Serves two perfectly!]]>
Boil until onion is soft
Simmer 10 minutes
To BBQ chicken:
OR to bake chicken:
Bake 1/2 hr. at 325 deg. basting frequently
To BBQ Pork Chops:
Dad was a man of virtues. And, I dare to venture that he read and took to heart Dale Carnigie’s book on how to win friends and influence enemies early in life. He could always remember names. “How” was because he cared about the people he met. There are lots of platitudes and memes about “the janitor is as important as the CEO” – my father embodied the spirit of that, while rejecting the clichés. As a social creature, he enjoyed Riderwood. Particularly when he first arrived, he would while away the hours planning whom he and Mom might dine with, making calls, and keeping people connected. One of his friends told me that Dad threw him a lifeline. He arrived not knowing anyone, and dining with people who were too ill to converse much. Dad drew him into his circle of friends. Yep, that’s my Dad. And he didn’t do it for “pity of the poor new guy”, he did it because he was genuinely delighted to make a new friend and to learn all about him. Gotta love that!
Dad’s virtues were honesty, honor, and commitment. I cannot remember ever, ever catching Dad in so much as a white lie, ever since he admitted that there is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. He thought cheating on taxes was un-American. He claimed a rebate / discount from his auto insurance as income on his tax returns when he was unsure whether it was or was not the right thing to do. That’s what an honorable man does – he lives up to his code of honesty, fairness and to the principles of his religion.
Dad made sure to instill his values in us. Mary and I remember fondly HFLS, which alternatively stood for Hamill Friendly Loan Service or Hamill Family Loan Service. The application had to have been made in person or by phone. The reason for the loan would need to be clearly stated, the terms of the loan agreed upon (interest was never charged). The repayment schedule would be arranged. And not meeting my agreed-upon obligations was never in question. This was a loan, not a gift. As such, Dad instilled in all of us respect that money did not grow on trees, that budgeting was crucial. He paid cash for his cars; something most Hamills do (unless the dealer is giving a zero percent interest loan, in which case the car funds would go into an interest-earning account, yada yada.) Fiscal responsibility. But, we know that the path to the middle class involves support from family when times are tough, and Dad did not begrudge us that. Yes, we had to pay back the loan, but having the Hamill Friendly Loan Service meant being able to take advantages of opportunities, like mine – graduating w/ a PhD from Florida State and taking a post-doc in the frozen north of Wisconsin, which required a couple grand loan for moving expenses. Bernie Sanders might have something to say about the social justice aspects for those who don’t have parents who can loan you a couple grand at the drop of a hat, but I’m sure my siblings and I will debate politics ad nauseum later, and Dad would have had his thoughts on the matter, but now is not the time!
But to circle back, in January of 1987 Tom Barron and I moved 1100 miles so I could join a company that developed the first digital hearing aid. Now, all hearing aids are digital. My Wisconsin post-doc was life changing for me, and Dad (and Mom’s) HFLS made that possible. I owe some degree of my career success to my father’s HFLS.
Dad was the “provider” – not that he didn’t nuture, but he was at work earning the dollars that later defrayed our college expenses and funded HFLS; Mom was at home with the job of nurturing, — and nagging, and correcting!
Mom once shared that she was jealous of Dad when he came home. We, as little kids, were excited to play with him. (Siblings may remember “Money, money,money, oh! Jewelry!!!”) While he undressed from work clothes, he gave us trinkets to sort through on his bed. His Grandmother’s ring of very soft gold, various medals and cuff links. Poor Mom, we had the attention span of Golden Retrievers and never meant to dis her – but the fond memory of bonding with Dad remains.
