“The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Proverbs 10:7
Mom’s nickname at Lexington Federal Savings and Loan was Sunshine. I was in high school at the time and never asked about its origin, but I knew. Dottie Ellis was a 5’ 2” blue-eyed blond (she humbly called it dishwater blonde that by that stage in her life needed a little extra boost from Clairol to get that “natural look”). Combined with her bright and easy smile, “Sunshine” just fit.
My favorite picture of my parents is one from near the end of, or just after, World War II. Dad had his wings as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and the clear-eyed, confident look of a man from the greatest generation. Mom was his young bride, literally a mid-teenager. Theirs was a whirlwind romance and a marriage born of both passionate love and the fear that Dad might not make it home alive.
In the picture Mom is simply breathtakingly beautiful. I could always see why Dad fell in love with her. The bright smile is there, and as always it reaches all the way to her eyes. It’s a genuine smile, and I know that because I got to see it when no one else was looking.
We laughed a lot in our house growing up. Not that we didn’t have our share of struggles. Dad contracted MS when I was four, and soon was forced to retire from flying. He couldn’t work, so Mom became a secretary. That turned the home and their lives upside down, but I don’t recall it that way at all. They both were focused on being strong and loving for us. From my viewpoint, Dad kept his courage and Mom kept her smile.
She lost that smile to Alzheimer’s about 15 years ago. That was probably the first Mother’s Day she didn’t know me. We’d known for probably 5-6 years before that something was happening with her. She was uncharacteristically snippy, then uncharacteristically disorganized, then confused about the simplest things.
Her mother had gone through this, but for Nonnie I was a more distant spectator. For Mom’s decline I’d have a front row seat. Alzheimer’s is a long twilight where the shadows overcome the personality little by little. The person dies long before the body gives out. Hopefully, and all who’ve been through this probably understand, the time between those two points isn’t too terribly long.
Mom’s body lived 6-7 years after her mind died. To be honest, that gray darkness created for me a kind of mental block for that for ten years now has been hard to penetrate. Dad’s health declined until his death in 2000, but he was still there. The stories still resonated, the laughter endured, the love and the pride survived right up to the end. He was still Dad. He was still “there.”
Not Mom. By the time Dad died, Mom had forgotten so much about her life that we didn’t tell her she was a widow, and she never asked. The light in her eyes was dim. The smile fading quickly.
In early life, honoring your parents has a very clear application. You do what they say. Later I’ve always thought it obviously means living in a way that honors them, but also remembering them. You should tell their stories, their loves, their fears, their triumphs and failures and all of the strivings that make up the texture of life. That’s the way the grandchildren get to know them, and the future greats, and on down the line.
Proverbs tells us the memory of the righteous is a blessing. In that story-telling culture, one generation carefully remembered and shared the stories. They were good at genealogies for a reason. It kept alive not only the memory, but the influence of the earlier generations. And the stories were a blessing. That’s one concrete way today we’re surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.
To be honest, I’ve had an easier time remembering Dad’s stories, and maybe it’s because Dad’s stories were BIG. Dad remembered BIG, if you know what I mean. Accuracy was an occasionally inconvenient option for Dad. So the stories were BIG. But I think mainly I remember them because there is no long, gray darkness at the end of his life.
Though I struggle with the details, it’s a lasting tribute to my Mother that I don't struggle with the main theme. It was the smile. Oh my goodness that smile made me feel like everything was right, and safe, and good. It was my first hint of the deeper joy that God has woven into the world. I think I later grew fascinated by both grace and joy because of my Mom’s smile.
I’ve preached more than thirty Mother’s Day sermons in my life, and by far my favorite illustration comes from a man who told his mother, on her deathbed, that her greatest gift to him was that she always made him feel like she was glad he was born. I had the same experience. I knew my Mother was delighted in me. She clearly loved being a Mom.
Her smile was a comforting, steady proof of that, and it’s the memory of the smile that today awakens in me the memories of the stories. Mom enjoyed me, and I say that reverently and gratefully. We laughed a lot. We had our inside jokes. There were days of endless tenderness and carefully chosen moments of necessary toughness. It’s coming back to me now.
So I’m going to go find Leslie, sit down with her and tell her the stories of the yellow baby blanket, sitting in the swing on the front porch when I came home from school, the butterfly brooch, brownies after bedtime, Horace the Vampire Cow, White Shoulders perfume, walking across the UK campus, hot chocolate, tears when she heard Leslie was going to have a baby, and on and on. Leslie’s heard them all, but it will be good to remember, and in this way to honor my Mother.
No darkness ever extinguishes the kind of sunshine Mom brought into my life. And death itself cannot erase from eternity a smile that stirs my soul even today. I’ll see her again, that I know. Until then I’ll cherish the stories, and thank God for this grace to remember.
Dr. Terry Ellis
May 14, 2017