The following is a piece I wrote for my mother’s memorial service in Elkhart, KS:
How do you tell another person’s story?
How do you condense 94 years into 2 hours?
Ok….maybe not 2 hours, but a few minutes…
It would make sense to begin with Mom’s birth. She was born in Huntington, West Virginia on March 26th, 1925. Or was it the 24th…or the 25th? Our family always celebrated it on March 26, but a few years ago, Connie had to send for Mom’s birth certificate due to some legal reason, and we found that we had been wrong for all those years. The birth certificate and our memories were different.
Speaking personally, this makes perfect sense to me now, because many of my memories of my mother were, if not wrong, at least made clearer after spending the last 7 years of her life close to her. I began to understand just how difficult Mom’s life was and how so much of the way she lived her life was governed by the way her brain worked. I told her that, too, when she grew frustrated with the effects that creeping dementia had on her verbal abilities and her increasing unsteadiness in walking or getting up from sitting. She would get frustrated when trying to remember a word or event, and I would say, “Its OK. That’s just how your brain works right now.” She seemed to feel comfort from this thought…sometimes.
Mom’s brain always worked differently, though. That’s not surprising, right? All of us have brains that act uniquely. It is what makes each of us unique and distinctive. However, Mom suffered with bi-polar disorder, which was untreated for most of her life. This condition presented both challenges and gifts, honestly, and in these past few years the way I began to understand her fluctuated between recognizing both the challenges and the gifts.
Mom was stubborn.
Let me say it again…MOM WAS STUBBORN!
And this stubbornness was supported by a high level of energy and an obsessiveness. When Helen Williams got something in her mind, she was going to follow through with it, sometimes to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. She would lock on to a course of action or thought like a pit bull locks on to a log. Sometimes there was a positive reason to lock on to it. Especially when it came to loving people.
Like when she was a mother raising two children while in itinerant evangelism travelling from city to city and staying in the homes of other people or in a travel trailer. Can you imagine riding herd on two energetic toddlers while being a guest in another person’s home?
Crayons on walls…
Washing diapers out by hand…
Cleaning up vomit from someone’s carpet or couch…
Or keeping them busy while riding countless hours from one city to another.
Or feeding them in a car.
How about figuring out WHAT to feed your family when the check at the end of the revival is small, and you must pay for gas to the next revival?
Mom had to be creative.
Connie once said, “I have gone into the kitchen and figured I needed to go to the store because there was no food, but Mom would go into the same kitchen and make a MEAL!”
Mom was stubbornly convinced that these difficulties were acceptable because her family was telling other people about Jesus and that was more important than the hardship.
How about teaching a Sunday School class of 5th and 6th grade boys like she did down in the parsonage basement right here in this very location?
Sometimes being stubborn and being patient look the same!
I was in that class. I remember she kept us interested using a program called Jet Cadets in which we became potential jet pilots. She would bring boxes to class and we would create imaginary computers out of them to help us with our missions.
She also took us outside the class on Saturday excursions. We travelled to the Cimarron river, which at the time was better named the Cimarron sand, and we began to dig in the dry river bed until the water underground seeped in. We then stepped into the watery sand and felt it suck our feet down like quicksand. I’m sure she used the experience as a spiritual metaphor, explaining how quickly habits can become quicksand, or how even a dry place can have the water we need due to God’s grace.
During revivals, she would tell bible stories using a Flannel Graph. Remember those? Although these stories were especially for kids, I bet she understood that all of us are still kids.
She was especially stubborn when it came to telling other people about Jesus. It sometimes got her into trouble, too. Especially in the Assisted Living Facility in which she lived for several years towards the end of her life. Her growing dementia robbed her of her civility, but not her stubborn will. Often, at meal time, when everyone in the facility was in the dining room, she would take her bible and begin to read aloud…really loud. She either could not understand that everyone didn’t want to hear Leviticus at meal time, or she did not care if they wanted to hear it. “They need to know Jesus!” she would exclaim, and it did not matter that they either already knew Jesus, knew about Jesus, or that there was nothing in Leviticus ABOUT Jesus. THEY NEED TO KNOW!
Mom loved working in the yard. She could be obsessive about it, too. While living in the ALF, for years Mom would constantly be outside working in the yard, even in the heat of the Florida summer. She would be so focused on what she was doing she would forget to drink or eat. Sometimes, she would pull up plants that were part of the landscape plan, and either try to transplant them, or throw them away. While pulling at a small tree root, she would lose her grip and fall, sometimes hitting her head, and nobody would know about it until she came inside with a black eye or bruise. Her clothes were often dirty. She always had cuts on her legs. But she would not stop! It became a problem…
Despite many warnings, she persisted. Even when the owner locked away her tools and put a lock on the water faucet. She would make do with other objects as tools and put a container under the AC condensation spout for water. Once, before they locked the water faucet, she attached the hose, and walked in front of the smokers on the porch with the water on full to water the plants. One of the smokers…a woman…confronted her, kindly reminding her she wasn’t supposed to use the hose and telling her she was spattering water all over the smokers. Mom turned the hose on her. In the resulting struggle for the hose, the faucet was damaged so that water was spraying from it. The water had to be shut off, and the faucet fixed. Everyone said it was Mom’s fault. She wasn’t popular for a while after that incident. (When I heard the story, I was extremely doubtful that she had the strength to break that faucet. Now, I think it at least possible…)
Her gardening obsession didn’t really manifest itself until later in her life, although I do remember instances of it. I remember when the Youth Center here was nearing completion, Mom decided that the landscape near the entrance needed some help. Janet Kelly agreed with her. They came up with a design, recruited a few people (I was one) and travelled to Carrizo Canyon in Colorado to get needed materials. We loaded rocks, cacti, dead wood, and quite honestly, I can’t remember what all else, into pickups to be transported to Elkhart. We then unloaded everything while Mom and Janet put them in place. It was a LOT of work, but Mom was right in the middle of it all and seemed to love the whole process.
