"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

In Memory of My Mother

My cosmic good fortune was to be born into this world, loved, cared for, and given life-wisdom by my mother; an angelic spirit in human form. She died 10 years ago today, April 19, 2014. This post is a memorial to her life and to her presence that lives on in me and the many others whose lives she graced with her loving touch. This is the eulogy I gave at her memorial:

My mother was a “Jolly Swinger”. I bet you didn’t know that. In the 60’s, she, along with a small group of other housewives seeking afternoon pleasures, formed a group. The “Jolly Swingers” was what they called themselves—- it was the name of their bowling team. I’m not quite sure if she was naïve to all the associations with the name, or if it was a sly wink. Either could be true. She never said. And I couldn’t tell.

My mother possessed a deceiving innocence. She was small in stature, had snow-white hair with curls surrounding her head that, in the proper light, shone like a halo. Her voice had a lilting inflection of song, and her mouth, in resting state (which was rare) had a slight crease of a smile from years of laughter. She was gregarious, enjoyed the company of others, and left a trail of love and affection in her wake. Her spirit was uncontaminated by many of the usual human failings: She was without guile and ego; she harbored no malice and was incapable of intrigue. 

Most would not know, and few would suspect, that she had seen much hardship in her life. She was born and raised in Appalachia. Her father died in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, when she was 12, leaving her to be raised by her mother who had an 8th grade education and no means of support. She and her mother moved often; from Kentucky to West Virginia, then to Florida and on to Washington DC, where she met my father during the war. After the war, she moved to upstate New York to join my father’s family. Later in life she moved back to Florida, then to North Carolina, and moved 2 more times after she was here in this state.

She learned much from her moves, including sensitivity to those who do not fit in, those on the fringe, and resilience to cope with life’s vicissitudes with openness and acceptance. Joys and heartrending sorrows followed her. She was tough, very tough in ways that were largely invisible. In the face of much hardship, when she could have easily succumbed to despair, she instead chose hope; instead of bitterness, she chose forgiveness; instead of rancor, she chose love. What steeled her, anchored her, saved her, was her unwavering faith. She rarely talked of her faith—hers was the quiet variety that was articulated in her comportment, actions and deeds.

When my wife, Sharon, joined our family she would compliment my mother on things she admired: “What a beautiful lamp”, said Sharon.  “Oh, do you want it?”, replied my mother. Sharon stopped making such remarks as it became clear that my mother was prepared to give away her entire household, if asked. Things, possessions, held little sway for her—–people and their welfare were her currency.

Kindness was not an intentional act for my mother; it was who she was. Her days were punctuated with acts of kindness, large and small, and I give you several examples.  One of the residents at Jordan Oaks (which was the independent living facility where she resided for some time), was also named Pauline; she was Jewish and, for many reasons, felt like an outsider there. She played cards with my mother and confided in her. When Pauline was diagnosed with cancer, my mother gave her one of your church’s prayer shawls to take with her to chemotherapy. Pauline wept on receiving it. She did take it with her for her chemotherapy and after, when the treatment failed, was comforted with it as her death approached. Then there was the middle aged Black man who shared rehab for knee replacement surgery with my mother, who, after 4 or 5 sessions, began referring to her as “mom”. And the Hispanic cleaning staff at Jordan Oaks, who called her “pollito”, an affectionate diminutive in Spanish that sounds like “Polly” and means “little chicken”. She was not influenced by a person’s station or status in life; the outsiders, the marginalized, the disenfranchised these, especially, drew her attention and affection.

Here is what she taught me about humility: When she left Jordan Oaks, she received notes of gratitude from the cleaning staff, and from others, letters of appreciation for her wisdom and kindness. When I asked her about it, she was truly perplexed: “I don’t understand, I was just being me”, she said, and changed the subject. This was not a coy avoidance. Her humility did not involve restraint in publicly acknowledging attributes she secretly took pride in. Rather, what she did was so integral to who she was that it was invisible to her. She simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about.

She was kind, generous, and humble, but also was an astute judge of others. She had a keen and unerring eye for falsity, pomposity and cant, but kept her opinions private—unless she was violated. She may have appeared a naïve, easy mark to some, but she was not afraid, when pushed, to offer pointed, confronting observations that could freeze someone in mid-air. Coming from her, such remarks were especially powerful, for they were both so very rare and, when given, so very incisive.

