I wish I could say straightaway that my mother was an original, that she had remarkable insight into the issues of her day, that she served in the Peace Corps and loved to snowshoe, that she once toured the country as a green-eyed ballerina.
But I can’t. My mother was not an original. She was born and she grew up. She married, loved her husband, had children, loved her children, grew ill, grew old, died. There is a story in this sequence of events, a worthy and beautiful story, to be sure, but in large part it’s the old and often-told story of reflection. For to see my mother was to see who or what she stood next to. Invisibility was my mother’s gift. She was a natural. She disappeared as her personality and life journey dictated almost every day of her life.
Janet was my mother’s name. She was the second-oldest daughter of Irvin and Mary Martin, late of Pinola, Pennsylvania. Irvin, who died old, was a haphazard Mennonite farmer. He mostly wanted to go fishing. Mary, who died young, walked with a wooden leg. Ruth, the incoming step-mother, made the best of life with Irvin and his kids, and my mother came to respect her for that fact.
My mother had a handful of stories from her childhood that she told over and over. Anecdotes would be a better word for them. Quick snippets about being poor. Like how she and her brother Lester walked to the store for a single piece of gum, which they shared, one chewing for awhile, then the other; how her mother sewed burlap feed sacks into dresses for her and her sisters; or how dreadful it was to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the loose town girls at the dress factory where she went to work at fifteen.
There are two photos in our family photo collection of my mother as a teenager. In each she appears rigid and unhappy: her shoulders are thrust back, her back is unnaturally straight, and her arms push down through to the ends of her fingers as if forced. And because she was a Mennonite girl, her hair is pulled back and gathered under her prayer veiling, and she is wearing a traditional dark-colored Mennonite dress with cape. She wears glasses. She stares at the camera, but not entirely. Something separates her from the viewer.
As a boy I sometimes went looking for these two photos knowing that they would make me uncomfortable. They seemed invalid, untrue. They made my mother look cold, and I never knew her to be cold. Never once. She was warm and soft, something I knew on account of the countless times I slept on her shoulder during our drives home from church. The heat from the heater would warm my legs, and the soft of her forearm would warm my head. When she softly hummed the hymns we had earlier sung from the pews, I would follow along in the dark and quiet. When I woke, we were home.
My father’s name was Adin, and he and my mother were married in 1944. He was 19, a farm boy, she was 18. Their first home was on a farm they rented not far from the farms they grew up on. It took my father two years to buy his own farm, a few more years to buy a bigger one. This second farm featured a tall concrete silo, the tallest of any such silo in the state. My father was proud of his silo. He talked of it his entire life.
My mother, however, never mentioned the silo. But I believe she, too, was proud of it, if in a different way. Because she was proud of my father. She was proud of everything he did and everything he said. My father, who was as short as his silo was tall, had the energy of the sun. And he put his energy into pursuing tall silos, literally and metaphorically, his entire life. My father’s energy was the main reason my mother was never seen. She was lost in its glare. The fact that she was two inches taller than he was did little to help her show through.
Life on Adin Frey’s second farm through the 1950’s was good. The template of Frey/American progress was established and consistently followed. Old barns were pulled down and new ones built, tractors were bought and sold, a straight, white, rail fence ran the length of the farm’s lane. There was much procreation—on the farm, turkeys and cows; in the home, children: Eugene, Robert, Linda, Fern, Miriam, Wilmer. And a still-born child never spoken of.
There were many Mennonite farm families in the surrounding area, and on Sunday afternoons directly after church, two or three of these families would often show up at our home for dinner. With the exception of deciding on who exactly to invite (my father weighed in heavily on this decision and also on who would be asked to give the blessing), my mother managed the entire operation. She and my sisters added additional boards to the table the night before, arranged the fancy plates and silverware, and unfolded my mother’s good Sunday apron and hung it from a hook.
As conservative Mennonite farmers eat mostly meat and potatoes, my mother’s Sunday dinners featured just that—roast beef and mashed potatoes, with maybe creamed corn or shelled peas as sides. For dessert, she served rice pudding, or molded Jello, or something called “Dirt Dessert.” It was humble fare by a humble woman for humble people. But then my mother’s only real interest in food was that it never be wasted. Food as a means of self-expression was not something she would have understood or appreciated.
When the Sunday meal was almost ready, my mother would call in my father to cut the roast, and, the roast cut, he would call in the men from the living room. And for the length of the meal, my mother refused to sit down. Only in the minutes before dessert was started would she lean over the table and take a bit of roast beef without gravy and sit uncomfortably in her chair.
After dinner, the men gathered again in the living room, and the ladies, having cleaned the kitchen, made their circle there. In good weather, the men and women moved outside to sit separately on the porch. One of my favorite memories of my mother is hearing her Sunday-afternoon laughter coming from the ladies’ circle. My mother was always pleased to laugh, and she was good at it. Her contribution rose naturally out from her good-natured disposition like pure tap water. While it never rose significantly above the ladies’ collective laughter like Vera Eby’s or Ethal Strite’s did, it was present. It added. My mother’s quick laugh helped our community find and appreciate our home.
The above-mentioned still-born—that child, a girl, was not the only topic that went unmentioned in our home. There were quite a few unmentioned topics. And not surprisingly, the most telling of them was the most disconcerting: The fact of my mother’s regular and lifelong seizures. In the kitchen, in the turkey barn, in the church pew, in the shoe section of Newberry’s Five and Dime—we Freys would be living our Mennonite lives and suddenly out from my mother’s mouth—her tongue. Flat, pink, slowly, slipping out and back like a snake’s.
