I have previously written about her death, and indicated in that post that I would someday write about her life. Well, today is that day.
My mother was born in 1919 the fifth child and youngest daughter in a family of eight. Her father, David Slagenweit, was a farmer in Morrison's Cove, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Cora, was what we would today call a stay-at-home mom. They named this fifth child Dorcas Mildred.
I don’t know much about my mother’s growing up years—just bits and pieces. The farm house they lived in was appointed as farm houses were then—no indoor plumbing, a summer house which served as a kitchen in the hot summer months. The farm had a dairy herd, crops to feed the cows, and at least chickens that helped supply cash. All eight children worked at various farm chores. During the Depression years, they were poor but never bereft. I do recall Mother telling how she and her sisters made dresses from the feed sacks they bought. At that time, feed sacks were imprinted with designs that made turning them into dresses not unusual.
Morrison's Cove Valley
the college has expanded to 4 years and continues to flourish.) The college president heard of my mother’s desire to finish high school. He offered to allow her to do an expedited program at this academy. As the daughter of poor farmers, she felt she had no financial means to go to the academy. The college president assured her she could do it. When she graduated, her final bill read PAID IN FULL.
I know that she went to public school, but when her mother became ill and could not care for the youngest in the family, my mother dropped out to stay home and care for her little brother, Davey. After a few years, she wanted to complete her high school education. Since she was older than her classmates, she hoped to speed up her course work and complete her high school in less time. But the local school would not allow this approach. The high school was quite willing to have her as a student, but not willing to have her expedite her schooling.
The church she belonged to had at that time an academy appended with the junior college it ran. (The academy has long since closed, but
While my mother was never able to continue on to get a college education, she was a very intelligent woman. She was self-assured, vivacious, witty—in short, a born leader. She also had a mischievous wit about her. While she was going to high school, she was about 4 years older than many of her class mates. Since she stood 4 foot 11 inches in her stocking feet, her diminutive stature lent itself to a presumption that she was younger. She would tell her teenage classmates she was 20, but they thought she was teasing. I can imagine she said it with enough twinkle in her eye for them to not know for sure whether she was teasing. . .or serious.
I think I should give you an idea of what my mother looked like. As I said, she stood 4 foot 11 inches tall. As my children were growing up, they loved to stand next to Grandma and measure themselves. They were thrilled when they passed her height. I don’t know how much she weighed, but most of her life she was trim. She wore size 5 shoes—noteworthy because when that size was the display size, she could get great deals on shoes. As a young woman, she had black wavy hair, twinkling brown eyes, and a hint of dimples when she smiled. She had a sunny smile, as attested to in photos, but as she grew older, she was reluctant to smile unguardedly—she didn’t like the way her teeth looked. I always thought she was beautiful—partly because she was my mother and partly because she was. As she grew older, her black hair turned salt and pepper gray, and eventually white. While she never cut her hair, it didn’t really grow very long, not much more than shoulder length. What was singular to me about Mother was not the way she looked but what she was.
Since my father was ordained as a minister, she was a pastor’s wife. She was also a missionary, having felt a call to mission work as a young woman. When my father first saw her, she was working as a church worker in a tent meeting. The ministers were John and Emma Climenhaga, my father’s parents. My mother, Dorcas, was a young worker who helped lead singing, along with another young woman. My dad had come for the weekend to visit his parents, and saw this black-haired petite woman standing at the front of the tent—she was wearing a yellow dress. He was smitten, and asked his brother who she was. His brother gave her name and also allowed as how someone else was interested in her. Whether or not that was true, my father, who characterizes himself as particularly shy as a youth, had enough courage to convey his interest.
When they got engaged, my father told my mother that he intended to be a missionary, hoping to go to Africa. So, in agreeing to marry my father, my mother was also agreeing to become a missionary herself. My father has always said that he was able to accomplish all the things he did because of my mother. She had many gifts—she was organized, she was a gracious hostess, she was a capable speaker. As a child, I thought of her as Wonder Woman.
There were some rough places in her life. After my sister died, my mother began to suffer various physical symptoms. Perhaps today, her condition would have been recognized as stress induced illness. But at the time, she was deeply concerned that something was very wrong with her. She talked with a missionary doctor, a sympathetic woman, who gave Mother some medication, likely a narcotic. Mother recounted that having that prescription, and also knowing that her symptoms were psychosomatic gave her the ability to shake it off. She told me she said to herself “Dorcas, snap out of it” and she did. She was strong.
I recall a time when my mother was going to a function at the church where she and my father were. As she entered the church, she slipped and fell smack on her tailbone. She was clearly in pain. But she got up, shook off any help, and went about attending the event. She was stoic.
One of her greatest attributes was that she could listen to people. Many people came to her to pour out their woes. My mother kept every confidence. And she gave good advice. I think she listened without having to judge, then gave people sensible advice that they could follow. I wonder if there weren’t times that she was lonely. A pastor’s wife, after all, can’t go unburden herself to people in the church.
While my mother was very intelligent, she tended to ignore intellectual issues. Our family loved to discuss and even argue about various issues. Mother would tune these debates out. She could also tune out general noise. Our family had a penchant for listening to music, or television, sometimes almost simultaneously. Mother could be in the room, and you would remark about some song that had played—and she would say, what song? She could simply not listen to something she didn’t want to.
With each of her three children who grew to be adults, my mother had a special relationship. She met each of us where we were. I was the oldest child, and probably had the least one on one time. My sister, the youngest, had many times when she and Mother would shop together or get together and bake. My mother encouraged my brother, and even helped arranged for several young women to come tea so my brother might find a suitable mate—oh, it’s a long story but one of those women did become my brother’s wife.
One time my mother said to me—“I hear that you think I shouldn’t be driving.” I looked at her most puzzled. Then she said, eyes twinkling, —“well, Geoffrey (my son) said you told him little old ladies with grey hair shouldn’t be allowed on the road.” Oops. Yes, I had said that, in frustration while driving behind a slow little old grey haired lady. When Geoffrey said that to his grandma, she said—“well, Geoffrey, I may be little and I may be grey, but I am NOT old.” Typical mother—she got double fun out of that. She teased Geoffrey about his repeating what he heard me say, and she teased me by reporting that I was saying she shouldn’t drive.
One of the last times I spent with my mother was a shopping trip. I had Presidents Day off from work, and suggested that we go shopping at a local mall. So, together with my daughter we headed off for a day. By now, Mother was tiring easily, due to a defective heart valve that she had. We walked leisurely, shopped some, and stopped in time for lunch. A special on the menu was eggplant parmesan. My mother said she had never eaten it (which amazed me, given all her travels). That’s what she ordered. At the end of the day, we returned home, having spent a few ordinary hours together.
Three months later, she had died, due to a hospital acquired staph infection post-surgery to replace the defective heart valve. Not long after her death, I had to drive by the mall where we had shopped. I could barely see to drive, my eyes were so blurred by tears. That was in 1991. Sixteen years have passed since her death. And, the keen edge of grief has dulled with time. We all still miss her—my dad (who has been fortunate to remarry a wonderful woman), my sister, and brother, the sons-in-law and daughter-in-law, and all her grandchildren.
My mother and me