Speaking of memories of the bedroom. Dad had a desk in the bedroom. On it was a chart (upper left side) of our weekly allowance. The numbers were pretty low 50 years ago and I haven’t consulted the inflation calculator, but he paid us the allowance, e.g. 10 cents, plus what we were expected to tithe each week, another penny. So our total allowance was 11 cents. And it was checked that we put the penny in the collection. I think Dad was also preparing us for the reality of taxes! But that is another example of Dad’s virtues. He always gave to charity. He believed that government should provide for those in need and paid his taxes to make sure they could do that, but he also believed in giving. My Dad! No better role model – a challenge to me to follow.
Dad was the “marrying type,” quite obviously. His first marriage of about 56 years ended in “to death do us part” with my Mom’s dying; his marrying Marie five years ago makes her a widow yet again. He had a lot of love to share. We are very grateful to Marie, for giving him companionship and love and support, for enriching his life, for giving him deeper purpose and meaning. He deeply needed a one-to-one connection with the woman whom he loved, he woed her, he proposed and proposed, and was over the top happy when his new love interest agreed to marry him. Marie – thank you for making Dad happy. In the last year, what a burden that has been for you. We thank you for all you have done for him recently as a caregiver and medical intervener. Thank you. That is deeply, deeply appreciated.
Marie, you supported Dad, his values, and you made his last years fulfilled and fun filled. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Dad lived a good life.]]>
A few years ago, every time I came to DC I was in the habit of taking walks around Riderwood with my Dad; we’d come across the causeway by the chapel, through Canterbury Court and Victoria Place, through Charles Terrace and Montgomery Station, by Hampton Square and Madison Green, and Town Center, and up along the causeway again. We might make a few laps, and sometimes down to Lakeside Common. Dad would update me on all of you, for his Riderwood friends meant a lot to him. You should know that.
The Jim Hamill you knew from a few years back, the guy who always knew your name, who wanted to serve you and his God through the church, that was the same Dad us Hamill kids knew in our youths. He was a patient man, a godly man. Being a good dad to us and a good Catholic were important to him, and it was important to be humble about who he was and what he accomplished.
One of my earliest memories of my Dad was from Endwell, New York. Not infrequently, I would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified from a nightmare. I’d run into Mom and Dad’s room. Dad would scoop me up in his arms and take me to a little window in the front door of our house. Across the street, beyond the Stoklas’ house, beyond the trees, there were a set of radio towers, the radio station WENE. They blinked on and off, a pulse of red, then darkness, a pulse of red, then darkness. We came to view the WENE lights as somewhat of a magical calming agent, but in truth, I think it was the tender way he held me in his arms, his soothing and loving tone of voice that was what really gave me the comfort I needed to sleep again.
Fast forward to my pimply teen years. Back then I was regularly getting up before 6 am in order to catch a school bus that came by at 6:25. Dad was an early riser, and he was usually on the sofa, writing down his thoughts on a topic of the day, for he and my mom would retire to their bedroom most every evening, and as part of their Catholic “Marriage Encounter” they would talk through the issues of life. These were private, but I imagine they were about the challenges of raising us kids, how they could be better spouses to each other, be better Catholics. Every morning Dad would greet me with a cheery “good morning” and always told me that he loved me before I headed off for school. I frequently could muster little more than a groggy grunt in return.
I don’t think that I appreciated that unconditional love at the time. Only with the passage of years do I realize that he was teaching me instead to be a gentleman; that means compassion, means being able to love unconditionally, being humble, giving more than taking. It’s a lesson that doesn’t come easy to us Hamill kids; we are sometimes full of ourselves. I hope it’s sunk in a bit, Dad, and I’m trying to reflect those values in how I raise my own son, Nate.]]>
During Dad’s decline I told him I thought he was lucky. I don’t know anyone who wants to die, but his decline was gentle. He could do most of what he did all of his life and he was as sharp as I remember him until the end. I treasure my last memory of him: playing a good game of Scrabble with us the day after Christmas in his apartment. He was active and engaged, although he did have the sniffles, which worried me.
