July 16, 2020

The Greatest Impact

In memory of Dorcas VanSchaick, 1925 – 2014

• By John F. Chisholm •

November 4, 2014 — My mother’s older sister, Dorcas, died this past Monday. My mother predeceased her. Dorcas represented the last of the older generation in our family. My loss is unspeakable. My heart aches for my cousins. But searching my memories of my aunt, one tale my mother, Sara Chisholm, used to relate stands out.

Dorcas and Sarah were children of the Great Depression. The horrible conditions of that era still have profound effects on our national psyche: Prohibition, bootlegging, bank failures, unemployment, bread lines. Of course this list continues. But the point is that my mother’s family did everything they could to save scarce dollars by home manufacturing. My grandfather farmed, took in lodgers, ran a butcher shop and maple sugared. His wife cooked, cleaned, sewed and mended and made her own cleaning products as well, soap included.

My aunt would have been around ten when these events took place. That would place them about 1935, the very heart of the Depression. She found a series of filled, wooden molds set out to cool on the front porch railing. Imagining that the substance contained within them was maple sugar ― the color was right ― she stuck in her finger and snuck a taste.

Alas! It was NOT maple sugar. It was homemade soap ― lye ― and she burned her mouth.

Perhaps if you or I had done this, we’d scream bloody murder and alert the world of our misfortune. Not my aunt. She ran and got her eight-year-old sister and, pointing to the soap, still cooling on the porch said, “Look, Sara, maple sugar.”

Thus my mother took a taste, too, burning her mouth as well, just as her older sister had planned. And so an infamous family story was born, handed down to the next generation time and time again, each instance these two sisters were united thereafter.

It’s a great story. I suppose that today, both children would be counseled for their experiences. But that wasn’t the practice of that day. Back then you took your lumps and moved on. But that’s not the point. From that day forward, my aunt repaid her debt to my gullible mother with love. Steadfast, healing love for her sister, over her entire life.

Isn’t it strange how none of us ever realizes the acts, the things we’ll do over the course of our lifetimes, which will have the greatest impact?

Perhaps my aunt imagined that persuading her younger sister to taste of soap was one of hers. Certainly my mother wanted the world to imagine that the case.

But, no. That was not it. Rather, with my aunt, her lasting legacy was clearly her love. Love to repay childish treachery, love to make her own family strong, love to make a difference.

That’s important. Not just because she was my aunt. Not just because it was a lifelong pursuit. It’s important because it worked. I’m here today because of it, the product of that process that none of us realize at the time is the critical impact of our lives.