For My Mom's Memorial Service
My mother called an ambulance for herself the first week in January. She called my brother a couple days later to tell us that she was in the hospital and needed open heart surgery. "Don't come," she told him, "And don't tell your brother or your sister. I'm fine. I'll call you when I get out of surgery."
I got on an airplane for home a day later.
Surgery was postponed a week. My brothers came; someone was with her through the hospital stay, surgery day, and post surgery ICU. Nothing went as expected. Mom passed away on January 25, 2018.
Grief is an odd thing. I have written little since last summer when our infant grandsons, Jonathan and James, passed away. But writing is all I've wanted to do since my mother's death. I wrote and shared the following at her memorial service. I share it here as is, despite the lack of context of the service, the people, and the places that those hearing it directly would have had. I hope that meeting my mom through these words here on my blog will still have meaning for my readers.
Good afternoon. For those who don’t know me or recognize me with grey hair, I’m Mary’s daughter, Kim. On the behalf of the family, thank you for coming today.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of my mom is creative. She showed her love by making you something. After high school she worked at a fabric store. Sewing remained a life long enjoyment. When I was in high school she made every dress I wore to a dance. There was a plaid skirt and powder blue spaghetti strap silky top for my freshman year. A pink satin with fitted bodice and 1980’s puffy sleeves for my senior prom. I loved those outfits. But Mom didn’t do zippers or button holes. Just before walking out the door, I would stand in the middle of the living room, and she would literally sew the dress closed with me in it. If you happened to notice the photo of my mom adjusting my veil in our photo displays – she made her outfit for my wedding. No buttons on her jacket. Didn’t matter. She looked beautiful. Evidence of my mom’s love for her family and friends, stitched into art, surrounds this room.
(Reader: Instead of flowers surrounding the room during the memorial service, we displayed quilts that my mom had made. These photos were taken years ago as she was giving some of her grandchildren a homemade quilt.)
Mom also showed her love through food. When I married, she gave me a stack of handwritten recipe cards, one of them for Buckeyes. The recipe was very specific “½ a box of powdered sugar…” For years I would call Mom a few weeks before Christmas and ask, “How many cups is a ½ a box of powdered sugar?” The buckeyes and the recipe were a connection in our holiday preparations. She made me this tea towel a few years back to set the recipe straight. And then she preceded the same visit to make buckeyes with my children at my kitchen counter without using a single measuring cup.
About ten years ago, my brothers and I began the tradition of spending a week together in Lakeside each summer. My mom started planning our dinners in March. At least once a week in the spring and more often as the vacation approached, she would call me to talk about food. Feeding us the minute we stepped out of our cars from a nine-hour drive or cross continental flight, was her thing. She was not going to let us down. Author Jen Hatmaker writes of these traditions mothers and grandmothers enact for their children,
“There is something to be said for a given. Some constant element of childhood that delivers over and over with predictability and joy. Providing a familiar touch point week after week or year after year keeps (us) grounded and offers a buffer against the scary winds of change. It says to (us), “yes everything is fluctuating, but you can count on this thing we do, this place we go, this meal we share, this memory we make.”
Mom did that well for all of us. I want to be a mom and grandmother like Mary in these same ways.
Mary Em Fretts first came to Lakeside on Lake Erie in the mid-1940’s as a guest to her Aunt Stella’s cottage on Cedar Ave. She told us stories of sitting on the upper sleeping porch, yet to be screened in, and spitting watermelon seeds at people on the sidewalk below as they headed towards vespers in the park. Thirty years and a divorce later, Mary landed back in Lakeside. She was one of the few single parents in the community. Her spunky, defiant, spirited personality had moved on from watermelon seeds to teaching her children to dance to the song Proud Mary. That entire first school year as winter residents, mom would load us up on Friday nights and drive to Fremont to a Parents Without Partners evening social where we met other families like ours. She planted herself firming on the Lakeside-Marblehead rock, but would not necessarily be confined by the ideals espoused by those communities. She was a non-conformist. The church lady who likely wore Birkenstocks flip-flops with unpainted toenails instead of black pumps and hose with her choir robe. She was often uninhibited and unconcerned what others thought.