It was not always obvious, but for a bookish and shy engineer Dad sucked the joy out of life through interacting with people. He connected seemingly effortlessly with everyone he encountered. While hardly a party animal, meaningful connection – knowing someone as a person – truly energized him. With family though his love was intensely nurturing and just kept coming. Even in my 40s and 50s he was still patiently listening to me, praising me and making me feel special. He adopted Terri effortlessly. Terri has told me numerous times that he was the only father she had worthy of the title. Like Cousin Ken, Terri prefers to be known as a Hamill rather than a Breedlove. Ken, have you considered a name change? I think it’s unanimous among us official Hamills that you are one of the clan.
Dad wowed me growing up but at the same time I took him for granted. I assumed most fathers were exceptional too. A few months back my friend Tom Cheevers had his father pass away too. I went to Binghamton to attend the funeral and meet the Cheevers clan again after more than forty years.
The Cheevers parents had a stormy and arguably toxic relationship. They ultimately divorced. Their dad was not a bad parent. He read to his kids and treated them kindly, but their household was loud, often angry, frequently chaotic and arguably toxic to raising healthy kids. Both parents were in way over their heads. Talking with Tom and other friends about their parents, I’ve come to understand that my friend Tom’s experience was not unusual. Tom fondly recalls our Dad. He remembers the time he spent in our house as a refuge and place where he had the privilege of being a kid. He remembers our dad and mom with stars in his eyes. Dad wowed him, but the truth is Dad wowed pretty much anyone who took the time to know him a bit.
I could spend hours – and I truly mean hours — numerating Dad’s good points. You have heard many already and will hear many more. Even given the myopia that children tend to have toward their parents, Dad was awesome. Just awesome! I feel grateful beyond words to be his son and to have been nurtured by him. We rolled the cosmic dice and somehow magically got the privilege of having him as our father.
Anyone can be a parent. The position of father though has to be earned. It’s no exaggeration to say that as a father Dad was A+++ with a gold star on the forehead to boot. Quite frankly I can’t imagine anyone who could have possibly done better. As he passed through heaven’s gates I expect the assemblage gave Dad cheers. I’m sure St. Peter did not even bother to open his book but simply threw open the pearly gates.
Marie, thank you for marrying my father. Dad’s five years as a widower were probably the most challenging of his life. He was a fish out of water without the cement of marriage. Not just anyone would do, it had to be someone deeply Catholic and with soul. No wonder he fell in love with you. I am sure that he truly cherished you. I am grateful for the love and care you gave him and the privilege to know you and the Mathis clan. I take some comfort in Dad’s passing knowing I still have a mom. I hope we can remain close.
As I age I will try in my own inept way to be more like my father. I already know that I will never surpass him. My father was not a saint, but he was saintly. Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.]]>
Jim Hamill made his living as an electrical engineer, and I think the best way to understand him is as the consummate engineer. Engineers are characterized by their meticulous discipline, orderliness, and adherence to process. If you visited his room or looked at his desk, you’d see his private affairs arranged in neat piles with labels printed in a trained draftsman’s perfect block letters. In earlier days, he had a tool cabinet that had painted black shadows to show the proper place for each tool, each saw and hammer and wrench. There was a place for each screwdriver and socket, arranged in size order, and drawers of carefully sorted screws, nuts, and washers. He planned meticulously, made lists, and executed precisely. He would never repaint a room without first washing down and rinsing the walls, because that was the right way to paint. No shortcuts, no simplifications, no sloppiness.
Engineers always begin a project by asking, “What are the requirements? What am I supposed to do on this project?” When it came to the project of his own life, he didn’t look for requirements in his personal wants and needs. Instead he took its requirements from what he believe God wanted him to do. When God sent him eight children in thirteen years, he raised each of us with care and personal attention. When he could, he sent his children to Catholic school, though it cost a lot. He took his family to Mass every Sunday. He took us to confession every other week until some of us had to intentionally lie about our sins just so that we could have something to honestly confess two weeks later. For many years, he led family rosary every night – on our knees on the living room carpet. He and his first wife Lee said morning and evening prayers absolutely every day, kneeling by their bed. He even joined the Knights of Columbus in their midnight vigils in the dead of an upstate New York winter. This didn’t proceed from any excess of religiosity, but from a sincere belief that this was what God wanted him to do.
