FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: On December 19th, one year ago, my mother, Jean Earley, died from cancer. This is the eulogy that I gave at her funeral.
There are four things that you need to know if you want to know about my mother, Jean Earley. She loved her God, she loved her husband, she loved her children — and she ate burnt toast.
Let’s start with God.
My father didn’t start his career as a preacher. He owned a mom and pop grocery store in Douglas, Arizona, but he felt unfulfilled. He believed that God was calling him so he sold the store and studied to become a minister. His first church was in Buffalo, a town in the Oklahoma panhandle. My father soon fell into a pattern. He would move to a small Disciples of Christ church that was struggling to attract members and build up that congregation through his preaching and his financial expertise until it was on firm footing and thriving. And then he would feel compelled to find yet another troubled church to rescue.
My mother was his defacto co-minister. She used her artistic skills to do chalk drawings during his sermons on Sunday nights to illustrate his lectures. She taught Sunday school, sang in church choirs, organized ladies groups, helped at church dinners and truly lived her beliefs.
Here’s an example.
Many of you know that my mother was completely blind in one eye and had macular degeneration in the other. What you don’t know is that she was blinded when an incompetent eye doctor severed her optic nerve during a bungled cataract surgery in South Dakota. There was never any talk of suing him, no anger at him by my parents. My mother simply accepted her blindness as a challenge that God had given her. She didn’t understand it, but believed it would not have happened if God had not wanted her to experience and grow from her loss of sight.
My sister, Alice, died at age 17 when the motor scooter that she was riding – my motor scooter — got struck by a car in an intersection. I was fifteen. In the town of 1,000 residents where we lived during the 1960s, it was the custom that families in mourning stayed behind a veiled curtain in our church during a funeral. My parents, along with my brother and me, sat in the front row directly in front of my sister’s coffin and greeted people as they went by it. My parents wanted to show that they believed that death could not defeat Christians who believed in the resurrection of Christ. While profoundly devastated by their loss, they believed my sister had gone to a better place. My mother was certain of it.
My mother died in our home and a few days before she passed, she told me that she was ready to go to heaven to be reunited with her parents, my sister and to finally be with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God, which was part of her faith.
I find it ironic that my sister’s death caused me to doubt the existence of a loving God. It made my mother’s faith stronger.
My mother loved my father completely. She was working one summer as a waitress on the New Jersey shore when they met during a blind date. They fell instantly in love and that never changed during the next 70 years of their marriage. Through the good times and the hard times – and there were many – their love for each other never wavered.
When I first met Patti, my wife, she asked me to tell her about my mother. I began telling stories and nearly everyone of them actually was about both of my parents. She asked me to tell her a story just about my mom and I realized that was nearly impossible. You see, my mother was a strong woman but she came from an era when a woman put aside her own wants and desires to serve her husband. Times have changed, thankfully.
As was her nature, my mother never showed any signs of regret or anger or bitterness when she was called upon to sacrifice her career as an artist and draftsman, or move away from her family because of my father and his chosen profession. She always put him first. I am not saying that is what women should do. As the father of two daughters, I feel strongly about the both of them being independent. But my mother willingly put aside her dreams to create new ones with my father. It was how she was.
You would think that after 70 years of marriage, a couple would run out of things to say to one another. Yet, after my parents moved to Fairfax to live with us, I would walk into the living room and find them sitting on the couch holding hands talking. I finally asked them one day: “What in the world do you two have to say to each other?”
And my mom was genuinely shocked by the question.
People joke that they married someone for life but not lunch. My mom married for life and breakfast, lunch and dinner, always with ice cream after dinner. They really were each other’s best friends, confidantes, and partners.
Number three on my list. My mother loved her family.
My first memories of my mother are of her reading bedtime stories to me. I always felt safe when she was next to me in my bed reading me books. And read she did. She focused on Bible stories, of course, but also on fairy tales, stories about Irish and Scottish children, and The Wizard of Oz.
I doubt I would have become a writer had it not been for my mother’s love of books and reading.
When I decided to quit working at the Washington Post and strike out on my own as an author in 1986, my mother was nervous but she urged me to take the plunge . She had always wanted to be a professional artist and I think she loved the idea of me making a living through the arts.
After visiting my family and me one winter, my mother and father were driving home to South Dakota where they had retired. My mom spotted a 1963 Cadillac convertible sitting outside a Minnesota junk yard and said: “If Pete is going to be an author, he should be driving a Cadillac.” They pulled into that lot and bought that 23-year old car. It was cold that winter in Minnesota and the car was missing its top. My father drove behind my mom in that topless Cadillac with a pair of wool pajamas tied to his head like a turban to keep his ears from freezing. He repaired that car, had it painted bright gold and gave it to me along with a six foot tall pencil that my mom had hand painted that said Pete Earley Author. The pencil hangs in my office. Both gifts reflected how much they loved their son.
After I published my first book, my mom came to me and said, “You’ve always loved magic and you liked the Wizard of Oz,” you should write a children’s book about a magician. I didn’t listen to her. I wanted to write about prisons and casinos. Besides, what do mother’s know? A few years later, a character called Harry Potter appeared and I realized too late how wise my mother had been.
My mother had an adopted brother named George who died during the war and my mother was delighted when I married Patti, who was a widow, giving my mother four instant grandchildren. But my mother, in her typical self effacing fashion, was afraid to say too much to others about how proud she was of my adopted children. She thought that she was too old for them to really pay attention to her or get to know her, and she was afraid that my adopted children’s blood grandparents might think she was intruding on their turf especially since Patti’s first husband, Steve, was a wonderful man. In private, she always bragged about them and how she had gained a daughter in Patti, having lost her own.
Which brings me finally to my mom and burnt toast.
When my father began his ministry in Buffalo, we didn’t have much money. In fact, part of the pay was food brought by farmers to the parsonage. I remember one woman brought us Mason jars filled with vegetables that were so old, you couldn’t recognize what it was. “I didn’t think the pigs would eat it, but I thought the preacher might,” she said.
Because we lived in a parsonage with ancient kitchen appliances some pieces of toast always got burnt. No matter what my mother did – at least one came out black. My mother always took the most burned one. I always thought that she liked burnt bread but that wasn’t the case. It was because, if anyone in the family was going to have to eat burnt bread, it was going to be her.
That is how my mother lived her life. She always put someone else’s concerns first. She always took the burnt bread.