Editor's note: This is the first of two installments of a story abut Stahli Claassen by Diana Fern Graber.

Stahli Claassen has everything she’s always dreamed of doing. For all of the years she was growing up, all of the time she was tiny, or in her teens or early twenties, all of it, she has wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.

“I have wanted to stay at home with my own children and watch them grow up,” she said.

In this day and age, those things have not been the dreams come true of most young ladies, particularly in these times of “liberation,” or of various brands of poverty, when both parents needed to work, or even take on a third or fourth job. Our illustrious president recently interpreted that situation without thinking too clearly. He praised a working mom who HAD to take on three very low-paying jobs, just to keep a little food on the table. Yikes. But our Stahli simply wanted kids and wanted to take care of them and love them to pieces.

As a kid, she always loved to take care of children just a little smaller than her, and that grew into babysitting jobs as a teen. Before her marriage, she was a live-in nanny for more than 10 years, and she put everything into those jobs. When her own children get her attention, she locks into their eyes and engages them until the matter is settled.

She is a sturdy gal of a certain age, who has glowing, perfect skin, and just by looking at her, you know that she’s a no-nonsense person. One of her favorite hobbies is quilting, in groups or at home.

Mike is her husband, and he is a bookkeeper at a small company in Wichita. It wasn’t that easy to set up housekeeping on one income — it was planned out well in advance, in terms of food planning, clothing and travel and recreation.

It used to be, back in the late '50s or '60s, unless you were really a lax worker, you could get a nice factory job at, let’s say, Hesston Corp., or somewhere, and you were set for life, with excellent salary and benefits for a family of six or so, and mom stayed home and baked the bread.

“There are things that this family of five just won’t have, like fancy vacation trips with hotel stays,” says Stahli. They go camping in their pop-up camper and sleep and eat wonderful food there. "Marshmallows and weenies. Chips and exotic fruit."

And the kids somehow haven’t guessed the difference.

“So, special food. And sleeping away from home is always great fun,” she says. The children have a hand in figuring out where they will go. Excitement builds as they anticipate their destination, and think about the magic of the sky at night, of whole galaxies and configurations above their heads.

The girls are Emma, 15, and Alice, 14, and heading, crash-landing into their teenage years. They have inherited Stahli’s skin, her thick, happy hair, and her quiet, deliberative behavior. And then, there is Payne, who is 12.

The Claassens knew in advance that he would have Down syndrome, and prepared themselves as best they could. “There are prenatal tests for that. Of course, it wouldn’t have made any difference, because we would never have done anything about it, like abortion," said Stahli, with a fierce determination and a noticeable change in her posture.

Of course, there were health problems and developmental delays. He had a heart surgery while still quite young.

“And he had a number of feeding problems,” says Stahli. “He had to be tube fed for quite a while, of course. And he disliked pudding and Jello, or things of similar consistency. He would become nauseated and throw up.”

The solution was a surprise — they began putting regular food in a blender and moistening it until it was just right.

And there were other feeding problems. Stahli would try different ways of doing things until she got it right. Her kitchen was a little science lab, one that she and her husband, Mike, built using Ikea units, another money-saving deal.

“I love my Ikea kitchen,” she says, with the same thrilling delight as my Michigan brother-in-law when he described their $60,000 kitchen remodel.


Diana Fern Graber is a writer from Newton who writes about the interesting people she meets.