We’ve all heard the horror stories. Or maybe you’ve lived through them. Remember the lyrics of that old song, “Mother-in-law” stating, “she was sent from down below?” Couples whose lives are in turmoil, miserable or they end up getting divorced because of a impossible, intrusive, meddling mother-in-law. Mother-in-law’s who assume, demand and insist on running (and often ruining) their son’s, daughter’s or grandchildren’s lives. Fortunately this is NOT one of those stories. When I reflect on the life of my mother-in-law Mag, it’s with deep affection and gratitude.
|Joshua, Mag and Adam at Lake Michigan’s beach. 1988…|
Mag was born in 1910. By the roaring 20’s, Mag was sort of a flapper. She loved to dance, and met Jim at a barn dance. This was after a painful breakup with another guy. Jim might have been a bit of a rebound romance. Jim and Mag were married on July 9, 1929, which was Jim’s 22nd birthday. Mag was 19. This was just before for the Great Depression.
|Jim and Mag’s wedding pic. July 9, 1929…|
They had 5 children, Eleanor, James Jr., Leslie, Arlyn and John. John (my hubs) was born in 1948, 18 years after Eleanor. Now that’s what I call spacing children! He was definitely an unplanned surprise for Jim and Mag. Pretty sure I was not planned on either. It happens. Both John and I were the babies of the families. But raised and treated very differently as the youngest. I was a spoiled, rotten brat. Period. John wasn’t exactly ignored, but pretty much left on his own by school age. John was cooking eggs by the time he was 6. Something I wouldn’t accomplish until my 20’s. And then not very well.
|Jimmy, Arlyn, John, Elly and Les. About 2000…|
Mag never learned how to drive. That still surprises me. I thought she would have found this way too confining. Not being able to jump in her own car and go whenever and where ever she pleased. But that life-long self-restriction didn’t seem to bother her much. It would drive me nuts if I were dependent on rides all the time. Like my Mom, Mag did all the saving, bill paying, and the doling out of monies. Meaning Jim got an allowance of sorts every week. If he wanted to have a couple of beers after work, he’d better plan accordingly. There was only so much in his wallet per week.
|4 gen. Lena, Elly, Mag and Carrie, 1934…|
My Mom did the same thing with my Dad. There wasn’t a lot of spare money floating around back then. Somehow though Mag always had a stash of mad money for extras. Often as John was leaving the house when we were dating, Mag would slip him a 5 spot on his way out. Heck, back then an extra 5 dollar bill meant 2 movie tickets, including treats. Maybe a pizza and pop at the bowling alley afterward, plus gas money (unless we were walking, which we did a lot).
|Mag and John. Visiting us in Jackson, Mi. 1988…|
Mag was a very hard worker. When the weather was good, she often walked to to her various jobs around town. I’m pretty sure she was the head cook at Valley Manor for a few years when my Mom worked there. She cooked for the Rock Valley Chamber of Commerce, Warren Cafe, Ray’s Cafe, and a couple of the bars that Jimmy owned over the years. I can remember John and I stopping at a building behind the Chevy dealer’s garage when the Chamber of Commerce meetings were held and eating with her afterward while she was cleaning up. I believe the building was or had been a funeral home at the time when my brother Larry was killed. His visitation was held there in 1958.
|Mag in her living room. My future lamp in background, mid 1980’s…|
When John and I eloped, we stopped in Rock Valley after our big honeymoon in Sioux Falls. We were on our way back to Sioux City. Mag’s living room was chuck full of stuff for us. The crazy newlyweds. Linens, kitchen utensils, and bags and bags of groceries. She stepped up to the plate countless times with the patience of Job in teaching me how to cook. I needed to be with her though when she cooked or baked.
|Magdalene Viola, 1914…|
Mag learned to play the piano and organ “by ear.” She couldn’t read music, but if she heard a song, she could sit down and play it. I think that’s the way she was with much of her cooking and baking. Maybe she could taste something, determine the spices and ingredients and know how to make it. If I asked about a dish, she’d happily explain how she made it. But her loose terminology went something like, “put in a little mustard, so.” Now come on. When you’re 19 and clueless, this could mean a half teaspoon or a half cup. If I watched her make a huge bowl of potato salad, (the best in the world) I’d get the drift of the amounts of ingredients. But she eyeballed most of the stuff she made. She knew just how much of something went into her dishes. I didn’t have that ability for decades. At times, John still thinks that ability is missing from my cooking.
|This is Mag’s Recipe. Deal-breakers are radishes, sweet pickles and Miracle Whip…|
Mag was an awesome baker and made delicious desserts and cream pies. Coconut, banana, lemon. I make a pretty good one too, but I’ve never been able to make them the way she did. She always combined and cooked the milk-sugar-flour and egg yolks at the same time for the pie filling. I tried that a dozen times but my filling never got thick enough. She finally told me to cook just the flour-sugar-milk and boil it for one minute. Scoop out some and combine it with the yolks, then add it to the flour-milk-sugar part and boil for another minute. Ta-da, my pies turned out perfect. But it’s always bugged me that I could never master her way of making cream pies.
