Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child … by Steve Clemens. September 2020


Losing one’s Mom would normally be hard; during a time of Covid-19, it is magnified because I wasn’t able to be with her for the past 6 months as she continued to descend further into her Alzheimer’s demise where she would rarely speak to us over the phone (if she answered it at all).


In today’s parlance, we are urged to “say her name”. To me, she was always Mom, to cousin Johnny, just a few years her junior, she was “Hockey” because of her “maiden name”, Kathryn Hockman. To other younger cousins she was Aunt Kay or Aunt Kas. I don’t know if she was ever a Katie or other derivatives, most just called her Kay. And, of course, she was “Grandma” or “Great Grandma” to a large group of offspring.


It’s been three and a half years since my Dad passed at age 95 and with Mom’s dementia it was hard to get a handle on how she was doing since then when I made my visits back to Pennsylvania two or three times a year. Each visit was bittersweet in that she would sleep in her reclining chair most of the time I went to her Personal Care apartment, getting up (most of the times) only for a walk down the hallway for her meals. Some visits she would only say a word or two to me (and only if I asked her a direct question) during the 2 or 3 hours I sat with her. Then she would have a “good day” and she’d smile, even chuckle occasionally, and we could reminisce a little about things 50 years in the rearview mirror. On those days she often could recall the names of her grandchildren and would even sing along to hymns that Christine had picked out of the hymnal she had in her room.  


Having left home to go to boarding school (by choice) just before turning 15, most of my memories date before 1965 with notable exceptions when I would return home (with longer – and facial - hair) during college years or during annual visits back “home” after moving to the intentional Christian community where I lived for 16 years, married, and started our family.


Although trained as a Registered Nurse, Mom left hospital work in 1947 after my oldest brother, Jerry, was born 10 ½ months after she married my Dad in January of that year.  Having recently gotten out of the Army after serving in Europe during WWII, my Dad met my Mom on the recommendation of my Aunt Betty who was a nursing student one year ahead of Mom. Les and Kay shared a large house next to the meat packing plant my Dad bought with three of his brothers in 1946. It was shared by Dad’s cousins, Arlene (married to Harry) and Butch (married to Arlayne) as all three couples started their families. Phil was the next to arrive in 1949 on Mom’s 24th birthday and I followed 10 months after Phil.


Mom served as the de facto plant nurse when we lived less than a baseball’s throw from the front entrance. Early memories of employees with cuts or other injuries still remind me of Mom’s nursing skills. When each of us boys reached age 7, our parents had us work before and after school, as well as the summers at the “plant”. It was Hatfield Packing Company for many of my early years before becoming Hatfield Quality Meats with a new logo and a “Smiling Porker” as its symbol.


Dad saw his role as the enforcer of discipline; I guess Mom was the “nurturer” but the roles didn’t seem to be rigid even though their theology reinforced by our church had clear roles calling for the husband to be the “head of the household”. Mom seemed content with that arrangement. Because both parents were raised in conservative Mennonite homes, Mom took to wearing a white, mesh head-covering – at least to church – when I was too young to go to school. I don’t remember exactly when she discarded that practice but it must have been by 1956 or 7.


My Dad was the Vice President of the meat packing company and my memories are that he travelled for business but not too frequently. “Your Mom is in charge while I’m gone; behave yourselves!” is a memory I carry. Less than an hour after leaving on one of his trips, I remember falling down the basement stairs without too much damage other than bruises. Mom seemed rather unflappable. Then the day before I turned 14, while working at the plant before school, I fell down another flight of stairs, broke my jaw, a tooth, knocked 4 other teeth loose, and cut my lip. When I walked home to get medical attention, Mom said she needed to get Jerry and Phil off to school first and then drove me to the dentist and the doctor to be stitched up. I think her calmness during my panic helped sooth my fears. She told me afterwards she was more concerned I’d get injured playing junior high football than working at the plant and that injury kept me benched for the rest of that football season after only one game!


