My Mother’s Life

My mother, Alice, passed away in April 2018, at the age of 85. Her memorial service was a lovely end to a life well lived in a community of family and friends. My sister Jamie delivered the eulogy. I’ll share her text below. I also made a video, compiling photos from throughout my mother’s life, which appears below.

The eulogy

A Life in Bits and Pieces

A teddy bear propped in the corner…
A quilt draped over a chair…
Bright colored yarn in skeins and knitted bits…
Hot air balloons and baskets hanging about…
Beaded jewelry and leatherwork, too!
Pictures on walls and in box after box,
Capturing memories
And holding them close.
Mom’s hands, always busy with the tasks before her
Multiple projects in various stages of completion—
Stuffing here and bits of bears there—
A Halloween costume cut for a far-away grandchild,
and an appliqué for a sweatshirt
that is the right color but far too plain;
And fabric—beautiful fabric!—everywhere
For something not quite yet imagined…

It is the movement of Mom’s hands that caught me so much the last time I saw her. She was always busy with her hands, even when she could no longer complete a task. She drove Dad crazy playing with her napkin waiting for lunch, and turning a card over and over in her lap when she could no longer read. Her head and her hands continued to search…and try to create, even if those of us watching could no longer understand the things she tried to create.

Capturing the life of an individual is a daunting task! How—in a few short words and minutes—can we possibly convey the essence of a life between the dates of birth and death? And, even what we put into words cannot contain the completeness of the soul of a person—we who only know the smallest of things about one another! Yet, here is my attempt to do so with Alice.

Mom was born and raised in Cheyenne. Although she was the oldest child of McKenzie and Leila, she was born into a large family of other children. For a number of years, she was the youngest child of this family—and then her brother, Frank, was born. He was the new baby of the family and was well-loved.

Alice had a challenging time as a child because of her eyesight. She had a lazy eye that meant she had to wear an eye-patch; then as now, children are not always particularly kind and they teased her about it. Being different in this way bothered her, she told me once, and it made her very aware of what people said about—and to—one another. The awareness of appearances was something that was very important to her, and she worked hard to make sure that things looked good and appropriate at all times—which sometimes led to some pretty funny family stories, like the time Janelle’s prosthesis got left on the hood of the car—but that’s a longer story to ask Janelle about later…

Alice also had a difficult time with weight—not my problem of having too much of it—but of gaining enough weight. As a child, malt powder had to be added to her milk just to give her a few more calories. I was very aware of this as a teen, carefully watching whether or not someone ordered a malt…or a milkshake. Before I heard this story, I thought the choice was made because of the slight difference in taste rather than calories…that information became important when Janelle needed to gain weight in order to have her chemotherapy—and Mom knew just what to do. This story has come back to me over the last several months as we continued to look for ways to keep Mom from losing weight.

As a young adult, Alice went off to college, and her world expanded. She went to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, mostly riding back and forth on the train. Occasionally, however, she would ride with friends or acquaintances who were coming to Cheyenne. Sometimes those who gave her rides were invited into the house when she got home—and other times they were not because of their country of origin, or ??? Because of that reaction from her parents, Alice learned a sense of hospitality toward others, and the world was often invited to stay in our home when I was growing up. Alice worked hard and she graduated from UW with a BS in Home Economics and a certificate that named her a teacher. She graduated with a love for sewing, knitting, and working with all things having to do with fibers; what she did not graduate with was a great interest in cooking!

Following graduation, Alice taught Home Ec in Basin and Pine Bluffs and then at Johnson Jr. High in Cheyenne. She became a very active member of AAUW (American Association of University Women), and was an advocate for women’s education. She stayed involved with friends from college which soon led her to another great adventure—travel in Europe!

Some time in her late teens, Alice had become pen pals with a woman named Shirley. Shirley lived in England, and so when Alice’s teaching colleagues and friends began to talk of a trip abroad, England was added and Alice and Shirley got to meet. This was an important meeting because Shirley and Cliff became an important part of our family—ask Alan and Brenda for more about that part of the story! That trip was an important foundational part of Mom’s life, and after the service you are invited to look at the pictorial journal she made of that time.

