By Mary Bridges, chaplain
Salina Presbyterian Manor
When I turned 65, I changed my hair color, and for a number of years my dark hair was highlighted with a variety of colors. Over the years, I have been a redhead, and once even tried some purple. This year, I decided to go back to my natural hair color. I knew that my natural hair had begun to have a few white or grey strands in it, but I must say that I was shocked when I looked in the mirror today and saw my mother looking back at me.
March is “Women’s History Month.” You will be hearing many stories of famous women who have changed history. The woman who changed history for me was a quiet woman: a first-generation American with an eighth-grade education. My mother, Theresa Dorthea Ehrlich Bender, was the youngest of eight children born in 1901 to Alex and Maria Ehrlich, who came to Kansas from Russia.
One of the earliest stories I remember her telling was about her first day of school. Like most children, she was nervous as she sat at her desk. The teacher was going around the room getting acquainted and when she came to my mother she said, “Oh, you are ‘n…’ Ehrlich’s daughter.” My mother was devastated to hear the teacher call her dad a bad name. In the small Russell community at that time, there were at least three Alex Ehrlichs’ and to tell them apart they gave them nicknames: There was “peg-leg” Ehrlich, he obviously had a wooden leg. There was “bean” Ehrlich, who had carried home a 50-pound sack of beans. My grandfather had a dark complexion, hence his nickname.
Fast forward to my senior year in high school, 1961. My quiet mom did something she had never done before. She agreed to be a sponsor for a Future Homemakers of America trip to Topeka, where as a district president I would be serving punch at a reception at Cedar Crest, the Governor’s mansion. We were a group of about 20 and we went to a nice restaurant for lunch. The waitress greeted us by saying, “We don’t serve blacks.”
My friend, Gwen, was the lone black girl in our group. After a short conversation, she said if we went to the back room, they could serve us. My quiet mom, stood up a little straighter, looked her directly in the eye and said, “If all of us can’t be served, then we are leaving,” and walked out.
In the preface of her last book, Sigrid Weidenweber, who grew up in communist Germany writes, “When we ‘former inmates from behind the Iron Curtain’ meet, we soon begin to compare those details of communist life we experienced that were the same and those that were culture-specific. Stalin created an artificial famine of devastating proportions designed to eliminate classes of people he and his henchmen designated ‘enemies’ of the Party. Stalin and his communist ilk killed more than 22 million innocent people. It is embarrassing, no, shameful, that today all these years later, the world at large overlooks this cataclysmic Russian tragedy. I wrote these books to shine light on these gross injustices.”
The most powerful tool of any totalitarian regime is the extermination of all opposition. If a government silences its critics and forbids ideas contrary to its ideology, labeling such ideas “hate speech,” that is the end of freedom.
Stalin and Hitler are frightening examples of such dictatorships. “May we never forget how quickly a nation can lose it precious freedom and fall under the aegis of fear and the power of ruthless demagogues. This moving story has implications for our lives in this complex world today.”
Causes and movements need a spokesperson to bring attention to and to lead people to come together to effect positive change in our world.
However, I have come to believe that real change comes from the lives of simple, ordinary people who are willing to stand up not only for themselves but also for those who are unable to stand up.
Sigrid’s book enabled me to see how my hard-working ancestors stood up for their rights and came to this country for the freedom it offered. My mother’s experience at age 6 enabled her to stand up in that restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, and speak up for the rights of others.
Moreover, those words spoken by my mother changed how I came to view our world and my responsibility to that world. Now when I look in the mirror each morning, I smile and say, “Hi Mom, what are we going to do to change our world today?”
Happy Women’s History Month!