Friday, August 12, 2011

Draft of personal column: 'Mom'

Below is a draft of a column I'm sending out next week to the six newspapers and one news site that get my twice-weekly column, FYI.

By Bill Knight

Fireflies floated free from a field of corn moments after Mom died around dusk on a Sunday a month ago.

When someone close passes on or is in danger, swelling up in us all is fear, impotence or anger. So people reach out and reach in.

Prayer might connect the impulses to look outward and inward, although skeptics scoff, dismissing prayer as talking to yourself. Arguing, even.

But when my mother had become unexpectedly ill, I reached out, looking for a “life line” maybe, through emails, Facebook and conversations with friends. I also felt guilty somehow, remembering a line in my morning prayer: “Encourage my weak faith.”

As people grieve, there’s contact with others, plus flowers and cards, kind comments and heartfelt hugs from close friends and total strangers. Family flew in from the West; pals drove hours to be at the funeral. I heard from my book club, softball team, work, church. Also, some guy in Warren County mailed a memorial donation, and a woman in Fulton County sent a nice note. Neighbors and folks I hadn’t seen in decades – including girlfriends from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – expressed sympathy.


For journalists, writing obituaries for friends or family is a particularly profound blessing and burden. None fully captures a life.

Born in 1930, in Keokuk, Iowa, Mom spent much of her childhood in Kentucky before returning to Keokuk, where she attended high school. She married Dad in 1949. She leaves him behind, along with my brother and me, our wives and a grandson.

A petite woman – she described herself as “five-foot-nothin’ ” – she was a homemaker and occasional employee at a friend’s small business, active in her church and a volunteer with groups ranging from Scouts to her local hospital in Carthage. She took pleasure in family, gardening, dancing and playing bridge.

There’s more beyond such basics. Reaching in, random memories are ignited.

She enjoyed cooking and creepy novels, and loved animals, from trying to save downed birds and baby bunnies in the backyard, to many beloved cats and dogs.

Humble and stubborn, easy-going but organized, Mom was an amateur archivist of sorts, keeping scrapbooks and genealogical background librarians would envy. She had simple tastes – buttermilk, horehound hard candy, Elvis, Betty Boop – but also was unexpectedly adventurous, like driving 800 miles by herself to visit relatives, or flying in a barnstorming bi-plane that offered rides during a rural stop.

She’d told me how, as a teen-age mom, she’d been fearful and frustrated, which probably explained her being judgmental without condemning others.

“Oh, well,” she’d say. “Live and let live.”

She wasn’t political but paid attention. An Eisenhower Republican, she was drawn to Reagan’s personality, but was put off by the more patrician Bushes. She came to like Bill Clinton and was happy to vote for Barack Obama. She wasn’t exactly athletic but played golf in a determined style, shooting short but straight at the pin while around her long drives were in the woods, and becoming a good putter, tapping the ball and, as it approached the cup, exclaiming, “One time!” It often was.

Smaller memories endure. Mom taught me how to skip as we walked to the hospital, where my baby brother was getting out after being treated for croup; she typed one of the first papers I wrote, in 7th grade; she finished a model rocket for me after I’d given up, in tears, and went to bed when I was about 9.

However, we also argued frequently for 20 years, until the ’70s. Mom scolded me as always opposed to things – an “aginner!” she called me – but she wasn’t my harshest critic. In fact, she could be a heckuva cheerleader. She gave me warm support when I did OK; for decades every word I wrote was done feeling Mom and Dad peering over my shoulders.

Mom was deceptively, sometimes inadvertently, funny. After one road trip with dogs staying rowdy despite sedatives from the vet, she announced, “Next time, I’LL take the tranquilizers.”
Another time, no doubt frustrated with two teens’ appetites, she questioned cooking at all, quipping, “Why bother! You’ll just EAT IT!”

She had a catch phrase – “Yeah, RIGHT!” – as in one conversation, in which I said, “Considering I was 7 when my appendix burst and you had to drain my gut, you’ve had to deal with my crap for 50 years.”

“Yeah, RIGHT!” she smiled.


It’d be an unhappy, hollow place if souls of such goodness and grit in some way didn’t live on.
But frankly, I felt somewhat abandoned until I stumbled on a line from Scripture, where God tells Isaiah, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

Now and then, here and there, things still seem empty. Then I answer myself: “But the sky seems full.”