A story—and a life—all take on the life of the storyteller, even as we stay true to what we know to be the facts—so some of you might tell Alice’s story differently, and we would come to know her in a way different than the one I share with you today. So, while I don’t know how intentionally our family began to have global leanings, in my memory and my telling, the truth is that the seeds of welcoming the world were sown from the beginning.

Mom’s early adult life had this momentous trip and the friendship of folks across the pond. And then there is Dad who traveled the world as long as I can remember—one of my earliest memories being a trip to Mexico before Dad and Mom married. After they married, the prelude to every one of Dad’s trips was to get out the world map, lay it on the floor and looking at the places where Dad would be stopping. We even had a map game that we played as a family.

While Dad was gone, Mom was in charge and had to do it all—it was an odd mix of single parent and a family with two parents. When Dad came home, bits of the world came with him in presents that were practical and beautiful. When Dad wasn’t out in the world, the world often stopped by as guests brought by the YMCA—people from Japan, India, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, and ?. A couple of Exchange Students were hosted, and the Friendship Force became a part of Mom and Dad’s travels and hosting.

With this beginning in Mom’s life and Mom and Dad’s life together, it should be of little surprise that our family is a global family. Shirley and Cliff were our English family before Sharon joined us and added Northern Ireland: Peter joined us and adding in family from a new location in England and Argentina and a Spanish influence; John, as a second generation child of immigrants, added back in more of Scotland; grandchildren added in S. Korea, Tajikistan, Mexico, and American Samoa—and probably other places that I am forgetting. Great-grandchildren will surely continue to broaden the global basis of our family. Nowadays, in order to talk about our family, we bring out the global map and look for who is where and who is traveling.

Like her mother before her, Mom stepped into a ready-made family. It was not easy to do—and it was not without a number of challenges, bumps and bruises—which are stories for other times and places! Dad and Mom married on November 18, 1961. Even though it complicated things, they got married during the middle of the school year, so that by the time Christmas break came along, we would already “be a family” together. Roger and I helped make that very “real” for Mom by coming down with Chicken Pox for her to deal with on that first Christmas we were all together. Surprise!

Dad and Mom were married right here in First UMC. A few years ago when Mom and I were talking about this, she told me that she had insisted that the children—Roger and I—would be a part of the ceremony. In 1961 this was a pretty radical request, because divorce was not spoken of in polite company at the time. So Roger carried their rings and I carried flowers…Without knowing the history of this, but remembering its importance for me, this has set my policy for blended family weddings since I have been in the ministry.

For her wedding, Mom made her wedding dress and my flower girl dress; and as a surprise for me on Christmas morning, Mom gave me a life-size doll wearing a wedding dress like hers! Unfortunately, I was not a doll person and so did not fully appreciate the sweetness of the gift and its intentions to bring us close. Mom continued sewing clothes for all of us, often making them out of the same fabric so that we could easily be identified as a family—six of us dressed in matching shirts was an amazing sight! When I got married to my first husband, she made my wedding dress…and dresses for the attendants as well…and Janelle’s wedding dress…and so many other outfits throughout our lives…

Alan and Janelle were delightful—and begged for—additions to the family. Alan’s coming along meant that Mom had to stop teaching—teachers weren’t allowed to teach when pregnant, so as soon as she started to “show” she had to quit. After Alan was born, Mom worried. Alan could not keep food down and Mom had to fight with the doctor about whether Alan was “throwing up” as Mom described it, or “spitting up” as the doctor assured her Alan must be doing. The doctor finally listened when Alan threw up on the doctor during one of their visits! Finally concerned, the doctor looked a little more closely and Alan was whisked away to surgery where they repaired a flap in his stomach that would not stay closed after eating. Following surgery, Alan grew and flourished—becoming adventurous and risk-taking!

