Saturday, April 17, 2010

In loving memory: Ruby Genevieve (Lentz) Wilmore, 1911-2010

My last surviving grandparent, she was born in Kansas three years before the outbreak of World War I, and six months before the Titanic set sail on its fateful voyage. At about 4:30 p.m. this past Thursday, as I was noting the 98th anniversary of the great vessel's sinking, I learned that her long and remarkable journey had ended a few hours earlier, apparently at an extended-care facility in Indianapolis, although I do not know that detail for certain. Death will issue its summons to all of us, sooner or later; and in Grandma Wilmore's case, it was neither unexpected nor altogether unwelcome, in view of her slow but unrelenting decline after falling and breaking a leg at her home shortly after her 92nd birthday.

While I do not mourn the departure of this warm-hearted, thoughtful, and generous woman whose earthly journey barely fell short of lasting a full century, I know that I will always miss her. Several years ago, during one of my telephone conversations with Grandma, she remarked how unsettled and crisis-ridden my own life had been. That is indisputably true, but it is just as true that for me, she was both an island of stability and a constant source of comfort, reassurance, and acceptance. I don't recall her ever speaking a cross or unkind word to me -- or to anyone else, really, now that I think about it. I was never afraid to be myself around her, or to share with her my life's frequent disappointments, as well as its occasional triumphs. She and Grandpa comprised what was probably the best and most consistent cheering section I have ever had, and they were always exceptionally generous with their means as well. Grandma, in particular, endowed as she was with a hefty portion of female intuition, always seemed to sense exactly what I needed, and when I needed it. I remember the time when, as a struggling college student, I was literally down to my last dollar -- no cash on me and a balance of exactly 92 cents in my checking account -- and I wondered where my next meal was going to come from, to say nothing of how I was going to make it to my first payday for the part-time job I had just started a few days earlier. I went home that afternoon, checked my mail, and found a St. Patrick's Day card from Grandma, with a $20.00 bill enclosed in it. That was enough to tide me over until payday, and I always thought it was significant that although this was just one of the many times she or Grandpa sent me money over the years, it was the only time either of them ever sent me a card for St. Patrick's Day. Somehow, she just knew, and how she did continues to be one of the more pleasant mysteries of my life.

Grandpa passed away at age 89, likewise after several years of steady decline, and, as it turned out, fourteen years almost to the day before Grandma would join him. Although she was in generally good health at the time, I did not expect that she would long survive Grandpa, partly because the task of caring for him during his last few years was so arduous for her, and partly because the actuarial tables suggest that those who are widowed after long marriages usually pass on within a year or two after losing their spouses. (My grandparents were married for 66 years.) The last time I saw Grandma was at the end of August, 1997, when I left Ohio for good and stopped to see her on my way back to Utah to join my family. The home she and Grandpa had purchased in 1958 was the scene of so many fond and happy memories for me, and it saddened me to know that this would likely be my last visit to that cheerful little house -- which, incidentally, is visible from the gravesite where Grandma will be interred beside her late husband this coming Friday. But as Grandma kept on going year after year, I wondered if perhaps I was wrong after all, and if I might indeed make it out to Indiana for one more visit before she either reached the end of her life or was no longer able to continue living independently.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make another visit, and the fall which precipitated her long decline forced her into an extended care facility in November, 2003. I continued to keep in touch with her as best I could, but even that became increasingly difficult as she was no longer able to read and began repeating herself constantly during our occasional telephone conversations, which themselves became less and less frequent. Perhaps all of that helped me to prepare for her departure, since for years I had been missing the way things had been before. But even so, her passing comes during what has already been an unusually mournful season in my life, as I still grieve over the passing of Nell Thomas less than three weeks ago, as well as one or two events of lesser significance that have taken place since then. I hope I won't have to write any more tributes like this one for awhile.

Shortly before sitting down to compose this blog entry, I shared a story on Facebook which, in addition to being one of my favorite memories of Grandma, is also among the simplest. I noted that I was smiling as I reflected on it, so perhaps it is fitting that I should close here with the same tale. In April, 1978, having just completed another semester as an undergraduate at BYU, I flew out to Indiana to visit my grandparents, whom I had not seen in about seven years or so. The nine-day visit proved to be a delight for me, and I hope for them as well. When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a large plate of chocolate chip cookies which Grandma had made for me. At the time, I weighed about 65 pounds less than I do now, and my metabolism was such that I could still consume more or less unlimited quantities of such goodies, and do so with almost complete impunity. (Ah, those were the days!) As I recall, the cookies did not last long -- perhaps only a few hours -- but the message and sentiment behind them have endured ever since. With this gesture, Grandma let me know once again, as she would continue to do in so many ways over the years -- and usually by her actions rather than by mere words -- that I was loved, appreciated, and accepted just as I was. Throughout my life, there has probably been no message I have needed to hear as often or as consistently as that one, and I think she knew that. Having her and Grandpa in my life was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and today I am grateful to have had both of them for as long as I did.

Financial constraints, unfortunately, will make it impossible for me to attend the funeral, but I will certainly be present that day in spirit. It will be a simple family gathering, much like the one we had for Grandpa when he passed away in April of 1996, and which, perhaps because of its very simplicity, was one of the best funerals I have ever attended. Grandma's entire life centered around home, hearth, and family, and she was little known outside her immediate circle. Her farewell, as planned, will therefore be as she would want it, and as she most assuredly deserves.

