Our First Christmas Without Mom

My mother died this past summer, so we’re sailing into the holidays absent our commodore. For the 63 years my parents were married, my mother let my father think he was in charge, though we all knew she steered the ship of state, both deftly and demurely.

It’s an odd feeling to imagine Christmas without Mom. She did much of the holiday’s obvious work, plus a hundred other little things we’ll likely forget in the holiday rush. I fear no one will remember to buy a flannel shirt for a down-on-his-luck man in our town, and have it gift-wrapped and under the tree, awaiting his arrival on Christmas Eve. He’s spent Christmas Eve with our family for nearly 40 years, and I don’t want the ball to drop on my watch, so I’ve written in the December 12 square of our refrigerator calendar, “Buy Dale a shirt.” Mom would never forgive us if Dale had to go without a new shirt this Christmas.

When I was little, maybe five or six, my mother took me to Danner’s five-and-dime on the Danville town square and bought me a little red Christmas elf to go on the tree. A few years later, the elf fell forward onto a hot bulb and rested there, burning his face. Now he’s an elf with a bad sunburn. Even though it was mine, Mom wouldn’t let me take the elf with me when I moved from home, but last year, while taking down the tree, she handed me the elf and told me to take good care of him. I’ve since invested that handing-over with all sorts of meaning — that Mom sensed it would be her last Christmas with us and wanted to make sure the elf was not orphaned. I keep it on the bookshelf next to my desk, its red face shining forth, keeping watch by night.

Mom never wanted anything for Christmas.

“I have everything I need,” she would tell us when we asked her what she wanted. So our gifts to her were always stabs in the dark, wild guesses, graciously received, but seldom used. Crystal vases, pottery, Irish sweaters, tucked away in back closets, while the handmade gifts we gave her as children — plastic birds, woven potholders, paint-by-number pictures — enjoyed an eternal place of prominence. One Christmas, after receiving a royalty check, I bought her a new kitchen stove and she spent the next year trying to pay me for it, slipping money in my pockets when I came to visit.

“I have everything I need,” Mom would tell us when we asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

When I was a kid, I would tell my mother I loved her in the way small children do, spontaneously with great enthusiasm. When I became a teen­ager, and prone to embarrassment, I ended that practice and didn’t resume it for several decades. Even then, almost up until she passed, I would say it in a silly voice I reserve for endearments, so as not to sound too earnest. The day before she died, Mom took my hand and said, “I love you, Philip. You’ve been a wonderful son.” And for the first time since childhood, I told her I loved her in a normal voice. I wish I hadn’t stopped telling her I loved her when I was a teenager.

I’ve lived long enough to know Hallmark’s depiction of mothers isn’t entirely accurate. Having children doesn’t miraculously instill one with compassion, wisdom, patience, and love. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one couldn’t sire or bear a child until those qualities were present? If God ever puts me in charge of reproduction, I’m going to do something about that.

But my mother had all those virtues and more, which I didn’t appreciate as a kid, so I would ask her for other presents at Christmastime, not realizing she had already given me the loveliest gifts one person can ever give another.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and the author of 22 books. See also our feature article about Gulley and his wife in the November/December 2017 issue.

My Years of Eating Dangerously

Marie Osmond told me on television that she lost 50 pounds eating pre-packaged meals sent to her home, and not too long ago, the nation’s first lady ran off the White House pastry chef. That reminded me of childhood mealtimes and my grandmother’s nutritional malfeasance.

Until well after World War II ended in 1945, I lived on Sixth Street in Corinth, Mississippi, with my grandparents. Two aunts also lived with us. All the men were in the Pacific, leaving my grandfather, called Pop, to provide. My grandmother, Mom, ran the house.

Pop was a superb provider. He worked as a carpenter for the Tennessee Valley Authority and had a green B sticker on his car’s windshield, meaning that we had income and gasoline. He also had a green thumb and grew green vegetables in a huge backyard garden. Pop also fished, and he put fresh bream and crappie on our big dining room table at least twice a week. He also oversaw a backyard chicken house that delivered eggs as well as raw material for the big black frying pan that dominated Mom’s cooking.

Mom was a canner and preserver. We had — in what seemed to be endless quantity — green beans, pickled beets, peaches, strawberry preserves, and goodness knows what else.

