|Uncle James and Aunt Orpha, at their house, last Christmas|
LETTER FROM HARRISBURG
The quiet heroism of motherhood
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MAY 8, 2016
I knew Aunt Orpha’s phone number by heart.
She and Uncle James lived less than half a mile south of us in the brick house that my husband’s grandpa built, back in the 1930s.
“I suppose most of you know that Nadine and Luella are coming out for the Kropf reunion,” she wrote in an email last summer. “Some of us thought we should have a Smucker get-together while they are here. You are welcome to meet here in our yard. I feel rather busy with five grandchildren here and would be glad if someone else would go ahead with the planning.”
She never used the prefix “step.” I notice that now.
I organized that “Smucker get-together,” as it turned out. While two of the nephews grilled, Orpha and I consulted in the background, her teenage grandchildren ran inside for more serving spoons, and we had a lovely picnic, despite the wind, out under the big tree in the front yard.
She and I also organized Thanksgiving dinners at church for friends and relatives who didn’t have any place to go, and I always asked her to bring her famous spicy marinated Caribbean turkey.
Orpha and I borrowed ingredients from each other, and they used our van when the family came to visit. She always offered me the last picking of green beans, and the children and I would pick them from vines twining up the carefully stretched strings in her prosperous and capably cared for garden.
It was easy to forget that Orpha hadn’t always been there. The most selfless people are often the easiest to ignore, and we don’t realize their remarkable influence and value until they’re gone.
We got the news from a deputy on the front porch, late on Good Friday evening. James and Orpha, on a long road trip to visit friends and relatives, had been in a car crash in Wisconsin. James was killed, Orpha seriously injured. The sheriff there traced the license plate information and called the local police, who went to James and Orpha’s house first, found no one there and came to tell us.
Despite desperate measures and the care of the children who flew in to stay with her in that Wisconsin hospital, Orpha did not recover from her injuries.
We read novels of people who reinvent their lives, stepping from one life into a completely different one. Orpha actually did it in real life. It wasn’t until the funeral that I realized how drastically her life had changed at 50 years old.
Before that, she helped raise seven younger brothers, graduated from a Mennonite college in Virginia and worked as a teacher in this country and as a missionary and teacher in Puerto Rico. She wrote elementary-level curriculum in both English and Spanish.
Uncle James had lost his wife to cancer in 1992. Some years later, a mutual friend introduced him to Orpha. Her brother quoted her as saying to James, “You’re as dedicated to farming in Oregon as I am to teaching in Puerto Rico. I don’t think this will work.”
No one knows exactly how it happened, but she soon closed the door to that part of her life and became a farmer’s wife, a mom and a grandma in Oregon.
She took on her husband’s life — his five grown children, the farm, friends, church, history and extended family. She even wrote for the family circle letter, a round-robin letter that’s been circulating among James’ siblings every week for over 50 years.
“I always read Orpha’s letter first; it was so interesting,” one of the aunts told me. “I hope it’s OK to admit that.”
It was easy to see Orpha’s devotion to her family as she embroidered pillowcases for the granddaughters’ birthday gifts and spoke in almost every conversation of “the children” and plans for a visit either to or from.
In more recent years, the older grandchildren descended on her house — six one summer, five in another — making it their home base while they worked in the grass seed harvest.
“She was just this bubble of love that took in everyone around her,” says Simone, a daughter-in-law.
Most of us take on motherhood and its requirements gradually, such as my young friend Esta who is expecting her second child. “When you’re single and you choose to do something unselfish, it’s kind of a big deal,” she says. “But when you’re a mom, it’s just what’s expected of you.”
Orpha took on marriage and motherhood all at once, excelled at it, seldom referenced her old life and saw no need to impress us with her past accomplishments.
I took her for granted, which is, unfortunately, what we often do to the mothers of our lives — all those unselfish givers who discard their own ambitions to nurture us and ensure our success. And afterwards we think, “Wow. That was really amazing, what she did.”
Immersing your own life in another’s isn’t especially valued or paid well or honored in our society. No teenager nervously asks permission to pose with a neighborhood mom and then posts a proud selfie on Instagram.
On the other hand, no mom that I know seeks to collect the recognition or gratitude she deserves.
The evening before the funeral, while the family was still at the visitation, I went to the house at a daughter-in-law’s request to pick up a load of towels and sheets because the washer had quit working at the worst time.
I found the house full, not only of the family’s suitcases and belongings but also of a strange, heavy emptiness.
I still feel it today — the loss, the sense of something special once there and now gone, when I work in the yard and glance at the brick house to the south or think about calling to borrow a dozen eggs.
We are not all called to be mothers, but we can all choose that essential selflessness of motherhood, the giving, the self-forgetful investing of our lives in others. The maturity this choice requires reconciles us to the truth that much of our sacrifice won’t be appreciated until long after we’re gone. But after we’ve received that kind of loving involvement ourselves, we realize how immeasurably it mattered.