This post is an open call for comments so I can have your feedback about this first draft of Mom's eulogy. I'm not looking for condolences or sympathy. What I need is constructive criticism from some of the best writers I know. Please leave a comment or send me a PM with any suggestions as to how this can be improved:
My mother, Nora Juanita Nickell McHattery, was a woman who did the best she knew how, to be a good and considerate person. She tried her best to be a good child, a good daughter, a good musician, a good seamstress, a good wife, a good cook, a good mother, a good neighbor, a good employee and a good grandmother. So far as I know she had no aspirations to excel in any particular role because at her core she seemed shy and she avoided the spotlight. She had a pretty good grasp of her limitations, but I believe she underestimated her intelligence and to a certain extent her capabilities. She was a strong woman when she needed to be; but her weakness was that she tended to address the needs of others before she took care of herself. She was also very concerned of what she thought that other people might think of her, her home and her family.
Standing here right now it occurs to me that she may have been right with that particular concern; because at the end of our lives we are ultimately no more than the reflection of ourselves in how we are remembered by those who we cared for and loved. I know that my mother cared for and loved her family. I know she cared for her friends and neighbors. I know that she sought and needed our appreciation and approval. I know this because it is part of what she tried to give to her children; and despite our best or worst efforts to push that concern and need away, I have to believe that it remains with us.
For me she was and always will be, Mom. My first clear conscious memory is the day in November of 1954 when she came home from the hospital with my little brother Rick. I was four years old and they brought her through the front door of our rented home in Indianapolis on a gurney. She had a weary expression on her face as she smiled with her new born son in her arms. Now there were three boys to care for and soon we’d be moving to our new old house in the small town of Acton, Indiana.
My next conscious memory is an afternoon in late spring. I sat on the floor playing with wooden blocks while Mom was ironing and we listened to the radio. The lyric of a song caught my attention and later that day as she was hanging laundry on the clothesline in the back yard, I began to dance and sing as four year olds are wont to do and in the biggest voice I could find, I serenaded her with,
I love parrots in the springtime,
I love parrots in the fall,
I love parrots in the summer when it sizzles,
I love parrots in the winter when is drizzles,
I love parrots every moment,
Every moment of the year,
I love parrots, why oh why do I love parrots,
Because my love is here.
She was beaming with tears streaming down her cheeks when she scooped me up into her arms and tickled me. I never did understand why she was laughing so hard.
Our father, ‘Mac,’ passed away in 2001 and he and Mom were members of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” If they were with us today, they’d probably try to deny that their lives were anything special, but I think the way they valued people was in their work, in their actions and in the manner in which they lived their lives. I think they’d want us to remember them in that way. As I remember, neither Mom nor Dad regarded other people through their perceived popularity or their rank, title, office or wealth, the size of their house or the car they drove. What other people gave to a church or their children or a political party didn’t much matter to our parents. What seemed important to them was what people took in order to get what they needed. I believe the reason they assigned value to people in this way was forged in their childhood experience in the Great Depression in rural Indiana.
When I was still a kid, every Memorial Day during our summer visit to Mom’s family farm, we’d spend that day at the small house where her grandfather “Papaw” lived. With the AM radio crackling in the sparsely furnished kitchen playing the network broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, Mom and Aunt Edna swept and mopped the house, and unpacked and plated a cold fried chicken picnic lunch. While the women cleaned, Mom’s dad “Pop” led the old man outside to sit in a chair under a giant Walnut tree next to the well, where he’d carefully trim and shave off “Papaw’s” great bushy beard and cut his hair. After the picnic as we were leaving, “Papaw” always pulled a big roll of cash from his freshly starched and pressed bib denim overalls and handed each of his great grandchildren a one dollar bill.
One time after we returned to “Pop’s” place, I found Mom crying on the steps out back behind the kitchen. I sat down next to her and asked what was wrong. She wiped her eyes with her apron and pulled herself together. “Nothing, really,” she said, “It’s just that every time we go over there I have bad memories. I can’t help but hate that old man. He was always scheming, and finagling with his drinking, guns and gambling, and always in trouble with the law. He ruined your great uncle Harrison, and I thank God ‘Pop’ didn’t take after him. They finally sent him to prison for fooling around with some teenage tramp, and every time I see him I remember the afternoon when I was about your age. A bunch of men showed up and pulled every stick of furniture out of the house while me and your Grandma cried our eyes out. You’d think that kind of thing would make a man change his ways, but he never did. Seeing him pull that all money out and give you kids a dollar - that just made me want to cry! That’s the kind of thing he’d do with us -always thinking he could buy love.”
