This 1940 “steamer letter” is essentially a lesson in how to be a good mother-in-law: Tell your daughter-in-law or son-in-law what you like about them. Express confidence in them. Respect the privacy of the couple’s relationship. That’s what I see in these words of wisdom and affection from a wise mother nearly 80 years ago.
In 1940, a young newlywed couple married and embarked on a new life together in Alaska. They took with them some “steamer letters” from the man’s mother, Laura Lu Copenhaver. (See below for a definition of steamer letters.)
Later this week, Margaret Linford will share more from Laura Lu in another post. But this letter to a new daughter-in-law seemed worth sharing separately. Full of love, confidence, and respect, it completely defies all those stereotypes about mothers-in-law. This missal is a timeless example of the loving support mothers-in-law often show behind the scenes.
How to be a good mother-in-law: A 1940 example
“Lois, this is your steamer letter, as well as your mother-in-law letter. Perhaps, I have not known you long enough to be sure that my son has made a wise choice, but I feel that he has.
It might make you self-conscious if I tried to mention the things I particularly like about you. They are the important things, as I see it. I love the warmth in you, the going out to other people of affection and interest. I like your sincerity, the absence of snobbishness. Your poise which means that you are not always thinking of yourself and how you affect other people. I like your intellectual eagerness, your real interests in finding and reading the best books.
But, an analysis of your good points is probably the last thing I should be giving you now. I ought to be praising my son to you and showing his good points. But another thing I like about you is that you seem to appreciate them without any help from me. Perhaps you see him more clearly and love him more deeply than I do. That is possible. ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave only unto his wife so long as they both shall live.’ Yours is a more unselfish love than mine, perhaps. I do not know.
We mothers are the medium, the vessels through which life grows and passes…and such a long, long line of mothers and fathers back of us.
We used to read sentimental novels which talked of the nine months of pregnancy and the pains of birth, as if that bound our children to us for life. Since my own children have been born, I have not felt that way. We mothers are the medium, the vessels through which life grows and passes…and such a long, long line of mothers and fathers back of us.
“It is the mystery, the adventure that I once thought thrilling and I still think so. Shall I wish you both the deepest, most lasting happiness? That, but more than that—in marriage you have parted the veil of one mystery, but not of all. I hope you will both always have reverence for the mystery of life, of God, of man in this world and for the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
The e-book is available for free on Google Books, and appears to be one in a series of many popular domestic advice books written at the time. (Click here to learn more about using Google Books to find family history answers you’re looking for.)
Stay tuned for the next installment of Laura Lu’s letters: a Mother’s Day special post by Genealogy Gems blog contributor Margaret Linford. She’ll share Laura Lu’s fantastic advice to the newlywed couple on how to have a great marriage—and her own memories of becoming a mother.
Meanwhile, will you help us spread this supportive message by sharing it via social media? Thanks! You’re a gem.
Some family Christmas traditions carry over easily from generation to generation, and some don’t. Here’s one tradition I tried passing on to my children, and how it has played out. It reminds me that traditions themselves can be unexpected–which ones have staying power and how each generation reshapes heritage in its own way.
That’s me in the green coat, between my grandma and my mom. My dad stands on the left, with my four younger brothers in the back of the truck.
I grew up with several family Christmas traditions: making candy cane cookies, tromping through the snow to cut a live tree and, on Christmas Eve, re-enacting the Nativity with my brothers as my dad read from the Bible. Over the years, my husband and I have tried several of these traditions. Some traditions have translated well into our lives, and some haven’t. (Though I loved it as a child, the year I walked a mile into the woods in heavy borrowed boots while pregnant was my last for cutting a live tree.)
One holiday tradition that has rooted itself in my children’s lives surprised me. It’s not exciting or tasty. Yet they have adopted it fully–and they’ve even started documenting it.
A family Christmas tradition that lives on
My mom always loved putting up the Christmas tree. She planned a made-for-memories event each year, hoping to have joyful carols, hot chocolate and pictures worth putting in the Christmas letter. What she got from me and my five brothers was usually less idyllic. We sang plenty of carols, loudly, but they were more likely to be “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” than “Silent Night.” Pictures always had someone sticking out a tongue or elbowing a brother. And my mom often had to wrangle us into putting up the tree and stringing up the lights first, which was guaranteed to make some of us grumpy.
But every year, my mom made sure we each had a new ornament to hang on the tree. Sometimes she made or bought it. Sometimes another relative sent us ornaments. I don’t know how she always had these ornaments amidst the chaos of Christmas preparations for six children. But she did it. She even labeled them with our names and the year.
When I left home, she gave me a box of my ornaments–along with a list, year by year, of which ornaments we received and extra notes about some of them:
About six years ago when decorating our tree with my husband and children, I pulled out my box of childhood decorations with my mother’s list in it. For some reason, that year, her list especially spoke to my heart. I knew I wanted to do this for my own children. So I divided up the ornaments I’d given Jeremy, Alex, and Seneca over the years. I added a couple of ornaments for years that didn’t have them. I started lists. They weren’t fancy lists: just a piece of notebook paper, like my mom’s on yellow legal paper. I figured if I waited until I found holiday stationery, it would never happen.
