Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mother

On May 1, 1928 word spread through the little town of Branson, Missouri, that Joe and Helen Campbell had just become the proud parents of their first-born child—a daughter they named Joan Telfer Campbell. Twenty-eight years later their daughter became my mother. And if she was still living, she would be 82 years old today.

Mother was raised in a Scotch Presbyterian home. Both sides of the family had Scottish roots. My mother’s grandmother was an immigrant, coming over to the United States when she was just a little girl. With so much Scottish blood coursing through her veins, she picked up some of the traits of her family: a kind of emotional stoicism, a somewhat arms-length posture in her relationships, and a stubborn devotion to God. I don’t know if all Scots possess these traits but they were certainly in her make-up and in the make-up of her family.

Mother didn’t have an easy life. She was only a year old when, like a plague of locusts, the Great Depression swept across America devouring money and jobs and homes and property. That disaster compelled her daddy (and she says she was a daddy’s girl) to take his family to Florida in search of work. Did I mention that Joe and Helen birthed another daughter, Pat, just before they moved? Sadly, the move didn’t work out. My mother’s daddy liked to hunt. One morning he went out alone to shoot some ducks. He didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home. Everybody was worried sick. Some men went to look for him. It wasn't long till they got the word: apparently Joe was reaching for his rifle and it fired. It hit the bull’s eye—tragically, the bull’s eye was him. He was killed on the spot. Daddy’s girl lost daddy when she was six-years-old. They had no money but by the time family and friends pitched in what they could, the family scratched just enough cash together to get back to Branson. They moved in with my mother’s grandmother and grandfather, and that’s where my mother finished growing up—in a white house with a large porch on Atlantic Avenue. Her grandparents became like second parents to her.

She graduated from Branson High School in 1946. She married Billy McCallum in 1951 (my mother called him Mack). They lived in Little Rock and started a family. David was born to them in 1953. I came along in 1956. And their third and final child, Ray, was born in 1958. I wish we had been a storybook family we appeared to be, but we were not. We were active in church. We got along with our neighbors. Both my dad and mother had good jobs. Things looked fine on the outside, but inside the family was a like a grenade with the pin pulled out. Sooner or later it was going to explode.

It exploded in 1964. I won’t go into the reasons why, but it blew our family to smithereens. My mother suffered what appeared to be a stroke. She passed out in choir at church one Sunday morning—just dropped like rock during worship. Doctors called it a nervous breakdown. The result was that she lost use of her entire right side. That’s never good under any circumstance; it’s murder if you happen to be right-handed. My mother was right-handed. Over the next few years she got better emotionally, but she never recovered her right side. If you want a picture of what it was like for her, start wiggling the fingers on your right hand while twisting your right wrist in random directions. Her right leg also moved involuntarily on her, but it was never as bad as her arm.

That was the last straw for their marriage. This all happened a few weeks before Christmas so my mother moved us three boys (in an ironic déjà vu of her own childhood) to her mother’s house in Branson on Christmas break. She told us we’d just be there for a little while so that she and daddy could work things out. I was in third grade when we moved to Branson. I graduated from Branson High School in 1974. We never moved back, and we rarely saw our daddy after that.

My mother was down as far as I would ever see her until her last days—which were very low days for her, too, but for different reasons. She could have just quit on life. She could have tried to get permanent disability. Since, by her choice, there was no money coming from my dad, she did have to get some welfare for a time. She was in one deep pit, but she didn’t stay there. With the help of her mother, a psychiatrist in Springfield, and a pastor and church in Branson, she got back on her feet again. She learned how to write left-handed (even though it was always hard to read). She learned how to drive a car again which was no small chore for a person whose right arm and right leg were of no use to her in—a hindrance rather than a help in the process. She even got back into the work force. A local lawyer from our church hired her to be his secretary. She worked for him for more than 30 years and became the fastest one-handed typist on the face of the earth. I’m a good typist but my best with two hands was slower than her best with one—her left hand no less, and on a electric typewriter without automatic margins, custom formatting, and a delete button. Incredible! (I think that must have been a God-thing.)

My mother finally retired. I don’t think she liked retirement very much. She volunteered at the local library and continued to teach the Bible in her church. She lived alone and seemed to like it that way. She always was kind of a hermit. She only got out for church and the grocery store and for occasional gatherings with some of her old classmates from the 40s. She lived a quiet life.

In her last few years dementia began to set in, and we three sons finally talked her into selling her house in Branson and moving into an assisted living complex near our youngest brother Ray and his wife Joan in Olathe, Kansas. She spent the last days of her life there. I wish I could say she died a happy person, but she did not. She usually put on her best attitude for her friends, but her sons experienced her darker side as much as anything else. She just couldn’t seem to get happy.

The last time I saw her was when we threw a little birthday party for her at her assisted living residence when she turned 80. She seemed to enjoy the day but, as always, was ready for the party to be over and for her children to go back home. She died Christmas Eve a few months later.

