Recently I had the honor of giving the eulogy for my mother-in-law's funeral. I asked my wife and sister-in-law if I could post it here, and they said yes.
Whenever I think of Mama, I think of food.
The first time I met her, I was dating Nancy, and I came for Sunday dinner. Lord! I'd never seen anything like it. There was fried chicken, ham, a slicing roast, any number of vegetables, plus home-made biscuits and fried cornbread.
Parenthetically, I will say it came as sort of a minor tragedy in our family when Eelbeck went out of business; they were the company that made the particular cornmeal-mix Mama used for her fried cornbread.
I saw all this food and said to Nancy, "Do you always eat like this?" I probably would have asked her to marry me anyway, but I will say that meal weighed heavily in my decision.
We told a friend of ours about those meals, a meal where three different animals were on the table, and she called them "multi-species meals." She'd say, "I want someone to fix me a multi-species meal, too!"
Mama'd get up early Sunday and start cooking - some things, like the roast, had to cook a long time - and the house would be filled with these delicious smells. Then she'd go to church, and when she came back, she cook all the stuff that cooked quickly, like the chicken and the cornbread.
But, lord, she would drive us crazy because she would never sit down. We'd be there waiting, forks in our hands, and she'd hop up from the table. "Let me get some pepper sauce." Then she'd almost sit down and hop up again. "Please, Mama, sit down." "Let me just heat up some rice." We'd all be sitting there, mouths watering at all this delicious food, and simple human decency meant we couldn't eat until everyone was at the table. "Please, Mama, sit down. Sit down so we can eat." "Just a second, I'm fixing to chop some onions. Do y'all want some Vidalia onions?" Then finally, after getting up half a dozen times or more, she'd sit down for good, and she'd say, "Well, I just hope it's fit to eat." Of course, it was wonderful.
She was also famous for her cornbread dressing, which she made for Thanksgiving. Nancy got her to write down the recipe and she fixed it for us. It was very good, but it wasn't the same. Then Donna - I believe this was her procedure - stood at Mama's elbow as she made it one year and took careful step-by-step notes. For many years past, Donna has made the Thanksgiving dressing, and it is sublime.
But it's not the same.
It'll never be the same.
I do know one story about Mama that has nothing to do with food. If I get some of the details wrong it's because I don't know it of my own memory but was told it by Melinda Spencer who worked with Mama at the Georgia Kraft credit union. Well, a long time ago, all the credit union records were kept on something called a ledger card, that you stuck into some sort of machine which would punch in whatever transaction had taken place, whether it was a deposit, withdrawal, loan payment or what-have-you.
By the time Mama had retired all the records were digital, but the really old accounts were still on those ledger cards. And every once in a while, some old-timer would come in and need to close out his account, and Melinda would have to go searching in this claustrophobic filing room among those old cards. The only catch was, the cards weren't filed by people's names but by their time-clock numbers, and even the employees themselves didn't know their own time-clock numbers.
So Melinda would call up Mama and say, "Bill Smith just came to close his account, can you give me any idea where to find his ledger card?" And Mama would say, "Bill Smith was an electrician, and electricians had time-clock numbers that started with five, so check in the fives. But you know, I think his number might have been five-one-oh-two-three-three-six. Check there first." And Melinda would check there, and sure enough, that would be Bill.
I don't want you to think this is a story about someone's amazing ability to remember numbers, because the story's not about that. To Mama, that ledger-card was a person, someone who put in maybe thirty years at that paper mill, setting aside a little each month for the day he retired. That ledger card held the story of the time he had to take out a loan for car or maybe just a color TV set, because a loan was the only way he'd be able to get it, and the months and years he had to work that job to pay it back. To Mama, those ledger cards were people's lives, and they mattered.
Alzheimer's is a terrible, terrible illness. I don't know of a worse. What it does is pull away pieces of you until all that's left is one flickering little bit of your very center. For Mama, when it got down to that last flicker, there was nothing left but sweetness. She'd say, "How're you?" when someone came in the room, and "Thank you," when they told her how pretty she was. She called everybody "sugar," and if you told her you loved her, she'd say, "I love you too," right back. She might not know who you were, but she'd say she loved you.
I'm not saying she was always happy, because she wasn't. She hated it when they had to turn her in the bed or when they bathed her. It frightened her and she'd tell them to stop.
And sometimes she'd get agitated because she thought there was something she needed to do. She had two wonderful caregivers, Tara and Carol, but the hardest words she ever had to hear was there wasn't anything she needed to do, that everything had been taken care of, and she was fine and just needed to rest. Towards the end, she would pull up on her sheets and try to fold them over or gather them in a bundle or something. I don't know what she was trying to do, and she didn't know either. If you'd asked her, she wouldn't have been able to tell you, or it would have just come out gobbledygook. It was like something you have to do in a dream, and when you wake up, it doesn't even make sense. But whatever it was she was trying to do with those sheets, if you know Mama, she was trying to do it for somebody else, she was trying to do it for the sake of somebody else.
I think Mama may have set some sort of record. When she first went into hospice, they said three days to a week. Two weeks later, she was still hanging in there, and they said the crisis was near at hand and we could expect the end in two or three days. Seven days later, and she was still going strong. Sometimes she'd say she wanted to go home and see her mother. And finally she went.
The thing that kept amazing the doctors and nurses was how strong her heart was. They'd listen to her chest, and it was just going strong and steady, and they'd put the stethoscope to her shoulder, and it was beating there just the same. I swear, I once saw someone put the stethoscope to her foot, and the beat was just as strong as anywhere. Do you get what I'm saying? It was her heart that was so strong. It was her heart.
Recently I've been toying with the idea the maybe God is Love. I know it says that in the Bible, First John. I'm not illiterate. But I have a notion sometimes, that that's the whole deal. That all the theology and doctrine is all well and good, but it just comes down to God is Love, and if you know that, you'll be fine. When you turn away from Love, you're turning away from God, and when you turn towards Love, you're turning toward God.
And if it really is just that simple, God is Love, then I think Mama might be the godliest person I've ever known.
I don't what happens to us when we die, but I know what heaven would be for Mama. There's be a big table. It has to be big because there's so much food on it. There's fried chicken, a slicing roast, and ham. There's all manner of vegetables. There's biscuits and fried cornbread. Because you know they got Eelbeck in heaven. And the air is filled with delicious smells because Mama's been cooking all morning.
And Unlce EJ will say, "Sit down, Catherine." And she'll say, "Just a second, let me get some pepper sauce," and Uncle Palmer will say, "Please, Catherine, please have a seat," and she'll say, "I will, but let me heat up this bowl of rice," and Grandma Courson will say, "Have a seat, Catherine. We're hungry." And she'll say, "I've just got to chop some onion. Y'all want some Vidalia onion?" And my own mother will say, "Sit down, C Q" - that's what she called her - "so the rest of us can eat." And she'll sit, and she'll say, "I just hope it's fit to eat."
We love you Mama, and we miss you.