Janelle’s birth made for perfect bookends for the children in this family—a girl on either end and two boys in the middle! After Janelle was born, I made life a little difficult for Mom and Dad, because I told them they couldn’t bring her home with the name they intended—and I told them her name was to be Janelle Lynn. For whatever reason, I got my way, and Penny Sue became Janelle Lynn and my favorite sister!

We traveled…we camped…we saw the states and National Forests and museums—and one time found ourselves on the edges of a civil rights demonstration in New Jersey. We got lost looking for the ocean and we wandered around looking for things of interest to four rambunctious children. Mom was present through all of it—broken bones, injured limbs, surgeries and high fevers. And when Janelle began her journey with cancer, Mom was there to drive Janelle back and forth for chemo, doctors’ appointments and connecting with the school. Together, Janelle and Mom developed a teddy bear give-away program called “Tender Loving Bears” with Denver Children’s Hospital. The last known count of bears made and given away to people with cancer was 1,986 bears.

Alice gave herself away over and over again, serving as a leader for scouting programs and 4-H, UM youth group sponsor, Make It With Wool program, driver of carpools, UMW, and the hospital here in town. Groups that Dad and Mom were a part of often got her volunteer hands as she would organize and send out newsletters and take other positions of leadership, and everywhere she went she took pictures to help her tell the story of each trip when she and Dad would visit us kids in our far-flung lives—because they did visit all of us, making it a priority and using the motor home to full advantage. Through it all, her hands were always busy making something for someone…

All of that is part of why this last bit of Mom’s life was such a challenge.  Cancer—when she faced it for herself—did not seem to frighten her or hold her back, but these two forms of dementia were a completely different battle. They edged their way into her life and she begin to be lost in her own smaller and smaller world as she lost her voice…and her words…and her mobility. To watch someone who has been so productive and involved no longer be able to reach out beyond the boundaries of her mind is so difficult! And Dad was there through it all—willing Mom to get stronger and better; until the very end…and the family that she helped to form began to gather by phone and in person.

A teddy bear propped in the corner…
A quilt draped over a chair…
Bright colored yarn…
Hot air balloons…
Pictures and memories…
Hands always busy…
projects—bits of bears—
A costume…an appliqué…
And fabric, everywhere fabric…
For something not yet imagined…

As we come and celebrate her life, we are the last quilt, the last weaving that she never fully imagined. And I am grateful. Thank you all for being a part of her life—of our lives; together we are beautiful!

The video tribute

The Guests at the Memorial Service

My parents both spent almost all their years in the same city, with 56 years living in one house, Mom was a member of the same church for 85 years, and very involved in many ways in the broader community. The people who attended her memorial service came from all the different groups she had participated in. Just some of the people who came to the service to honor her and support us:

  • Someone who has known Mom since they were toddlers in the early 1930’s – they’d been to school together, been neighbors, and been in community groups together.
  • A group of folks from the hot air balloon club, and more from the motorhome club.
  • Someone who I babysat when I was 12 and he was 6.
  • Two of my brother’s best friends and the mother of one of my best neighbor friends from our childhood in the 60’s and 70’s.
  • Someone who volunteered with my mother for all of the 80’s and 90’s in a group that offered peer support for parents of kids with cancer.
  • Guys my Dad worked with at the Guard – he retired from there almost 30 years ago.
  • Lots of people from Mom’s high school class of ’51.
  • Two members of my sister’s new church (she’s a minister) who drove 4 hours to support her.
  • Folks from their retirement community who have just known Dad for a few months since they moved in, but have seen how he went to see Mom every day for the past many months she spent in the nursing home.
  • The owner of the funeral home, who was in church youth group with us.
  • My siblings, their spouses, my aunts, my cousins, my half-sibling’s mother…
  • The coffee was served by the same women who I knew as the “church ladies” when I was a kid.

It was a lovely day, re-connecting with all these folks who have touched my family’s life, many of whom I had not seen in 30 or more years. It was beautiful to see all the people who had made long-term connections to my mother and to my family.

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