Mother’s Yen for Hospitality

Starting with her first public speech, Bessie King (Yoder) gave credit to hospitality. From her own parents she had grown familiar with having guest meals. Being the youngest of nine children whose births spread over twenty years, her immediate family itself posed an engaging kin group around a table. That the Kings lived a mile from Hesston College made walking easy for students to their home for Sunday and other meals; hospitality proved to be genuine. Her father’s being a jokester added to the fun. He is known to have said to the good cook, wife Anna as an evening wore on: “Maybe if we went to bed these students could go back to their dorms.”

To clarify reference to her first public speech: when age 13 she spoke on a Sunday evening for Young People’s Bible Meeting at her home congregation called the Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, in rural Hesston, Kansas. She and her friends had “practiced church” on their home stairways. Especially convenient, one girl friend’s father, a minister, owned a “plain coat” that Bessie donned when acting“the preacher.” Her text for her authentic speech titled “Conduct toward Strangers” in 1924 brought Genesis 18:1-15 to the attention of those present. From Abraham’s example of welcoming three strangers and Sarah’s preparation of a worthy meal, Bessie suggested: “We should always show hospitality toward one another without grudging and show love toward everyone, whether friends or strangers. . .

Her decades of hosting memorable meals in Iowa (and my father’s experience of drying lots of cooking dishes prior to guest arrival) continued until near to the end of her life at 102. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, a couple vegetable dishes and likely three salads plus a desert often completed her lists made in advance of meals, the list a proof of innate organization. In addition to bringing relatives together, she invited groups of neighbors, church folk, friends of her children, Mennonite acquaintances or guest speakers traveling through Iowa, people celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, or near-strangers.

Having been an adult women’s Sunday School teacher for over fifty years followed her college years of enjoyable debates and speech-making. During her later years she gave frequent speeches about hospitality. “Hospitality at its best is a fine art. It is an ancient art,” she said. During those events she remembered early years before she knew people in Iowa, when she had to experiment with cooking. She recalled an evening in 1933 when visiting an area church to hear a preacher from Tofield, Alberta, a student she had known back at Hesston in the ‘20s. After the service she with courage talked with him. “Sure, they could come along for overnight,” he said. Then she found out that there were six in the car. “With no time to think about the house being in order or not, we just welcomed them.” She added that, “True hospitality has nothing to do with pride. It has nothing to do with impressing people. But it has everything to do with making others feel welcome and wanted. . . Each of us has a home, be it a small room, an apartment, or something larger. In such space, we can practice hospitality.”

Duly influenced, I later preached about hospitality, a few excerpts of which I include here (also appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, 2020, 23-24) A divine being’s surprise visit to a person appears in texts of several world religions. In the Hebrew Scripture, three unknown visitors appear to elderly Abraham and Sarah. Gracious, he offered water for thirst and foot-washing and suggests that they rest while he garnered the “tent-crew” to ready a meal of calf, bread, milk, and butter. Warmth of welcome and deep respect is offered at midday. Whether Yahweh appeared in all three commoners but spoke as one, mystery pervades. Strangers no more, they symbolize being “members of one family.” After appearing and eating, the guests attend to their ‘task,’ their reason for coming. They report that Sarah would birth a child before another year had passed. That prediction made the eavesdropper, herself inside the tent flaps, laugh. The guests depart asking pointedly,” “Is anything too hard for God?”

The call to entertain strangers recurs. Thirty-six Hebrew texts remind hearers to “love the stranger.” To love the stranger involves basic peace-building, for strangers will be loyal to diverse faith traditions, promote views that differ, or speak languages as diverse as Spanish and Hindi. We choose to take risks and offer empathy when we make space for difference. We see anew God’s image in those whose faith, ideals, or patterns of love differ. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that if we fail in such common work, we “make God into [our] image instead of allow God to remake us into God’s image.” Self-righteous people might negate the stranger in today’s pluralistic context, or set a fence around her. Wishing to keep their own habit, I value what Martin Marty says in his book When Faiths Collide: “To welcome the stranger involves passing over into the other’s life and stories and coming back into our own [faith] enriched.”