The following year, I presented my children with cute boxes for their ornaments. I slid my lists into sheet protectors and taped them inside each box. They were actually delighted to hang their own ornaments! No cajoling was necessary.
In fact, we had so much holiday cheer that my husband decorated his ear with an ornament. My oldest son Jeremy began snapping pictures. Seneca launched herself at Jeremy, Alex pounced, and they all dissolved into a pile of giggles on the floor, their Santa hats somehow still intact.
Since then, the kids have gone looking for their own boxes of ornaments each year. Some years I am more prepared than others: this year, they will get their 2017 ornaments on Christmas Eve.
I love that my children have come to own this tradition. Alex has actually begun documenting his new ornaments himself. You can see how he picked up where I left off:
Now that I’m a mom, I can’t help but look at my mom’s list a little differently. It’s a chronicle of a mother’s love, steady and shown in little things and relatively unappreciated. Across the top of her list, she wrote, “DON’T LOSE!” She was probably thinking of her carefree young adult children who might not appreciate this box of ragtag ornaments and what it represented to her. Today, I think her message is more than a warning not to lose the ornaments she so carefully tracked and packed away each year. It’s about never losing hold of her love for us–the heritage that matters most.
In our family, at least, the adoption of any tradition is a little messy and uncertain, especially now that I have teenagers. I never know whether’s it’s going to “take,” who’s going to roll their eyes or rebel, whether they will feel and respond to the message behind the time we spend together and the rituals we create. My solution is to try a lot of traditions. To not be afraid to change things up to suit my own little band of a family–even to create new traditions on the fly. To be flexible with my expectations–they may very well wrestle instead of sing “Silent Night” as they hang their ornaments, and that’s fine. As long as they are laughing and creating memories of the ways their family shared its love.
I’m giving the Genealogy Gems team the day off in celebration of Labor Day. They have been so hard at work lately, most recently appearing at a 2-day special “Genealogy Gems” seminar event for the Dallas Genealogical Society. Here’s a little peek at that weekend earlier this month. When we get our brains together sparks fly and we have dreamed up some truly wonderful things for you that we will be announcing very soon!
Until then, have a wonderful day with your family. I’m especially thankful that all of my family is safe and sound, and that my daughter Hannah and her husband Ryan safely evacuated Port Aransas, Texas before Hurricane Harvey slammed the shore. Thank you to all of you who sent well wishes and prayers for their safety. XOXO Lisa
Have you ever brought back a favorite family tradition from your childhood? I did that with a favorite Memorial Day tradition–revived with a little help from YouTube.
Deep in the hollows of Virginia lived ‘Big Grandma’ with her nine children. She was a mountain woman, schooled only in the herbs she could sell for money. Celebrations were few, but Decoration Day was special. She would gather her children together to make crepe paper flowers and then hike up the mountain to lay them on the graves of loved ones.
This year, I revived this tradition by teaching her great-grandchildren the art of making crepe paper flowers for Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day.) It wasn’t easy. My mother hadn’t made crepe paper flowers with us since I was 10 years old!
First, we had to find the crepe paper. I tried using crepe paper streamers, but the paper was too delicate and not stretchy enough. Crepe paper is unique. It is strong and very stretchy which lends to the realistic shape of petals and leaves. With a little help from Google, I found PaperMart, an online store that sells rolls of colorful crepe paper for $1.93 a roll. Each roll is 8 feet long and 19 inches wide. A roll this big will create bouquets of lovely flowers!
I ordered a variety of colors for petals, some green for the leaves, and yellow for the middles. Floral stem wire, floral stem tape, paddle wire in 24 gauge, and tacky glue are other must-haves.
Without Grandma around, it was left to me and Mom to remember how to make each type of petal. YouTube to the rescue! With videos like the one below, we were able to re-teach ourselves the techniques for creating beautiful roses, peonies, morning glory, and mums. (Click here to read more ideas on using YouTube for family history research.)
After family dinner, we gathered together as mothers, sisters, and cousins to laugh and giggle as we tried to create each piece. I was able to share with the next generation the story of Decoration Day in the “holler.” Many of the young ones asked, “Why can’t we just buy the flowers?” I am sure it would have been easier and quite a bit quicker to buy flowers, but I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to share this tradition with them for the world.
This week, we gathered as an extended family to place our crepe paper flowers on the graves of our ancestors. You know what? When we came to Big Grandma’s grave, all the children wanted their flowers to be placed there. They remembered! My heart was full and I could imagine Grandma looking down at all these little children as they were following in her footsteps.
A Memorial Day tradition like this is a wonderful way to teach family history to our children. Other ideas include learning a hobby that our ancestor enjoyed. Several years back, I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar like my uncles did. It was their favorite past time to get out the guitars for an old-fashioned singin’ after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. The family would gather in the living room to sing favorites like “Amazing Grace,” “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,” and “Jesus is Coming Soon.” A new guitar and YouTube practice tutorials and I was strumming along with them at the family reunion.
With today’s easy access to online tutorials and videos, you can learn and share your ancestors’ lives in this unique and personal way. Pick something today and share your favorite family traditions and past times with your loved ones.