He was a temperate man to his core. He didn’t drink; he wasn’t profane; he rarely got angry and never furious. He was never selfish or greedy, jealous or envious, boisterous or vain. I’m hard pressed to point to anything in his nature that I would characterize as a vice, as long as you’re willing to overlook his fondness for chocolate cake and other sweets.
But engineers, it must be said, are not known for their passions or impulsiveness. Perhaps you recall when he participated in Dancing with the Stars here several years ago. He danced just like you would expect an engineer to dance. He rehearsed for weeks with effort and disciple for this endeavor that was far, far outside of his comfort zone. And when the time came to perform, he executed every movement perfectly. With absolutely no grace or musicality.
Those of you who knew him only late in life may find it hard to believe, but as a young man he was actually quite shy, socially awkward, which is also common among engineers. Then in the 1970s, his parish church called out for lay readers of the scriptures at Mass. He felt that this was something God wanted him to do, and though it was wholly against his shy nature, he resolved to do it. He approached it with an engineer’s method and determination, practicing at home, aloud, standing up, to build up his confidence. The first few times he stood up in front of the congregation, we could see how hard it was for him. He blinked nervously and spoke in a strained voice. But he did it. Again and again. He continued to serve the church as a lay reader and a Eucharistic Minister; this service became an integral part of his identity.
If it ever seemed to you that his friendliness was just a little awkward, a little less than spontaneous, you may be right. I think sociability didn’t come naturally to him even later in life. He practiced reaching out in friendship because he thought that it was the right thing to do. And perhaps he deserves more credit for doing something difficult a little awkwardly than someone who acts smoothly and spontaneously from their extroverted nature. Over the years, he become more and more gregarious and outgoing. Here at Riderwood, his efforts at friendliness flourished, bringing him an abundance of caring friends with mutual interests. He found genuine pleasure in being a friend to all, enjoyed learning people’s life stories, relished their distinctive personalities. And he also found real pleasure in helping others.
The goodness within James Stafford Hamill didn’t all leave the world with him. It lives on in those of us who were touched by him, by his goodness and love. And he had a lot of love to share. His qualities live most directly and potently in us, his eight children. We owe a great debt of love and honor to the man who raised us with such meticulous attention to God’s will, and who continued to be our warm friend when we had joined him in adulthood. And when we found companions in life, he welcomed them all with the warmth and acceptance.
His goodness lives on in his second wife, Marie Mathis Hamill, who shared his life and supported him for five precious years. Marie, those of us who knew him for a lifetime are delighted to have shared him with you. We are so pleased that he found love again in such a special friend. Your wedding was a highlight of the Riderwood social season, a joyful and well attended event that even made it into the Washington Post.
Marie, you were his love. He died before he could give you one last Valentine’s Day gift, so on his behalf as well as our own, we Hamills would like to give you some Valentine’s Day flowers. Thank you for all you did, particularly in this last year as his health declined. Thank you for giving him companionship, love, and support, for enriching his life, for giving him deeper purpose and meaning, for traveling with him, for ensuring that he enjoyed his last years. Thank you.
Jim’s love and goodness also flowed out to the generations. Apparently his paternal love weren’t satisfied by siring and raising eight children. He folded our cousin Ken Bruce into his family embrace and gave him a father’s love as though he had been his own. He took Marie’s six children to his heart too, telling everyone afterwards that he had 14 children, and he immensely enjoyed his new family. On behalf of the Hamills, I’d like to thank the Mathis family for welcoming him into your lives. And of course he enjoyed his grandchildren, Mathis as well as Hamill, and treated them from all with the same paternal care as he had shown their parents.