Monday, April 12, 2010

On balance in life

As previously noted here and elsewhere, I have always been a very late bloomer. Moreover, with my 57th birthday just around the corner and my health no longer as good as it used to be, I spend a lot of time nowadays reflecting on my own mortality and wondering how I can best develop and refine my particular abilities and gifts, and then put them to use for the benefit of others, in whatever time is left to me. As a Latter-day Saint, I have long since grown accustomed to our frequent admonitions from the pulpit to exercise "moderation in all things." With all of the foregoing in mind, I enjoyed reading this article today, and can't say I disagree with it even though it advocates the exact opposite of "moderation." Kudos to my friend Farnoosh for putting together a most enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of writing, one well worth sharing here with others.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

In loving memory: Nell Thomas, 1916-2010

I have known for years that someday I would be writing this post for my blog, and the task was not one I looked forward to having to perform, although I am grateful that at least it proved to be unnecessary for so long. This afternoon I learned that Nell Thomas, my beloved English teacher during my senior year of high school, passed away last Sunday at the age of 94. She was, simply put, the best teacher I have ever had, but that rather bland assertion is in no way sufficient to do her justice, or to measure the profound impact she had on my life. Among other things, I studied Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth under her tutelage, and while I was already an avid reader with a definite scholarly bent, she was instrumental in reinforcing my love of the English language in general, and of the written word in particular. But I remember her just as well for the countless stories and anecdotes, always spiced with humor and verve, with which she entertained her students even as she taught them. (For instance, I'm smiling at this very moment as I reminisce about her impersonation of MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte, which I saw her perform a couple of times.) She was someone I loved to be around even when I didn't have to be. I used to walk her to the faculty lounge after class, which ended at lunchtime, and at the end of the school year she wrote me a note on my final report card, telling me how much she would miss that little ritual. I knew I would miss it, too; and sure enough, I always have.

Adolescence is a difficult time of life for nearly everyone, and it was especially so with me. Mrs. Thomas was smart and perceptive, but I believe she may never have seen in my actions or demeanor any hint of the deeply troubled and prison-like home life I left behind me when I went to school each morning, and to which I would always have to return at the end of the day. If indeed this is so, she may certainly be excused for that little oversight. I have always been grateful that my high school experience was so overwhelmingly positive, and that was especially true of her English class, which for me proved to be a sort of oasis within an oasis. Throughout my life, I have been highly prone to depression and cynicism, but I don't recall ever having any such feelings while I was in her classroom, not even once. She was always there to stimulate my mind and spirit, and more often than not, she made me smile in the process. Largely because of the way I was raised, I need approval, encouragement, and reassurance perhaps even more than most other people, and she was generous in giving me all of those things. She always let me know that she loved the papers and essays I would turn in to her, including one tongue-in-cheek piece about the potential benefits of taking up skyjacking. (This was in 1970-71, when there was a rash of commercial flights being hijacked to Cuba.) To this day, her influence in my life still manifests itself from time to time, even in the form of a few quotations and figures of speech I occasionally use. (For instance, "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters," and "Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly," both from -- where else? -- Macbeth.)

I could tell dozens of stories about her, but my favorite involves something that happened many years after I graduated and went on with my life. I kept in touch with her intermittently, and in 1996 I returned to Mississippi for my 25-year class reunion. To date, that is the only time I have visited the state since a brief stay after I completed my church mission in the autumn of 1974. As soon as I arrived in Greenville to attend the reunion, I contacted Mrs. Thomas, who seemed thrilled to hear from me, and arranged to stop by for what I thought would be a short visit, perhaps as long as 30 minutes or so. It ended up being 3-1/2 hours, and was easily the most cherished experience I had during that very memorable trip. She was 80 then, and her husband, a Marine Corps veteran who had served in the Pacific during World War II, had passed away a few months before. I think she may have been feeling a bit lonely, but she was every bit as sharp as ever, and our long and engaging conversation covered a wide range of topics: literature, history, religion, current events, my wife and children, her own family, students we had both known, movies we had seen. (We had a rather lengthy discussion about "Judgment at Nuremberg," which has always been one of my favorites.) She was a deeply religious woman, and we both agreed that our mother tongue had lost something with the decline in popularity of the King James Bible. And while I don't recall this for certain, I may have recited for her the first few lines of Chaucer in the original Middle English, which she had told us we would always remember, as proved to be true in my case. That day, it occurred to me that this gracious, dignified, and highly educated woman represented all that was good about the deep South, and long before I reluctantly decided I had to leave, I knew that July afternoon spent one-on-one with her would be an experience I would cherish for a lifetime. And while I also knew she would not be with us forever and this was almost certainly the last time I would see Nell Thomas, it comforts me today to know that the last thing she ever heard me say was that I loved her.

I learned of her passing late this afternoon, when I had stopped at an Internet cafe for a refreshment after swimming a few laps at the nearby gym where I am enrolled. I discovered that someone had set up a Facebook page in her memory. I only briefly glanced at the page, to which I will return later, but my very first act after hearing this news was to send an e-mail message to my former dance instructor. It made perfect sense to me that she should be the first person with whom I would want to share my feelings about Mrs. Thomas. Angie Hines and Nell Thomas are two vastly different women, but both were gifted teachers with southern roots, who came into my life during what for me were exceptionally difficult times, then challenged and stretched me and brought out the best in me, and always did so with a combination of professionalism, humor, and sensitivity. In doing so, they both earned my everlasting gratitude, affection, and respect. I told Angie that of all the individuals who have influenced my life for good throughout my nearly 57 years, Mrs. Thomas's impact on me was the most similar to her own, and I added that I could probably pay Angie no greater tribute than to say this about her. Then I expressed the hope that her own life might as long, productive, rich, and evidently happy as Nell Thomas's was.

Mama Nell, as we affectionately referred to her, was her own gift to me, and surely heaven is an even better place now that she is there. Her obituary appeared in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, and may be found here.