|Pretty darn close to Mag’s cream pies…|
She knew how to stretch food when she was feeding the family. John told me meat wasn’t always served at their house for supper. Sometimes pancakes, eggs, or bread and milk pop were on the menu. (I don’t even know what that is). Whatever she cooked was tasty and filling. She did a lot of canning, like most moms back then. She had a large garden and Jim did most of the weeding. Never cheating like me. I buy all my produce at the local Farmer’s Market. John remembers as a kid sneaking down their basement to her canned goods shelves and swiping a pint of his mom’s sweet cherries. Eating the whole jar, thus destroying any evidence. Wonder what he did with the jar? I’m sure she was ticked when she caught him.
|Mag w/parents and sibs. She’s on the right…|
When our kids were small during the 1970’s, they would often stay in Rock Valley for a week or so. Most of the time at my folk’s house (my Mom did not like to share her grandkids). But John and I made sure they spent time with Mag and Jim too. Honest there couldn’t have been 2 more different sets of grandparents on the face of the earth. My Mom discouraged the grandkids from doing ANYTHING on their own. Walking to the school playground, or the Bakery, each only a couple blocks away. She wanted and needed to know their whereabouts at all times. She did plan and participate in activities with them. But grandma Florence invented the term “helicopter or hovercraft grandma.” Mag on the other hand, let the kids have all kinds of freedom. They could go to the park or swimming pool unaccompanied. In the back of Jim and Mag’s house was a huge empty field. My kids had free rein to claim that as their play yard too. Josh had a ball exploring their basement.
|Mag hanging out clothes. Jimmy on the trike, about 1940…|
I knew Mag for 30 years. I can only remember being mad at her once in all those years. And I bit my tongue and said nothing. She was kind and caring to me. On one occasion I drove her to Orange City because she needed to do something at the Sioux county courthouse. Afterwards we headed to a restaurant for lunch, then walked around downtown. We stopped at a gift store and she told me to pick out a piece of Blue Delft for my collection. I picked out a round relish tray. Only piece I ever got from her and I treasure it.
|My Blue Delft Relish Tray. A gift from Mag…|
When we moved to Michigan, we only made it back to Rock Valley a couple times a year. The year was 1987, and Jim passed away that November. Jim and Mag had been married over 58 years. After that, whenever we were ready to leave, she would stand on her cement front porch. Tears running down her face as we waved goodby. I don’t do that very often-yet. But the lumps in my throat are sure there whenever one of the kids get ready to leave lately. Part of life I guess. Getting more sentimental as I age. Realizing I’m not going to be around forever to wave goodby and watch them leave. Hard. So hard.
|Mag, tearfully waving goodby as we head back to Michigan, 1990…|
Mag watched Jimmy’s kids quite often. He and Eleanor lived in Rock Valley so their kids spent a lot of time with Jim and Mag. I think John and I were dating when Jimmy bought his mom a beautiful hurricane lamp. Mag would have that lamp on her solid maple tea cart in the middle of her big living room window for 25 or 30 years. I loved that lamp since the first time I laid eyes on it. Probably in the mid or late ’60’s. After Mag passed away, the family decided the most fair way to divide her household stuff was to hold an auction.
|Mag’s picture as foster grandparent at Hope Haven…|
I didn’t go. It was during the school year, so John went to Rock Valley alone that week. But not without strict instructions from me before he left. “You ask Jimmy when you get there if he wants the hurricane lamp? If he does, fine. If not, do NOT come back to Michigan without that lamp.” There were scads of people at the auction, but anytime one of the family members started bidding on something, others just stopped bidding. Jimmy had no plans for buying back his lamp, so John bid until the auctioneer shouted “sold.” I’ve been sorry since that day that I didn’t tell him buy the maple tea cart too. They did kind of belong together. My mistake. I do admire and cherish the lamp everyday. And have an awesome antique oak oval library table that for the most part does it justice.
|Mag’s hurricane lamp now resides with us. I love it…|
Mag had a sweet tooth like no other person I’ve ever known. She hid candy around the house, always claiming it was for “the grandkids.” Well she did have candy for them, but it wasn’t the good stuff, like her hidden stash. For the last few months of her life she stayed in Valley Manor, with a couple visits to Hegg Memorial Hospital as her health deteriorated. Whenever I was visiting my folks, I made it a point to visit Mag at dinner or supper time to help with her meal. I remember one visit like it was yesterday. She was done with her main course, and I was feeding her pudding. Butterscotch pudding. Every single spoonful I gave her, she gave this little groan of pleasure. Then she’d say, “boy that tastes good.” Every single bite of butterscotch pudding. Mag passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 1994, at the age of 84. She was loved by many and still missed. Remembering my mother-in-law Mag with much fondness…
|Mag and I doing dishes. Probably around 1976…|