I don’t know how Mom felt about me going away to boarding school for 10th thru 12th grade because it is what I chose after my Dad offered each of us the opportunity to go to a “Christian” school. Neither of my brothers chose to do so. Subconsciously I wanted to get out of the area so I jumped at the opportunity even though it meant going to Long Island with only fall break weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas-New Years weeks, and Spring break over Easter for trips home. When I came home, it was with my dirty underwear, white shirts, and black trousers for Mom to wash before putting me back on the train to New York. So, I think some of the difficult years of “teenage rebellion” were at least delayed by not being around much. One of the summers of high school years was spent as a teenage staff member of the Bible Conference Camp in upstate New York that my parents took us to every summer all during those pre-college years. But it wasn’t until I left for college in the fall of 1968 that my politics and theology sharply veered from the “straight and narrow” path I was shepherded into while living at home.


As a family, we were expected to attend Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday evening prayer meetings. When school age, we boys were enrolled in Christian Stockade and Christian Service Brigade as an evangelical substitute for Cub or Boy Scouts. That took care of Monday evenings. My memory of those years was that my entire social life centered around the church and the meat packing plant. My relatives who were not part of either group were definitely secondary. Given the age spread of siblings in my Dad’s family (22 years between oldest and youngest- with Dad the second youngest) and Mom’s (16 years, with Mom the third of 5), it was hard for me to keep straight who was a cousin and who was an aunt or uncle if they weren’t part of the plant or church.


The church we attended – not the right word – we “belonged to”, was a new spin-off from the conservative Mennonite churches of the area. The pastor, a recent graduate of a Mennonite Seminary, wanted to shuck off some of the old traditions while embracing a newer, evangelical style. My parents were part of the founders of the congregation which maintained the name “Mennonite” but never joined any of the local conferences but kept their independence. Wearing a “covering” for women became optional; wedding rings and other jewelry was now permitted; and musical instruments could accompany the voices while singing! While all of that appealed to my parents, their claim was the emphasis on evangelism and missionary zeal for conversions to their faith were more prominent reasons for them to join. Also, there was less emphasis on the traditional rejection of military service and the expectation that one would be a “conscientious objector” to war that probably seemed more welcoming to my Dad who had just returned from his participation in the US Army during World War II.


Gender roles back in the 1950s when I was growing up remained fairly traditional with an emphasis on a husband as “head of the household” and mom seemed to embrace her subordinate role with its “scriptural” justifications. At least as I perceived it. I can never recall any verbal or non-verbal dissent from my mom. When I returned from college having embraced much more liberal or radical “politics”, including pacifism and anti-war activism, I also had been strongly influenced by the rise of feminism and gender equality and a rejection of patriarchy. I remember a rather passionate “discussion/argument” with both parents over the Vietnam War, racism, and women’s roles one evening before my parents headed off to bed. [Actually they headed off to their bedroom where they always knelt on the floor by the bed to pray (usually together -but not always) before “retiring” for the night.] That was when I started perusing the extensive bookshelves they kept in the family room. It was there and then that I discovered hard-bound books: The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan and Fascinating Womanhood by a less well-known woman author. Both books were part of the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment movement and the especially vehement rejection of it by evangelicals led by Phyllis Schlafly. I had no idea how strongly my mom had embraced this movement until I opened Morgan’s book to see it was not only autographed by the author but also included a personal note of thanks to “Kay” for organizing the group of women that had apparently met the author in our home!


My parents understood my “long hair” (it barely touched my shoulders but was very long compared to the crew cut I wore until my junior year in high school) and my “politics” (anti-war, no longer Republican, supported George McGovern in 1972, the first year I was able to vote) as signs of teenage or youthful “rebellion”. I remember a heated (for me) conversation with both parents about Billy Graham’s support (or at least silence) over the Vietnam War and, knowing of their longtime support for him and his evangelism “crusades”, I told them I wanted nothing more to do with Graham because of his complicity with that moral horror. [It was about that time that I had burned my Selective Service (draft) card in the bathroom sink and mailed the ashes back to the Draft Board]. My parents didn’t raise their voices but strongly disagreed – and then, most likely, retired to their bedroom to pray for me.


