On this Mother's Day, let me tell you about my mother. At funerals and memorial services, I invite the congregation to celebrate the life of the deceased, to talk about the person, tell the stories, and learn from his/her life. God teaches us through other people. By studying how others play the hand of life which has been dealt to them, we can learn and improve how we live our lives. Let me tell you how my mother played the hand she was dealt.
My mother made the best of it. Within a strong network of family and friends, she worked hard, played heartily, and died without fear.
From my mother, I learned the importance of family and friends. She was born the second oldest in a family of nine. Four have died, including one infant. The remaining brothers and sisters are a closely knit, supportive family yet today. Most Sunday afternoons in my childhood, when we weren't going to baseball games, were spent with my mother's family playing cards. My mother and dad also had several close couple friends with whom they visited, traveled, went to dances and out to eat. Our farm neighborhood was also closely knit. The women had a club which met monthly, and there were frequent card parties.
When we moved to California some 26 years ago, we left the warm nest of both my family and Ellie's family. Our congregations and Family Camp became our local extended families. It's hard on pastors' families when we itinerate among churches; but Family Camp remained constant and has become our boys' larger family. When our two oldest sons were married, Family Campers were among those first invited. None of us can play the hands of life we were dealt all by ourselves. We need a network of caring, concerned people who will love us in spite of our faults.
Within a strong network of family and friends, my mother worked hard. She learned at an early age how to work. As the second oldest, she learned how to cook, launder, sew, clean, garden, farm, and care for her younger siblings. Life was not easy on a Minnesota farm, especially on her family farm which was on sandy soil. I remember her telling me what a joy it was when they had sugar to put in the cake they baked. My mother learned from her mother the art of taking nothing but a few leftovers and making a feast. She made the best of it. My mother was also a vivid story teller, as was her father, my grandfather. When they both got to reminiscing, I would sit there for hours with my mouth open.
She married my father during the Great Depression. My dad worked for the highway department until I was born. They then were forced to return to farming which my dad did not enjoy. They moved in with his parents. My mother was caught in the middle, caring for me on one hand, and my grandparents on the other. To my mother's credit, I never realized the tension under which we lived until my mother shared late in life. She made the best of a difficult situation. She had to do all the cooking, laundering, gardening, cleaning, take care of me, and my grandmother when she became ill with tuberculosis. Evidently my grandmother was not easy to live with, but my mother never let on how difficult her mother-in-law was. I loved my grandparents dearly. My mother did not force me to take sides. When you compare photos of my mother at age 70 with photos of her at age 30, she looks younger at age 70. It was not easy for her, but she accepted the hand dealt her, and she made the best of it. With no sour grapes, commiserating, self-pity, anger, or bitterness, she made the best of it.
She treated others with respect, giving them the benefit of a doubt. In her quiet, gentle way, she put the best connotation on anyone's suspect behavior, even making excuses for them. She was a peacemaker, and made the best of every situation.
Within a strong network of family and friends, my mother worked hard and she played heartily. She especially enjoyed playing cards. The latest game, which her family is still playing, is "Hand and Foot", a version of canasta. My older granddaughter is named for my mother. Alison Beatrice, at age four, like her great-grandmother, plays Crazy Eights. She wants to win all the time, but her dad patiently explains that if you are going to play cards, you must learn how to lose. We do children no favor by manipulating situations so they always win. Cards, when you don't cheat, can teach patience, how to lose, and how to win graciously!
My mother also enjoyed picnics. I remember going on lots of picnics. We didn't need tables either. We would lay out the table cloth on pastures or beside lakes and rivers, and all of us would play in the water. Even in her later years, when we visited my parents in Arizona, we went on picnics in the Arizona desert. She also enjoyed rock hunting in the desert. After retirement, my parents spent six months in Minnesota and six months in Arizona every year. They learned how to play shuffleboard in their Apache Junction mobile home park, and one year my mother was the Arizona State Champion in shuffleboard. Even though my mother worked hard, she knew how to play. Play helped her make the best of the hand she was dealt.
Within a strong network of family and friends, my mother worked hard, played heartily, and died without fear. She was not reared in a church, and did not go to church while I was growing up and living at home. Whenever they visited us in California, they went to church with us, and in her later years in Arizona, she began going to a neighborhood church. When she confessed her faith in Christ, it was my joy and privilege to baptize her in the Palo Alto church. She also died in Palo Alto.
After my father died, my mother developed cancer. When it began to take its toll on her, she came to live with us. Her daughter-in-law, my wife, Ellie, was her caregiver, and Ellie did a magnificent job. She made the best of a heart rending situation. Our network helped considerably. For the last seven weeks of my mother's life, Ellie did not cook one meal. The doorbell would ring, and there would be someone from our Palo Alto church family with a meal. For seven weeks, the church brought in our meals. Before my mother slipped into unconsciousness because of the morphine, she was awed by the outpouring of love. She kept asking, "How can we thank them?"
When the radiation no longer had any effect, and our doctor, who was also a close friend, told her he could do nothing more for her but give her morphine for the pain, my mother called her brothers and sisters, called my brother and sister, told them all she belonged to Jesus, and said, "Goodbye." Then, she courageously sat up in bed, without any fear of death, said, "Call the doctor. I want a shot. I'm ready." My mother wanted to die as she lived her life-- in dignity. But, we had to explain how our society no longer allows doctors to exercise compassion. She died a horrible death, without fear; but, also, without dignity.
Because of my mother, and many other deaths I have witnessed as a pastor, I was one of the signers for the Right to Die initiative on the state ballot a few years ago. I believe strongly that people who are terminally ill, with a prospect only of pain, have the right to die in dignity, surrounded by their loved ones.
With the hand she was dealt, my mother made the best of it. Within a strong network of family and friends, she worked hard, played heartily, and died without fear. Whatever you are dealt, make the best of it. You can quit, or feel sorry for yourself, or gripe and complain. You can blame others. You can feel angry or bitter. You can make your life a hell. Or, you can make the best of it. Remember, you are not alone. Jesus is with you; and, look around, you are surrounded by a network, a caring church family.
© 1996 Douglas I. Norris