny, I often would like to give up because “I want you”.  But because of you I take heart and strive to do a good job here.

But we’ll keep on in our feeble way.

I love you and I just can’t get used to having you gone so much — howbeit the Lord has given joy and peace just to know that you are busy for Him.

Time to close — wish you were here to talk to instead of writing. Take care of yourself these busy days. We love you and your name is mentioned ump-teen times a day. I’m learning that when you really love a person you never get used to having him gone — it gets worse instead of easier. Hurry up, summer!

I love you and miss you so much. I would like to have a week or so together with no other responsibility but to catch up on all we’ve missed this winter. But we can only dream of such a time with all the cares of this world upon us.

Like Jimmy says “Daddy can fix anything.” But it is not primarily a handy man that I need here, but to have your love and fellowship in person.

Oh, Mom. I remember you. Forty-five years it has been and I continue to note your absence. I wish that your daughters-in-law, your sons-in-law, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren—every one of them—could know you the way my brothers and sisters and I know you. I wish I could call you on the phone and exclaim today’s good news: the next baby is a GIRL!! I can hear your chuckle at my exuberant joy.

Your letters inspire me. I can take heart and strive to imitate you, to become a Nellie Harper to my people. Thank you for pouring yourself out for us, for giving us yourself, day after day after day. Thank you for being the best mom ever.

Always yours,

Carol

 

Other May 7th posts:
Dear Mom
A Reduction of Tears
Lighthearted on a Heavy Day
May 7, 1968
She’s Not Here

Letters from Mom

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Even though we are separated by that grand canyon between mortality and immortality, our love for you continues. You left an enduring imprint on us. We all have ways that embody Nellie Harper. Your kindness is part of each of our DNA. It would be fun to tell you about the kindness of your children, exhibited just this year. That quiet kindness abides in each of your grandchildren, too. It isn’t always evident between siblings (wry grin), but they are kind people.

We all have wishes.

We wish we could honor you, our mom, face to face. As the years accumulate, we see with greater clarity what we owe you. What was a given—your smile, your excellence, your steadfastness, your encouragement—when we were kids, we now know was such an immense gift. You shaped us into who we are. We all would love to ‘praise you in the gates’. To have you hear our gratitude, feel our hugs.

We wish our kids knew you…beyond the stories we tell. Ditto, for the husbands and wives who never met you. They get the trace elements of you through us, but we’d love them to know the real you.

And Mom? We all wish we were more like you. Sometimes that is the grief we silently share, more than missing you. Your wisdom: your sweet, practical wisdom. Your generosity. Your faith. You made such an impact on more than one community. You were extraordinary in such an ordinary way.

We’re getting together for Anne’s wedding soon. A large, unruly, talkative, loud crowd of relatives. It will be a great time.

It always comes round to thanksgiving. The hollow years without you can’t compare to the full years of having you. You filled us up; you fed us; you nurtured us; you made each of us know how special we were to you. The tears have slowed to a tiny trickle. We all get throat-lumpy in May. But it is thanksgiving that we feel in the end. Another of your legacies is the lack of bitterness in your children.

Mom. We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Carol, for all of us