My sweet Mom, Helen, passed from this world to the next late last Tuesday evening. Many thanks to the nurses at the BSA Hospice House for their tender care of her and my Dad during the last days of her life. I’m also very grateful for the ministry of the First Baptist Church of Amarillo and their pastor, Dr. Howie Batson.
I had the honor of offering the following eulogy at her memorial service. She touch many lives during her nearly 91 years.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
There are many people who don’t believe in God, much less in Jesus. Many, if not most, of these people are good, loving, and hard-working folks who care about their communities and are generous with their time and resources. They just don’t buy into the God thing.
But you know what I wish? I wish those people could all know my Mom. More importantly, I wish they could know my Mom’s story. I think my Mom’s story tilts the argument in the direction of a loving God who is nudging a very broken universe towards redemption.
I’m about to say some things that our Mom would argue with if she were here. I take some delight in knowing that if she’s listening, and if she wants to argue, Jesus will say, “Now Helen, you just hear him out.”
You see, our Mom used to say two things about herself that bothered us kids. The way she said it to me once was, “I’m not very tough, and I’m not very smart.” Momma, you’re wrong.
Mom was born in New York City during the roaring twenties, and grew up in the Great Depression. She was abandoned by a father she never really knew. She and her older sister, Lynn, were left to raise themselves while their mother worked long, hard hours to pay the bills and keep food on the table. I don’t know many of the details of her childhood, but my impression is that there was very little joy. There were very few experiences of playing hopscotch with the other kids, or walking to the corner store for an ice cream sandwich. When I try to imagine our mother as a child, the images seem rather dim and shadowy. We know a lot now about how one’s childhood can set the tone for one’s adulthood, and most clinical psychologists would predict that Mom was in for a very hard life.
About the time Mom turned 18 her mother decided to move away, and so young Helen was on her own. My Mom did some of her best mothering of me after I was 18. She was able to do for me something that was never done for her. When I was 18, and devastated over the loss of a young love, Mom sat on the phone with me. She quoted from Jeremiah, “‘Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you,’ says the Lord.” She paraphrased the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is your shepherd. He will not leave you wanting. He will lead you beside still waters, and he will restore your soul.” She loved me and comforted me. And she thought she wasn’t very smart.
That’s not to say she didn’t make her mistakes. Soon after Mom was on her own she married a man who would prove to be rather unreliable. He moved her from New York to his home state. They settled in Amarillo, and the marriage fell apart. However, that painful chapter in her life was not a complete loss since my brother and sister, Roger and Carol, came into the picture through that relationship.
Just try to imagine: A young woman, who grew up in New York City, found herself living in the panhandle of Texas, divorced, and with two young children, in the 50s.
Then, some friends threw a party, I’m told for the express purpose of introducing Mom to a very handsome and ambitious young man. If I were trying to be funny, I might would say that those friends wanted to introduce her to a handsome young man, but my dad showed up instead. However, if you’ve seen any of the pictures of my father in his uniform, you would know that he was, indeed, that handsome guy.
As dad began to fall in love with Mom he had to face to the reality that his meager salary would not be sufficient to care for a wife and two children. He prayed. He said to God, “If this is your will, then I’m going to need a little help.” It was not long before he was offered a position that doubled his salary, and the wedding was on.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, from this point forward, Mom’s life was just peaches and cream? As you might imagine, Dad’s entrance into the family was not easy. He has told me, with a bit of a grimace, that he just knew he could bring some order to the lives of Mom and those two kids . Things were, perhaps, a bit chaotic at times. And I don’t suppose it helped a lot, Dad, to introduce a new baby, me, into the picture about a year later. Two years and 9 months after me my brother, Brian, came onto the scene. I try to imagine our Mom’s exhaustion at this time in her life. She and Dad had never had a chance to catch their collective breath and simply enjoy each other. However hard it was for her, I only know that we were loved well. Mom figured it out.
For much of my life it was easy to see Mom as the soft and tender one, and dad as the strong and determined one. By the time Brian and I were in elementary school, the threat of a spanking from her would just make us chuckle. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand the incredible strength it took to manage all the elements of our family. By the time I was old enough to really remember things, Roger and Carol were teenagers. Some might say they were rather spirited teenagers. And, this may shock some of you, but there was a time when my Dad tended to have rather strong opinions about the best way to do life. Now listen, we had conflict in our home just like you’ve had conflict in your homes. But one reason we loved each at the end of most days was because of our Mom. The tension could be so troubling to her, but she was still able to be the gentle lubricant that made our family run.
And, I’ll say it again, she didn’t have parents that taught her how to do this. She figured it out on the fly.
Maybe she wasn’t tough in the John Wayne sense of things, but she did survive getting knocked out cold by a two year old Brian who was swinging a metal vacuum cleaner wand around as she was exercising to Jack Lalanne. She did manage to intervene in more than a few sibling conflicts, one of which, between Roger and Carol, involved someone chasing someone with a golf club. She did walk the mile from our house on Brinkman to Olsen Park Elementary in a raging blizzard to lead Brian and me home safely.
Mostly, though, Mom was emotionally tough. Maybe she didn’t always seem so in the ways she could second guess herself, and get all anxious about some mistake she thought she’d made, or about letting us down. Her true toughness was revealed in how she hung in there, and loved us all so completely regardless of how stirred up she could be. I know Mom wasn’t perfect, but I can’t think of time when I needed Mom to show up, that she didn’t show up.
Maybe Mom wasn’t incredibly smart in the Einstein sort of way. Though even there, she could baffle us. Mom could be funny and witty, and at other times, seemed to not get a joke. Brian, there was that time you and I, and Mom and Dad were driving back from Lake Meredith when Mom said to Dad, with a very straight face, “Bud, don’t look now, but there’s a boat following us.” She left us guessing at times.
One thing could not be disputed, though. Perhaps we never asked her to help us with math homework, but our Mom could be emotionally brilliant. She found ways to love and support each one of us in accordance to our unique needs and personalities. She did the same for sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, and for so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She didn’t get much of this when she was growing up, but she found a way to give it to us.
Mom took so seriously the call of Jesus to live a life characterized by sacrificial love. Our family was touched by her determination to live out this spiritual path. Much of what we learned about what it meant to be a Christian came by watching how Mom loved others. Many of you in this room have been touched by the love of Christ offered through the hands of our Mom. We all wished she could see her value more clearly when she was with us, but, over the last few days, we’ve all expressed great joy in knowing that she can see clearly now.
Right now I’m imagining Jesus saying to Mom, “See, Helen, you really were a lot tougher and lot smarter than you gave yourself credit for.” And I’m betting Mom is smiling.
I’ll close with one last story. A few weeks ago I made a last minute trip home to see Mom. I’m so glad I did. Mom was struggling to maintain a hold on her present reality, and at one point she expressed some confusion on just who was whom in our family. Dad began to retell Mom their love story, starting from the beginning. He weaved the facts of their life together in with all of the ways he’d fallen in love with her, and with Roger and with Carol. I watched Mom’s confusion fade. It was like viewing a scene from the movie, The Notebook. Dad, I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to be your son than on that evening.
That conversation underlined for me the grace of loving God who had brought together two people who were tough in very different ways, and who were smart in very different ways. Dad, you both took God’s gift of each other and figured out how to help each other be formed more and more in the image of Christ over the course of nearly 60 years together.
Praise be to God.