I had arranged for two Sundays off between interim pastorates in August 2014. Candy and I flew to Milwaukee for several enjoyable days with Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth. We borrowed one of their cars to make short trips to Minneapolis to see Candy’s Dad and to Batavia (about 50 miles west of Chicago) to see my Mom. She had been weakening for some time, and we suspected this might be the last time we would see her, which turned out to be true.
Mom joined the glorious company of the saints in light on September 30, my 68th birthday. My sister, Elaine, had been staying with her for several days. Her daughter Helen came from Madison, WI to give her mother a bit of a break, as did our daughter-in-law Rachel who went down from Milwaukee for an overnight. Helen was with her grandmother in the early hours of the morning when she died. The family gathered to remember her and to connect well with each other.
|Isaac, Jon, Sam, Erik, David, Norman|
|Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel, Leanne, Candy|
When I was growing up I always thought of my mother as a stay-at-home Mom. In retrospect, I realize she was a work-from-home Mom. Having worked for a classy custom dress shop in San Francisco after high school until getting married 9 years later, she was an accomplished seamstress. She made custom clothes for a clientele who wanted unique, quality clothes. They came to the house with patterns, fabrics and specifications. They returned for fittings as the clothes took shape.
When I was in high school and college, she turned her sewing skills to making tents and sails for boats for the boys’ (Christian Service Brigade) group at church. She made two custom winter jackets for me, the second of which I wore for many years in Minnesota and Illinois.
Mom confirmed what my grandmother told me several times. Mom had skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 16. The principal of Oakland High School thought she should go to college and was sure a scholarship could be found. However, my grandfather couldn’t quite grasp his daughter going to college when 8th grade was as far as anyone else had gotten. He couldn’t understand skipping grades; you had to take them in order. And he couldn’t understand or accept that someone else would pay for her to go to college.
I sometimes wonder what she might have done had she gone to college, but that didn’t keep her from becoming a wise, learned woman. As our daughter-in-law observed several times, no matter who else was there, Mom was always the smartest person in the room.
Though eminently practical and not given to luxury or extravagance, she was game for adventures that the rest of the family drew her into. We camped in many places in Northern California and a few farther flung sites. I remember well climbing Mt. Lassen the summer between my 5th and 6th grades. We cut our camping trip a day short when she had to break the ice on the water bucket to fix breakfast.
That year was a turning point for her and our family. In the fall she contracted meningitis and was in isolation at the county hospital for some time. She came home just before Christmas but wasn’t up to our usual celebrations. Mom and Dad apologized to my sister and me, but we were just happy to have her home and on the mend. All of my other childhood Christmas memories blur together, but that is the one that stands out in my mind. Her rheumatoid arthritis erupted soon after.
She was a woman of great and quite sophisticated faith. Her Bible knowledge was second to none, and she taught Bible Study Fellowship for many years (having been trained by BSF founder Wetherill Johnson herself). But she did not passively accept pious or naïve theology, and I think I learned from her how to think theologically in the spaces between Scripture and life.
During my high school years, one of the most distinct images I have of Mom is her sitting at one end of the dining room table (that had been hand made by her father) typing my school papers on a small, portable Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I sat at the other end hand writing. Besides deciphering handwriting, correcting spelling and grammar, she challenged my logic, which I’m sure improved my grades at least a half-step. These sessions seemed often to go late into the night.
My Dad’s work schedule at Albert Brown Mortuary varied considerably, and my sister and I rarely had the same school schedule. Mom always prepared breakfast for us and ate with each of us, taking her breakfast in two or three small courses. She did have a schedule of what she fixed for breakfast each day of the week (which I have conveniently forgotten), which made breakfast predictable for us and simplified preparation for her.
Mom and Dad were quite a team. Once our daughter-in-law Rachel videoed them washing dishes in perfect coordination. Mom washed, and Dad dried and put them in the cupboard in the tiny efficiency kitchen in their independent living apartment at Holmstadt. No speaking, no bumping, but reaching over, under and around each other as though choreographed. By working together they were able to stay in independent living quite a bit longer than other couples with similar limitations.
After Dad died she struggled, not only with the difficulties of physical decline, but with maintaining a sense of purpose in life. After Dad died, when she went from assisted living to skilled care at the Michaelson Health Center, she took her sewing machine. She made a few clothes for herself and mended to other residents and staff. When she had to give that up, she felt useless and questioned why God kept her around since she wasn’t accomplishing anything. During her active years, prayer had been vigorous. One day I suggested that God might be keeping her around to pray for the rest of us. She lamented that with her mental faculties slipping she had a hard time concentrating enough to pray.
Once she passed 90, Mom frequently said to me, “Nobody else in this family had to live this long, why do I have to?” While I believe that even a desire to pray is prayer, I don’t really have an answer to Mom’s question. I do know that even as she was fading before our eyes, all of us were enriched by every visit and phone conversation (even the ones when she was very confused).
At about 90 she was talking about being ready to leave this life to be with Jesus. She expressed thanks for the full richness of her life, for the relationships with family and friends, for the opportunities she had had to serve. Then she said to me, “The only thing I haven’t done is die, and I’m ready to find out what that’s like.” While she was very realistic about death, for her personally, it was not something to dread but was her next great adventure.