Seeing God in the stranger we meet, or in a person who differs from us, helps us to avoid being arrogant, to limiting God’s inclusive being. More about the Emmaus event reported in Luke 24 might renew other offers: “Come, walk with us” or “Stay with us.” By the way, just where Emmaus was or is located has always puzzled scholars. When the Stranger asks what the two are discussing and why it matters, He lets them explain their experience, rather than correct them. The disciples continue on their spiritual journey; to let go of the recent past with the Friend was painful. We too are on a road to discovery. We too struggle to be patient when scripture is disclosed in new, less traditional ways—as the Stranger did while walking. In human form, he opened texts, saying that all of it must be fulfilled. Informed about scripture, they simply did not want to accept the “scandal of the cross” part. Perhaps their intense grief, or perhaps even God, prevented their eyes from seeing. That is, until he takes, blesses, breaks, and shares bread.

Remembering and writing about Mother has not been difficult to do. I wrote or compiled “A Story of Herman M. and Bessie King Yoder’s Lives” on the occasion of their 50th anniversary event in 1981. This story includes statements on varied topics from thirty-five friends and relatives about the couple being celebrated. Gifted then to them and us four siblings, I then on Mother’s 95th birthday reformatted the account (and added several family items) to correspond with a booklet of diary excerpts that I had prepared for her 90th birthday. Along with several photos that booklet of diary excerpts reviewed events and involvements that had occurred on each day of a year (July 28, 1996 – July 26, 1997) during the years between 1932 (when she married Herman and moved from Kansas to Iowa) and 1995.

From the age of eight, Bessie kept a brief, daily diary. Unfortunately, the record of her years lived in Kansas were not saved and a five-year span of 1967-71 is missing. Random examples of excerpts follow.

Fri. Aug. 2: 1942 Home this am because Elvin had fallen off manure spreader. Found out that Father (S. B. King) passed away around 7 pm. 1961 Of all things, the ceiling fell down in our front living room. John and Lewis helped neighbor Aaron with the repair job. 1973 Alvin (brother) phoned to tell that Emma (sister) passed away this pm. 1981 A nice group of relatives attended our 50th; lots of company. 1991 To Cedar Rapids florist to pick up my 12 red roses, gift of (station) WMT.

September 14 – 1946 I busy at Sat. work. Herman took the girls to Wellman for Lois’ music recital. 1947 Peter Dyck spoke at church. Herman took loud speaker system to Fairview (church). Dyck showed pictures here after church. 1951 Cleaned house in preparation for Lois’ party and slumber party (piano bench leap frog broke the chandelier?) 1976 Had the timber land deal signed up.

December 10 – 1946 Wrapped Christmas presents. Tonight we rolled and wrapped 750 calendars. 1962 Herman called at 3 a.m. to get body of Noah Kropf. I with Leroy, Nettie and Mary to WMSA meeting in Des Moines.

March 51983 I had my three workshops at Women’s Retreat on “Creative Hospitality.” Glad it went pretty fair; surprise $50. 1991 Spent time thinking about March 5, 1885 106 years ago when my parents were married—and the changes since then.

June 181938 Baking in preparation for company. Margarite & Junior (Illinois niece/nephew) came with Oras at 6 p.m. To Paul Snyders to see pictures from India. E. E. Millers came with us for the night. 1946 Picked peas barefooted in the mud—14 qt. 1995 Church/brunch & to Iowa City with Eldon, Luella & Rosemarie. (nephew & sister-in-law)

July 51934 This morning Paul Miningers came. Mary will sew for me (Nancy’s sewing machine) and Paul will help Herman 1966 To tent meeting; it rained & blew & the tent went down. 1993 Evelyn drove us to Wichita; Belle’s (niece) 71st & Belle/Forest’s 50th

In 2001 I compiled and edited an 80-page (full sheet, plastic-comb-bound) book about Mother’s Kansas Years 1906-31. She wrote most of the papers included, some focused on her main themes of Home, Church, and School like Class Presentations in 1924 and 1928, a tribute to her mother, details about her siblings, tasks as common as “House Cleaning” or speeches that she presented to high school students. I had taped both parents in 1978 about earlier experiences. She responded to a number of questions at the time of this compilation and her special friend Alta Keiser for an earlier interview.

