Sunday, July 17, 2016

I Remember Mama

Five years ago this morning, Sunday, July 17, 2011 as I was backing my car out of the carport into a warm, humid, drizzly morning, Linda tapped on my window. I stopped and opened to hear her say, “Community called, your mother just died.” Instead of to church and out to see her later, of course I drove there. It was true, she had just died: when I arrived ten minutes later, she was still warm. I said the prayers, “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world, in the Name of God the Father who …” and then I removed her wedding ring from her finger, she had promised it to Susanna. I chatted foolishly with her, to her really, remembering family things and things that only the two of us knew. As I talked a nurse's aide came in and said, "You must be her Bubba." 

I telephoned family to let them know she was free at last, and I sat, paced and waited for the funeral director to arrive and take her away. When that happened, as she was rolled outside into the softly drizzling morning, I uncovered her face, made the sign of the cross on her forehead, committed her to God and the Lord Jesus, and let her go. I was her Bubba, she had been my mother for more than seventy five years. 

Family were away, many on vacation and, not wanting to call them back, we agreed to have her service at HNEC two weeks later. This is the homily I preached that day. 

I Remember Mama

Homily at the funeral of my mother, 
Louise Gentry Weller. 
Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, 
Panama City, Florida.
Saturday, July 30, 2011. 
The Reverend Tom Weller

John 14:1-6a. Jesus said, Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. (KJV)

With the gospel promise in mind, I shall remember my mother; in the Name of God: Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. 
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Mama is now but a memory, and very different memories for each of us. Maybe some things I remember from life with her will stir your own memories.

In my earliest memory, I am two years old, at Dr. Roberts Clinic a few blocks from here, to have my tonsils out. When surgery was over, my father brought me a vanilla ice cream cone. I took one lick, felt nauseated, and mama ate my ice cream.

Riding in the back seat of our 1935 Chevrolet, looking up at my mother’s long black hair, always fixed with a bun in the back, I asked, “How old are you, Mama?” She said, “I’m 29.” That was seventy years ago. I was five.

Three months before Pearl Harbor, the evening before I started Cove School in September 1941, Mama called me into the dining room to say, “Bubba, you’re starting school tomorrow. What do you want them to call you?” Bubba at home and around the neighborhood, I did not want to be Bubba at school. Thomas Carroll Weller, my father was always called Carroll, but I did not want to be “Carroll,” and that was long before Johnny Cash sang “A Boy Named Sue.” I said, “How about Tom?” Mama said, “No, it can’t be Tom. In high school I had a boyfriend named Tom, and your father still hates him.”

Dead set against being the Cove School Bubba, and not wanting to hurt my father’s feelings, I stuck myself with “Carroll, Carroll, Junior” all my growing up years. Johnny Cash was right, and it lasted until my first day of class at the University of Florida where I was enrolled as Weller, Thomas C. Jr. 

Away from home, and Tom at last.

Cleaning out closets and drawers recently, Linda came across a picture of mama and a tall, handsome teenage boy. On the back was written, “Louise (16) and Tom (17).

So, there really was a boyfriend named Tom.

You can bet, my father never knew that photograph was in the house.

Mama’s lifelong hobby was sewing. She was truly an artist with needle and thread, did exquisite work, and there were years when she made money at it. She made beautiful clothes for the little girls in our family, including the Malone and Abney nieces. She took a course in doll-making, made the dolls, cast the heads, painted the faces, and sewed beautiful clothes for them.

When I was in college, Mama made my shirts, and students on campus would stop me and ask where they could buy a shirt like mine.

Throughout our growing up years mama did all of her sewing on her beloved Singer sewing machine, black trimmed with gold. It eventually gave out and had to be replaced. Twenty five or thirty years ago she bought a fancy new model that she liked, and used it for many years. By the time it was beyond repair, that model was long obsolete. But for Christmas some years ago we bought her a computer, and she started shopping eBay. Besides clothes, books, and Weller pottery that she collected, she discovered her favorite old sewing machine model offered on eBay. Lots of them. There’s nothing like plenty of a good thing, and she would bid as the only bidder, and sewing machines began arriving at the house. Some of them worked, some did not. If one worked for a while, it soon broke down. She’d buy more on eBay, and Linda or Gina would take the broken ones to a shop in Lynn Haven to be fixed -- again and again. The man at the shop tried valiantly to keep her old worn out used eBay sewing machines running. But eventually he said, “Ma’m, these old machines are long years out of date, you cannot get parts, and the electronic element is worn out and cannot be repaired. Please, please don’t bring any more of these here, I cannot fix them.”

Soon after that, Mama stopped sewing. By then, her eyes were pretty dim anyway. 

She was an avid reader, read seven or ten novels a week, and losing her eyesight was tragic for her.

For long years Mama was an Atlanta Braves fan. She knew everyone on the team, all their stats, their life history, where they came from, and their families. She had favorite players, and grieved when a favorite was traded. A true Braves fan, mama hated the New York Mets. She watched every Braves game on TV, and as her hearing faded she turned the volume louder and louder. Eventually it was impossible to stay in the house because when was a Braves game playing full volume.