Jim Hamill also lives on in you who knew him, who have been cheered by his smiles and waves in the hall and exchanged fond memories and interesting thoughts with him in a dinner conversation. Please join us in savoring the memory of his goodness and love.
I’m sure he wouldn’t want us to grieve him. He lived long and did good in the world for all his years. He loved us all with sincerity and determination so that when we feel inclined to miss him, we can turn into our own souls and find the goodness that his love put there. Then James Stafford Hamill will be alive in the world again through us. His passage beyond our reach at this season of life is right and good. I feel sure that Tennsyon’s classic poem speaks for him on this occasion.
[Crossing of the Bar]
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.
That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.
He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.
Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.
A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.
He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.
Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.
Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan.
When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.
I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.
My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.
He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.
I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.
What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.]]>
In my heart, I knew that Mom was so much more than a cook and
housekeeper. I told Mom that, more than anyone else, she developed
my character. She was particularly good at discipline. Sure, I
recall the spankings … when bending over how Mom would say, “This is
going to hurt me more than you.” But more importantly, when I did
something because of a flaw in my character, she took the time to talk
to me about why she was so disappointed in my actions. Invariably,
upon such occasions, I would be reduced to tears, realizing what an
idiot I had been. At the same time, I was glad that Mom showed me the
errors of my way – and felt closer to her because of it.
I tried to tell Mom that Dad wasn’t the only one who helped me with my
homework, recalling a time in high school when I struggled to compose
a paper for an English class where I had to describe Grant Wood’s
“American Gothic.” We painfully labored over that paper for several
hours. But when the paper was complete I had learned so much, and
beamed at my accomplishment.
There were so many other ways that she seemed to contribute towards my
development. She listened, believed me half-heartedly, but I felt in
my heart that she was still only felt convinced that she excelled at
cooking and cleaning.
These past few years, watching Mom’s decline, have been a struggle to
me. Ironically, PSP, this disease that ultimately took her life,
robbed her of those very skills she was most proud of, the ability to
clean house in preparation for family visits and the ability to
prepare our favorite meals. This, more than anything, was most
difficult for me to accept.
The last few years have been trying on me, to be sure, but from that
process came a great deal of personal growth. At every turn I found a
mixed bag … feeling Mom’s pain, yet finding strength within myself
overcome my fears and to be helpful. This past week has been
particularly challenging, to be sure. But to my amazement, I found
myself enormously moved. I’ve seen firsthand how my brothers and
sisters have rallied to help, each dealing with this time as best that
can. We didn’t judge each other for our actions or inactions –
realizing that we all had to deal with this in our own way. I’ve also
managed to grow closer to my family … like seeing a vulnerable side of
Doris … and enjoying razzing her about it … realizing that Doris, Teri
& I have many similarities that developed after our childhood … seeing
my brothers Mark and Jim giving what they can so close to the end …
enjoying a spontaneous three-way hug between Teri, Dad and myself.
Truly, I have been touched in ways I didn’t think were possible.
Until this week I hadn’t thought about how Mom’s tasty and nutritious
meals were always the thing that brought us together. Ironically,
this process of dying made Mom the catalyst again, this time, not in
preparing a meal, but all the same, giving us the opportunity to share
– and to grow – together. This final act may have been her best work
Aunt Lee’s power was such that, despite the endless housework
and a brood of eight she never stopped worrying about, somehow she
was able to make me feel very, very special. From the moment I arrived
she made sure I was an honorable member of the Hamill Family,
replete with participation in all the family chores, Kitchen Patrol being
the most infamous. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged and
Aunt Lee had everything to do with that.
I can’t think about Aunt Lee without recalling her laugh, a sneaky
playful one-up kind of laugh that would accompany her screams of “My
Baby!” when one of her offsite kids came home to visit or would
punctuate her off-key rendition of “I Love You With the Love of the
Lord!”, her warbling sending many of us scurrying under the
furniture, our ears covered.