In 1956, our family got uprooted from Indiana and Mom always did what she could to deal with the changes. Job security, health insurance and other benefits took priority over cash flow and “Mac” took a hefty pay cut go to work for the Department of Defense Office of Supply Contract Administration Services. His job took our family from Indiana to Florida to Irving, Texas and in 1961 it brought us here to Pasadena; and for better or worse this little city became our hometown. My brother Rick and I finished elementary school across the street at Mae Smythe. We both attended Southmore Junior High School and graduated from Sam Rayburn just down the block. Rick’s daughter, Mac and Juanita’s granddaughter and my niece, Ellen also graduated from Sam Rayburn and then went on to the University of Texas at Austin to become the first member of our family to graduate college with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism.
Raising three wild boys here in Texas was a challenge; and while she wasn’t always easy to live with, Mom did the best she knew how to make our home as good as a mother with limited resources could manage. Three memories come to mind about our family life here in Texas:
One November after we moved to Irving, Mom stopped me at the front door and presented me with a jacket and my yellow rain slicker. “It’s supposed to be cold and raining this afternoon,” she said. I looked out at the clear blue morning where it was already seventy, then looked up at her like she was crazy and said, “That’s okay Mom. If it rains, I’ll cut across the school yard and jump the fence.”
“Okay, but if you catch a cold, it’s your own fault.”
By nine, the temperature had dropped ten degrees and clouds loomed on the horizon. By lunch, it was down in the low fifties, the clouds were overhead, and our play was cut short when the wind picked up and it began to sprinkle. As we ran back inside, Zach my new best buddy punched me in the arm and said, “Son you’re gonna freeze your skinny butt off on the way home.”
“Nah, it’s just wind and rain.”
Zach laughed, “That’s what you think Yankee boy. This here’s a “Blue Norther,” comes all the way down from Canada and it gets so cold so quick that frogs get froze on the ponds.”
Now here’s why Mom had such a challenge being the only female in a house full of wild men, I have “Mac” to thank for this comeback, “Yeah, well ya know how us Yankees find Texas? We go west ‘til we smell BS, then turn south ‘til we step in it!”
I got a punch in the arm for that one and the windswept rain poured down in dark sheets, then it turned to hail, then sleet, then as if to confirm Zach’s tall tale, it began to snow. When I stormed through our back door into Mom’s warm kitchen, she had a steaming bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup and a warm Velvetta grilled cheese sandwich waiting for me. She tossed me a dishtowel and said, “I told you so. Now get out of those wet clothes and eat your soup.”
My second memory of Mom’s on going challenge to raise three boys in Texas was at the supper table on a Friday night where we’d just gone through a mountain of food and a half gallon of milk at one sitting. I don’t recall which of us passed gas first, but it was clearly audible and brought a grimace to Mom’s face followed by appropriate words of admonishment… followed almost immediately by a second toot from another wayward son. I believe I may have been the third to succumb to manly flatulence, but it was “Mac’s” mischievous grin and resonant blast that brought the house down… even Mom had to laugh.
This last recollection isn’t as charming but it’s a powerful illustration of the strength of that woman’s voice. After we moved to Pasadena, Mom took a seasonal part-time job at Sears to help with the expenses at Christmas. I was twelve, so that made it the winter of 1961. Anyway when I got home from school, I forgot to pull the pork chops out of the freezer and when Mom came home from work, things started to go south. Dinner would be late and “Mac” didn’t appreciate having to wait for his food at suppertime.
When Dad came in from work Mom was furiously working at putting dinner on the table. He wasn’t pleased to see her ticked off with me, and their verbal conflict escalated around the obvious and trivial until “Mac” pulled the refrigerator door open to grab a cold beer and a jar of Miracle Whip fell out and broke on the kitchen floor. Everything exploded with that broken glass and sweet white goo. It all just came off the rails and when he reached his big paw back to swing at Mom, I jumped off the couch in the family room and raced to grab “Mac’s” arm. I was still a 97 pound weakling; so with a startled expression he grabbed my shirt collar and tossed me ten feet through the air back into the family room. I’m not sure but think I actually landed on the couch and bounced onto the floor. What I do remember very clearly was how my mother’s voice brought the conflagration to an abrupt end when she uttered the simple imperative, “Look what you’ve done to your son!”