Mama was a gardner, and she learned to graft camellia plants. Several of the plants in our yard she grafted, and they thrived. One of her grafted camellia bushes has two entirely different kinds of blossoms: on one side of the bush, white blooms with a touch of pink -- bright red flowers on the other side. That camellia suddenly up and died about three weeks ago, I cannot explain it.

My mother was my encourager and defender all my growing up years. She taught me the things a mother should teach a little boy. To say “Yes, Ma’m” and “No, Ma’m.” How to brush teeth. How to knock out the toothbrush. How to floss. To wash my face and comb my hair before coming down for breakfast. To drink all my milk. To tie my shoes. To tell time. Later, how to balance my checkbook. Taught me to select and purchase my clothes. Helped me with homework and made me as perfect a speller as she was.

During my years at Cove School and Bay High, mama was always there for me. As a freshman at Bay High, I was very shy and reserved -- and, seeing my reluctance to speak out in class, bombastic American History teacher Bill Weeks gave me my first “C” for the first grading period of ninth grade. Shortly after that, my mother met him during Parents’ Night. Of me, he told mama, “He’s average.” My mother exploded, exploded, “He is not average,” and let him have it with both barrels. Apparently she was so hot that other parents left the room. The next day at school Mr. Weeks said to me, “Your mama really set me straight last night.” From then on, both in American History as a freshman, and years later in World History as a senior, Mr. Weeks graded me straight “A’s” -- not for excellence of work: for fear of my mama.

Mama grew up Southern Baptist, and taught me Bible verses and hymns. She sang with me, and had a very sweet voice when she was young. She encouraged me in piano. From my earliest years, she never let me forget that the Weller family was loaded with Episcopal priests and a bishop, stirring in me a sense of calling, a vocation. God does not only speak through prophets of old.

Nevertheless, when I was little and misbehaved it was still “Go pick a switch.” It better be a sturdy switch too, with a few leaves on the end of it to sting the legs and bare bottom.

In 1950 my father bought a second car for the family. A Plymouth woody wagon, it was mama’s car. But later as a junior and senior at Bay High I wheedled her out of her car and drove to school several days a week, about the only student with a car at Bay Hi in that day and age. She was always loving and generous with me.

Summer 1955 I arrived home from University to learn that my church membership had been moved from my beloved St. Andrew’s Episcopal to some new mission Episcopal church on Bonita Avenue in The Cove. A concrete block building with dusty cement floors, folding chairs, and surrounded by sand and dirt, scrub oaks and palmettos. They hadn’t even decided yet whether it would be Nativity or Holy Nativity. My mother was among the most active early members in every way. Father David Damon will bear me out.

When a family member did well, Mama was happy with us. When there were problems, she agonized over us. She kept in mind which grandchildren liked what food. Anytime Walt and family were coming, she would bake blueberry muffins. My mother and father helped raise the Thompson grandchildren, John Carroll and Teresa, and considered them their own.

In 1978 I retired from the Navy and went into my own business. Mama said, “I always thought when you retired from the Navy you would go to seminary and be a priest.” I said, “No, Mama, you know I decided against that years ago, I’m not doing that.” If God and Mama can be prophetic together, sometimes God and mama also have the last word.

Mama left eleven grandchildren, twenty-one great grandchildren, and a great-great grandchild. The generations after her have many, many cousins because of her. The grandchildren called her Grandmama, or Nanny. The next generation said “great-grandmama.” When Kristen was very small and could not say Grandmama, she said Bama, and it stuck. She may have been Bama, but there was no “Roll, Tide” at her house. She was a raving Seminole fan.
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If I’m sad to be up here this morning, my mother is not sad. It was time. When my father died in 1993, mama was 81. She bemoaned that she was in good health, and feared she would live to be a hundred without him. To her chagrin, she almost did: she was ninety-nine years old.
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“In my Father’s house are many mansions. 
I go to prepare a place for you.”

What will it be like? What will it be like?

I’m remembering all those worn out sewing machines she bought on eBay that would not run.

In C. S. Lewis’ story The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe there is a winter scene when Father Christmas in his sleigh piled high with gifts arrives victoriously back in Narnia after a hundred years away. There are gifts for each Pevensie child, a sword and shield for Peter; a magical horn, and a bow and arrows for Susan; and for Lucy a dagger and a healing cordial made from flowers on the mountains of the sun. He tells Mr. Beaver, “When you arrive home you will find your dam repaired.” Last, he gets to Mrs. Beaver, who loved nothing more than sewing. She had agonized at having to leave her beloved sewing machine behind as they hurried to escape the vicious wolves of the White Witch. No sooner had they escaped than the wolves broke into the Beavers‘ house and smashed everything including her sewing machine. Father Christmas says, “And for you, Mrs. Beaver, a brand new sewing machine. It will be waiting for you when you arrive home.” Mrs. Beaver is ecstatic, thrilled beyond words.

I’m thinking that a heavenly Father Christmas met my mother at the Gate of Heaven, and said, “For you, Mrs. Weller, a brand new sewing machine. It’s waiting for you in your room in the mansion.”

My father was waiting there too. And she’s having a jolly good time.

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Susanna said mama wanted us to have a party when she died. After the service this morning, we’re having a lunch with nice wines. Do come join us in Battin Hall.
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And now, as you remain seated, or stand, or kneel, in peace let us pray to the Lord. 

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