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.