Muriel Kathryn Stang Adams
August 2, 1914 - December 12, 2009
August 2, 1914 - December 12, 2009
As we celebrate Mother's Day this year, I am thankful for so many women who helped to improve the lives of women through their work as activists and thinkers, advocates and politicians, writers and protesters. Among this group, I include my mother. She died a little more than a year ago, and her life (and death) remain close to my heart.
My mother grew up in a Norwegian immigrant community in Minnesota. During World War II, she worked with the Red Cross in Hawaii and there met my father. After helping to put him through law school, they settled in Western New York and raised three girls there. Mom and Dad brought us up believing girls were just as smart and able as boys.
During the 1960s my mother heard about the migrant workers who traveled to Western New York to help harvest our crops. The migrant workers and their families often lived in desperate situations. The Ruths and Naomis, the Juans and Jésus who gathered around our county’s threshing floors would often have to sleep at night in shelter that made few feel welcome.
Mom joined with professors and ministers and other concerned folk to move mountains, to make a way clear, to create hospitality. At times, she was a one-woman dynamo, working to improve the conditions of migrant workers.
On one occasion, Mom and a physics professor went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in our county. Each spring, the farmer brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant tomatoes and vegetables.
In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking.
By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks. The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner.
The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended far too close to the open flame of the stove.
When Mom saw this fire trap she was outraged. When she got home, she reported the problem to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.
The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw the physics professor he referred to my father who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained, “Lee Towne Adams, he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”
“Control your wife.” There probably could not be any more ill-fitting words for my Mom – untethered and unleashed was what her spirit was all about.
Mom and the physics professor went to meet with the Chautauqua County Department of Health about why it wasn’t enforcing the health department codes in the migrant camps. The health department man -- not knowing to whom he was speaking -- said, “we try to (enforce the codes), and then the farmers hire Lee Towne Adams and he gets them off.”
Well, that was the last time my father helped a farmer “get off.”
I actually met Bruce, my spouse, and the Executive Director of The Stewpot here in Dallas, through my Mom. The group that helped the migrants workers was the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry. And back in the 1960s, my Mom was one of the people who founded it. Newly ordained, Bruce arrived in the area in 1976. It wasn’t long before he became involved with the group, started working with Mom, and, that is how Bruce and I met.
At Mom’s funeral, Bruce talked about Mom’s years of advocating for migrant workers. After the funeral, a couple came up to him. They had been farmers in the 1960s and provided living arrangements on their farm for several migrant workers. They told Bruce, whenever they saw my mother drive in to see the migrant workers, they held their breath.
Before my mother died, my father, sisters and I looked over her obituary. I had written it several years earlier, when I knew her Alzheimer’s was progressing. They all liked it. But I felt something was missing. Yes, it discussed her social justice work. But, something, well, I just knew there was something more to say. I asked myself: how do you ever summarize a life? I thought of the arc of Mom’s life--beginning in Minnesota, heading west to Hawaii, and ending up in Western New York. I thought of how much love she had given to so many, and how lucky I was to be her daughter. And I wrote, “She loved deeply and well; she believed in justice and worked for it; and she widened the circle of compassion wherever she went.” This sentence I inserted into the obituary, and knew it was complete. With that, I went into the room where she was dying to thank her for all she had done and all she had given us.
She died the next day. The following day her obituary ran in the local papers. During the calling at the funeral home, a woman came to talk with me. She had no idea I was the author of the obituary. But she started to talk about it. She told me how much she loved learning about my mother through the obituary. And then the woman’s eyes teared up and she quoted word for word what I had added: “She loved deeply and well; she believed in justice and worked for it; and she widened the circle of compassion wherever she went.”
She said, I hope that can be said when I die!
It’s a good goal to have.
Originally published by StreetZine, March 2011