I was inviting kids to Bible School that day in June, 1971, when I stopped at a split level up on Canterbury Road. The door was opened by a child, who called the mother of the household. I asked about the children going to Bible School and noticed that she didn’t look at all healthy. She was uncertain about whether the children would be able to go, then said, “Do you know of anyone whom I could hire to be a mother’s helper? We have four children, and I am not well. I’ve been trying to find someone who could come in two or three days a week to help with cleaning and household tasks.”
To say that I was completely delighted would be an understatement. I had just gotten back from three terms of Bible Institute, and was looking for a part time job doing just such a thing. I must have sounded foolish as I stammered, “Uh, actually, I am looking for such a job at the current time. What would be involved?”
We discussed VERY briefly the possibilities and I said that I wanted to talk to my parents, but that I would get back with her. I took the phone number and left. I had no idea what a path my feet had just embarked on.
For two years, I cleaned and chauffeured and did laundry and baby sat and even did some cooking. All the while, Fran took care of her precious children, teaching and training and investing and loving them as only a mom who knows her time is limited can. Sometime in the spring of 1973, she went to the hospital. We didn’t know it then, but time was short. Even in those pain filled days of the final stages of breast cancer, she was an amazing woman. I would climb the steps to her room in the old Milford Hospital, and she would ask questions about the kids, and wonder about all the things on the outside. There was a bridal shower that she had wished and wished to go to, but just couldn’t manage. So I loaded up the gifts and hauled them up to her hospital bed. Her face was shining as she fingered the beautiful lingerie, inspected the various special gifts and discussed the particulars of the night with me. She took such interest in the details of our wedding, clucking and worrying. One day she said to me, “Mary Ann, have you gotten your wedding shoes yet?”
“Yes,” I replied, joyfully. “I found them at Lou’s Bootery!”
“What do they look like?” She demanded.
I thought she sounded a little pettish, but I tried to describe them to her. “They are white flats, Hush Puppies, with a strap buckle . . .”
“Could you bring them up here so I could see them?”
I had already shown her my wedding dress — homemade, of course, but perfectly lovely in gorgeous eyelet and so carefully sewn by my sister in law, Rose. That had her stamp of approval. But shoes??? Oh, well.
“Well, sure. I guess so.”
So the next time I went up to see her, I packed the shoes carefully in their box and toted them along. I came into the room where she was dozing, but she quickly willed herself awake to see what I had brought. I opened the box and she carefully examined my pristine shoes.
“Oh, Mary Ann,” She said with obvious relief. “They are very nice. I am so relieved!”
I must have looked very puzzled. What was this about my shoes, for pity sakes?
“Now, Mary Ann,” she said with that amused, patient look on her face. “You know! You have such FRUMPY tastes when it comes to shoes!”
Oh dear. I did???
I loved her too much to have my feelings hurt. Besides, I remembered the day when they had given me the key to their house while they went on vacation, and I had cleaned the house for them, but inadvertently left my flip flops behind on the steps going to the upstairs bedrooms. Poor Fran was certain that they couldn’t have been mine because they looked, well, so manly! She was confident that there was a man lurking somewhere in the house and had made her husband search the house thoroughly before she could rest. When I came to work the next time and claimed my flip flops, she was almost miffed that they were mine. She instructed me often on the finer arts of femininity.
And I honestly could not believe that she was going to die. But she did. Just ten days before our wedding, on July 4, 1973, we got the call that she had taken flight. She was 35. Her four children ranged in age from seven to twelve. I had already technically finished my job at their home and had trained in my replacement who would do a fabulous job, but when I got the call, I asked if it would be helpful if I came out to the house. Fran’s father asked if I please would. And so, I did.
It was a hot, hot day. I helped get lunch on for the family, the four kids around the table with their grandpa and their daddy. The children were quiet, but their mama had been in the hospital so long, it was just one more thing for them to assimilate — except her youngest son.
“There’s something in my throat,” he said to his daddy. “It just sticks there. I can’t seem to swallow it down or get it to come up.”
His daddy gathered him into his arms. “Ah, Jimbob,” he said brokenly, “I can read you like a book.” And he held him gently. The phone rang then, and it was a neighbor asking if maybe the children wanted to come over and swim for a diversion. I remember that their daddy said that their mama would have wanted them to go, that a distraction was a good thing, and so, we traipsed across the yard and the children, for at least a little bit, forgot their sorrow.
In the days that followed, they planned a memorial service, friends and relatives came, and Fran’s sister decided to take the children back to Alaska with her for the rest of the summer. The oldest daughter stayed behind long enough to serve as the guest receiver in our wedding, attending with her daddy and grandpa, and then she joined them.
Why am I telling this story?
Two weeks ago, the oldest daughter’s death was in the paper. She died at 51, an untimely and unnecessary death.
She was an incredible girl. She was the perfect athlete, brilliant enough to be valedictorian of her high school class, a graduate of Duke University, a corporate lawyer, a beloved daughter and sister, a wife, a mom, a friend. I honestly do not know the particulars of her passing, but it has made me so sad. I was at her wedding 20 years ago or so, and she was so promising. I can only imagine the sorrow of her family.
These past two weeks, I’ve been thinking so much of those days with her family, going over and over those happy times, remembering so many pleasant things. One of the things that Fran often made for her family was beef stew in her dutch oven. Over and over again, she would instruct me exactly how she wanted it. And after all the layers were in order, she would say, “Then throw in a couple of bay leaves, Mary Ann. That will give it just the right flavor.” Ever since then, beef stew in a crock pot or dutch oven evokes such happy memories for me. Healthy, shiny-eyed children, around the table, shoveling in their mama’s beef stew, as oblivious to the preciousness of the moment as children can be. I remember her delightful gaze at them, how she reveled in their accomplishments, encouraged them in their endeavors, and dreamed such dreams for them. I wonder what they remember.
This week, I hauled out my new crock pot, layered the ingredients in it just the way she taught me. I threw a few bay leaves in there so it would taste right, and I spent the day smelling that wonderful smell and remembering.
Ah, Jennifer, Jennifer. If I could only turn back the years. I would listen more, I would NOT lose contact, and I would not have been caught so flatfooted by this sad, sad news. It is my prayer that you have come safely home to Heaven, and that your life, so tragically shortened, will yet shine and light the way way for those you left behind. That you will be remembered for what you did that was right and good and exemplary, and that someday, on that peaceful shore, I pray that I shall once again see your lovely face.