Thursday, January 7, 2010


There are parts of life that I remember clearly and other, probably the majority, that blend into the background of my life. One that I remember clearly was on January 5, 1992. It was the middle of several hard days. The minister was at the front of the room and he was talking. I don't remember much of what he said, until suddenly he asked, "Would anyone like to say something?"

I panicked and stayed firmly glued to my seat. I shared my disappointment with myself over that situation with someone recently. Her response was reassuring. "Not many 23-year-olds could eulogize a parent." I don't know if that is true, but it was comforting.

Maybe my silence wouldn't have been so discomforting even 18-years later if someone, anyone, had spoken.

My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer my senior year in college. She was sick all that year. Actually, she had been sick months before her diagnosis. But she was stubborn about doctors. I graduated and started on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My senior year and those first seven months on staff, I did school or work during the week and traveled back to Cincinnati to visit my mom on the weekends.

It was an up and down 18 months or so. She would get really bad and then pull through. A month or two later, the cycle would repeat.

At 23, I had only ever been to one funeral. That had been seven years before. I didn't know what to expect. And I didn't know the word eulogy. Apparently, the minister didn't know that no one had been asked to say a few words. So, no one did.

It makes me sad to think of it now. Everyone should have someone say something.

So, I am doing it 18-years and two days later. In retrospect, it gives me perspective on my mom that I don't believe I would have had then.

My Mom:

I don't know a lot about my mom's growing up. But I do know it was hard. My mom was born in Hazard, KY of Dukes of Hazard fame. She was the youngest child of 17 (10 full and 7 half siblings) all born to James Sparks. My grandfather was not a man of means. He was coal miner while living in Kentucky. At some point, he packed up my grandmother and the children still living at home and moved to Cincinnati where he found work as a night watchman at the Cincinnati Zoo and a taxi cab driver.

So, my mom didn't have a lot of the advantages that I had growing up. But I think that made her approach parenting as an effort to give her girls things that she never had. With such a large family, resources were scarce. Her parents had both been orphaned young -- at around 11, I believe. There was no precedent for education. However, from what I gather, my mom made it through high school.

I say "From what I gather" because she didn't talk about growing up much. With that many siblings, I grew up thinking many of my cousins were aunts and uncles because they were my mom's age or older and had kids that were older than we were. I could tell that life was hard even in watching my grandmother, Sarah Sparks. While my grandmother Brooke was the bake cookies and play checkers grandmother, grandma Sparks was small, shriveled, and looked decades older than she was. My mom talked only once or twice about her father. Once was about how stern he was and if he yelled up the stairs for them to get up and they even heard one footfall on the step, they were out of bed. A second time was just relating that he had died when she was only 18 from Black Lung.

All of that is to say that things were hard for her.

I wonder at times if that lack of education or just not having a lot of attention growing up made my mom so insecure. How do you get individual attention with so many brothers and sisters? I think that insecurity is what made it hard to get to know her and hard for her to know how to express affection.

Recently, I was talking to a mom of two about the snow. She told me how she had abandoned shoveling for sliding through the snow with her girls instead. I remember playing in the snow as a child, but I don't remember my mom ever playing in the snow with us. She is strangely absent from all the play images in my memories. But people who grow up in poverty don't often learn to play.

I wish my mom could have played with us.

She didn't express a lot of affection and it was hard not to hear, "I love you" often, but if you knew how to read her, you could see her care. While we were playing, we would smell brownies baking. We would rush upstairs and she would be sitting at the kitchen counter and tell us the Brownie Fairy had come. We would giggle. Before the brownies had time to cool, she let us have some for a tea party. (If only she had come to the tea party too!).

Baking was a sign of care. She had a little tiny book of cut out cakes. Every year for our birthday, we got to select one (my twin and I each got one though we shared a birthday). She would stay up to all hours to make those cakes. The same was true of Halloween costumes. I don't remember store bought costumes. I remember pioneer and pilgrim and princess and Indian girl costumes sewn just for us.

My mom wanted so much more for us. Even though she didn't have a higher education, she instilled in us how important it was. Honestly, I didn't know that college was optional until I was in high school. And then, it had been ingrained in me that I was going.

I think my mom would be proud. All three of her girls not only went to undergrad but went on to get master level degrees.

My feelings for my mom are complex. There are disappointments and hurts, but then I also miss her at times too. I missed having someone help me figure out how to get a start in life. My mom wasn't that open to questions, but I miss the idea of having a mom to go to to ask things even if it is something like what "folding" in a recipe means.

My mom pretty much refused to talk about her illness. In fact, I remember her kicking a social worker out of her hospital room when she stopped by to say she was available to talk to my mom or anyone in the family. I know it would have been scary, but I so wish she could have talked to us about her illness. In not talking about it, though we theoretically had the chance, we never got to tell her what she meant to us and she never got to tell us what we meant to her. We never got to say a heartfelt goodbye.

This eulogy is 18-years and 2 days past when that minister naively asked, "Would anyone like to say something?" Yes, I would. I miss you mom. I'm sorry that I didn't love you better in the end, that I let my fear and your fear get in the way of really loving you well. I do love you. I hope you might be just a bit proud of me.



Laura said...

Oh, Amy. Family is complicated, isn't it? I'm sure your mom knew...even if she didn't talk, even if she never showed it...she knew that you have a lot to say about her. We always do.


Anonymous said...

Lets cross the bridge when we come to it........................................

ctgardengirl said...

Thank you for sharing about your mom. Your post made me cry. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who is trying to figure out who my mother really is and what shaped her. She too grew up in a large family in poverty, with a dad who was not a positive role model. It's interesting to look back at those generations and see how our parents and grandparents were much the product of their upbringing and of the times in which they lived. It seems the past few years I have been pondering my mom alot, trying to understand what makes her tick, trying to understand my childhood, and why she didn't 'play' with us either. I can only remember a couple of times when she colored with us. That was it. To her, caring meant providing a good home, baking, preserving, sewing our clothes, making sure we were clean and had lots to eat, and were disciplined regularly. In talking to her now, I can see how things affected her at the time, such as moving 1800 miles away from her family, how hard it was melding into my dad's side of the family, her insecurities and how they affected us kids. Her loneliness and frustration, growing in her marriage and dealing with disappointments, etc, much as we do now. She really was growing up too during those years.
I didn't have a close relationship with her until after I left home.
Even now, things are, as you say, complex.
I'm so sorry that you didn't get the opportunity to express yourself to your mom. But if I know mothers, I can say this - she knew how much you loved her. She was probably just trying to shield you from her pain, as well as herself, by not talking about it. I'm sure we judge ourselves much harder than they ever would. And of course she would be proud of you! Don't you doubt that for a minute. Peace, my friend.