I also recall my Aunt Lee’s sly competitive nature. She took time
out to play endless rounds of Double Solitaire with me, and wasn’t
about to slow down for even a microsecond to let me catch up. I’m
sure we played a hundred times. And with that great ho-hum smile of
hers she won every last round.
She made sure she had the upper hand in Charades, too. As far
as she was concerned using all 110 words of the Apostles Creed as a
clue was perfectly acceptable, a move that had me fumbling for the
words and absolutely assured her victory. At the time Tom, my
teammate and cousin, didn’t see the humor in it, but 25 years later I
still haven’t stopped giggling.
Then there was the time she had the final word in a competition
not even of her making.When I found my cousin Tom sitting in the
recliner with his feet dangling above the carpet one lazy afternoon I
couldn’t help but ask him why. He admitted he was trying to find out
how long he could keep his feet from touching the ground. In a split
second I had accepted his implicit challenge, my feet soon hovering
beside his and our watches ticking out the seconds.
Soon enough Aunt Lee passed us by, rolling her eyes and
bellowing “What in Pete’s Sake are you two doing? It’s a beautiful day!
Go outside and ride your bikes!”
But we were determined. Thirty minutes in and the competition
had devolved into each of us chucking shoes and pillows at each
other’s legs to facilitate a speedy conclusion. It was Aunt Lee,
however, who just had to own the outcome. On her third pass, her eyes
unable to roll back any further, she abruptly put an end to our silliness
by fervently stomping our feet to the ground, all the while balancing a
load of laundry in her arms. I can still hear Tom and my wails of,
“Aaaw! No!” right along with Aunt Lee’s mischievous little girl
Most of all I recall Aunt Lee’s intense love for her children. As I
witnessed how she fretted, worried and celebrated their every move I
sometimes found myself wondering if it was possible to love too much.
As I think about my Aunt Lee today, about how she she gave me
the gift of laughter and belonging at a time in my life when I most
needed it, somehow it feels like loving Aunt Lee too much just isn’t
Aunt Lee, I will miss that hug, the smile, the laugh, the love. You
leave behind a legacy of eight amazing children and as you continue to
live on in their hearts and minds, so too you will live in mine.
My most persistent memory of Mom is of a woman always in motion. From
before we were up (when she or Dad put on the first pot of Maxwell
House coffee) until after we went to bed (when she could be found in
the living room darning socks) her hands were usually busy. Even her
sleep was restless. I do not know where her energy came from but I
found it intimidating. She seemed to never stop doing things for us.
She always kept our house immaculate. The furniture was always dusted
and buffeted. Our sheets were changed like clockwork every Monday. I
have memories of her in Endwell once a week waxing the kitchen floor
whether it needed it or not. She never seemed to take a day off. She
seemed to work as hard on Sundays as she did during the week.
Mom’s essence, I believe, was to be a doer. She was happy as long as
she was doing something. She was usually miserable when she wasn’t
doing anything. For example, she did not have to make spaghetti sauce
from scratch. It could have easily come out of a jar. She knew what
she could cook would be so much tastier than what could be purchased.
She was right and we were her beneficiaries. From my perspective, the
food she served was uniformly excellent. Often the aromas would fill
the house for hours before the meal was served, making me all the
hungrier when dinner arrived.
I also remember littler things that showed me that she cared. During
my teenage years when I worked evenings at the Winn Dixie, I would get
home hungry. But she had saved me a dinner plate, wrapped in aluminum
foil, and would pop it in the oven. She knew I preferred her home
cooking to anything I could buy so there was never a reason for me to
miss an evening meal. Yet this was just one of numerous little things
that she would do for me. When I came home from college for the
weekend, she volunteered to do my dirty laundry. A few hours later, it
arrived all neatly folded and ready for me to take back to the dorm.
Little things like this spoke to her magnanimous character.
