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Eighteen years ago this week, on a brilliant morning after a night snowstorm, we laid our ninety-three-year-old mother to rest. The hearse managed at one point to get stuck in the still poorly plowed cemetery lanes, and the incongruity, it occurred to me as we pallbearers bore her casket over the drifts, would have amused no one more than her. Had this problem occurred in her own driveway less than a decade earlier, she might well have been out there herself with a shovel. “Spry” was a word she used often and, until very nearly the end, resolutely embodied.
My father, as a minister of that time, had the public career in our household, but I remember his often saying, whatever the cliche, that in all the uprooting family moves, my mother always made a home. On one level, this meant domestic attractiveness, neatness, and order, and my mother’s housekeeping, under constant assault from five rambunctious children, was something of a legend among those who knew her. Even in very old age, when her prowess was in decline, she could still, on a good day, spot a fuzzy at twenty yards.
But the neatness and order spoke at a deeper level as well. If, to quote a famous Hemingway story, a “clean, well-lighted place” was what your psyche needed — and what psyche deep down doesn’t? — my mother provided it. You knew not only where your socks were, you knew also where your own place was in her ordered and stable world and in her heart. The reliable rituals of the home, as my own wife reminds me, become in many ways our heartbeat for life, and my mother’s steady rhythms were especially important for her family, given the succession of our moves into new communities and schools and the frequent disruptions of the daily ministerial life.
Her love was as unconditional and persistent as the six extra inches of waxed paper around our school sandwiches and her own late-afternoon ritual of never, perhaps for seventy years — unless by reason of a birth — missing the crossword puzzle in the daily press. Her vocabulary and spelling were fabulous in a woman whose education ended with high school. She had been, I gather, a fine student, but her plans for college sadly ended when she gave up her savings to help support her family in financial need.
She loved puzzles and games of any kind, and whatever her deferences, we had better not underestimate her competitive spirit. We may have been loved unconditionally, but that didn’t mean we had to win. Her father, she often reminded us, had been one of the best checkers and card players in Holland, and it was clear that she had no intention of embarrassing the legacy.
Allied somehow to her petite unassertiveness was always a certain surprising combativeness, which she seems to have inherited. According to the story I’ve been told, the aforementioned gaming father, a largely obliging but principled man, had for years been denied membership in the CRC church he nonetheless faithfully continued to attend, because he refused to give up the card-playing for which he was renowned in the fire stations and wherever else around town. A new minister finally put an end to the rejection, and Grandfather Albert was at last vindicated and welcomed into the fold.
Still, whatever the warmth of the home-front, my mother’s more public role as the wife of a minister came at a price for her, as, I’m sure it did for many minister’s wives of her generation, when ministers probably bore more moral authority in a community than they do now and their wives were usually expected to be fully engaged and compliant partners. Beyond keeping up appearances — including weekly Sunday display in the usual pew, accompanied by children not always models of reverence — this might mean expectations of public speaking — say, leading devotions at the Ladies Aid — a prospect she particularly dreaded, but couldn’t always avoid. I still have a copy somewhere of one little talk my father lovingly composed for her to deliver.
She hadn’t bargained for the high-visibility life of the parsonage, my father’s call to the pulpit sounding clarion only after their marriage, and she might joke with only semi-humor, “If I had known that your dad would head for the ministry….” The sentence would break off, and I would remind her that, beyond the loss to the church, a different decision on her part might have had some unfortunate consequences for her children.
And a loss to the church it would have been, perhaps more than she, in her ambivalence, knew, not only in her support of her husband and family, but in her own pastoral presence. She often accompanied him on congregational visits, her folksy sociability nicely offsetting his less convincing efforts at informality. And it didn’t hurt for her to ensure beforehand that he had a firm grip on the name of the soul to whom he was about to minister. Or review the family tree as needed. “She should have married a detective,” he would grin. But her balm went far beyond accompaniment, and she nurtured relationships of her own that extended in fluent letter-writing back to friends in the very first church they served.
Not only was she better in her pastoral presence than she knew, she also, I think, found more fulfillment in it than perhaps even she recognized. Such are the paradoxes of life. I can see her now, long after her churchly duties had ended and her husband had died, strategically positioned in her wheelchair at the confluence of the A-Wing and B-Wing in the nursing home, eager to offer a good word to any who happened by!
And so, in this week of remembrance for me, replicated in the individual memories of others throughout the year, a son’s tribute to a woman who was a gift to her family and to the church. We are knit, the Psalmist says, in our mother’s womb, and the knitting goes on for our lifetime. As for the church, it was not for her, in her time and with her disposition, to be a vocal leader for women’s rights. Or, given the times, perhaps even to dream the possibilities for others.
“Nobody had taught you to dream big,” laments writer Wallace Stegner in an elegiac essay about his own departed mother of an even earlier generation (“Letter, Much too Late,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs). And yet in her quiet openness of spirit, my mother would, I think, have applauded the recent stories here on this blog of those who have been such leaders — one of them, I am delighted to note, of a young pastor who, until just recently, ministered to the very church to which my mother herself ministered as a pastor’s wife some fifty years ago.