It was a late spring day as I rounded Loop 635 in my ’66 Chevy on the way to meet my girlfriend’s parents. There was not a lot impressive about me as a college freshman. I drove an unairconditioned station wagon with a leaky windshield, I was still 17 years old, and I was dating someone hopelessly cuter and sweeter than I could expect to hold onto. We had been dating for less than three months, but she was willing to let me visit her family on my way to spending the summer as an orientation advisor. She liked me, but if her family did not, I knew for a fact she had no desire to be a Capulet to my Montague. My mind was spinning as I circumnavigated the east side of Dallas, and a knot formed in my stomach. Even though my chances of impressing her parents were not great, I knew I needed to do something. I pulled off the freeway and bought flowers. For her mother.
This past week, I stood by the bed of that unsuspecting middle-aged woman who was the target of my efforts at persuasion, and I ushered her into glory alongside that freshman year girlfriend. A little over three years after that first meeting, I was calling her Mom, and for the last half of my life, since I lost my mother to cancer, she has been a Mom to me. For the past 9½ years, my wife has been her primary caregiver as she lived in assisted living close by; I have been comic relief. They have been sweet times of quiet talks and deepening relationships. Our children and grandchildren have had the chance to know her and to sense her love and approval.
Had I known more about her, I would not have thought that a small bouquet would be sufficient to win her over. A gifted pianist, she studied at Peabody, the oldest conservatory in the United States. She went on to get a master’s degree at Columbia, the only Ivy Leaguer in the family. When it looked like she might end up back in her small Pennsylvania town, she leapt at the opportunity to teach music in Texas. She boarded a train to Dallas and quickly found her way to the Highland Park Presbyterian Church. After church one day, she found herself in the back seat of a class member’s convertible with a local fellow who had grown up in the church, a redheaded boy with a ready laugh, who had enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday during World War II. Six weeks later, they were engaged, and shortly thereafter, they married.
I am sure Mom’s mother had grander dreams for her, but she spent her life investing in four children who are, to this day, devoted to her, and teaching piano to children. Undoubtedly her gifts were subsumed in the family that was the focus of her attention. She raised up no pianists, but four children who have lived meaningful lives and raised up their own children to have meaningful lives. And now some of those children are doing the same, with the family tree numbering in the forties.
If you had asked her about the impact of her life, she would not even have known how to address the question. She lived, and she loved, and she did the next good thing God called her to do. For years that was making foil dinners for a family of six that loved to camp and water ski, with none of the bells and whistles that might accompany boating today. She loved telling stories of her childhood, and though she was more than ready to leave Chambersburg in the early 1950’s, it always held a special place in her heart. She was modest in every way, except when it came to praising her children and grandchildren. She never drew attention to herself or stayed out of sorts for long.
And she was easily contented with a piano concerto or an old hymn. She lived through the heartbreak of losing both of her siblings at a very young age, and through the pain that brought to her parents. She never understood the racial biases she encountered riding the bus in Dallas; it never occurred to her that they could possibly exist. This was true of most of what was bad in this world; she could not imagine it, and she would not waste any time doing so. I have seen the same tendency in her daughter through the years.
Later this week, almost a half-century after I did it the first time, I expect to drive around Loop 635 again to her final resting place. If I do, I will know what I need to stop and bring. It may not be 1974 anymore, but I expect that knot to form in my stomach again. I thought that saying hello for the first time would be the hardest thing that I ever did in my relationship with Mom. But it never occurred to me then that the hardest thing I would ever do is say goodbye.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics