Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembering Mom

Sophie and Jameson's great grandmother passed away on July 8th. She was 96 years old. It would take me about that long to tell you all that she meant to me and share all the stories of her life. I was honored to deliver the eulogy at her funeral, and share the memories of my cousins, as well. This is an incredibly long post to a blog, but I want to keep these words, and share them with family. So now it's out there in cyberspace (a word that my grandmother would not have known. In fact, when I said I was going to post the eulogy on a website, my father told me that Mom Allen would have thought that had something to do with a spider!) I love you, Mom.

My "Mom" and me:

She probably sewed those red bell-bottoms for me!

Eulogy for Ruth Murial Gryder Allen
Read on July 12, 2010

My name is Stacy, and I am Ruth’s sixth grandchild – the baby of the family for a long, long time. And then there were more kids and babies. More grandchildren and all their spouses, fourteen great grandchildren and even three great great grandkids. That’s what happens when you live 96 years with a gentle and loving heart – you get to do a lot of mothering. And that’s what we all called her: Mom.

My cousin Lisa set that trend for us, because that’s what she heard her mom, Joy, and Aunt Cloye and Uncle Jerry calling their parents. It might have been a little confusing to those outside the family, since we also had parents that we called Mom and Dad, but there was something in the intonation or maybe context – we always knew who we were talking about: Let’s drive out to Kerrville and go camping with Mom and Dad. See you Christmas Day at Mom and Dad’s! Mom made the red velvet cake. How’s Mom doing? Give my love to Mom.

She was an amazing mother figure to all of us. She was tiny, but she was huge to me – this little red-headed lady with a grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye. When I picture her in my mind, she is walking out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel, saying “Well, hello, Stacy” and opening up her arms to hug me. Her children will tell you, she sacrificed for them (and they have sacrificed for her), and she taught them by example. She needed a lot of patience to raise three children – two girls, Joy and Cloye, so close to each other in age, and then that Jerry Dean, who once burned down a field trying to cook the neighbor’s chicken in a pot. My grandmother didn’t smile in many photographs we have of her, but I have memories of her laughing out loud, cackling even, telling stories about my father, Jerry, when he was a little boy.

I pestered her to tell me stories about the past. Every single time that I visited her, we would pull out the photo albums and I would leaf through the pages, delighting in all of the pictures of our family: Lisa and Lori wearing matching Easter dresses that Mom had made, Scott and Jeff running around in spaceman helmets, Bradley wearing a little bow tie, family trips to Colorado, Lisa’s awesome jumpsuits from the late ‘70’s, and all the pictures of our family units – the Berry’s, the Largent’s, the Allen’s – in front of this one segment of fence. In all of the school pictures she has of me, I am wearing an outfit that she sewed for me – she was a wonderful seamstress – she made all of her daughters’ clothes until they were married. I wish I had learned more from her. I liked to rearrange the straight pins in her tomato-shaped pin cushion while she sewed, but now that I have a four-year-old, I wish I could sew jumpers with little schoolhouses on them. In one of those old albums, there are pink-tinted photos of my aunts wearing ballgowns and tiaras, for homecoming, I suppose. I used to stare at those photos and try to jump into them -- they looked like princesses to me. But my favorite photos are the black and white group photos from the late ‘20’s and ‘30’s. There are pictures of my grandfather’s first students when he was a teacher – all the children barefoot and wearing overalls. And the best picture of all, my grandmother’s basketball team. She’s wearing a uniform that goes all the way down to the ankles, and she has a short bob haircut and steely-eyed determination – they called her “Little Red,” because there was a taller redhead on the team. Mom loved basketball. Her team went on to play in a state championship one year. She loved watching basketball on t.v., even into her nineties, but she was diplomatic about it. She would cheer for the Mavericks when one side of the family was visiting, and root for the Spurs if my Dad was there watching the game with her. Football was not so nebulous – it was always the Dallas Cowboys.

There are many “always” moments when I think about Mom. She had the same hairstyle for the entire 39 years that I knew her – done each week at the beauty parlor and sealed into place with Aquanet, and we weren’t supposed to touch it. (I don’t know why – it would have just bounced back into place, I think.) Mom always made red hot salad when she knew kids were coming for a visit – for those of you who have never heard of this southern delicacy, it’s not a salad, and it’s not really hot. But it’s definitely red. And there were other dishes that she always served: creamed corn, homemade cakes and pies, green beans that had been frozen after they were freshly picked from her garden, hot cornbread, mustang grape jellies that she had put up…even her cream of wheat had the just the right amount of lumps. Always. And when Dad was alive, he always stopped at the Golden Chick after church for our Sunday dinner.

Everything changes in life, but not Mom. And not her little house in Belton. Mom and Dad believed in clean living, and their house reflected that. Everything was always just so – everything in its place. For my entire life, I have known that the plastic alligator lives in the small drawer of the dresser in the middle bedroom, right next to the matchbox filled with wooden checkers. Mr. Bim, the stuffed monkey that every grandchild and great grandchild dragged around, lived in the bottom of the closet. There is a rattlesnake tail in Mom’s jewelry box. And there is a drawer filled to the brim with bread ties. I don’t know what anyone could possibly do with all of those breadties, but my grandmother was not a waster. She had memories of the Depression, and we have all seen her rinse off tin foil and flatten it out to re-use. If there were three bites left of a casserole, it went back into the icebox and reappeared, alongside 14 other small dishes of leftovers, at the next meal. She rinsed out milk cartons so she could fill them with water and freeze them into blocks of ice. Appliances were taken to repair shops before they were replaced. And she was more likely to buy new buttons than a brand new dress. We can still learn so much from Mom.

I learned a lot from my grandmother on our drives together. After Dad passed away, I often had the job – the blessing – of driving Mom to family events like weddings or Thanksgiving at James and Sarah’s house in Stephenville. Again, I would pester her to tell me stories of the past. She would point down one road where her family’s farm had been, and down another to where C.D. Allen – she always called him “Doc” – had lived. She told me she had had a beau before him, but he won her heart. She told me about growing up with her brothers and sisters, Austin and Spivy, James, Lucille, and Doris, fishing with cane poles and hoeing cotton in the fields. She rode a horse to school each day and always wore a bonnet because she thought freckles were ugly. When she was a young girl, she wanted to grow up and be an English teacher. And while she did not become a classroom teacher, she and Dad led so many of us to that calling. I remember her telling me, “Get your education – once you have a degree, no one can take that away from you.”

Each one of the grandkids has memories like this – and they’ve been sending them to me this week:

My brother, Jeff, wrote to me about a summer when he spent a couple of weeks in Belton. He said, “I remember waking up very early every morning to the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen. I spent my time helping Mom and Dad in the garden, building a bird house with Dad (this is where I got my love of wood working), playing basketball in the driveway, and going fishing at the lake. I remember that Mom would change clothes before going in to town, even if she was just running to the grocery store. One day we were fishing at the Bell County Sportsman’s club and I was bored because the fish were not biting so I went outside and was throwing some rocks or something when I heard Mom start laughing. I went back in the fishing dock and Mom had both her rod and reel and mine with fish with two fish on each line. My favorite memories of Mom are the way I would feel when she would sit next to me and hold my hand and say “I love you Jerry”. It never upset me when she would get me mixed up with my Dad.”

Lisa spent a lot of time with our grandparents each summer, too. She wrote, “Mom woke up early every morning and put on a full face of makeup before breakfast. At night I liked to lie on her bed and watch her slather her face and neck in cold cream. She always smelled so good. She moved like a house afire from the time her feet hit the floor – three full meals every day with her garden produce; we only bought necessities at the store. Our social life was church – church every Sunday and Wednesday, church socials and picnics, reading the Bible daily. One special vacation was to where else --- Glorieta Baptist Encampment where we stayed in the college's cabin! More church! Every night ! Huge services. My most vivid memory is singing in the car: "When We All Get to Heaven" was memorized by the time I was 6 years old.” They took Lisa on several outings: to the department store to buy sewing notions, to the Picadilly in Austin – even to the caverns and the Capital, with Dad telling stories of Sam Bass and the outlaws, and to the Belton library, where Lisa loved the smell of the books. She remembers Mom working around the house and singing and said, “She, and my mother, were the two more important female influences in my life.”

Brad and Scott both remembered the holidays and meals at Mom’s house, and how she always made everyone feel special. Brad said, “Mom was ALWAYS happy to see us walk into the house. Whenever we arrived she really seemed to beam. She loved to cook for her family. She never wanted to “go and get” anything. She preferred that we all sit down to a home cooked meal and enjoyed her time in the kitchen cooking for us.” And both Brad and Scott spoke of her patience. Brad reminded me, that in all her years with all these kids underfoot, we never heard her raise her voice.

And Scott wrote: Words are hard to describe about a bond/love that you have for someone. I feel very fortunate to have had Mom as a grandmother. Her patience has always been exemplified with her grandkids. Nothing can describe love like patience can, and she loved us all. I truly appreciate the Christian example that she set for us. My best memories were the holidays, particularly Christmas and Easter. The smile that she had as she looked at us and the great many meals that she cooked will always be a part of my heart. I feel very blessed to have her as a grandmother. She was the perfect grandmother.

Mom fed our hearts, and our souls. And she definitely fed our bellies.

Lori said, “One of my favorite memories of Mom is the way she instilled a love of cooking and bringing the family together. She was an excellent cook and always put so much love into every dish. She also instilled a love of cooking in all her children which has been passed down to her grandchildren and great grand children. I’m sure the Red Velvet cake, which always made each Christmas celebration so special, will be passed down to all future generations and we will always think of Mom each time we make it. We watched her cook tirelessly each holiday and every time we visited and we always felt so special and loved. I have so many special memories of our family coming together and just enjoying each others company and spending time together.”

We felt special, because Mom knew us – she knew what we loved and encouraged our gifts.

Vanessa said, “Every time we would visit, she and I would talk about our favorite sport, basketball! I can still remember the photographs she shared with me of her playing. Talking about the same basketball position we both played. Not only did we share stories about basketball, but she showed how much she cared when she would call to the house to see how my games went. Most importantly, the one thing that meant the most to me was, she always accepted us in the family like we were one of her own. She was always kind and good hearted. She always was asking about our accomplishments with school, work, and life.

And this is what Taz wrote: Mom Allen was always the sweetest most kind lady. She always saw the best in everybody and was optimistic in every way. I love how she accepted me, a random little brown boy, into her family and treated me with the utmost hospitality. She treated me like a real grandson. She cooked the best meals in the world; like most grandma's she was famous for her dishes! She never failed to ask me how my life was and always wished me the best in everything. She genuinely cared about me and in return I loved her and will always love her.

We all have so many memories of Mom that we’ll treasure in our hearts. But what she most treasured in her heart was a love for God and the teachings of Jesus Christ. And by example, she taught us. The real meaning of family is holding hands in prayer before a meal. In our family, the greatest honor was being old enough to read, because the youngest literate child was asked to read the story of Christ’s birth each year at Christmas. Often, a grandchild or great grandchild would sing a song or play an instrument they were learning. We all filled her den at Christmas, even when the grandkids were grown and married. And before we dug into the goodies under the tree, we always sang Jingle Bells and Silent Night. We always sang about this heavenly peace she’s living now.

There was only one theological question that I think she got wrong. When I was four or five years old, we came to visit Mom and Dad at the end of October. October 31st fell on a Sunday that year, and she was absolutely sure that a good Christian town like Belton would not celebrate Halloween on a Sunday evening. So I was crammed into my Tinkerbell costume and went door-to-door on a Saturday evening, before anyone had done their candy shopping. One kind soul gave me some change, but another lady scolded me for being on her doorstep on the night before Halloween. We gave up and went home, where I’m sure I was fed with Mom’s cakes and pies until I could bust.

I don’t presume to know any more about theology than she did. I don’t know what Heaven is really like. I can imagine asking Mom, and her saying, “I don’t reckon I know. What do you think it’s like?” and grinning at me. For now, as we are all saying goodbye, I’d like to imagine her tying a scarf over her hair, then walking along a path and down some steps, across stones in a river and over a long wooden plank bridge, until she reaches a fishing dock where a cane pole is waiting. And right at the edge of the fishing hole, there is a group of people sitting in lawn chairs. There is Doc, and Joy, and all of her brothers and sisters and other family members. There is the fisher of men. And they all turn to look at her and say, “Here she comes. She’s finally here.”