“Love never fails.”
– St. Paul
My mother-in-law passed away last week.
You would have liked her.
She was curious. She was first described to me as a woman who liked to chase firetrucks to see what was going on. She sometimes took her children along.
She loved to tell jokes, but couldn’t. She would see the punch line approaching in her mind and get so tickled, she’d begin to laugh before actually delivering it.
This was usually funnier than the joke, which were of the Sunday school variety.
Speaking of church, she certainly loved hers.
It was not the church of her parents or her husband’s family, but it was the closest, about 300 yards from her home of 50 years.
She could drop in every day to help in any way and served on every church board in every capacity in almost every Sunday school and nursery and Scout troop and auxiliary.
With marriage, I became part of a family run by this energetic, generous, always smiling matriarch known as Mama Nell, who seemed to spend every waking moment of her 93 years thinking up something to do for someone else.
I do not need to tell you such people are rare.
I also do not need to tell you few people do this successfully, but she did.
She triangulated a neighborhood of Columbus, Ga., focusing her efforts on the Methodist church down the street, the elementary school next to it and her home where she welcomed, fed, entertained, fed, prayed for, and fed every visitor for half a century.
She liked to drive, not only in the pursuit of fire engines, but also just to help people get some place – to the store, to the hairdresser, to the doctor, to church, particularly to church.
She took people on vacations.
She once drove her older sister from Columbus to Augusta to take the state hairdresser license exam. It made sense, she said, because her sister could practice on her before the big test.
All these activities always struck me as a bit unusual because she was not her family’s “big sister.” She was the baby, last of a group that left the Alabama farm for more steady work in the city mills. They came to town and found a place, and Mary Nell was born in a little mill house that still stands.
She once told me her name was suggested by her father’s co-workers because the family was running out of new ideas … and still trying to figure out who named her last sister Betherel (pronounced “Beth-earl”).
The mill-working former farmers eventually moved to their own house, where she mostly grew up and mostly “borrowed” bicycles to satisfy her early desire for travel.
She was a tomboy who loved to fish. She had friends. She had fun. She graduated high school. She got married. She had kids.
Things were working out the way they’re supposed to.
But then things changed.
Her young husband, a Navy petty officer, died unexpectedly of a heart ailment. Suddenly, she was 27, away from home with two small children … and a third on the way.
What did she do?
She succeeded magnificently.
She regrouped. She reorganized. She returned home to Columbus.
She raised her young children by encouraging their involvement in the three centers of their lives – church, school and the family home.
She made that home a focal point and welcomed everyone to it – grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends … lots of friends. Even a future son-in-law.
It’s where love lived every single day.
She had the happiest funeral I’ve ever attended. Such joy. Everyone wanted to share some kindness or gift or funny story about her. There were a lot of people, so there were a lot of funny stories. It was all wonderful.
So was she.