Reflections on a Mother’s Gift


Take yourself back to the late 1940s. Most homes were equipped with electricity, refrigerators, ranges, wringer washing machines, fairly efficient heating systems, and indoor plumbing.

But imagine yourself giving up many of these conveniences for a two-room house on a Wyoming farm. The front room is your living room, kitchen, dining room, washroom, and even bathroom, when the round galvanized tub is brought in from its hanging place outside. Your home lacks both indoor plumbing and running water. The back room is the bedroom for the family.

At dawn each morning, you kindle a fire in the stove in the front room with wood from the nearby woodbox, which your husband fills each night after fifteen or twenty minutes of vigorous chopping. On the stove you place a large tea kettle filled with water from an outdoor tap, then you mix a batch of yeast bread, to bake when the fire is hot enough.

Now that these earliest duties are done, you join your husband in morning chores, including milking the cows—by hand, of course.

Wash day is twice a week, and you have no washing machine—no, not even the old wringer type. Instead, you heat water in the boiler on the stove, then you scrub the clothes, diapers, and sheets on a washboard in a tub of hot water, using soap you have made from grease and lye. You wring each item by hand in a cold rinse and hang it on the long backyard clotheslines. In the summer, fresh line-dried laundry is brought indoors by evening, but in winter, you bring the clothes, frozen stiff, back into the house to finish drying in small batches on the oven door. Careful, they’ll scorch if not watched!

You have no refrigerator, but this high-altitude farming country, with winter seven or eight months of the year, offers its own refrigeration for eggs and milk on the north porch.

In the spring and summer you help with cropping under the burning sun, picking what seems like a million rocks from the freshly plowed and harrowed earth; later, in the haying season, your arms ache from driving the powerful, sweating team of horses hooked to your buckrake.

You have one convenience that is a treasure: a treadle sewing machine. With this, you mend and create clothing for family members, sometimes with fabrics from clothes, carefully taken apart, that once belonged to aunts or cousins.

I marvel at the way my mother began raising her family (which eventually totaled eight children) without modern technology to help her in those early years.

Mother’s household and farm tasks were more than enough to keep her busy from before dawn until midnight, but her efforts did not end there. As Relief Society president in that farm community, her calling was to minister to the sick, the needy, the discouraged, and the troubled; to help raise funds for the ward welfare program and to keep the ward Relief Society independently funded. So a good portion of her fresh homemade bread, soups, and pies went to the ailing and needy and to fund-raising projects. To help supply the country-fair booths and the bazaars that financed many of these causes, Mother would labor over quilts and handmade items year-round. And we children—at the time age six, four, and almost two—were usually at her side.

Service to others was only one example of the kind of love that complemented Mother’s homemaking abilities. I remember beginning each day of my younger years with excitement and anticipation. Mother did not make us children feel that we were a hindrance to the smooth running of the home; rather, we were a part of it.

Breadmaking meant we could play with some of the dough and cut out biscuits. Piemaking meant we could make our own pie-crust cookies from leftover dough and sprinkle them with sugar.

Mother’s desire for gleaming floors on scrub-and-wax days meant we could slide back and forth across an ever-growing-slicker linoleum floor on old sheet blankets. It never entered our heads that there were other more efficient, but far less fun, ways of polishing floors.

Being near Mother as she worked often meant singing songs or learning stories and poems, sometimes pages long. Along with the even rhythm of her treadle sewing machine, we sang:

“I’m small, I know, but wherever I go, the fields grow greener still.”

Going with Mother to milk cows on summer evenings meant we could eat our paper-bag supper on the hay rack where we originated many imaginary adventures.

During haying time, we watched the stacks grow load by load, with Daddy on the stack and Mother bringing in the hay on the horse-drawn buckrake. During pauses for ice water and homemade root beer, we laughed together at the weird patterns made by the hay dust in the lines on our faces. Mother was often too exhausted for laughter, but was amazingly patient toward the endless gaieties of childhood.

Each Thursday, after chores, we gathered for family home evening, where we sang songs, listened to stories, and shared our budding talents. Treats followed—a huge roaster pan of hot buttered or candied popcorn.

As I look back on those years, I see that, measured by some of today’s ideas, I grew up in “poverty.” Yet so far from poverty was my childhood in those most important ways, I must smile at such theories.

Poverty is relative to time and place and state of mind—especially to the latter. Poverty of the soul is the greatest tragedy, remedied by love and patience, song and story, service, optimism, and plain hard work. These were the soul-building qualities my mother gave to us as she practiced the art of homemaking for the soul.

Oh, that I could do that the way my mother did it!

[illustration] Illustrated by Lori Anderson

Dixie Lee Partridge, a homemaker, is teacher development director and Relief Society secretary in the Richland (Washington) Fifth Ward. Her mother is Clara Leath Henderson of the Osmond Ward, Afton Wyoming Stake.