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Ma

Catholic Banat Germans of Hungary at Hebron, North Dakota

Reinbold, John A. "Ma." Forum, 4 May 2004.


Everybody called her Ma. She would be self-conscious but pleased if she were here today, a year-and-a-half after her death, to have this narrative essay explain why she deserves this tribute. After all, there were dozens in her small rural town in western North Dakota who grew up trying to emulate Ma.

Ma was not born in North Dakota. She emigrated as a baby in 1909 from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her parents homesteaded on the bleak dry prairies twelve miles northeast of Hebron. Ma, during her first few years, lived in a two-room, sod shanty that her mother laid up while her father cut loose the sod with a breaking-plow pulled by a team of horses. A humble and uncertain beginning to be sure.

Ma was the third child in the family which eventually grew to thirteen siblings, one of whom died at an early age after toppling into a galvanized wash tub filled with boiling wash water.

When Ma was six years old, she was sent to a country school along with an older brother and sister. Learning was extremely difficult and challenging for them because the language spoken at home was German. Besides, they were often absent because their father needed the older children to help on the farm: plowing, harrowing, raking, shocking, threshing, milking, herding, and cleaning the barn.

By the time Ma was thirteen, she had gone to school intermittently and found herself "trying" to handle fifth-grade work. Embarrassing for her, she was already as big and strong as the teacher. From this point on, she had to be self-educated.

Then she was sent to work as a hired girl at the neighbor's place, where she did adult work: cooking, baking and caring for youngsters.

By the time she was sixteen, she became interested in young men whom she met at church or at the popular barn dances on Saturday night. When she was eighteen, she picked out a man who had come to this country in 1909 from the same homeland from which Ma had come. She married Pa in January, 1928. A vicious blizzard barely allowed the horse-drawn bobsled to deliver the wedding party to the country church. One of Ma's all-time favorite stories she often told was about the sled tipping over on its side in the deep snow. But married they were.

Ma and Pa set up housekeeping in a remodeled granary. Pa was an experienced coal miner - not a farmer. Children arrived regularly from 1928 to 1943. Ages ranged from fifteen to six months, nine in all. One died in infancy. In the meantime the family had moved to a new mining location where Pa had dug deeper into a productive coal vein.

Just as some success was being experienced, a major tragedy struck and changed Ma's life in one massive cave-in, deep in the underground lignite coal mine six miles north of Hebron.

The cave-in killed Pa on October 10, 1943.

Ma and the eight surviving children abandoned the mine and moved to town. Ma struggled as she took every menial job she found. The monthly welfare check was never quite enough. The older children contributed what they could in their meager spare time.

But Ma, dedicated, ingenious, diligent, prayerful, and loving, prevailed as all her children became educated in the town's public school. Her children came first! That's how and why everyone knew Ma. That's why she deserves this essay.

One by one, Ma's eight children, leaning on her encouragement, insistence, and blessing, excelled in school, academically and athletically. All but two went on beyond high school. Six became educators, three professionally. Ma understood the importance of formal education, she having had her schooling drastically abbreviated.

Ma's meager formal education was supplemented by her independent study and desire to do good for others, especially her children and her church. Because many of the ladies in the German Ladies' Aide were even less educated than she, it was Ma who "kept the books" of that group for years. Quite legible, well written, and mathematically correct.

When her children were about grown, Ma took full-time employment at the public school as head cook in the hot-lunch program. It was not unexpected because she had become a heralded cook and baker decades before. And for years Ma took "orders" for her well-known pastry which she baked in her vintage kitchen range and which she sold for "too little." But Ma loved doing favors for others. That's why and how everybody knew her.

Menial tasks that brought home a couple of extra dollars were sought and appreciated. Ma scrubbed, on hands and knees, the floor at the local drug store every Sunday night. Pay was $2. And Ma would eagerly await the fall hunting season (no, she did not hunt) when a bunch of rich guys from out of state would hunt pheasants in the area. The best pheasant-cleaning and dressing was right there on the east edge of town where Ma would do the job for twenty-five cents per bird. (But the rich guys would always tip Ma with a dressed rooster or two.)

A well-deserved honor was accorded Ma and her children in 1972 when she and her children were chosen the Knights of Columbus North Dakota Family of the Year. What a momentous, proud occasion for Ma and her children. The applause seemed never to finish that May evening at Fargo Shanley.

Ma, having lost her husband twenty-nine years before, never thought such a tragedy would visit her again. But it came in the fall of 1972 when the oldest child, a son, was killed in an automobile accident at age forty-four. It took a monumentally strong and religious mother to accept what she could not control. But Ma went on. That's why and how Ma was known to everyone.

After the children married and moved into the better world, Ma lived alone for many years. She began to fail in her 80s when Alzheimer's slowly ravaged her mind. Physically she was still the "tough old compassionate Hungarian," but the dreaded Alzheimer's slowly took its toll.

Necessarily, she spent her last few years in a nursing home. Her children were ever grateful for the loving care Ma received there.

On October 18, 2002, Ma died. She was ninety-three.

The heavy snow and blizzard two days before the funeral could not, would not, die not, prevent her children, her grandchildren, and her legions of loving friends from attending the wake and funeral. Everybody was there because everybody knew her. They called her Ma.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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