It presented a theological conundrum for them in that they knew I was “saved” at age 7, baptized at age 12, and “recommitted my life to Christ” several times at Highland Lake Bible Conference and/or at many of the annual missionary conferences held at our church every year. We always had missionaries staying at our home or other guest speakers for these conferences. Yet here was I rejecting much of the “straight and narrow” theology of my upbringing! They strongly urged me to attend a rather costly week of meetings called “Basic Youth Conflicts” led by Bill Gothard which was a strategy conservative parents used to keep their offspring inside that gospel tent. (This was years before Gothard  stepped down after numerous allegations of sexual molestation became known.) I told my parents I would not attend them even though they offered to pay the more than $600 fee for the course.


After these (and other) conversations/confrontations, my parents seemed convinced that I had “lost the faith”. And I had – at least what I saw as a very narrow and skewed version of Christianity. I still identified myself as a follower of Jesus and, at that time, even an “evangelical” but that was at a time pre-Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s Moral Majority.


I understood that with my “education” and my various cultural experiences (living in the “inner city” while working with teenage street gangs, attending a “Black Power symposium”, having an African-American roommate at college and an Asian American roommate at prep school, taking two college courses at a Catholic seminary, and traveling to western Europe for a study abroad semester which included a visit to the Nazi Dachau concentration camp) would naturally give me a broader (and different) perspective than the typical rural/suburban evangelical upbringing that my brothers experienced. Learning more about the Anabaptist movement helped me better understand my nominal Mennonite heritage which was greatly enhanced with conversations with a farmer neighbor who lived across the road from us in my first 15 years. We didn’t talk theology and heritage until I was in grad school after my graduation from Wheaton College and Walton Hackman, that neighbor, introduced me to the thought and writing of William Stringfellow after we discussed John Howard Yoder and other Anabaptist theologians and writers. My conversations with Walton greatly helped me understand my own heritage and some of why my parents chose a different path for themselves; ironically, my path was one that instead tried to re-appreciate the tradition they left behind.


I don’t ever recall seeing either of my parents cry. Or get so angry that they seemed out of control. Even when my Dad gave me a “lickin’”, he seemed to do it out of obligation [“spare the rod and spoil the child”] rather than out of anger. I do recall my parents laughing at times; they appreciated a good chuckle but overall, they held their emotions in check – at least in front of me. Because of the three years spent at boarding school, I probably missed a lot of the interactions my brothers had with them – or, maybe, being the third of three active boys, they were worn out by the parenting prospects. It was clear they cared about my “soul”. It was less clear to me, in retrospect, that they celebrated me for who I was rather than what they hoped I would be. I think my striving to show them my more “radical” understanding of Jesus and Christianity was an attempt to allow them to embrace the real “me” despite my desire to break out of the “straight and narrow” pathway prescribed for good evangelicals.


In some sense I was really saddened by Mom’s Alzheimer’s – particularly her deepening into that “fog” after Dad died 3 ½ years before she did. It would have been a good time to get to know her separately from my Dad’s more dominate personality. Whenever we discussed theology, political perspectives, or even social norms, it was usually Dad speaking for both of them so I had difficulty hearing Mom as a different voice. Dad seemed to make most of the decisions and I seldom recall any strong disagreements from Mom – except in the latter years when Mom would often “scold” Les when he wanted dessert and she wanted to keep his figure away from that displayed by her three sons.


