In a previous post, I told about flying a small plane on instruments through a series of thunderstorms and the shock and delight of making it back alive. I made the case that, whether we write about it in fiction or experience it in real life, there’s something wonderful about the thrill of imminent death—a feeling for which I have no words. Then the death of a loved one brought home a forgotten lesson. In the article that followed, I presented stark images—sights the bulk of us avoid. I made the case that, in real life, common events move us—events too mundane for fiction. Is that strictly true? I now have yet another side of the question to explore. Let me tell you a story about a loving mother who did her best.
My mom grew up poor and rough in the Great Depression under the thumb of a perfectionist mother and an alcoholic, abusive father, who threatened the family with death on a number of occasions and at one point had to be subdued with a tire iron. Mom moved around between relatives. To complete high school, she worked as a nanny, a house cleaner, later at an office in the city.
Skip to the end of her life. She nursed her sick husband for seven years. He died, and so did her mother, her sister, other relatives, and friends—all in a short span of time. Her own health failed and she spent eight grueling years in ever-increasing pain. Three weeks ago, she was diagnosed with Leukemia, just as my father had been. She died three days later at age 78, just as my father did. This all sounds grim and you might get the picture of a woman who suffered all her life. She did suffer, but looking through her photo albums, I am reminded of a vibrant, powerful and loving mother who graced our family with joy and the profound and wonderful life she lived between those hard times.
As a child, she grew up on a farm—a “Tom Boy,” winning marbles from the other kids, tipping over outhouses and sometimes getting a backside of buckshot. She lived with enthusiasm and created all sorts of mischief.
Dad dated her on his birthday and soon proposed on her birthday, then married her shortly after that on Veteran’s Day so they’d always have their anniversaries free together. Mom married him when she was only 19—a love affair lasting over 50 years. Only death separated them. True Love—just like the movie, The Princess Bride. Two people who faced life and conquered. Imagine the joy of a passionate love like that. It makes me re-think my statement about the mundane nature of life as compared to fiction.
At first, they struggled, but I think those proved the most joyful years of all. She repaired and renovated that first house—a wreck that she turned into a home. She re-plastered walls, re-finished and re-built furniture. Painted inside and out. Made our clothing and did all sorts of sewing and needlework. Picked and canned cherries and apples from our own trees. Fed us vegetables from her own garden in the vacant lot out back. Baked bread. Hand made Christmas cards. Frugal—nothing wasted.
She gave us wonderful meals—everything from scratch. Nothing too good for her family. When she cooked spaghetti, she created sculpture out of mushrooms. She had to teach herself to cook. When I was young, she made a coffee cake and put in way too much yeast. (Some of you may recall an I Love Lucy television episode along those lines.) Mom just cut it in half. Now she had two coffee cakes–both good!
Later, Dad started his own business. Mom risked the house to get that company going and it came back as a wonderful blessing. When they built a new home, Mom designed it, right down to the scale drawings.
She always found pride in her family and loved us deeply. She kept photos—lots of them—the newest babies always in front. A closet full of scrapbooks. Pictures stained with tears. She loved being a great grandmother. Mom boasted 3 children, 9 grandchildren, 6 great grandchildren. With spouses, that’s 24 immediate family. Often, she’d say, “Look what Bob and I started.”
All my life, Mom’s home served as the base for festivities and celebrations that included the entire extended family and friends. I’m talking huge family gatherings. Mom cleaned. Cooked elaborate meals. Entertained. Took care of aging relatives who’d often stay several nights. She and Dad organized game tournaments that kept the party alive. Later, when they could afford it, they loved to treat us out to dinner. When Mom and Dad threw a party for friends, 300 people might show up.
Mom never believed it, but she possessed an amazing intelligence. She made paintings, sculpture, played piano and sang in the church choir. She loved family games, especially strategy games and she usually won. In recent years, she’d often fall asleep between turns but she’d win anyway. That’s right—she beat us in her sleep.
Back when she was poor and some dear family members found themselves caught between jobs without a home, Mom took them in. Those were good times for me. Three more kids in the house. It lasted only a few months, but seems like the bulk of my childhood. Mom cleaned her church, worked tirelessly for Right to Life and with mentally disabled adults. Just the other day, my nephew told me of a time when a stranger rushed up to Mom and Dad and thanked them for paying for their child’s operation. Imagine that. They never told anybody.
During her last day on earth, she enjoyed two joyous visits with grandchildren and gave marital advice. She always gave advice. (Nobody could stop her.) She also shared her faith that day. That night, in terrible pain, she phoned me to pray for the help of the Holy Spirit. You see, my mother accepted Christ’s free gift of salvation and lived in His grace. She accepted it by faith. She lived a vibrant life and also labored and suffered, but she knew her final destination. I have complete certainty that she’s with the Lord. Every pain and sorrow gone. Every tear wiped away.