Late in her life, when she was reminiscing about the past, my mother once referred to the two years she spent at Asbury College in Kentucky as the happiest years of her life. She didn’t elaborate and, to my great regret, I didn’t ask why. I think perhaps I was a little stunned. After all, she was married for 64 years, served as a missionary, had three children, worked at a job she loved in the Messiah College library, had good friends, and occupied her spare time with hobbies she enjoyed like reading, knitting and sewing. Her children gave her six grandchildren, who in turn gave her two great-grandchildren before she died. What was there about the rest of her life that didn’t measure up to those two years?
My mother was a very bright, strong and resourceful woman. I believe she could have gone far academically and professionally. She was the first of her family to graduate from college. After attending Beulah College in Upland, California for high school and two years of college, she worked as a housekeeper in wealthy people’s homes to earn money to continue, and then she traveled almost the whole way across the country to Asbury College for her last two years. She graduated with a degree in zoology in 1937, at age 25. When I once asked her why she decided to go to Asbury, she said she wanted to get away and go where no one knew her.
So I’ve tried to figure out why she felt the need to get away and why those two years were so happy. What was there about being in an environment where no one knew her, completely away from her plain Brethren in Christ upbringing, that was so important and satisfying for her? It’s made me wonder what she might have done with her life had she not returned home to California after college, taken a teaching job at our church college, and met my dad. Part of the streak of independence that took her to Kentucky seemed to end when she married in 1939, settled into being a wife and mother, and followed my dad’s call to the mission field, first in Saskatchewan and then Africa.
My mother was the oldest of six children, all born in a little more than nine years (October 1911 to December 1920). She used to talk about how there were always babies around, and I got the impression that because she often had to help out with the babies, she sometimes wished there weren’t so many. My grandmother was seriously ill with tuberculosis for a time, so a lot of childcare responsibilities probably fell on my mother even though the youngest three were farmed out to church families during the worst of her illness. The family moved from Kansas to southern California when my mother was 12 in part to find a better climate for my grandmother’s health. In California, my mother went to our denominational high school for four years, plus another two years at the denominational junior college, all in the same town in which she was living. By the time she finished junior college and had earned enough money to continue her college education, she must have been ready for something completely different.
At Asbury College, she was probably the only plain girl there. When she arrived, she didn’t know anyone and no one knew her or anything about her and where she came from. She was completely free (except for whatever restrictions her plainness placed on her) to do what she wanted apart from any expectations everyone else in her life up to that point may have had of her. It must have been quite liberating. She could simply be who she wanted to be. I don’t think she cut loose and sowed very many wild oats while she was in Kentucky (too many built-in inhibitions for that!), but based on what she said not long before her death, I think she enjoyed forging her own way with no one around from her previous life to raise eyebrows or pass judgment.
I’m interested in understanding the importance of those two years to my mother and thinking about what else my mother might have done with her life because I am a woman who has benefited from the more open attitude toward women’s roles in church and society than was the case when my mother was young. I have been in leadership roles in various places that I think she would have excelled at if she’d had the opportunity and the encouragement. While she did many things that used her intelligence and leadership skills (e.g., missionary, Sunday school teacher, librarian), mostly she lived her life behind the scenes in deference to my father. One example of how traditional her life ended up being was her concern that all my travel for Mennonite Central Committee domestically and internationally might harm my marriage. Dad would not have approved if she had gone away as often as I did during those years I served on the MCC boards!
My mother certainly never would have thought of herself as a feminist or wanted to be one. I suspect she was even uncomfortable with the word when it entered common usage in the 1970s – it would have been associated with things she either didn’t understand or wouldn’t have supported. And I think it took some time, like it did for many of her peers, for her to adjust when roles shifted and women were in positions of leadership and authority formerly belonging exclusively to men. In the last years of her life, however, she was pastored by women, both in her congregation and the retirement center where she lived, and I never heard anything from her but encouragement, support and respect for those women.
So, these days when I think about increasing roles and opportunities for women in ministry and leadership in the church and elsewhere, I’m almost positive my mother would be applauding the trend, and perhaps she might even be a little impatient with what sometimes seems like really slow progress. Of course, she wouldn’t be especially vocal about her support – that wasn’t her way. I believe that had she grown up in a different time, she might have been in more visible leadership roles. I’ll never know what she really meant when she talked about her two years away from anything and anyone she had never known as the happiest years of her life, but I suspect it had something to do with being able to be and do anything she wanted. After she returned to California, she settled back into a traditional life and never had that freedom again. Obviously, for my family’s sake, I’m glad she made the choices she did, but it would be cool to know what else she might have become and done were it not for the pull of tradition.
Special Note: Parts of this piece are adapted from the tribute I wrote and delivered at my mother’s funeral in February 2005.