Mom was the sort of person who made a house a home. While Dad always
struck me as the logical center of the family, Mom was its emotional
heart. Mom was a woman very much in touch with her feelings. There was
little in the way of ambiguity about Mom. You knew how she felt about
things because she told you very explicitly and in a tone of voice
that eliminated any ambiguity.
A few things about Mom will always puzzle me. One is why she
discounted her own intelligence. Here was a woman who had earned a
degree in nursing from Catholic University. Her degree was equivalent
to Dad’s. She had loads of common sense. Like my wife Terri, she was a
whiz at crossword puzzles. When we watched Jeopardy on TV together, I
could rarely beat her to the answer. Nevertheless, for some reason she
felt she was Dad’s intellectual inferior. She seemed to think that the
person with more facts crammed into their brain must have better
judgment. I have learned: it ain’t necessarily so.
As you know, shortly before I turned a teen I promoted myself as her
favorite son. She would agree to it only in jest. I knew she was too
evenhanded to actually pick a favorite. In retrospect, my attempt at
humor answered to a deeper need within me. Mom herself has admitted
that when I came along she was a bit frayed at the ends. She had three
of us boys in diapers at the same time, plus a busy household to
manage. Clearly, I wanted a whole lot more mother time than I actually
got. A baby cannot understand the burdens of a full time mother with a
plethora of children. But oh how I ached for more time with her. One
way to get it was to play the favorite son game.
During the last years of her life, and the last couple of months in
particular, I found that my mother had few distractions. She now lived
close to me, so I could have as much of her attention as I wanted.
Those of us who cared for Mom in the nursing home had a tough time of
it. Yet it was not all bad. It was a bittersweet experience. To me it
was right and appropriate for me to do intimate things like help her
to the bathroom or feed her lunch, when she surely did far more for me
in countless episodes throughout her life. While extremely difficult
at the end, her last months were also a profound growth experience for
me. Even in dying, she taught lessons.
From Mom, as well as Dad, I learned doggedness. For both of them
marriage was for life, and for better or for worse. I think that
perspective is something many of my siblings share. It contributes to
so many long-standing marriages in our family.
One area of disagreement between Mom and myself was Catholicism. While
it did not agree with me as an adult, I cannot help but have deep
respect her profound feelings about her given faith. I know visits
from priests and lay ministers comforted her enormously in her last
months. Moreover, I am impressed in some ways with the Catholic Church
as an institution. When she was in the hospital in Midland after her
fall, members of the church stopped by to pray with her and give her
Holy Communion. Although I suspect I will never be a Catholic again, I
have inherited a feeling of reverence for the sacred from her as well
as from Dad. Certainly, Jesus taught us to work toward being good
people and to live by high values. She was dutiful in practicing her
faith. I will cherish the memory of hearing her and Dad saying their
prayers on their knees next to their beds before starting their busy
days. I know her faith carried her through times that would have
destroyed lesser women. I cannot help but respect that power.
Of course, right now the loss of Mom is too near and tender. It will
take some time for me to gain some perspective on the meaning of not
having her in my life. Right now, my mind is clouded with distressing
images of her during her last few months. Yet I believe that as time
passes these images will fade. Instead, I will remember the essence of
my mother. The images that will persist will be those of my Mom
humming to herself in the kitchen while she made another meal, or
tending to her flowerbed on her knees. She took great pleasure in
simple things. This is perhaps the most profound lesson that she
taught me, and one I have yet to fully absorb.
While Mom is not here in the flesh, she is definitely here in spirit.
She will always be in our hearts. So much of the person I became can
be traced directly to Mom. So in a way I am the walking embodiment of
Mom, as we all are. Because while we live, she still lives on. So I
cannot grieve too much today because she is not just all around me,
she is a part of me. She is not gone. She is in the air. She is in
each breath I take. She is in every step I take. She is integrated
inside me. Knowing this I can accept her passing. I am relieved that
her suffering is at an end. I believe her spirit is still around,
unfettered and free at last.