Mom and Dad were very committed to missions – especially, but not exclusively, those overseas. Besides hosting numerous missionary families at our house for meals during their state-side furloughs, my parents loved to plan their travels, especially after Dad’s retirement (at about age 65), around visits to see foreign “mission fields”. They kept a world map in the basement with pins stuck in, marking places they had visited over the 20-30 years of those travels.  I was happy to see their willingness to explore other places and escape the “bubble” of a relatively monolithic culture of their evangelical church. However, I’ve also come to view much of the more traditional missionary thrust as a continuing of a colonized form of Christianity which often fits hand-in-glove with US imperialistic foreign policy – both governmental as well as corporate. Also, as a counter-point to a boring monoculture was the choice of both a nephew and a niece to adopt non-Caucasian children into their families.


Living so far away from my parents for the past 46 years caused me to miss out on changes they made in their lives as I was changing as well. It also put our sons at a disadvantage in that they missed a lot of the “grandparent” outings that seemed to bring great joy and memories to my nieces and nephews and later their kids as well. They did take Micah and Zaq to the requisite trip to Alaska which was very appreciated by both parents and kids. Growing up so far away from, and in different settings (rural then urban vs suburban), left little of the close interaction with each other that their cousins on both sides of our families experienced.   


But that distance also provided a cushion against the tensions of diverging preferences of culture, politics, and expressions of faith (or lack thereof). When we gathered together, it was always easier to avoid certain areas for discussion.


Looking back, now a month shy of 70 years, and, having been robbed of the past eight years of Mom’s failing memory or ability to reflect, I wish I had treated both parents with more love, respect, and grace rather than the determination to assert my own independence with the ability of “speaking the ‘truth’ in love”. I needed to express more love, coupled with humility than the “truth” I had/have embraced. It is of less importance than my conveyance of love for them. Mom was only 24 years old when I showed up, a month premature with a collapsed lung, needing to be in an incubator initially, with one son a month and a half shy of 3 and the other only 10 months my senior! While at age 24 I was headed off to rural Mississippi with Mennonite Disaster Service and then to Washington, DC with Mennonite Central Committee – two destinations which helped continue to further the gap between my conservative upbringing and my desire to spread my wings with the help of my “radical” identity. I was 24 when first arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. I was 24 when I dropped out of Social Work graduate school to do “voluntary service” since I hadn’t been drafted into the military. I didn’t marry until I was 27 and started a family only after reaching 32. Now, approaching 70 in less than a month, I have much better appreciation and love for my parents -especially my Mom.


When I was “speaking the ‘truth’ in love” to my parents, it was because I wanted them to accept me for who I truly was, not an identity of who I was and what I had believed as a child. Now I can see those two separate identities were one-and-the-same. But living at a distance, I wanted them to love who I had become rather than the ideal of who I had been. Because I understood their theology as so dualistic - heaven or hell, saved or lost, faithful to orthodoxy or heretic, lost or found – I wanted them to be assured I had still “kept the faith” but chose to express it in some very different ways. I hope they grew to understand that before their final days. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad. I love and miss you. You are now my ancestors who my Catholic friends have taught me will be “praying and interceding for me and on my behalf”. And my indigenous friends have taught me you will continue to be my elders and guides. Yes, and even my evangelical friends have taught me I will be reunited with them in “glory”. Rest in Peace.


Julia Frost Nerbonne said...

Steve-this is an incredible testimony to your mother and your family; and all the complexities of being in family. As I approach 50, your sage advice about avoiding dualities is greatly appreciated. I think our world will deeply need the grace you describe. Your radical voice and your vision for a peaceful world is so appreciated. And even more so as I better understand how it was born. -Julia Nerbonne

Julia Frost Nerbonne said...

Steve-this is an incredible testimony to your mother and your family; and all the complexities of being in family. As I approach 50, your sage advice about avoiding dualities is greatly appreciated. I think our world will deeply need the grace you describe. Your radical voice and your vision for a peaceful world is so appreciated. And even more so as I better understand how it was born. -Julia Nerbonne