Friday, December 9, 2011


As you can see from the preceeding post, my mom passed away last month.

The minister at our old church in Enterprise had never met my folks before my mom's funeral. My dad, who cared for Mom throughout her long illness, hadn't been able to get out to do much of anything other than work and look after her for the last couple of years.

I though it was ridiculous that we were asking this guy to give a eulogy for somebody that he didn't know and knew nothing about (I could barely speak when we met with him), so I wrote this up the night before and emailed it to him. It is a very poor effort, but even now, it's about as much as I can manage.

* * *

My mother was born into an Alabama farming family on Sand Mountain in the Appalachian foothills.  Her people were by any modern standard (or even the standards of those days, at the end of the Depression) dirt poor.  But when they could leave the fields, they were musicians--the Johnsons had a bluegrass and gospel band that Mom sang with on the radio as a child--and storytellers and craftsmen beyond any level of those arts we see today.  

Her uncles made fiddles and guitars from scratch, and her father, despite having only an eighth-grade education, was one of the first men hired by NASA when it was started up in the 1950s.  By the time he retired, Granddaddy was on a first-name basis with Werner Von Braun, and replaced by a degreed electrical engineer.  He worked two jobs for most of his life, and put his two daughters through Birmingham-Southern College.  He and my grandmother were the two hardest-working people I've ever known.

Until my aunt Lauren was born in the 1950s, Mom was the only child between my grandmother Bernelle and her older sisters Connie and Ruby Jo.  She was loved as intensely by those three families as anyone could imagine, and she passed on that remarkable bond of affection for home and kin to her own children and her two grandsons.  I think the soft weight of those four generations of close-knit family ties is why it's so difficult for me to talk about her today. 

Without exaggeration, Mom was something of a star in her hometown of Albertville. She was the drum major in the marching band, a straight-A student, and a famous beauty.  Just a couple of years ago, by chance, I ran into Robert O. Johnson, Albertville's long-time photographer and unofficial historian, and the first thing he told my wife Beth upon meeting her was what a pretty woman my mother was.  Robert, now in his eighties, retired and nearly blind, still says his most famous photograph out of the untold thousands he took in a long career was a shot of teenaged Lynda holding up the head of a gigantic fake snake that had been wrapped around a car as a cheerful hoax.  That picture has been reprinted in Sand Mountain newspapers at least a dozen times since it was taken in the late 50s, and it always brought a light to Mom's eyes when someone dug out a copy.

My parents met in Birmingham, when my dad was in dental school at UAB and mom was about to finish college.  They were a blind date, set up by mutual friends who are themselves still married and attended Mom's services last month.  The details of that date--a raucous dental-school banquet--made for a seemingly-endless chain of funny stories doled out by their friends during my childhood, but it obviously went well.  They were married in 1962, and Mom taught high school in Birmingham until Dad finished school.  He was commissioned in the Air Force upon graduating, and the two rural Alabama natives moved together to RAF Lakenheath in England shortly afterwards.

For Mom, this was a bit like being assigned to Heaven.  A Phi Beta Kappa English major, she was already an Anglophile who could (and did) go toe-to-toe with Cambridge dons discussing Shakespeare.  Together they soaked up the history, survived the lousy East Anglia weather, collected antiques and a couple of English bulldogs, and tried to start a family.  My older brother Charles was born and died on the same day in 1967, and Mom never really got over his loss.  Two decades later we visited his grave together, in a lonely corner of the American cemetery at Lakenheath.

When Dad's term of service was over in 1968, they returned home to Alabama and settled in Enterprise, although neither of them had any family here.  I arrived shortly afterwards, followed by my sister Kitty, thirteen months and one day later; which Mom always referred to as "twins the hard way."  Mom rebutted the admonition of a college friend that she was moving to "a cultural wasteland" by helping found the Coffee County Arts Alliance, which has brought everything from Broadway to opera to Dizzy Gillespie to Enterprise over the years, and thrives to this day.

She was a fascinating person to have as a mother.  Mom would recite snippets of classical poetry while dropping a Billy Joel tape in her car's 8-track on the way to a college football game.  She encouraged every variety of hobby or interest Kitty and I might have (well, she did draw the line at my request for an ant farm), and pushed us, sometimes (but not always) subtly to expand our horizons.  When I entered college as an engineering major, she cajoled me for a year to go convince Auburn's writer-in-residence to admit me into her fiction writing course (she finally did, and as a matter of course, later became a pen pal of Mom's).  After reading a blurb about a new scholarship in a game program, she nudged me again to apply for a study abroad grant that would send me to London and Oxford to read literature and history.  She was that kind of a mom.

She was this kind, too:  when I was a little boy, we went to Atlanta's Grant Field to watch Auburn play Georgia Tech.  Once in the stadium, I sat down next to a particularly obnoxious Tech fan who made a point of leaning over to bad-mouth Auburn whenever he saw my dad looking the other way.  Mom put up with that for about five minutes before picking up a full cup of icy Coke and dumping it over the guy's head.  He leapt up and glared at me, thinking I'd done it, and yelled at Mom, "Lady, what kind of kid are you raising here?"

Mom jumped up herself, all five-foot-nothing and 100 pounds worth, poked her finger in the soaking Tech fan's chest and replied, "My son didn't do that--I DID!"  She got a standing ovation from the Auburn fans around us, and the Tech guy slunk away, never to be seen again.

Mom tried a million different things herself.  She took a couple of years worth of German at Troy State, just because she wanted to learn the language.  She wrote feature articles for the Southeast Sun (a local weekly paper) for a few years before getting fed up at the ham-handed editing.  Mom was ahead of her time; she would have been a great blogger.  She became a part-time travel agent and tour guide, leading groups of Alabamians across England and Scotland.  She dabbled in court reporting.  She learned to ski, she painted, she wrote, she played the piano and had a beautiful singing voice.

Kitty got the music and the social graces and the beauty; I got the writing and the take-no-bull attitude.  Most days I'm convinced Kitty got the better end of the deal.

She loved her family, and she loved her friends, and their numbers are seemingly endless. I was hardly able to turn around in Enterprise the week of her funeral without being embraced by them.  Everywhere I went, people I barely recognized (if that) stopped to tell me how much they loved my mother.

Most of them have told me that it's been a long time since they'd seen her.  They lost her all at once; her family had been losing her one little piece at a time for nearly a decade.  People have always told me that I take after her, and for myself, I can't imagine a fate more terrifying than slowly, steadily losing your mind.  

When she went in to be examined for possible dementia years ago, Mom asked us not to tell her if the diagnosis was Alzheimer's.  We kept that promise, so I don't really know whether she understood what was happening to her or not.  I suspect she did, though.  Mom was a very smart lady.

And so she suffered, for years, with just my amazing dad and a few dedicated care-givers to help her.  Dad did everything anyone possibly could to help her, but simply because he is a mortal man, that could not be enough.

Finally, last month, the disease took everything she had left, with one sole but vital exception:  the memories of the people she'd touched during her life.

Those are nothing to take lightly, but they are not enough.  I still want my mom back.


  1. Will,

    That was a truly beautiful eulogy. Deservedly so. I am sorry for your loss but choose to believe that your mother is smiling, lucid and reviewing your writing every day with admiration.


  2. Quite beautiful, Will. My deepest sympathies.

    I can relate somewhat. My father died three years ago due to complications from Parkinson’s. He was a Professor of English for 30 years at the University of San Diego. He was a brilliant mind, so the impact of the Parkinson's was particularly devastating in the later years of his life.

    Maybe he and your mother are discussing the nuances of Shakespeare right now. ;-)