I wish I could say I was emotionally close to my mother, but I was not. Some of that was because of her; most of that was because of me. Sadly, she didn’t really forge emotional connections with any of her sons. Maybe it was her upbringing—her family never seemed to be emotionally connected to each other either. Maybe she’d had too much sadness in enough of her close relationships that she protected herself from future pain by avoiding the kind of intimacy that rips the heart when the relationship goes south. I don’t know. I do know I could have and should have been a better son to her.

In spite of all that, I did learn some lessons from her along the way that have shaped my life and my behavior:

Jesus provides. In spite of barely two nickels to rub together after the divorce, my mother continued to tithe whatever she had to the Lord and the church in the belief that the Lord would provide for her family's needs. We didn’t have much, but we always had enough.

Reading is a pleasure, and it’s hard to do too much of it.

Jeopardy is the greatest game show in the history of television.

Smoking stinks. She was an avid smoker till the day she died in spite of having two kinds of cancer from it. I grew up with enough second-hand smoke to kill an elephant and decided then I would never put a cigarette to my mouth.

Church is important. She loved God her whole life long and served Him in His church until her health kept her on the sideline.

It matters what one believes. My mother took a stand on orthodox theology that caused her to leave the Presbyterian church for awhile. She attended a more evangelical church instead. I was so happy, however, that in her last years in Branson her beloved Presbyterian church called a pastor that brought them back to their orthodox roots. This allowed her to go home to the church of her childhood and pretty much her whole life long.

• When your kids graduate from high school, let them go. I still remember my first night at college when I found a note she tucked into my Bible. It was her formal “letting me go” announcement with the promise that God had good things in store for me, that God would take care of me, and that I would always be in her prayers.

Those lessons have shaped my life in many ways. I suspect they are even shaping the lives of my grown kids in some ways too. And I’m grateful for what she gave me through those lessons.

Per her choice, we cremated her after her death. It always troubled her that she felt like she didn’t have a place to be buried. There was an understanding that she would get the last spot in the family plot in the old Branson cemetery. Her dad was buried there. Her aunt and uncle were buried there too. And my mother would get the fourth and last spot. But her younger sister died unexpectedly in 1987. Her sister’s family didn’t have much money to buy a plot, so she was buried in my mother’s spot—the urgency of the moment trumped the plan of a lifetime. She knew if she was cremated we wouldn’t have to buy a cemetery plot. That solved one problem but raised another: we didn’t know what to do with mother’s ashes. None of us boys really wanted to have them. So we made a few calls, got some special permission, and because she was in a small box rather than a large casket we were able to bury her ashes right next to her daddy after all. I think that would have made this daddy’s girl smile.

But what makes me smile is to know that she is with the Lord she loved, relieved of her sufferings, clear of mind, able to use that right hand again, and reunited forever with a dad she only knew for six short years on the earth. I’ll see her again there too. I will apologize for not being much of a son to her on earth. But I suspect she’ll say to me in heaven what she said to me on earth. “You were a great son. I raised you to live your life, not mine. I’ve always been so proud of you.” She’ll probably give me one of our awkward hugs. And then she’ll say something she probably wanted to say to me her whole life long but never could say until now: “John, let me introduce you to my dad.”

Happy Birthday, Mother. I can’t wait to meet him.


  1. Hello John, Your post makes me smile, but the smile is bittersweet. So poignant I have chill bumps on my arms. Your mother simply gave the best she was capable of I think. Please visit my blog on Mother's Day!

  2. Michael PoundersMay 1, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    Dear friend,
    I can assure you she will be so proud of you. Sharing about your mom brought tears to my eyes and the hope that, as meaningful this was for Debbie and me, that it was also cathartic for you.Your transparency teaches us much. "Memories are the key, not to the past, but to the future. When we allow God to use all the experiences of our lives, those experiences (memories) become the unique and perfect preparation for the work He will give us to do."Corrie Ten Boom-so true!

  3. What a great tribute to your mother. I never met her, but Martha always spoke fondly of her. I never knew you had Scotch ancestry on both sides. No wonder you have red hair!

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Isn't it a wonderful thing to know the ones we love and miss talking with - that someday we will be reunited. That death is not the end. Your mother sounded like a wonderful person and truly loved you by allowing you to become the person you are today.

  5. Hello, John. I'm here via Mizz Mollye. She said I might enjoy your blog, and she was right. What is so weird, though, is I'm not really sure what made her think I would! You and I have some eerie similarities in our childhood....I'm getting my ♪♫ Twilight Zone ♪♫ feelings again! Please check out my blog, too. Thanks for a great story.

  6. Once again, you bring tears to my eyes. All of those lessons you learned from your mother you truly have passed on to me...except for maybe that Jeopardy is the greatest gameshow ever. ;) Happy Birthday Grandma! I can't wait to meet my Great Granddaddy someday either.