A Celebration of Life

My mother passed away on Sunday so I haven’t posted much this week. The memorial service was on Thursday and I want to express my thanks to Reverend Gail Gaddy for officiating. Burial was in my mother’s home town of Lexington, North Carolina, this morning (June 11, 2011) and I lead the service. Here is my tribute/eulogy for my mother.

Virginia Louise Hunt Mitchell LeBouef

Momma, Grannie

June 15, 1924 – June 5, 2011

Would it be alright with you if I speak of my mother rather than Virginia? I don’t want to conduct a second funeral today because my mother would pitch a fit if I were not to call her Momma; such is the power of my mother.

I believe that Momma has seen me in my preaching robes before but she never got the chance to see me fully attired in my academic gown. In her honor, I wear my robe and hood today.

I would like to begin by reading you a poem by Carl Sandburg.

FOG by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

HE fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Our mother used to tell me that this poem was the first poem she ever memorized. That, along with its simplicity and elegance, speaks volumes about her.

There was a quiet, unstated elegance in the way our Momma lived. Many a person has seen a picture of our mother and commented on how she looked like Queen Elizabeth, only softer. Funny, I always thought that Queen Elizabeth looked like my Momma.

That she could remember a Carl Sandburg poem years later speaks of her ties to Lexington and her view of life. And though she might have left Lexington, it never left her. As a family, we would visit here, especially the house outside town on U. S Highway 64. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out that the highway, a couple of blocks away from her home in Memphis, was the same highway that passed in front of the house that was her parent’s home in Lexington. You may leave home but there is always a way to find your way back.

For Momma, education was more than simply a way to leave home; it was an opportunity to go beyond boundaries, to try new things and to know who one was as a person. I think this is what she gave each one of her children.

She saw to it that there was a foundation in our life, a foundation that would always be there for us, as it was for her. Even in the days when part of her was missing from this physical world, she was still here. Her pastor, Reverend Gail Gaddie of Good Shepherd UMC, told me that she was able to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed from memory and without assistance at the end of each weekly visit.

And I would be remiss if I were not to say that it was that foundation that she laid for me here in Lexington when I was baptized at the First Evangelical Reformed Church. I don’t believe that the path in ministry could have been accomplished without the foundation that Momma laid. The same is true for each of my brothers and sister as well. She laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it may lead, we would be supported in our efforts. In our Momma we knew there was a home to come to in times of strife, struggle, and celebration.

When I married Ann in 1999, Momma rejoiced. She jokingly told Ann that now she, Ann, was stuck with me and that I couldn’t come back home. But in a more serious vein, Momma told Ann that she was happy that I had found someone to love and care about me; that now she didn’t have to worry so much about my happiness.

Momma was patient with us, teaching us right from wrong. Rewards came when we did well. We were encouraged to, if you will, do our own thing. This doesn’t mean that we could do just about anything that we wanted. If we did wrong, we could expect punishment. It was sometimes harsh, sometimes hard, sometimes stern but always, always with the understanding that we were loved.

We are, as siblings go, a competitive group. And we got this competiveness as much from our mother as we did our father. Her trophies and her participation in 36 Women’s International Bowling Congress Tournaments are proof of that. And it did not sit well with her when injuries and operations took her away from bowling.

But I think Momma also wanted us to understand that success was more than just winning. Doing things right was always more important than finishing first.

Momma did not suffer fools gladly. There is many a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force who felt the wrath of my mother when they had the audacity to tell her how to move a family of six (plus, on more than one occasion, a dog) from one base to another. Momma was quite proud of the fact that she held Top Secret clearance while she worked at the Pentagon in the late 40s and early 50s (a security level that my father didn’t hold and of which she would occasionally remind him). And she absolutely hated it when one’s bravado and/or bragging was greater than the prize that they received.

