In a moment of gratitude and realization, the Psalmnist wrote, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” As you know, my mother died this week and the memorial service was yesterday, so I have been reflecting on my life, my parents, my upbringing this week. I hope you won’t mind if I share some of those reflections with you today. In some ways, it is a most appropriate follow up to last Sunday’s sermon, because the major qualities I find in looking at my mother’s life are ones that would make a big difference in today’s world if more people made them a higher priority in their lives.
I have realized for a long time that though I followed my father’s large footsteps into the ministry, my mother was the biggest shaper of my character and values and approach to people. She was a stay at home mom, the one who took me to practices and came to ball games, let me have friends over, worked with me if I was struggling with something, stayed behind me to practice playing the piano and do homework and prepare for Scouts. She read me Bible stories out of Hurlbut’s Stories of the Bible and she was my constant example of how to live by it and how to treat others.
Different things stand out to me from different periods of her life. When I was young I remember having an open home where people were welcome. I had lots of friends and they came over a lot. We mostly played outside, but we were in and out of the kitchen getting snacks and drinks. I had a lot of freedom, and of course it was a different time. I could leave on my bike in the morning and come back whenever. For several years toward the end of their lives, my father’s parents would live with us three months out of every year. So she was responsible daily for three boys and her in-laws. I never saw her grumpy. We regularly had missionaries and guest preachers over for meals. My favorite teacher from high school was a Muslim who had emigrated from Istanbul, Turkey, with his family. I asked if we could invite them over for dinner, and the answer was yes. Mom made sure she fixed a meal that would be appropriate for Muslims, and they were greeted with the same open armed hospitality as anyone else in our home. I didn’t realize how remarkable that was at the time.
Music was important to my mother, so there was music in our home. Her boys all took piano for several years so we would be able to read music, keep rhythm, have an understanding of music. One of my brothers was so good he excelled even at state competitions. The other brother branched off to electric guitar and joined a rock band as the Beatles rocked the world. I’m not sure how she felt about that. Classical was more her style – a grandmother had been an opera singer and her father had an extensive collective of classical records. After finally getting us all in bed she would put some of her music on. I remember making up words to go with some of it that she played frequently. This exposure to music from an early age has made a big difference in my life.
Mom was patient, gentle, and accepting. But that did have its limits, understandably. I can’t remember her ever saying anything harsh or critical to me, or spanking me. Her punishment when she got fed up with my behavior was to tell me to go to her room and wait until my father got home. I spent some long afternoons there. I don’t really remember what happened when my father got home, but I do remember sitting there reflecting on my sins. I guess it was effective, though I must have spent more than a few afternoons that way.
Mom was a very good cook and could make a lot out of a little. She could make spam tasty. She was masterful cooking fried chicken two different ways. Dad always had a garden so she cooked and preserved fresh vegetables. She knew the art of making gravy. In later Thanksgivings I would follow her instructions to make it while she supervised, but I didn’t get the hang of it. Dad didn’t like going out to eat, so Mom prepared every meal and we enjoyed family meal time.
Later in life, when her sons were all grown, here are some reflections. We were raised to appreciate and be connected to family, but not to be so closely tied to it that we were reluctant to go out to new places and new things. There was never an expectation that we would live close to them or visit constantly. It was the philosophy that it is important to give your children roots but it is also important to give them wings.
Two family things became really important during this period. Thanksgiving became the important Bailey family holiday and we all tried to celebrate it at our parents’ home together. That held up for a long time, until my oldest brother’s children started college. The second thing was a week at Pawley’s Island for the whole family. We would have this on the calendar by the end of this year’s week for next year’s week. This was the opportunity for cousins to get to know each other and the whole family to stay connected. Mom loved having special time there with each of her eight grandchildren, accepting each as they were and listening deeply to their stories about their interests and experiences. She didn’t really care for going out on the beach except for the evening walks, so you would frequently see her on the couch with a grandchild beside her having a conversation or working together on a jigsaw puzzle. Mom and Dad providing those weeks annually for the family to be together at the beach was a very, very important part of my life which I miss badly and hope my family will get to a point where it is possible for us to resume it with the next generation.
