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
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
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
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
Reprinted with permission of The Forum.