Here in America, where Christianity is the majority religion, we all know of an individual or two who best exemplifies a truly Christian lifestyle. For me, one such person is Laura Jane Ketcham.
Jane, as she is commonly known, was never one to wear her faith on her sleeve. She was not an evangelist. Nor did she come across as “holier than thou.” Jane’s Christianity served as a foundation for her values and a source of hope. It gave her an inner strength and an outer glow. It impelled her to help others. In fact, it inspired what would become her favorite quotation: “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” Jane posted that saying in her kitchen. She tried to live that ethic throughout her life, but she failed. She was a lot kinder than necessary.
As a prototypical Christian, Jane lived meekly and modestly. She did so not in order to inherit the Earth but because she truly was humble. She never wanted a fuss made about her. She never thought she was worthy of anyone’s attention. Still, she must have realized that she was loved and respected by everyone who knew her. No sane person could have viewed her any other way.
Jefferson had his ideal of the yeoman farmer. For me, Jane became the ideal of the yeoman wife. Having graduated from high school at 16 and having been elected into Phi Beta Kappa a few years later in college, Jane had a number of vocational choices available to her. What she chose to do, for nearly 30 years, was to serve as the secretary to her husband, a small-town lawyer. Jane typed her husband’s briefs, raised his children, and took care of his office and his house. Hers was the smiling face that his clients saw as they walked into the law office, which was across the street from the county courthouse. Jane lived and worked in a town of roughly 1,200 people that was surrounded by corn fields and not much else. Everyone in the town knew her.
Jane was a joiner. She was active not only in her Methodist church but in other local societies as well. When Alexis de Tocqueville cited voluntary associations as America’s characteristic institutions, he surely was thinking about people like Jane. Jane became part of her town’s backbone. Whenever it needed someone to help, it could always count on Laura Jane Ketcham.
Jane had plenty of friends, and yet she was also one to enjoy her solitude. She was an avid reader, crafter, quilter, Crossword Puzzle solver, and Scrabble player. She had a Scotch-Irish background and, indeed, some of her favorite authors were British. Yet sadly, she never got to visit Great Britain – or any other part of the world outside of North America. Jane wasn’t especially affluent, but more to the point, she wasn’t especially covetous of what she had been missing in life. Jane was always content in her lot. Like I said, she was a true Christian.
As a college student, it had been Jane’s dream to become a librarian. While she never realized that dream, she did live long enough to see her daughter, the valedictorian of her high school class and a successful lawyer who was trained at Harvard, give up a career in law to become a school librarian. Jane lived long enough to see a lot of things happen. She had three children, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Not a one could have mustered a single unkind thing to say about her.
Jane was married only once, and the marriage lasted from 1942 until her husband’s death in 1990. Roughly a decade later, she moved 150 miles southwest from her hometown of Albion to an independent living facility near Indianapolis, her state’s capital. There, she could live near one of her children and several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane remained healthy throughout her 80s, but her health gradually began to falter once she hit the age of 90. Eventually, she needed to move into a nursing home, her eyes no longer permitted her to read, and the great energy level that had once sustained her (and her home town) was no longer available.
This past Wednesday, Jane was admitted to a hospital. I spoke to her daughter about the hospitalization late in the evening. She told me, for the first time, that in her view, Jane would not want to keep on living. Jane’s daughter added that her mother had such a strong heart that she may well continue to survive, despite her growing list of health problems.
Thursday morning at 1:30, I received a phone call. It was my brother-in-law. Half asleep, I gave the phone to my wife. She was informed that her beloved mother, Laura Jane Ketcham, had passed away at the age of 93. On the one hand, my wife was devastated about the loss of her hero, the family matriarch, the truest of Christians. On the other hand, she was relieved that her mother would not have to endure a life of intolerable suffering. Her heart never did quit on her, but her liver and kidneys did.
Jane passed away with a loving granddaughter holding one of her hands and a loving grandson holding the other. She died at just the right time, having squeezed as much out of this life as possible, but not so much that she would overstay her welcome. It was never Jane’s way to overstay her welcome. She was here to help in whatever way was needed and never to ask anything in return.
I owe Laura Jane Ketcham my happiness. My children owe her their lives.
I hope for your sake that you have one or more Laura Jane Ketchams in your life. If not, head out to the middle of America, look for corn or wheat fields, and stay a while. You might not find a great tourist attraction. But then again, to borrow words from the great Ludwig Feuerbach, you just might find the essence of Christianity.