Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Commemorating 100 Years

Jennie Carlton Stellrecht lived her entire life in a rural area west of Spooner, Wisconsin. Born August 3, 1912, she was the middle of three children (Robert oldest, and Donald youngest) of Robert and Ida Nelson Carlton. They lived and worked on a farm five miles from town. 

Below is a piece that I did for a bi-monthly column I write for Plain Truth magazine. Other reflections will follow. (That piece, however, is now out of date. I say: "Google her name and she does not appear." But now, thanks to this free blog, her name does appear.) 

Tender Mercies

Bless the Lord who crowns you with tender mercies.
Psalm 103

1912 was a Presidential election year. During a contentious Democratic convention, Woodrow Wilson was finally nominated as his party’s candidate on the 46th ballot and went on to win the general election with forty-two percent of the popular vote against three other contenders (William Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs). On April 15 of that year the Titanic sank in the north Atlantic. It was also the year that marked the birth of the Girl Scouts, Tarzan, and Chevrolet.

In that same year both New Mexico and Arizona obtained statehood and the first cherry trees were planted along the boulevards in Washington D.C.

The most significant event of that year, however, was the birth of Jennie Carlton on August 3. She was neither a politician or a social activist nor a writer or auto magnate. Google her name and she does not appear. Yet she left a mark that I celebrate on this one hundredth anniversary year.

She was a strong, intelligent, opinionated lady who would have served well as a New Deal congresswoman. Tall, toothy, and big-boned, she might have been mistaken on Capitol Hill for Eleanor Roosevelt. But women—apart from rare exceptions—didn’t go to congress in those days. Instead she was a teacher in a series of one-room country schools until she married Percy Stellrecht, my father.

In my earliest memories she is working. She’s stoking the wood stove, checking the oven and watching over the kettles and frying pan; she’s stooped over in the garden weeding or picking beans; she’s feeding the ringer washer or hanging clothes on the line; she’s carrying wood to the basement for winter—all while supervising child labor with severity and a sharp tongue to match.

She had a near obsession with education—determined that her five children would graduate from college. Indeed, she would single-handedly, if need be, pave the way for her children and others. Her initial efforts began when I was in first grade at a one-room country school—my sister and brother in grades ahead of me.

After meeting with the superintendent of the school district, she began a petition drive to have our tiny school closed and the students bussed to the town school some ten miles away. She knew she would make enemies and she did, especially after she cajoled and argued enough neighbors into signing. For good or for ill, she was victorious in setting the stage for us five kids to graduate from college, though a tragic auto accident prevented her from seeing her youngest (now Dr. Kathy Stellrecht) from walking across the stage.

But my mother was more than a hard worker and disciplinarian and avowed promoter of her children. I remember her as the one we sought for comfort and relief—a sliver, stubbed toe, or strep throat. My mother’s lap was the place to be. And when I was too lanky for the lap, she comforted me in other ways.

One moment that will always stick with me is the morning I auditioned on my French horn, hoping to pass on to final competition. It was a good performance, with the exception of one major blunder. Work on the farm prevented her from staying to learn the outcome. But her parting expression of pain is something I will never forget.

As it turned out the judge permitted me to move ahead, and late that afternoon, with my best performance ever, I won the top prize in brass for the regional competition. I was ecstatic when a phone call carried the good news that evening. Her words? Now don’t get big-headed about it.

I smile when I think back nearly a half century. Memories. Tender mercies.