“Would you like to buy some tomatoes today? Ten cents a pound!” called out the spirited teenage girl as she climbed the steps of yet another front porch.
Sixteen acres of plants produced lots of tomatoes—bushel upon bushel upon back-breaking bushel—and, now that they were harvested, it was time for her and her brother to sell them. Oh, how she dreaded peddling those tomatoes door to door! But it was the Great Depression and families pulled together to make ends meet however they could.
That spirited teenager was my mother. And, although she grew to despise tomatoes, she became rather adept at selling them. In fact, after one particularly successful day, her father decided to reward her with a brand new dress from Lerner’s Department Store in a nearby Iowa City—the first store bought dress she had ever owned!
Marjorie Chapman Abernathy, tomato saleswoman extraordinaire, died last month at the age of 96. A decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s may have wreaked havoc on her mind and her memory but her feisty and optimistic spirit remained almost to the end. Marge grew up on a farm in West Branch, Iowa where, like many Depression-era children, life centered around school, chores and family. Life was tough and money was hard to come by.
My mother often talked about walking almost a mile to and from school each day in shoes with holes in the bottom. And, of course, she loved to relive that day she got the dandy department store dress. And how she was able to attend college, thanks to the sheer generosity of a local banker. In spite of being poor, my mother never spoke of her family’s lack of financial means with regret or disappointment but rather matter of factly; that was simply the way it was. And while her childhood was challenging at times, it was rooted in unconditional love and happiness and deep devotion to her family.
I believe it was those hardscrabble early years that helped nurture my mother’s strongest trait: her boundless generosity. She was generous of spirit and heart, generous of her time, and generous of the treasure that came her way in her later years. No matter who you were—family, close or casual friend, restaurant waiter, store clerk, taxi driver—if you were lucky enough to have an interaction with Marge, you somehow came away the richer. Putting others first came naturally to her.
My mother’s ultimate goal in life was to simply provide a secure and better future for her children. And, together with my father, she certainly achieved that. But upon reflecting on her life, I’ve come to see more clearly the tremendous impact she had on the Barry-Wehmiller organization. Certainly, during those tenuous years of the 70s, her unwavering encouragement helped my father persevere. And throughout her 25 years as a member of our Board of Directors, she helped to guide the company as it began a trajectory of substantial growth.
In my mind, however, her most significant contribution to the Barry-Wehmiller organization began more than 65 years ago when she regularly encouraged her somewhat shy and insecure son to trust his instincts, use common sense, never dwell on his mistakes, and look for the good in every person and every situation.
Were it not for my mother’s unconditional love and support and her nurturing of the gifts she recognized in me, the Barry-Wehmiller we enjoy today likely wouldn’t exist. She bestowed upon me a most incredible gift: the belief that nothing was impossible when hard work, thoughtful intention and a sound vision were applied. My mother’s modest life goal was to ensure a better future for her children. In the process she helped bring about a better future for countless precious lives.
None of us get the joy of experiencing the full measure of our lives. But if we’ve lived ours right, then hopefully we get a glimpse of our impact before our time on Earth is complete. And if we aren’t living ours right, let’s hope there are reminders along the way to get busy making changes.
From this day forward, may tomatoes be a reminder.
To read more about Marjorie Chapman Abernathy’s life, click HERE.
To view a video produced on the occasion of her 80th birthday, click HERE.
Marge was fond of the non-profit, Our Community Listens, which brings Barry-Wehmiller’s powerful Communications Skills Training to communities in hopes of bringing about a more compassionate world. Memorials in her honor can be made at ourcommunitylistens.org