My most recent compilation of Mother’s writing, a book titled “Talks” that Teach” from Bessie King Yoder 1906-2008, was self-published in 2012. In addition to an Introduction, these talks (speeches) anticipate Contents to focus: Central themes, Home –Family, Hospitality, Aging; School – Formal and Informal; Church—Congregational Life, Theology, and Bible Studies. For nearly two decades after 1983 she spoke in varied settings on “Creative Hospitality” which appears here on pages 33-41. She concludes:
I conclude with a paragraph from a clipping [source unknown].

In Mother’s diary excerpt from December 10, she refers to rolling calendars. When attending the Iowa Writers’ Week (Iowa City, Iowa) during the summer of 1999 I recalled in order to write about that experience from childhood.

Calendars on the Roll

Imagine that the date is fifty years ago, the month early December. For several evenings after dinner, my family would gather around the dining room table, perhaps adding a card table needed for more space. Our task was to wrap calendars that advertised Dad’s funeral business, to give to friends so that they would be prepared to keep track of days and weeks during the new year just ahead.

I in my pigtails, two thick braids that is, had to position myself to my best advantage. You see, my older brother, likely wearing his favorite baseball cap, and older sister could perhaps do the job faster than I. And we were each to get paid for the number of calendars that we wrapped. I encouraged my ‘tag-along’ sister, much too young for ‘grown-up’ work, to play with her wooden blocks near my older, demure sister, the only one of us children wearing glasses. (Several years earlier, when invited to compete with a friend to break the wishbone from our turkey meal, I had secretly wished to never need to wear glasses. So far, the deal was working.)

No doubt a radio station provided classical music in the background. Our dad had not had time to remove his green, striped tie that he had worn to the insurance office that day. We kids were so eager to earn. And Mother was still decked in her flower-print, bib apron. She was “in charge” of this operation. Different from her usual habit while working, she didn’t even hum while we sped through the stacks. As the stack of flat calendars diminished, the initially empty boxes filled with rolled and addressed tubes lightly tossed into them.

But what details were involved in wrapping? First, realize that the calendars, held together at the top with fine, slinky-like wire that didn’t ‘slink,’ were about 8 x 15 inches in size. We kids were all right-handed. We’d grab the next calendar from the opened package with the left hand, hold it right in front of us on the table, and roll it from the top. You could see the seven sheets spread like a fan at the bottom of the roll. But, too hurried, we never focused on such a detail. Instead, with a quick move, we next laid the rolled calendar—about an inch in diameter if done ‘properly’—on top of a plain brown wrapper sheet and rolled the two together. At the end of the cover sheet were two adjacent little cardboard, red circles, each about the size of a dime, with a thin string attached. In a couple quick circle-eight motions with the string around the Os, the product was ready to be addressed. This process may sound fairly simple, but “getting the knack’ also improved with more experience. We had to combine being neat with speed, for, we were getting paid.

Referring to her black ledger book of alphabetically listed names, Mother then called out the address for Daddy to write on a rolled calendar. To write in a straight line on a rolled surface called for concentration too. When big brother got ahead of us girls in rolling, he sometimes helped with the addressing. Then Mother licked the needed stamp for each ‘gift’ and placed it in the designated box. Since zip codes did not yet exist, the boxes were categorized by area town names, for the post office.

We children did other jobs around the house—cleaning, mowing the yard, or raking leaves—as part of being a family member, without payment. To actually earn cash, knowing that each of us would be free to decide how to spend the total amount was indeed special in the 1940s. A reward of five-to-ten dollars motivated us to compete in a healthy way, for a Snickers or Frostick bar each cost only a nickel then. So, how much were we paid per calendar rolled? A Lincoln-head penny each!