Written Winter of 2006
Dorothy (“Dotty”) Dayton remembers being thirteen and wanting to go ice skating, but feeling guilty because her mother was very sick in bed. She wanted to be by her mother’s side, as she had for as long as she could recall, but she also wanted to go out and be with her friends. Dotty was one of eight children born to Virginia (“Virgie”) and Jacob Clarence (J.C.) Steinly. Kathryn, Dotty, and Betty were the three youngest daughters, and they were very young when their mother became ill with multiple sclerosis (MS). Virgie began feeling the effects of this disease when she was thirty-three and pregnant with her sixth child. Her first symptom was dragging her left foot as she walked, but eventually the paralysis spread throughout her body. It was not until 1945, when she and J.C. traveled to Maryland to visit with a doctor at John Hopkins Hospital, that her illness was diagnosed as MS. At the time, the family had high hopes that Virgie would get better, but their hopes were dashed when they found out that there was no treatment available.
The Steinly family lived next to Blooming Glen Mennonite Church for twenty-eight years in what was called “the Janitor’s House.” They were caretakers of the church facilities and the children all remember cleaning the benches and trimming around the gravestones by hand. Virgie helped clean the bathrooms till she wasn’t able to perform these duties and her three youngest daughters had to take her place. The young girls, Kathryn, Dotty, and Betty remember doing a lot of the chores that would ordinarily be done by their mother. They all learned to cook with their mother supervising directions from a nearby chair. It was in this way, at nine years old, that Betty remembers learning to cook. Betty Mele is the youngest of the three daughters and also recalls “many times at school that Mom couldn’t come” to school programs. “I often wished she could come” like other parents did. Kathryn, the oldest, often had to act as mother to all of them, cooking and cleaning, learning at a young age to keep the house organized and operating smoothly. “Pop depended on us to clean the church (for 25 cents a week) and to make all the meals.”
The young girls readily acknowledge that they didn’t have a normal childhood, and don’t even remember a time when their mother was not sick. In retrospect, they marvel at their mother’s patient, uncomplaining spirit that always spoke of the Lord’s goodness to her. “She was a strong spiritual influence on my life,” Dotty admits. When Virgie became paralyzed in both legs and her left arm, she started to memorize scripture because she felt the Lord wanted her to sit still, to take time for Him, and was also fearful she may become blind from MS. The Book of Job and the 8th chapter of Romans were two of her favorite scripture passages. She was also a strong believer in the power of prayer and remembered to pray faithfully for other’s prayer concerns. Eventually, she became totally paralyzed from the neck down, but maintained a positive attitude about her affliction, and she “never hesitated saying what the Lord meant to her.”
Dotty recalls, “While we lived next to the church and our mother could no longer walk and attend church, the church services were piped down to our house for our mother to hear them. She considered this a great blessing.” Numerous people would visit Virgie from Blooming Glen Mennonite Church and the surrounding community. Occasionally, adult Sunday school classes would be held in their home so “our mother could participate.” Youth groups also came to sing for her. “Many of her visitors would say how blessed they were to visit Mom.”
When Kathryn, Dotty, and Betty were teenagers, they started singing together as a trio at the suggestion of Leidy Hunsicker. They sang at local churches and at James and Ethel Clemmer’s wedding. Neither one of their parents was ever able to see them perform, but they sang songs like “I’d Rather Have Jesus” by George Beverly Shea. The girls did sing for their parents at home and their parents loved to hear them sing, “This World is Not My Home.” But their sister, Kathryn, soon got married, and their singing career came to an end.
Wayne, one of the older Steinly children served in the Air Force during World War II, and to this day remembers the many letters his mother wrote to him while she was confined to her chair. It couldn’t have been easy for Virgie and J.C. to see their son go into the military, but Virgie continued to pray and write letters to her son faithfully. Wayne could see by her handwriting that “it was very difficult for her to write,” but she never tired of sending her love and support.
Tragedy struck the Steinly family in the winter of 1954, when Virgie and J.C.’s youngest son, twenty-nine-year-old Jacob Clarence, Jr. (nicknamed “Shrimp”), was killed in an accident. He was in a truck loaded with oil, making deliveries for his dad’s business (J.C. Steinly and Son) late into the afternoon, because oil prices were going up the next day. He was trying to avoid hitting a tractor trailer by turning toward the curb, but couldn’t avoid the collision and was killed instantly. In the days and weeks following this accident, Dotty and Betty remember their mother as the strongest of them all. She was totally helpless, confined to her bed, but repeated the verse “All things work together for good,” and kept the family from becoming bitter about their youngest son and brother dying at such a young age.
Toward the end of Virgie’s life, she became very uncomfortable in bed and called on her husband and Dotty often, wanting to be turned from side to side. A nurse came to the Steinly home once a week, but the rest of the responsibilities fell on Dotty and J.C. Some even said that was the reason Dotty didn’t marry till she was in her thirties. Dotty admits that she wanted to stay home with her mother after her sisters got married.
Dotty concludes, “When the Myron Augsburger Tent Crusade was held in Lansdale, our mother requested that her testimony be put on tape and played at the crusade.” The following is Virgie’s testimony which was played at the crusade and also given out at her funeral in 1963.
“I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content. I am never alone; the Lord is with me. The Lord means more to me than anyone. I love everyone. In Psalm 119:71, David said, ‘It is good I have been afflicted because I have learned so much about Thy Word.’ I have found that in my life. I think we have a wonderful God. He is great; he is all-powerful. Praise His Holy Name! He is a God of love and full of tender mercies. His Son Jesus is my Savior. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me. The life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself on that cruel cross for me. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. I cast all my cares upon Him, for He careth for me. I commit my all to Him, put all my trust in Him. I reckon the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed unto us. I know my Redeemer liveth. He knoweth the way that I take, and when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. Lord, not my will but thine be done. ‘To God be the glory, great things He hath done.’ Yes He has. Amen.
Editorial Note: The oldest daughter, Kathryn Steinly Heebner was also my aunt Kathryn from Danville, Pa. See also https://mymennonitememoir.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/for-my-heebner-cousins/