Friday, May 23, 2008

Remembering Charlotte


May 23rd was her birthday. She would have been eighty years old today.

In one of my favorite photographs of Mom, she is holding our daughter Alex, who was then about three and is now a college sophomore. A Minnesota summer downpour in the park had sent us all scrambling under a shelter. Mom had wrapped a picnic blanket around herself and Alex to keep them both warm. There’s something about the picture that captures Charlotte—the tenderness in the way she holds Alex, very much in the moment, yet gazes directly into the camera with a smile for the ages. It’s all there in a snapshot. The inner warmth, the intelligent eyes that took everybody in, and always—even in the most disheveled scene—an insouciant elegance.

She was born in 1928 in a tiny Nebraska town surrounded by farms, on the eve of the Great Depression. Her father, a Methodist pastor, died four years later, leaving a thirty-four-year-old widow with six children.

Mom grew up with a sense of grand possibilities in the face of tragedy and suffering. She didn’t go to movies, as a rule, but she saw
Gone with the Wind when she was eleven and always remembered the circular staircase. She once told me that she thought, at the time, someday she would live in a house like that.

Her parents were products of a 19th-century American Protestantism that was disciplined, yet optimistic and expansive. In some ways, she was a late Victorian character—steeped in the sort of Christian piety that was mixed with romance and adventure and longing.

She gave up her dream of an elegant life to pursue an errand to the world. She became a missionary in Ecuador, where she lived an elegant life after all.

My earliest memories of growing up in the jungle are punctuated with scenes at her candlelit dinner table, set with linen and china. I am squeezed between boarders and guests, listening to my mother tell the stories of the day. It’s a faraway place and time with no television. There’s a soft drum-roll of rain on a tin roof, but you can hear her voice over all that and there’s music in it.

She lived a narrated life. Sometimes to a fault. Everything that happened to her was a great story, and she just had to tell it. She believed deeply in personal morality, but perhaps even more in redemption and second chances for everybody—and in the relentless grace of God. That was the greatest story of all to her.

I remember once getting into a childhood scuffle with my older brother Tod. When my mother intervened, Tod deployed his superior legal advocacy skills and convinced her that the whole thing was my fault; that I had started the fight, and that he, Tod, was merely defending himself. He might have been right; he usually was, then, and still is. Notwithstanding my self-righteous protests, Mom sent me to my room on charges of fraternal battery and insubordination.

In a tearful rage, I stomped away and slammed the door. She came after me, opened the door to my bedroom, and pronounced the following sentence from the hallway: “I want you to stay in there and read your Bible—and don’t come out until you have found a verse that speaks to your condition!”

The Bible is a dangerous book in the hands of a child in a fix like that—especially a child with the caliber of scriptural research skills that my mother had by then instilled in me. (I not only owned my own King James version, but one with an excellent concordance in the back.) That said, Mom had a lot of faith in the Bible as the answer to every predicament, and it turned out to be well-placed in this instance. I emerged about twenty minutes later, the picture of contrition, with my Bible open to Psalm 69. I had underlined several of the following verses in a thick-leaded pencil:

I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.

They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head: they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully, are mighty. . .

Because for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face.

I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother's children.

Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.

Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.

* * *

In May, 2001, I traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to say goodbye to my mother as she approached the end of her battle with ovarian cancer. I sat beside her bed one afternoon and watched her sleep. As the day faded, the sun set over the Andes to the northwest and the snows of Mt. Cayambe took on a rosy glow. Mom always loved this scene from her window, and I almost roused her to see it, but she was napping so peacefully that I decided not to wake her.

A Bible was lying on her nightstand, as always, and for no particular reason I picked it up and started thumbing through it. The Good Book fell open, as if by itself, to a well-worn passage: Psalm 69. In the margin, Mom had written: “Jeff’s Psalm.”

That was almost forty years ago, I thought. Why did she remember something like that, after all this time?

There’s a lot of pain and conflict in Psalm 69. Mom knew that exquisitely, of course. And then it dawned on me: She wasn’t thinking of a child when she inscribed it “Jeff’s Psalm.” This was a Bible of much newer vintage, and I was an adult with three children of my own.

She had underlined some other verses in the same Psalm—words that come later and are quite different than the ones I had showed her as a child. I hadn’t noticed those verses then, or didn’t recall them. I read them now:

Hear me, O LORD; for thy lovingkindness is good: turn unto me according to the multitude of thy tender mercies. . .

The humble shall see this, and be glad: and your heart shall live that seek God.

For the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.

Let the heaven and earth praise him, the seas, and every thing that moveth therein.


I flew out at dawn the next morning. Three weeks later, she died. I miss her still.