January 3, 2012

Winnie Amacher Johnson understood

Yesterday would have been my mother-in-law Winnie Johnson's 90th birthday.  I hate to call her that because the term 'mother in law' is generally a negative title, yet Grandma Winnie was very dear to me.  She was nothing like the stereotypical nosey, rude and pushy 'mother in law.'  She was like a mother to me. 
I was always impressed by how kind Winnie was to me and to everyone with whom she spent time.  When I found out more about her life, I understood how she came to be such a kind and loving person.  Apparently, Winnie was always self conscious and felt inferior to her friends.  Her parents were Swiss immigrants who spoke German in their home.  During the war with Germany, many looked down on all people who spoke German, assuming they were German.  So even though Winnie's parents were Swiss, neutral in the war, there was some prejudice.  Winnie's older brother asked the parents to stop speaking German. 
Her mother was different than the mothers' of her friends as well.  Winnie admitted later, "I very seldom ever had friends at my house because my house was so humble I was self conscious about having friends come.  I was embarrassed about my mother when my friends would come.  My mother dressed differently and sometimes when we would come home she would be up gathering eggs at the chicken coop or she would be working in the garden.  None of my friends' parents did these kinds of things.  I remember being self conscious about my mother doing that.  And that I didn't have the things that my friends had.  Their families had cars and when we went places they would come up and get me in their cars.  I never had a car to drive—ever.  I remember feeling like that.  We didn't have much money and I was so worried about what my friends thought of me.  High school was miserable for me."
Winnie's mother dressed very old fashioned because health problems had scarred her arms and legs, and left her with a limp.  While Winnie's friend's moms' all dressed like Lucille Ball or June Cleaver in stylish dresses, Winnie's mom wore homemade, outdated long dresses with long sleeves.  And Winnies' mom braided her hair and piled it on her head like they did in Switzerland.  Her friends mom's all had stylish hairdos and knew how to curl and style their hair.  Winnie's parents were just grateful to be in America with the gospel.  They were poor but they didn't care.  Their lives were hard, but had been much harder in Switzerland.
Winnie added, "It wasn't a good thing for me to be with this group (of friends) because they all had more money and they were all much more popular than I was.  So it really made me feel less adequate.  But they were always nice to me and we stayed friends through the years.  They were the popular girls in high school: the student body officers, the class officers and the homecoming queens.  They were very smart good students.  I didn't go to many dances.  I wouldn't say I was popular.  High school was quite painful for me because my other friends were the popular girls who got all the dates.  I know it was weakness in my character (that I was felt so inferior) because they were always very nice to me."
Because of Winnie's experiences feeling less than her friends, she taught her sons to treat girls carefully.  When there was a school dance, Winnie had her boys ask girls to go with them who might not be asked.  She encouraged her sons to open doors for girls and treat them kindly.  But more than just teaching her sons to treat girls carefully, Winnie treated everyone as if they were special, important and loved.  When Winnie married, she had earned a college degree and had been teaching school.  She happily quit her job to raise a family.  So she showed her children that they were more important to her than her status or career. 
A son in law John wrote, "For Winnie, I do not know a kinder more loving individual.  She has always been my role model for sweetness and thoughtfulness and true devotion to her family."  A granddaughter wrote "I have always been very grateful for the concern and interest you have both (including Grandpa) shown in my life.  I feel very lucky to come from such a wonderful heritage where I can find so much love."
Winnie's daughter Kathy wrote it best, writing, "Mom, your love is a tangible presence for all of us, a great strength in our lives.  You, who always felt that personally you had no talents or abilities, have raised children remarkable in their abilities, each meeting life and its' challenges.  Your great talent is making others feel loved.  What greater talent could there be?  It is the most divine of them all." 
Winnie wrote that some of the hardest times in her life were when she was an insecure high school girl, feeling unimportant and unpopular.  But that time helped her to see clearly the value of each person, especially insecure girls.  Winnie's mom taught her that a day without problems is a day wasted because we learn so much from our problems.  Winnie learned that in her own experience.  Her problems in feeling inadequate helped her love and encourage others so that they (hopefully) wouldn't suffer from feelings of inadequacy as she had. 
We can learn from our difficult experiences and turn them into blessings. 
(Quotes were taken from Winnie's Life History, an oral history taken by Janice Johnson Stauffer in 1997, and from Vere and Winnie's 50th Anniversary Book of Remembrance, letters to them, 1997.)

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