Mom supplemented this bounty by going to the tiny Kroger store once a week for meat, which was rationed, and such staples as Luzianne coffee, Domino sugar, Clabber Girl baking powder, and Crisco shortening.

Our main meal, eaten at noon, we called dinner. The evening meal was supper except on Sunday when it became a “snack.” Sunday evenings were Mom’s lone break from cooking.

Many things were served fried: chicken, green tomatoes, the fish caught in Hatchie Bottom, and pork chops. Steak, scarce in wartime, was “chicken-fried.” Meatloaf was baked, of course, as was macaroni and cheese.

Mom always overcooked the steak and pork chops. In those times, the idea of a rare steak or hamburger could disgust entire neighborhoods. A typical summer meal included fried fish, tomatoes, green beans or butterbeans, and turnip greens. Or collard greens. I hated greens more than I hated Tojo or Hitler. If we had salad, it was a wedge of iceberg lettuce doused with French dressing, an orangey liquid unknown in France.

Breakfast might be fried eggs and bacon or cereal. Cold cereals were Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and Kellogg’s Pep, which came with a nifty airplane cutout inside. Hot cereals included Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, and Hot Ralston, sponsor of radio’s Tom Mix. We ate these instead of grits.
In those times, the idea of a rare steak or hamburger could disgust entire neighborhoods.
Modern nutritionists would hyperventilate just thinking about what we ate in the 1940s. On the healthy side were the vegetables and greens that were available six months of the year. From there, things went nutritionally sideways. It’s a wonder my grandparents were not jailed for child abuse.

Can you imagine a germ-laden henhouse in a backyard of today? How about wringing the neck of a chicken on the back steps and then, for the kids’ amusement, letting the headless victim lurch about the yard for a time? Those activities would have had SWAT teams from PETA and the EPA pouring through our front door.

The Department of Agriculture never inspected Pop’s garden, let alone the henhouse, and Mom adhered to no federal guidelines when it came to canning and cooking and cake making. As for fried food, the only questions were, “Is it crisp enough?” and “May I have some more?”

Our house was heated by coal; we drank non-homogenized milk; and we rarely locked doors. It’s a wonder I wasn’t overcome by fumes, poisoned, or stolen by gypsies. Yet we survived. Pop lived to be 88, Mom to 82. Both aunts made it well past 80, and I was 77 on my last birthday.

That’s what 400 years’ worth of fried chicken and beet pickles can do for you.

Hospice Girl Friday | ‘When a Child is Terminally Ill’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

My mom called me over the weekend to tell me about Kelly, her manager’s daughter. “She finally died, after twenty round of chemo and 5 surgeries,” my mom said, with an audible exhale full of sadness. “At one point they even removed one of her kidneys. Poor little thing.”

I had never met Kelly, but I felt like I had since my mom and I had talked about her so much over the two years since Kelly had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a dangerous yet common childhood cancer. That was right after her third birthday and right around the time most three-year-olds are learning to catch a ball and ask important questions like ‘Why is the sky blue?’

My mom thought that Bob, her manager, avoided confrontation at any cost, and she was frustrated by the way some of her co-workers seemed to take advantage of him on a regular basis. But when Bob came back from a long absence and told his team that little Kelly had cancer, my mom changed her attitude. After that, whenever my mom complained about work all I had to say was “Yes, but his daughter has cancer,” and her frustrations about Bob melted away into compassion.

“How is Kelly doing these days?” I’d ask.

“She’s on a new chemo that is making her sick, but Bob said they are going to stick with it. I hope they’re not chasing rainbows.”

“Mom, I can’t imagine what they’re going through. It must be impossibly difficult for everyone.”

“You’re probably right, but I just feel so bad for the little girl. She is sick all of the time from the chemo treatments. They keep taking her up to New York for surgeries. When does she get to be a kid?”

“I think Bob and his wife are trying to make sure she gets to be a kid. And a teenager. And a grown-up. How does a mother give up on her child’s future? You never would have been able to when we were little. You wouldn’t even now that we’re all grown.”

“Of course I wouldn’t,” my mom said without hesitation. “I just feel so badly for that little girl.”