Mom stood her ground with “Mac” and despite his objections; in January of 1962 she went to work full time at Sears and stayed on the job until she retired with over $100,000 in pension benefits and stock. She was the first person in our family who ever touched a computer keyboard and she set an example for all of us to never be intimidated by technology. The little farm girl from Indiana discovered, “There’s almost nothing you can’t learn how to do if you put your mind to it.”
Both Mom and “Mac” were helpful and actively involved with raising their three grandchildren and Mom passed her discovery on to each of them. Ellen, David, and Nicholas are all college graduates. Ellen and Nick have their own children and I hope that David, who just got married, will someday have the pleasure and treasure of his own children as well. So, I’d like to take a few minutes and ask each of them to come up here to remember their Grandma:
As a family we’ve muddled through our share of dramas and conflicts and made our attempts at resolution. Somehow over the last sixty-nine years we’ve survived the measles, chicken pox, broken bones, hurricanes, traffic accidents, divorces and even a few brushes with death across three generations and we’re all still here. Among those struggles there were shining moments of laughter, generosity, tenderness and celebration. The quiet tribute of our lives in this family is that we all still make a living and try to make our individual contributions to family and friends. I don’t know what’s coming next; but we’ll do the best we can, as best we know how, because that’s how two good people raised their three wild sons. We all follow the examples of strength and endurance set for us by the hard work and plain common sense of our parents and grandparents. It’s ingrained in the fiber of our being and in the end we can really do no less. It’s our heritage.
As it happened with “Mac”, time, age and a mystery called Alzheimer’s disease have finally taken our mother and grandmother from us. Whether you knew her as Juanita, Mom or Grandma, be assured by the blessing that she passed from this life in a peaceful sleep on last (insert day and time). Rick and I spent quite some talking about how the doctors could do no more to help her and despite the ravages of her disease at the end of her life she was serene in her acceptance.
The truth about our parents, the essence of their strength of character, is that I know they both worked very hard all their lives and they’ve done the best they knew how to provide a good life for their children and grandchildren. In the end that’s all we can expect from anyone: That they found the courage to change the things they could, to help family and friends when, where and how they could, and that they tried to leave the world a better place for their passage through this life. On the whole Nora Juanita Nickell McHattery did the best she could for this family and that was more than enough.
Since 1969 I’ve lived most of my life in California, over two thousand miles from home. For the most part Mom and my brother Rick carried the weight of Mac’s last years of illness, and before he died in 2001, “Mac” made Rick promise to take care of Mom and the family. I came out when I was needed and helped where and how I could; but Rick carried most of the weight alone and we all need to appreciate the patience and courage he’s quietly demonstrated over these past fifteen years and be thankful for the time and energy that he’s given to welfare and care of our parents.
When all this began and we moved “Mac” to a nursing home, I went through his albums and made a tape of what I knew were his favorite songs. The first song I recorded was an American hymn written by Will Thompson in 1880 sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. When I played that tape for “Mac”, his eyes lit up with recognition and he smiled and hugged me. It was one of the few times in my adult life that I’ve ever been able to tangibly return the love he gave to me.
If you put the sheet music for that hymn in front of Mom, even when she was in her seventies, and sat her down at the piano; she would spend a few minutes reading the music and toying with the chords and then play and sing the entire thing without missing a note. For me that was a complete mystery and the most admirable of her many talents. So I ask you all to join me and sing this hymn in remembrance and appreciation for all that my brother Rick has done to care for two good people who did the best they knew how, Mom and “Mac”:
Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling…
This was the best performance I could find. It comes from the titles of The Trip to Bountiful, a very good film about Texas that I highly recommend. When I found it and listened to it, I have to admit to a tearful moment; so in a strange way, it seems a fitting memorial for my mother. I don’t know what’s coming next; but like I wrote, we’ll do the best we can, as best we know how, because that’s how two good people raised their three wild sons. It’s our heritage.
Except for attributed video, photos and text, all content is copyrighted © 2012 JKM (an apparently ineffectual boilerplate joke?)