I’m sure many of you have stories about my mother, and you will be given a chance to tell them. However, the way I will remember my mother is symbolized by strawberry milk shakes and drives in the park.
My relationship with my mother wasn’t easy nor positive, honestly. And the first couple of years living near her reflected that history. However, as her dementia got worse, our relationship got better. I never knew preceding each visit, who I would be to her.
Sometimes, I was her brother.
Sometimes, I was her father.
Sometimes, I was my father.
Sometimes, I was her boyfriend.
Sometimes, I was her son.
Sometimes, I am not sure she knew who I was, but there was a feeling of familiarity of someone she trusted. I liked that. The trusting part, because it was so different and new. Eventually, it occurred to me that I was becoming a pseudo-father to my mother. I love being a father and believe I am a pretty good one.
She once said something that I found both profound and beautiful. I had just walked in the door for a visit with her, and we were standing in the hall with a woman that worked at the ALF.
The woman referred to me and asked Mom, “Do you know who he is?”
Mom responded, “He is my brother.”
“No,” the woman corrected her, “he is your son.”
Mom said, “He is my son, but he is also my brother!”
I like that…
It is profound…
…and it reminds me of how I feel about my own children. The thought describes both a genetic connection, but also a relationship on even ground, with none of the struggles for power that often characterize parent-child relationships. Unconditional, mutual love and respect, without attempts to manipulate the actions of each other.
…a relationship completely different than the one she and I had throughout many of my 57 years with and away from her.
My memories of Mom will be ones surrounding a place: School House Holler. It is the place to which her mind seemed to return when I would take out for our weekly trip to Culver’s for a strawberry milkshake and a drive through a county park nearby. I wrote about it on my blog last year, and I will finish with a portion of it:
“Now, her mental state often leaves her in a place before I was born. Before my brother and sister were born. Before she married my father, and all the years driving across the country from church service to church service. Back to when she was young. Either when she was a college student, or when she was a child. To be honest, her behavior is often that of a two-year-old. She can become so confused that her childhood memories invade the present. Not the memories themselves, but her view of the world then. The trees and plants around her ALF were planted by her father, she says. There is no reason to argue the point with her. No reason to try and pull her 85 years into the present. In those times, it is all she is capable of understanding. I think it is a way for her to survive the confusion. To make sense of not knowing or liking where she is. It may be comforting to be Home, if only in the deep recesses of her mind.
That is why she loves trees, I think.
The place she is remembering, is School House Holler. I have been there once. It is in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, up-river from Huntington, WV, where she was born, and where her family moved when she was older. It is the place where her earliest memories lie. Her fondest childhood memories. Where her mother fed her cornbread and milk and flap-jacks and green beans with ham hocks and biscuits with milk-gravy. Where she worked with her brother pulling caterpillars off the tobacco plants and plopping them into a tin Hills Brother’s coffee can with kerosene in it to kill them. Where she and her brother got sick when they rolled a tobacco leaf into a homemade stogie, hid and smoked it, then got a spanking when her mother found out. Where her daddy worked all week in an industrial job along the river, then came home to work all weekend in their large garden with multiple fruit trees and then hauled the garden harvest to the farmer’s market in town on Sunday to sell to city folks for extra money during the depression. Where her daddy had to park his pickup miles away when it rained and then walked home because the roads were too muddy. Where their single milk cow and mule and pigs were. Where her crazy grandfather lived with them and would frequently disappear and have to be searched for in the woods. Where all her sisters and brother walked down the same path, being joined by neighboring kids intermittently along the path to the one-room school in the valley. Where the house was small, but the country was big and beautiful and full of adventure.
Once, when I first moved here, she drew maps of the farm, and the layout of the kitchen, and showed them to me. I didn’t realize at the time the significance of the maps. I was still living with my own memories of her, I guess, so I was less receptive to her remembrances. I was amazed by her memory, then. Now I understand it was her attempt to go Home again. Just like her love of the trees in the park every Saturday.
She was born fourth among six children, three years younger than her brother, Harold, and three years older than her sister, Betty. She seems to have been closest to Harold, although it may just seem that way, because the stories she told me about School House Holler usually include him. The two of them either busy working or getting into minor mischief together. There were always chores to do. The house had neither running water, nor an indoor bathroom, so there was always water to fetch, a cow to milk, or eggs to gather from the chicken coop. It was at School House Holler that her work ethic was born and honed.”
I will remember her as a little girl with skinned knees, bare feet, and a thin dress dirtied by the tree she’d just climbed. I will see her running through the tall grass with her brother Harold to the creek where they will flip over rocks looking for crawdads, after which they will lie down in the tall grass and look up in the sky to watch the clouds gather for a storm. They will run through the rain to meet their father as he walks up the lane to a house alive with the clamber of her siblings’ voices, and the smell of bacon and corn bread cooking.
In the months preceding my mother’s death, I began to understand at least two things:
- In moving to Florida, God gave me the gift of reconciling with both my mother and my life.
- That my overwhelming desire for my mother would be that she find Peace.
I also understood better that she would not find peace in her body when her brain acted the way it always had, so…
On Thursday evening, December 27, 2018, Helen Irene Young Williams finally found the peace I had hoped she would find.