Her parenting reflected this. My mom was a pioneer in what is now called free-range parenting - the concept of encouraging children to function independently with little parental supervision. There was one rule in our childhood and adolescent home: leave a note. We had to write where we were going or what we were doing on something, most often a piece of unopened mail, and leave it on the coffee table. If the pack of Lakeside kids left the Bird’s house to go to the Gray’s, we had to run home and leave a note even though the route from the Bird’s to Gray’s was only five blocks and home wasn’t on the way. Sometimes we would come home and the note we had written two hours earlier was unread. She wasn’t home either. Didn’t matter. Leave another note.
Leaving notes was not the same as asking permission. Conversations as we walked out the door were not “Can I go…,” but rather, ‘I’m going…” My mother did not give consent to or finger-wag our decisions. Though her own life often constrained her, mom inadvertently modeled and granted independence. At sixteen, I went to Haiti with people she did not know. At twenty, I went to England. Somewhere between the age of ten and twelve my brother, Clint, rode his bike to the Marblehead Ferry, went to Kelley’s Island for the day, and rode his bike home. My brother, Ed, went five hundred miles away to college while most in his graduating class stayed in Ohio. When I was with Mom at the hospital before heart surgery she told countless professionals that she had hurt her back falling from a horse. She quizzed them if post-surgery pain would be comparable. When they left the room, we would resume looking at photos and videos of her grandchildren including some of my son, a cowboy, breaking colts. The pain my mom had experienced in the horse incident or any other aspect of life never translated into hesitative advice on how we should live. “Be careful,” she would say. And then let us go.
A side story – during our Lakeside week a number of years ago, we used a smart phone app called Find Friends that allowed us to share our physical location with an approved friend list. It was our tech version of “leave a note.” Fast-forward to mid January of the next school year. I was taking classes at a university in St. Louis and was on campus later than usual one night. It was after 11 and snowing when I started for home. As I got on the highway, I got a text from my mom. She didn’t normally text me at that hour. But she wanted to know why I had stayed at school so late and if the roads were bad. She was tracking me through the location-sharing app! And she knew St. Louis weather conditions. My mom’s love and protective instincts were as fierce as any momma bear’s, but her desire for us to pursue our dreams and goals always took precedent.
My mom was determined. In the late 1960’s Mary briefly raised Ed and me in a tent at a state park near Charlotte, North Carolina. My father was teaching at a historically black college; local realtors refused to rent to our family when they learned where he was employed. It was a hard time. But she was true to the ideals that took her to North Carolina her whole life. In 2014, Mom came to visit me in St. Louis four months after Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri. Our city had exploded into riots and protests. She asked us to take her to Ferguson. In route, she blazoned, “If there are protest marchers out today, I’m joining them.” My mom was afraid to get on an airplane or in a boat, but bold to help someone in need or stand up for what she believed in.
My mom had audacity. She had nerve. I have no idea what motivated her to be the first woman on the Lakeside Volunteer Fire Department. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was simply Lowell Joy or Don Caldwell telling her that she could not. She was the type of mom who hurtled a litany of swear words at my husband when he wouldn’t wake me to talk to her after our first child was born, and a month later called him, “my favorite son-in-law.” We would hear her chew out a friend on the phone in April, and find out she was traveling across country with the same person in September. Mom would take money Ed and I collected for delivering the News Herald to buy milk and bread, and months later generously provide musical instruments and lessons with members of the Lakeside Summer Symphony. The dichotomy sat fine with her. Mom both demanded and extended freely to others Annie Lamont’s statement, “Life is forgiveness school."
My mom’s generosity with her time and love, her commitment to community service and friends, her handmade gifts of food, textiles, ceramics, and other pieces of creativity, her guts, the “stubbornness she exhibited in the face of hard, real, beautiful life” were a constant in my life. The very foundation. To quote Jen Hatmaker again,
“Life is messy. For all of us. I’m not making this up, I’m just saying it out load. As it turns out, this is how it is for everyone. This is the price for being a human on this planet. We get the glorious and the grueling. And surprisingly, the second often leads to the first.”
Quotes are from Jen Hatmaker's book, The Mess and the Moxie.