When my mother’s tongue appeared, time stopped. My father stopped it. He did this by instinctively reaching for her arm, leading her aside, and then staring dumbly at the floor. He did not move, comment, comfort, request assistance, or look elsewhere. He appeared not to breathe.
But somehow he knew when they were over. My mother’s seizures could last sometimes as long as several minutes, yet my father always knew. And when they were over, it was over. My father had erased it. That’s why we never talked about my mother’s seizures. My father’s method of response made it such that there was nothing whatsoever to talk about.
Sometime in the late 1960’s, my mother lost control of our car as she was exiting off Pennsylvania Interstate 81. It was mid-afternoon, she was alone, and she was driving 60 mph. As a result of the accident, she was hospitalized for several weeks.
News of the accident spread quickly, of course, and for those who knew of my mother’s affliction, the news prompted an immediate question about cause, an either/or question that went as follows:
- a) Had Janet fallen asleep?
- b) Had Janet had a …?
After time proved that my mother was not only living, but that she was living without any trace of her former seizures, a new either/or question emerged, one that centered on the miraculous. This second question went like this:
Which miracle best exemplifies God’s wondrous kindness as manifested in the life of Janet Frey?
- a) The fact of her survival.
- b) The fact of her seizure-free life.
After the miracle of my mother’s survival and healing, it was okay to talk quietly about her seizures. But still, I have no memory of hearing my mother using the word.
The Mennonite tradition into which my mother was born dates to the Reformation. Her family’s Mennonite tradition dates to the late 1700’s, which is the beginning point of their genealogical record. The Martins were of the conservative branch of the Mennonite Church, as were the Freys, and when my mother and father married, they continued the tradition as they had inherited it.
Conservative Mennonites are preoccupied with dress. They hold that believers (male and female) should dress in a way that clearly separates them from the world, and that female believers should dress in a way that clearly shows their willful subordination to males and/or their husbands and that eliminates the influence of the female body.
So it was that my mother wore every day and night a white-gauze pray veiling or bonnet with two attending, narrow, ribbon-like strings that fell across her breast; plain, dark-colored dresses (with cape) that dropped to below her knees; dark woolen or nylon hose; and plain dark shoes. A black variation on this theme was worn on Sundays.
My mother never wore socks, pants, jewelry, or make-up. When it was exceedingly cold, she would sometimes wear a pair of my father’s pants under her dress.
In the mid-1960’s, the Mennonite church that my family attended underwent a congregational split. More liberal-thinking members went one way, more conservative-thinking members another. My parents sided with the liberals (my father served as their leader), a fact that gradually lessened the severity of my mother’s dress. The Mennonite look that she presented at the end of her life was quite different from that which she presented when I was a boy.
Years later my mother would say that she and my father had not always been correct about church doctrine. She hinted that they had said words and felt thoughts that they regretted. The experience, the painful experience, of the church’s conflict and eventual separation had taught her this, she said.
And in the context of her revelation, she would sometimes quote a verse that my father often quoted: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
In 1960, my father added an adjoining 150 acre farm to the one he owned, moved my mother and my five siblings into the new farm’s old farmhouse, built a few barns, a retail store building, and erected a sign by the road to explain it all. The sign’s two lines read: Frey’s Farm Dairy. From The Cow To You. Under the text was a large black and white illustration of a Holstein cow.
Frey’s Farm Dairy was a jugging dairy, which means my father pasteurized, bottled, and retailed his cows’ milk directly on and from his farm. Neighbors were his first customers, then people from our town, and in a year or so, people from many surrounding towns. My mother helped in the store early on, but fronting the business as clerk or otherwise was something she never understood.
As the dairy grew and expanded, my father grew noticeably proud. He was pleased to see his picture in the local paper. He was pleased to be seen driving a new-model, dark-green Oldsmobile every year. But again, my mother was prouder of her husband then she was of his possessions. When I grew older and often said unpleasant things about him and his dairy, she would always remind me that he was a good manager.
My father was for my mother everything her father was not.
My mother lived the last twenty years of her life with a gradually worsening case of Alzheimer’s. Her last twelve years were spent in complete dementia. My father tended to her until he died, as did my sisters and various in-home nurses. Year after year after year she lay in her bed and fidgeted with a corner of her blanket. She lost her mind, her voice, her mobility, her teeth, her hair.
During the early stages of her illness, visitors would regularly call, friends and neighbors from the days when she served Sunday dinners in the farmhouse just across the fields. But as my mother slowly disappeared, so, too, did her visitors. In the end, few people stopped by the house.
My mother, who died at 83, outlived my father by three years, something that secretly pleases me. She could smile at the end, almost chuckle. My daughter, Quetzal, who was three when my mother died, enjoyed helping when my wife and I changed my mother’s diaper. Sometimes when we were tending to her, my mother would fix a far-away stare on Quetzal and giggle. When this happened, Quetzal would take the palm of my mother’s crooked hand into her own perfect one and massage it with her thumb. Leaning in from the little stool she stood on, she whispered into my mother’s ear. She said that everything would be okay.
When Quetzal was two, my wife and I traveled to Pennsylvania for a two-week stay with my mother over Christmas. We wanted the chance to help care for her, and we wanted Quetzal to have the opportunity to know her as her grandmother.
One morning soon after we had fed and changed my mother, Quetzal came into the kitchen with an old rag doll she had found, one I remembered from my childhood. Showing us first the doll and then glancing into the living room where her grandmother lay sleeping, she said:
“I can’t wait until Grandma is old enough to talk.”