The elegance in Momma’s life was often found in the simple things. When I was a Cub Scout, I found the easiest way to earn Arrow Heads was by cooking. And so Momma taught me how to cook. And then when Terry and Tim became Cub Scouts, she taught them how to cook as well. And when Tracey turned ten, it was her turn to cook. But it wasn’t just a skill that we learned. Now that we knew how to cook, we began cooking once or twice a week. She would plan the menus for the week, go to the commissary and get the groceries and then turn it over to each of us when it was our turn.

One day, a neighbor was visiting as one of us began the preparation of the meal. Shocked by this, the neighbor proclaimed, “Do you let your children into the kitchen?” And Momma, in a quiet understated way, replied, “Why, yes. Don’t you?”

I think Momma taught us to go beyond, to push the envelope, to not do just what is expected but a little bit more. And she didn’t just say that or push us; she lived that life.

Several years ago, she was part of a group from Good Shepherd that went to St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean. Today, such projects are part of the VIM (Volunteers in Mission) program of the United Methodist Church; I don’t know if it was called that then. But the purpose of the trip was the same; to go to a place that needed help and give of your self. The Good Shepherd team consisted of some carpenters, a dentist, and some nurses. The carpenters were going to begin work and continue work on a school for the children of the island. The dentist and the nurses were going to provide rudimentary dental and health care for the island’s residents.

Momma had no business going on this trip. She wasn’t a carpenter, a dentist, or a nurse. But Momma knew that the dentist and nurses were going to need a “DH”, a “designated holder or hugger.”

Because it was neither practical nor possible to take many pain killing drugs with them, the dental work was often done without. And it can be very uncomfortable to have a tooth worked on in this way. So you can imagine that there was a great deal of crying and hurting go on. And that is where Momma did “her thing”. She may not have had the skills of a dentist or a nurse but she knew how to ease the pain of a little one. So she hugged them and loved them as a mother would hug a child or a grandmother would hug and love a grandchild.

So don’t ever think that there is not a role for you. Momma showed that anyone can go on a mission trip and help. She showed and reminded us that no matter how old you might be or what you think your skills are, there are things that you can do that you never thought possible.

In later years, Momma decided that she wanted to sing, not just on Sundays in the church choir but at local senior centers. She wanted to sing for the old people; now, keep in mind that Momma was almost seventy when she decided she wanted to be a rock star. But seventy years was just a number on a calendar somewhere, not a clock in her mind. So Momma started practicing, working with the organist at Good Shepherd and finding songs to sing. We helped by producing a CD of song tracks that she could take with her when she went visiting.

She even went with me one Sunday when I preached at the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Mason, Tennessee. And it speaks to who our Momma was. Born in North Carolina, raised during the depression, she would go with her son when she was in her 70s and sing for the members of a black church in rural Tennessee. Momma taught us to not settle for the moment but to push the envelope.

Momma’s time on earth has ended but not her presence. It is felt and measured in her children, her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It is seen in the gardens she planted and the music she sang. It remains in all those who knew her as Virginia, Jenny, or just plain “Grannie”.

It was a life that was sometimes filled with sadness and pain but it was and always will be a life of celebration. We grieve today at the loss of our Momma but we celebrate her life and we continue the legacy that she has passed on to each of us and those who have been touched by her presence. The circle of life has neither a beginning nor an end. It is a circle that cannot or should not be broken.

5 thoughts on “A Celebration of Life

  1. Dear Tony,

    There’s comfort in knowing that you are Momma’s boy. She loved her children and also God’s children dearly. What a beautiful tribute to your Momma.


  2. Tony,
    Your mother sounds like she was a special lady. Our prayers are with you as you continue to grieve her loss. Yours was a wonderful tribute.

    May God bless you.

  3. Pingback: “To See the World with a New View” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  4. Tony, I am praying for you. My father passed away a week and a half ago. I gave my father’s eulogy. Perhaps the two of them have met in glory and are sharing stories about their sons.

  5. Pingback: Generations | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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