There is a natural order to life: we are supposed to outlive our parents. It was my mother who first pointed that out to me when my friend Leslie was told there were no more treatments available to try to beat her cancer. Leslie’s parents were with her when she died a month shy of her 46th birthday. They are still outliving her.

I do not have kids so I know I will never understand how a parent might feel at any and every stage of a child’s life. But I have watched my own parents’ hearts soar with every high and break with every low that one of my brothers or I experienced. No one in my family has ever had to go through what Bob and his wife went through with Kelly (knock on wood), but I asked my brother David what he would have done if one of his now-grown sons was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. Would he let his child have some quality of life, or would he chase a cure?

“I would pursue every possible treatment, making any sacrifice necessary, even if it meant risking my own health and well-being,” David said. “Not doing so would not even enter my mind. Your thought of providing some quality of life is a consideration, but not at the expense of finding a long term solution or cure.”

David’s answer did not surprise me. My guess is my other brothers, who have two kids each, would say the same.

My hospice is for adults only so I have no experience with parents choosing–or not choosing–hospice care for their children. Still, most of the patients I see did not choose comfort care for themselves. They are in hospice because they exhausted all curative treatments available to them. Some patients have accepted their fates (not all loved ones have, however). Others are in denial or angry at the world or their god or their bodies for being so unfair. Modern medicine has done wonders to keep us alive longer than ever before, but now we are so ill-prepared to face death I often wonder if I would choose to forgo treatments that might prolong my life yet make me so sick I would not enjoy living, or if I would prefer to make the most of whatever time I might have left.

If I think I would have trouble making that decision for myself, I cannot begin to understand how Kelly’s parents could make any other decision than the one they did for their little girl. It’s a decision they will sadly have to live with–without her–for the rest of their lives.

Previous post: Discussing Your Advanced Medical Directive Next post: Getting too close to a terminal patient

Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.

Cartoons: Mom Can Handle It

start dinner without us

“You better start dinner without us …”
March 1960

talk about a tough day

“Talk about tough days …”
May 1958

Daddy's over here!

“P-s-s-t, mom! Daddy’s over here!”
May 1958

kids outside watching tv.

“I finally got the kids outside
and away from the television.”
May/June 2001

Bless what dog?

“Wait a minute! Bless WHAT dog?”
May/June 1995

bed full of pocketbooks

“Boy, that was a swell party last night—the bed
was full of pocketbooks.”
December 1960

birthday ballons

“Now where is my mom and those stupid birthday balloons?”
July/August 1995

Classic Covers: Richard Sargent’s Salute to Mom

It’s one of the cutest darn covers we’ve seen. A tiny boy in his yellow slicker and rain hat is gleefully standing at the bottom of the stairs holding up a handmade Mother’s Day card, and no doubt Mom will be thrilled—until she sees the muddy footprints on the carpet behind the boy.

Richard Sargent was one of the Post’s great visual humorists. His clever observations enlivened the covers during the 1950s and early 60s. Like the one where the house-calling doctor is about to give a sick boy a shot. Mom is concerned, wringing her hands. And the doctor is concerned for another reason. Sitting close to him on the bed, rather too close actually, is the observant family dog—a very big family dog.

Mom is exhausted. The Indian wars are over, and the miniature brave won. The April 14, 1956 cover shows just how daunting motherhood can be. The faces of the grocer carrying the boy away from the store and the little chief’s mom (with a skewed headdress herself) tell the story. The face of the little boy has “rotten” written all over it. Poor Mom.

Born and bred a Midwesterner, Sargent traveled to distant places during his career but never lost that touch of Middle America that made his more than 30 Post covers so appealing. He was the master of setting up pregnant situations, leaving you to wonder “what happens next?” Like the proud mom praising little Johnny for cleaning his room. What happens when she discovers that everything was shoved under the bed?

After struggling to find work during the mid-60s, Sargent and his wife, Helen, moved to the Andalusia region of Spain where he painted leisurely and enjoyed retirement. In 1978, he died suddenly at the age of 67 and was buried in Spain, a country he grew to love during the last 15 years of his life. What we will always remember are the many fun memories that he captured so well of our growing years as a culture.

Click here to read the Post‘s retrospective on Motherhood.