Last Sunday we publicly said goodbye to the matriarch of our family, my 89-year-old sister-in-law Ethel.
She excelled at offering hospitality on many sorts of occasions, usually involving food. For more than 25 years she and my brother hosted Sam and me on our semi-annual trips to Souderton. Their place felt like a comfortable home away from home.
I marveled at Ethel’s ability to calmly produce a wonderful meal for 5 people or 35, sometimes sitting down for a conversation an hour before serving time. She and Jim built a large room onto the back of their house on Meadow Wood Lane, then bought an Amish-made table with many boards, so they could seat 35 comfortably.
In years past, Sam and I always tried to arrive in Souderton on a Thursday, by suppertime, because that’s when Ethel served dinner each week for her local children and assorted grandchildren. It was a lively table, with stories that sometimes got out of hand.
In their smaller “retirement” condo on Holly Bush Circle, Ethel occasionally invited people over for potato pie. On one such occasion, in the midst of a story way out of hand, Ethel called her two pastor sons “liars,” to much laughter all around.
Ethel demonstrated her gifts wondrously at Bethlehem ’83, a large gathering of two Mennonite groups in Bethlehem, Pa. She was in charge of an outdoor stand where people could pick up coffee and doughnuts on their way into the gym at Lehigh University, where the meetings took place.
Pennsylvania set records for heat and humidity that July. In anticipation, Sam and I chose to lodge in Jim and Ethel’s guest room with its window air conditioner, rather than in a university dorm with no air conditioning. We punctuated our 45-minute drive up to Bethlehem each morning with a stop at an out-of-the-way bakery to pick up dozens of donuts which Ethel had ordered.
They proved to be excellent glazed doughnuts, and people devoured them. But their eyes really lit up at the fruit cups which Ethel added to the menu at her own initiative. Conference goers gratefully carried the refreshing fruit with them into the sweltering gym. A few die hard caffeine freaks bought a coffee as well….
Ethel was especially known for her sticky cinnamon buns, baked in angel food cake pans. Sometimes one of her buns fetched the highest price at the annual youth group auction.
She was also known for her “funny cake” – a breakfast cake with a pie crust, then a thin chocolaty layer topped by a white cake-like mixture. Funny cake is locally famous in the Souderton area; I’ve never seen it anywhere else other than in the Mennonite Community Cookbook. At a Clemmer family retreat the other year, a teenage grandson won the contest to bake a funny cake which looked and tasted most like Grammy’s.
In one of my weekly phone calls with Ethel during her last months, I thanked her for her hospitality to Sam and me over many years, and marveled aloud at how calmly she went about preparing meals for many people, talking with them at the same time. “I could never do that,” I told her. “Preparing meals for people makes me too anxious.”
“Well, that’s not your gift,” Ethel responded. “You have other gifts.”
Ethel’s gift of hospitality included a natural welcome not only of family and friends, but also of strangers. An MCC international exchange visitor hosted by Jim and Ethel long ago became an honorary member of the family, flying in from California with his violin and honouring Ethel by playing at her memorial service.
Thinking back over my sister-in-law’s life reminds me to give thanks for others who exercise gifts I do not have. I recently came across this photo of a special birthday celebration for my Mom at Jim and Ethel’s place. Ethel created the kind of low-key dinner party my Mom could handle, inviting people dear to her. I could not have pulled off an event in such style, and certainly not from Ontario. And for years, Ethel hosted both a Christmas Day breakfast for her whole family, and a smaller supper including my piano-playing Aunt Esther, who led us all in a carol sing afterwards. Ethel’s gift of bringing people together shone.
I have been nourished in body and spirit by Ethel’s hospitality, by her love of flowers, and especially by her gift of being a natural connector with family, friends and strangers. And I cherish the words she wrote on a recent poster, which we’ve received as her motto: “Never give up. Things will get better. Keep praying.”
Questions for Reflection:
- Who in your family has a particular gift which you do not have? How is that person a blessing to your family and to others?
- Who has especially nourished you in body and spirit by their hospitality?
Next week: Spring Teasers