I have written a lot about my Dad in this blog over the last six months. His final bout with illness, followed by his passing away in May, brought forth a flood of fond memories of happy times that helped stave off some of our deep sadness at his death. But, looking back, I do wish now that I had written some of those things when he was still alive and of sound enough mind to read and appreciate them. I resolved that I would not make that mistake twice.
Today my extended family gathered to celebrate my Mom's 85th birthday. The actual date was back in May, only a few days after my Dad's funeral. None of us felt quite like a party so soon after such a sad occasion, so we decided to wait and celebrate a bit later in the summer. It was quite a gathering - my three siblings and their spouses were there, and seven out of ten of mom's grandchildren, as well as four out of ten great-grandchildren, plus two of my three first cousins - the son and daughter of mom's sister Bobbie (now deceased), plus assorted in-laws and one boyfriend. We had plenty of food, laughs, and stories (including a rare opportunity for me to embarrass my big brother instead of vice versa!), and Mom was showered with gifts, cards, hugs, and wishes for many more happy and healthy years to come.
Laura Smith is one of the most remarkable ladies I know. She and my Dad were married in 1950, right before he was recalled to military service during the Korean War. My sister Clinta was born not long after that, then my brother Dwain, my sister Jo, and finally me - a bit of a surprise, in 1963. Mom was a military wife briefly, but she spent over fifty years as a preacher's wife, in a time when pastors and their families were both looked up to and held to a very high standard. She raised four kids who all grew up to be good and reputable adults (my Dad used to say with a wink: "Ain't one of my kids been in jail!") despite a few bumps along the way, including my oldest sister's "Flower Child" phase and my repeated attempts to talk her into letting me keep a pet snake.
Mom was a teacher by profession, high school English to be precise. She was strict but fun, demanding high quality work from her students but also investing in their lives and reminding them that she cared about them as people, not just as numbers in a grade book. All of us had her as our classroom teacher at one point or another, I think, and she made a point of showing no favoritism and accepting no excuses when it came to our schoolwork! But let someone treat one of us unfairly and she would sail into battle with all guns blazing, as evinced the time I got kicked out of Mr. S---------'s class after spending one period as "Teacher for a Day" my senior year. I said (erroneously, as it turned out, but in good faith) that Hitler had been born out of wedlock, and the history teacher flew into a rage and booted me from his room! Mom was NOT happy and let him know in no uncertain terms. (I think Mr. S--------- may have been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, but that is pure conjecture on my part.)
Mom loved her students, and they loved her back. In the mid-70's, when the "Pet Rock" craze was at it height, all her students started bringing her pet rocks. She named each one, stone by stone, and one kid even built her a little house for them! She displayed them at the front of her room and referred to each rock by name. (I think she was just grateful to have the most maintenance-free classroom pets of all time!) She was sponsor for the Future Teachers of America for many years, and after I graduated she switched career tracks and ended her time in the public schools as a high school counselor.
Mom was a perfect match for my Dad. He adored her and delighted in giving her gifts on special occasions, and their love was evident, not just in the way they spoke to each other in public, but in the way they treated each other at home. She was Dad's best friend, his refuge in time of stress, and his constant companion. I remember one time when I was about 14 or so, and we were trying to find our way to an obscure Dallas hospital to visit a sick church member. Dad got turned around and simply could not locate the place, and was getting more and more frustrated. Now, my Dad VERY rarely swore (I think I maybe heard him cuss 3 times in my entire life!), but he did have a number of colorful East Texas-isms that came out when he was mad, and one of them was the adjective "frazzlin' ". He must have said it a dozen times during that drive, and finally my dear mother leaned over and put her hand on his arm and said "Honey, I think you are frazzlin' your vocabulary tonight!" Dad burst out laughing, his anger dissipated, and I think we even eventually found the hospital.
Mom loved church - she sang in the choir, played the piano, performed solos (or "special music" as we call it in Baptist churches), and taught Sunday School classes. She stood by my Dad through some of the difficult times in his ministry, through combative business meetings, irate deacon interviews, and tragedies within the church family. She was his partner in ministry and his refuge from its storms. She was a role model to the younger women in the church, and to some of the older ones too, and how they all loved her!
But above all, my Mom was a loyal and devoted spouse to my Dad. During their retirement, they traveled together around the country, sometimes driving and sometimes going on tour buses. Later they got an RV and spent months at a time at places like Cooper Lake Park and Lake Wright Patman. But the place that truly captured their hearts was Mountain View, Arkansas. They wound up leaving their RV there full time and driving back and forth several times a year, staying for two or three months at a time in the "Folk Music Capitol of America," where they made many friends.
When Dad fell and broke his hip, that was the end of their traveling days. His health went downhill after that - within a year he was a permanent resident at a local nursing home. Mom continued to see him every day - unless it was raining, for she will not drive in bad weather. But for five years, she would get up, get dressed, go to the nursing home, and sit with Dad till lunchtime. They would eat together, visit with the other residents, and then she would take him back to his room. Only when he went down for the inevitable after-dinner nap would she leave, running her personal errands in the early afternoon, then driving back to her apartment and doing it all again the next day. Even though Dad was sadly reduced by dementia during his final two years, he always recognized her, always thought of her, and always worried about her. "Take care of your momma!" he admonished me at the end of nearly every visit.
Mom showed us all that "Love Wins." When Dad was in his final illness, she stayed with him every day, only going home at night because we kids insisted. She never left without kissing him goodbye and telling him she loved him. Her devotion never wavered, she never grumbled or complained about her lot, and in the end, she said her goodbyes with dignity and love, one last lesson for us all. The day after Dad's funeral, she told me: "I took a vow - 'in sickness and in health, till death do us part' - and I kept it as well as I could." That was very well indeed.
Now, for the first time in 67 years, she is on her own. She attends church every Sunday, goes to events with her Sunday School class, reads books, watches her beloved Texas Rangers, and has dinner with whichever one of us kids is free to take her as often as we ask. She told me her new policy is to refuse no invitation, so her days and evenings are often taken up with concerts, dinners, and even stage plays. She came to our house for the Fourth and enjoyed dinner and time with our family and friends. The joy in her face at the party today, seeing so many familiar and much-loved faces, was a reminder that she is far from done with living yet!
My Mom was always a good teacher - and I think she has many lessons yet to impart to us all. May she keep teaching them for many years to come!