You may have heard the stereotypical mother-in-law joke, “Behind every successful man is a mother-in-law who can’t believe it.” Far too many husbands live with the reality of that not so funny joke. I, however, was blessed with a mother-in-law who I have frequently called “a charter member of my fan club.” She proved to be the warmest, most positive, most encouraging woman I have ever met.
Nina Mae Arnold entered the world on August 27, 1923, in Knifely, Kentucky. She and her six brothers and five sisters helped raise tobacco and other crops on their father’s farm. But Nina had a dream to become something other than the wife and mother in a farm family. She had great respect for farmers, knowing quite well what all was involved in making a farm profitable. And until she entered her 90’s, she raised chickens and always had a large garden so that she could have fresh eggs and produce. But farming was not her dream. She wanted to be a teacher.
She completed an A.A. in Education during World War II and immediately began teaching school, since so many other educators had gone to war or to wartime industries. After the war, she was able to earn a B.A. in Religion and Education at Beulah College in Upland, California. While there, she met a handsome young preacher who was also a student. His name was Isaac Schmucker. (The “ch” is silent in German so it is pronounced “Smucker,” like the jams and jellies.) They married in 1949 and stayed in California long enough to have their first daughter. They moved to New Mexico to work at a Christian mission serving the Navajo Nation. Their second daughter was born there. Their third daughter was born in Indiana near Isaac’s hometown. Their fourth and fifth daughters were born in Ontario, where Isaac and Nina established a strong and growing church.
After several years in Ontario, they moved again to Indiana where they founded a small church in a very poor section of the state. The church was never able to give them a salary, so Isaac worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker while Nina taught school. After her children were all grown and married, Nina completed a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education. She taught kindergarten for over 26 years.
Her students loved her. In fact, a number of her former students lobbied hard years later to get their own children into her classes.
Nina taught her daughters to be thrifty, which you have to be when you don’t have a lot of money, but she also taught her girls to appreciate the finer things in life. She taught them how to take care of a family, how to cook, sew, and otherwise make a house into a home. She taught her girls how to see the blessings in every day, how to be optimistic and generous and loving and kind. She did it by example. And when her girls each married, Nina accepted each son-in-law into her heart with as much love and enthusiasm as she did her own girls.
She made sure we sons-in-law knew how proud she was to have us in the family. I never heard her say one negative thing about any of us. She would talk about things that concerned her but only in the context of how she wanted us to pray along with her for this or that situation in her “sons” – as she considered us – lives. She respected us. The computer genius, the professor, the preacher, the rancher – she thought we were excellent at what we did.
When Isaac died – after 53 years of marriage – I became her handyman. I always took tools when we went to visit. I fixed her sewing machine, put up a birdhouse, re-glued her dining room chairs, put a grab bar in her shower, fixed her faucet. It didn’t matter how big or small the job, it was wonderful to her, and she let me know it. I was, in her mind, the best man her daughter could have married. And that’s important to a man. Women thrive on love; men thrive on respect. Every man needs a mother-in-law who finds the good in “her boys” and lets them know how much she appreciates them. And hopefully that mother-in-law has taught her daughters to do the same things for their husbands – by example. It makes a huge difference.
I’m going to miss all that now. Nina died last week, at home, after a four-year battle with the big C – cancer, not coronavirus. We could not go see her during her last days because of the quarantine, but the last thing I said to her when we saw her in February was to remind her that she was a charter member of my fan club. She asked me what that meant. I told her it meant that she loved me and respected me and made sure I knew it. She replied, “Of course I love you. I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t.” If more mothers acted in a truly Christian manner, as Christ taught us, as Nina Arnold Schmucker lived it, we would have happier families. Everyone needs a mother-in-law like mine.
Steve “Doc” Troxel, Ph.D.