This oft hidden aspect of her was tellingly revealed in a court case where she was the central witness. When she was in her early 80’s she was in a car accident and the driver of the other car sued my mother for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The case dragged on for over 6 years before it came to trial. My mother was 88 at the time. The strategy of the opposing attorney was clear: To demonstrate that my mother was a confused, disoriented and uncertain old woman who should not have been driving and was obviously at fault.  When the questioning began, the attorney was quite confident and full of herself. My mother turned out to be a cool, savvy and unflappable witness—she calmly conceded nothing. As the interrogation progressed the attorney became more confused, disorganized and uncertain— it became obvious that the attorney was simply harassing this sweet, innocent elderly lady. The jury met for less than a half-hour and dismissed the case.

The last days of her life held true to her entire life, and I offer this final example that occurred moments after her last breath: My mother spent the last 2 weeks of her life at the Carolina House, a remarkable assisted living facility in Cary. These last days were marked by a precipitous decline in her functioning; helplessness, pain, confusion, weakness, and discomfort prompted fervent prayers by her that God take her from this world. My sister, Linda, her husband, Paul, and I were with her when she died. Two aids walked in seconds after, saw us, understood what had just happened; they began to cry, and hugged us. They talked of her gentle, endearing spirit and how they loved Miss Polly. She had been there only 2 weeks, in the most demeaning and debilitating of physical conditions, yet she had touched these 2 African American aids who had long tenures the Carolina House and had seen much dying— bringing them to tears and hugs at her passing.

She died the day before Easter.

There is, of course, always the danger of overstating or exaggerating in a eulogy, especially if the eulogy is for your mother. But I am confident that those here who knew my mother will know that the problem, in her case, is quite the opposite. Her example has taught me that words are mere shadows when trying to capture the fullness of such a life, lived.

And I am grateful beyond words to have had my life given and formed by this angelic spirit. There are deep responsibilities that accompany being the recipient of her grace. And I know that I fall woefully short. But I also know that she forgives me, as she always has. My hope is that whatever good flows from my life serves as a proper tribute to the debt I owe her.  

Amen.

18 Comments

  1. Anthony Biegen

    What a wonderful tribute to your mother! I’m sorry that I never met her but I can see her many positive traits have been well implanted in you.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Tony, for your kind words. Whatever traits I might share with her, it took many years to implant them in my hardscrabble soil.

  2. Linda Williams

    Lucky us! Blessed beyond measure!

    Selfless generosity and unassuming kindness in size 8 sneakers.

    To all this she would say “What did I do?”…but we know better.

    So thankful for Mom and so thankful for you on this day of happy sadness.

    Love you Brian and thank you this,

    Linda

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Lucky us, indeed! And lucky me to have you as my sister. Between the two of you and, of course, Sharon, you have (almost) civilized me.
      Love you.
      Brian

  3. Joan Walker

    This is a beautiful tribute to a warm and loving Mom from an observant, grateful son. I’ll bet she felt great pride in knowing how that son turned out.
    The photo of her chasing that little rascal says it all!

    jwalker

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Joan. She would agree, I was a bit of a rascal.

  4. Andie Jackson

    Thank you for this, Brian. You were certainly fortunate to have had such a mother.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Yes, I am most fortunate. Thank you, Andie.

  5. Sharon

    Wonderful eulogy. thank you, Brian. Would that we all could have had such mothers!

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Yes, indeed. Thank you, Sharon

  6. William F. Mayhan

    A beautiful tribute to your mother , Brian.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Bill.

  7. Gary Morse

    What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman. Thank you, Brian, for sharing this well-written and moving eulogy of your mother (who also lives on in ways in your own being as well as in your heart and memories).

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Gary.

  8. John klimaszewski

    Amen times a billion!

    Brian, your Eloquent thoughts and feelings were absolutely beautiful.
    She was magnificent in court that story makes me smile

    Appreciate you sharing.
    Say hi to Sharon look forward to seeing you in the summer

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, John, for your note. I look forward to seeing you in July.

  9. Linda Biegen

    Your mother’s life exemplified Emerson’s words “…make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I appreciate learning about her passage through earthly life and her affect upon those she met along the way. Kindness, simple and true, is a gift like no other. You indeed received “cosmic good fortune”.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Linda, for your thoughtful comments. I am, indeed, the recipient of cosmic good fortune.

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