When my father died 11 years ago I really thought my mother would get along a lot better than my father would have if Mom had died first. But now I think their lives were so bound up with each other that both would have struggled equally. It turns out Mom was quite introverted but that didn’t really come out with Dad around. She missed him terribly, she was incomplete without him. She came around some over time, but you always got the sense that she was biding time until she could be with him again.
So here in this last stretch of life as a widow, here are some of the things I observed about Mom. Despite missing Dad so much, she kept her positive spirit. She continued to find the best in people instead of being critical. She continued to exhibit kindness and acceptance to the people around her. She was a deeply grateful person who up to the day she died expressed appreciation to anyone who did anything for her. She never complained that we didn’t come see her enough, but she always expressed gratitude for us. Maybe after raising us she had a low bar of expectations…
And going along with gratitude is generosity. She and my father both found great joy in giving, certainly to their family but even more I think to worthy causes. The churches that have been important in their lives, Columbia Seminary, and many charities were on her list.
This is kind of a funny anecdote but also a very telling one. In the past three or four years Mom’s short term memory and organizational ability were slipping a bit. An economics major in college, she had always kept meticulous financial records, but her ability to do that began eroding. About a year ago my brother who helps her with her business affairs let us know that her checking account was overdrawn. It turns out that in half a year she had already given more than double in charitable contributions than she had the previous year, and she had overdrawn her checking account. The “old” Mom would have been horrified by this. She wasn’t keeping records so everytime she got a request for a donation she responded. He tried to work with her on it, but it wasn’t getting through. Finally the three sons met and talked with her. She agreed to give up her checkbook. We assured her we wanted her to keep supporting all the causes she wanted to support, we just wanted her to have enough money in her account to cover it. Harald told her he would meet with her twice a year and they would look at funds on hand and decide on donations.
Well, it wasn’t long until Harald called and said that Mom had figured out she could use her charge card to make charitable donations and was doing so. She continued doing that right up to the last couple of weeks, plus she ordered lots of very unusual gifts for us from mail order catalogs.
As I say, it is sadly humorous, but it is also very powerful to know that when her mind was having trouble keeping things straight her most powerful impulse was the impulse to give. That is a deeply rooted habit and discipline. You know those bumper stickers that say, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance?” If she still had a car, she needed one that said, “I’m giving away my children’s inheritance.” That’s not true, but she found great joy in being generous.
Finally, she had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. She never expressed any doubts about the future or concern about dying in the least. She was ready any time for the last 11 years, and she was fully confident that at her death she would be ushered into the presence of God and would be reunited with her beloved husband.
Now I’m certain my mother had plenty of faults and things she needed to be forgiven for. But I’m thankful none of those are the things that stick in my mind. I’m thankful that my picture of her will always be of a person who exhibited the gracious fruits of the Spirit and whose life was filled to overflowing with the greatest gift of all, the gift of love.
You know that section at the end of Proverbs about a good wife being hard to find? I’ve always felt that was pretty over the top to read at funerals, but guess what. I’ve got something worse than that to read you at my own mother’s death. It’s from a recent song called “Mother Like Mine” by a country group called The Band Perry. Here is some of the text:
She’s the sky that holds the clouds
She’s the lady of the house
A blind believer in all I dare to be.
She’s our father’s one great love
She’s the one he wanted most
She’s the light in the window of the house I grew up in.
Oh the wars would all be over
‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends
And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them.
Tonight would be easier
And our dreams would all be deeper
If the world had a mother like mine.
Well, thank you for letting me share a bit about my mother and the goodly heritage upon which my life was built. I hope it will spur you to think about the important people in your lives and will remind you that you can make a big difference in every stage of life by your attitude and how you live.
In the words of today’s anthem: “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions: all are welcome; all are welcome; all are welcome in this place.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 31, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church