Monday, May 7, 2012


The year was 1918. Rita Shepherd hurried down the dirt Iowa road carrying her heavy suitcase.

Joe Nicholson dropped his shovel beside a post hole. “That must be the new schoolteacher! I’m going to offer to carry her load.”

His friend let out a low whistle. “That redhead is a looker. I’ll do it.”

The young men argued and then flipped a coin. Joe won.

He enthusiastically courted the teacher for several weeks and then discovered there was a beau back home.
“It’s either me or the other guy,” Joe demanded. “Will you marry me or are you going to choose that twerp back home?”

Years later, Joe told Rita, “God planned for us to be man and wife way back when I was in Kansas and you were in Iowa.”

Joe and Rita were my parents.

Daddy usually was a man of few words, but when he did speak, wisdom filled his conversation. Because he had a “can do” attitude, he could repair or build almost anything, and even during the devastation of the Great Depression and the Kansas Dust Bowl, he figured out how to care for his family.
He shot three geese with one bullet. He dammed up the creek in drought and irrigated his garden. One cold winter when they had nothing in the cellar, Daddy cut ice from the creek and stored it in the cellar. The next summer, grasshoppers swarmed in like clouds, devouring crops, even eating onions out of the ground. The family cow still had milk and they had chickens, so the chickens ate grasshoppers and the family ate chicken and ice cream.

Mama was resourceful, too, and she was the perfect mate for Daddy. Yet, she had fire and spunk in her that made her ideal for the mother of the eight of us—six of us redheads.

Mama had been to college—unusual in the early 1900s, and being educated added to her life and ours. Daddy might have had a hint of what it means to be married to a redhead before, but when as a newlywed he started partaking now and then from his boss’s illegal liquor still, I imagine that’s when he realized he married a spit-fire.

Following Joe on his way to the field, she located the still in a shack by the lake. She’d heard of temperance leader Carry Nation’s style, and picked up an ax. Grabbing liquor bottles and dropping them in gunny sacks, she cleaned out the shack. She stuck a few bottles up the chimney and dragged one sack full of bottles into the lake as evidence for the revenuers. The bundles she hit with the backside of the ax until every bottle was broken.

When the bootlegger discovered the devastation, he knocked on my parents’ door. Mama answered.
“I’ve been expecting you,” she said. “Sit right over there. You ought to be ashamed for producing something that takes food out of children’s mouths, clothes off their backs, money out of a father’s pockets and sense out of their heads.”

The man didn’t know what to say, but the next day Mom and Dad had to run or be killed. They ran, sleeping here and there, and encountered body lice and had to burn all their clothes.

Years later, Mama met the former bootlegger unexpectedly in another town. It was too late to cross the street to avoid him.

“Young lady,” he said when his eyes caught hers, “you ruined me financially, but it was the best thing that happened to me.”

Mom had a way of getting to the root of problems. She parented with gentleness and love, and she and Dad disciplined with firmness and consistency. We knew what was expected.

Although Mama always believed, when I was a baby (the eighth child), Mom had an experience with God that added power to her life beyond temper. The Holy Spirit so anointed her words, although she has been in heaven for 50 years, my siblings and I can still hear her quoting scriptures: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” “Love your neighbors as yourself.” “Those who won’t work, should not eat.” “Honor your father and mother…that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

You might expect Solomon’s writing from Proverbs to also be included in what she taught: “Wine is a mocker; strong drink is raging and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise,” and the motto on her wall, “Only one life; ‘Twill soon be past; Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

A mother’s words written on our hearts by the chisel of the Holy Spirit remain for recall. I wonder what words I’ve said my children will remember.
©Ada Brownell 2012