Janice Hilton Abbott

A year ago today we held a funeral for our mother. She died on December 3, just short of the age of 91.

Here are a few of the thoughts I expressed at that time:

Mom was born in Salt Lake City on December 31, 1928, and blessed in Hinkley, near Delta, where the Hiltons had a gas station and garage.

Her mother, Evelyn Schank, died of cancer when she was two and her sister Marilyn was one.

“Almost the first thing I remember,” she wrote, “was the move to Oakland, California. It was during the depression and jobs were hard to find. Uncle Arden, Aunt Hazel, Grandfather Hilton, Daddy, Marilyn and I were all packed with our belongings into a green Model A Ford. We had to climb in through a window because rugs and other things were tied around the car. When we hit a bump my head would hit the ceiling because I was sitting on so many things.”

This is straight out of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Mom lived with Arden and Hazel till she was five. “Uncle Arden worked in the cauliflower fields for 10 cents an hour. . . . Breakfast was oatmeal. It was slimey, gooey, impossible to swallow without gagging. If I didn’t eat it for breakfast it was saved for lunch. Daddy traveled selling women’s dresses [that the Schank family produced], but one time when he came home he told Aunt Hazel I didn’t have to eat any more oatmeal. Oh how I loved him.”

“When I was five years old, Daddy married Verna Dustin from Kirtland, New Mexico. . . When our new Mother, Verna, came to Aunt Hazel’s to meet us, I wanted to climb on her lap and be loved, but Verna didn’t like that. I guess we never quite bonded. . . . She had a heart condition and was never very well, but she made a gracious, beautiful home for us.”

“Second grade was bewildering because we moved to Kirtland, New Mexico. The school was very dark and had a pot-bellied stove in the middle. It was cold away from the stove. We had a privy outside for a bathroom—ugh! . . . at home we had an outdoor privy with a Sears catalogue for paper. . . . I was Baptized in the Coolidge Ditch in Kirtland.”

The family soon moved to Albuquerque: “My favorite teacher was Mrs. Swayne in sixth grade. She taught us many long poems. I remember “The Highway Man,” and “The Raggedy Man.” We learned about Greece and Rome and drew the beautiful ruins in pastels.”

In 1941 they moved to Denver. In Junior High Mom had one of the leads in the operetta “The Thief of Bagdad.” “My favorite place,” she wrote, “was the Branch Library. I took the streetcar or walked and started reading mysteries: Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.”

In high school her favorite class was the A Cappella Choir. She wrote that “There were 105 members in the choir and we had a repertoire of 50 numbers memorized. The library was beautiful with two stories with an inner staircase. The librarian was kind and helped me find good books to read, mostly classics.”

In the Fall of 1947, Mom met Dad in the Colorado Club at BYU. Conversations during trips back and forth between Denver and Provo led Dad to invite Mom and her sister Marilyn “to dinner in nice restaurants, to movies, to church and to Firesides. It was good to have the three of us, but in April he asked just me to a formal dance. He asked me to marry him. . . . He gave me my first (and only) orchid and ring that night.”

Is this really how the romance unfolded? We’ll never know, because Mom was reticent about such things. For example:

At one family reunion we asked Mom about her honeymoon in a cabin near Estes Park. There was a wood-burning stove, she said, and I was going to make biscuits. Bob asked how hot it should be and I said quite hot. I burned biscuits.

Is that metaphorical? we asked. No, the oven was too hot and I burned the biscuits.

Then back for a second year at BYU.

“My favorite class at BYU was English,” Mom said, “and my teacher was an Oxford scholar Karl Young. . . . I was in that stimulating and challenging class all three quarters of my Freshman year. After I was married I took Dr. Young’s Shakespeare. I was sorry that I couldn’t finish school, but Scott was more important.”

They spent two years in Windsor, Colorado while Dad got a degree in vocational agriculture and a teaching certificate. Both John and I were born in Greeley. For Christmas, Mom’s parents gave her the piano we all practiced on all those years. To complete the guilt I have because I interrupted Mom’s schooling, they sold Dad’s horses and bought a milk cow so we had enough milk.

In Paonia, a little Colorado farming town, Dad hads his first job teaching vocational agriculture at the high school. Jill and Carol were born in Delta, 36 miles to the east . 

We had a party line phone. An operator would answer and you would tell her who you wanted to talk with. I’ll connect you if you want, she might say, but I just saw him driving by in his pickup and know he’s not home.

We lived in Montpelier, Idaho for four years. While there, Lynn was born and died 8 months later. “I wrapped my baby in a blanket and held him until the Undertaker came and took him away.” Five months later Mom had a miscarriage.

We moved to Farmington, New Mexico where Grandpa Hilton lived and where, as the town boomed, Dad took a job teaching science and math in a jr. high school. Christy and Paul and Jeff born were there.

When Dad was killed in a car accident in 1977, Mom accepted a scholarship from Farmington friend and drove the new car friends donated and drove north to finish her college education. She graduated from BYU in August 1979.

When Dad was killed in a car accident in 1977, Mom accepted a scholarship from Farmington friends and drove north to finish her college education. She graduated from BYU in August 1979.

It was difficult for Mom when our brother John came out as gay. I added to the tension when I left my job at BYU and the Church in part because of discrimination against people like John. Mom grieved, she tried to convince us we were wrong, she pushed and cajoled, knowing what was right and convinced that we were making faulty decisions. We faced a crisis like many of you have faced in your own families: do we demand of each other that we make the same decisions, or do we decide to respect the decisions others make? To her credit, Mom decided that family was more important than doctrine.

Mom taught 1st and 5th grades at Highland Elementary School for 16 years.

Then she had time to travel. Many of you accompanied her on trips to Russia, the Holy Land, Egypt, Switzerland, New Zealand, China, Pakistan – the list goes on and on.

For a year-and-a-half Mom served as a missionary in the Canada Vancouver Mission. The hardest part of the mission, she reported was having to live with and deal with companions. “I learned about humility and patience on my mission,” she wrote, “and that I lacked both.”

Mom spent her last couple of years at an assisted living facility. She read a lot, did a crossword puzzle daily, received visitors with pleasure, and when her memory and concentration started to fade, enjoyed doing puzzles.

Today, a year since her funeral, I’m missing her presence, remembering our debates, our shared memories, her hugs … seeing many of her traits, both good and bad, in myself. I’m grateful she was my mother.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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7 Responses to Janice Hilton Abbott

  1. Charles Hamaker says:

    On the way to Mark’s father’s funeral tomorrow. Parkinsons.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. roughghosts says:

    A wonderful tribute, Scott. My parents are gone four years now and this year I have thought of them so often. The missing never ceases, it simply takes on different hues and intensities.

    Liked by 1 person

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