#MakersMonday: Reta Evens Simons

Today’s maker has been a storied presence in my life since before my memory began. She entered the world as a wheat-farmer’s daughter on the Canadian prairie, and she came south to Pennsylvania on the smallest of chances – her father said she could go to school in America if it rained at harvest time. Many years later, she wrote the story of her life, naming it for that rain.

My grandmother’s expressive face on the cover of her memoir.

After the rain, after a long journey by train and years of schooling and servanthood in America, she married my grandfather Keneth. My father was their first child.

I remember a photo of Reta on my grandfather’s desk. It was probably taken in her 40s or 50s, on a visit to her brothers who were still on the farm in Alberta. In the photo, she’s standing near the grain elevator, wearing a cotton blouse and skirt. Perhaps she held a hat, or a purse, but what I remember about the photo is her hands. They looked just like my father’s hands, larger than I expected, veined, strong and capable. Reta could do almost anything with those hands.

She taught herself patternless dressmaking. My parents have a beautiful photograph of her wearing a blue evening gown, exquisitely tailored, with a blue satin train, that she designed and sewed. Dad told us stories of a dress she dyed, carefully shading the color from a deep violet at the hem that faded by degrees until it was so pale it was almost white at the top. Imagine that shading process – what a good eye she had, and a steady hand.

Reta taught herself to paint, too. Everyone in the family has at least one of her oil paintings, or a water color. Here is mine.

We also have things Reta embroidered. I have two cushions with birds embroidered on them – currently packed away because the corgi does not share my respect for heirloom embroidery. Another piece she embroidered hung on the wall in my parents’ house. The quote, as it turns out, is originally attributed to a Quaker missionary. I saw it on our wall, in her graceful stitching, every day of my life. That made it hers.

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Etienne de Grellet, QUAKER MISSIONARY

Farm girl that she was, Reta also had a way with little animals, and she raised more than one abandoned baby squirrel. Just this year, an aunt sent me an old home-movie clip, with no sound, of my grandmother playing with one of these babies. It struck me, watching it, that it’s the only time I’ve seen her alive, in motion, more like the person Dad remembered with such affection. Reta died of cancer just a few months after I was born.

But of all the things she made, my father was the best. Reta raised a good man, brilliant, kind, appreciative. Like her, he strove to do all the good he could. He never forgot he could live each day only once.

At Reta’s graveside, the presiding minister read the parable of the talents, ending with “Well done, good and faithful servant.” God bless her, entering into the joy of her Lord.

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