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My mother died the night before last. It was the end of six months or so of steady decline from an already diminished state of mind and body. Mom suffered a stroke almost nine years ago that left her in a memory-loss unit for the duration. Much of that time she was able—and eager—to talk about things from her youth and childhood, and she always expressed such joy to see us come in the room. If damage to her short-term memory prevented her from remembering what she had for lunch, well, frankly, that wasn’t all bad. Her left peripheral vision was shot too, but that, we joked, simply confirmed her congenital Republicanism. Grade-school teacher that she had been, Mom tried to help the staff take care of residents who “needed a little boost.” As it happened, one of them was the woman under whom she had done her student teaching seventy years before. “Serve as you have been served.” “Lots of give and take.”
As the quotes above indicate, my mom, like many, was a great one for proverbs and pithy sayings. The one I remember best was “there’s an easy way and a right way.” (Think about it.) Then too, “comfort before style” put a certain limit on our wardrobe possibilities. “Duty before pleasure”—a formula for infinite postponement it seemed to this teenaged son. Old Deist Ben’s “waste not, want not” came out like pistol shots, those final t’s bearing a clipped edge born of her Sheboygan, Wisconsin childhood.
The phrase with which our mom left us, though, was unusual. “Always remember!” she intoned, rising a bit off her pillow to emphasize the point. This after she hadn’t moved much at all for a week. Her arm came up too, with the index finger raised: “Always remember!” Now I didn’t witness this; only my younger sister did. Her brothers immediately noted that said sister, always having been the naughty one, both needed the injunction and called it forth. Sister replied, not naughty, just exploring the edge. We all learned again that humor is a divine as well as human grace in passages like this. One other quip we all agreed on too: could we have a direct object here, Mom? Always remember what, in particular?
Well, the joke’s on us, because there’s deep wisdom in leaving that injunction open-ended. What is it that we need to remember? What is it that we want to remember? Are “need to” and “want to” the same thing here? And where did “always remember” come from, anyway? This was nothing close to a staple in Mom’s repertoire. Whence the command and what the answer? Mom left it for us to fill in the blanks.
Certainly of her own answer there can be no doubt. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” We heard it from the pulpit 52 times a year growing up, and we heard pointed applications of the rule around the house. But much more we saw it translated into action in the grind and routine of the everyday: money always short, schoolwork to supervise, housework to finish, church and church meetings to prepare for and get to and get us to, endless meals—and I mean endless—to prepare and on time, because my father, and hers, were sticklers on that point. And when it was all done, repeat, and again. Try loving the Lord through all that. By all that. Mom did.
So that’s what we’ll remember, the mundane energized by principle. The infinite variety, the depth in the details. “Always remember!” How could we forget?