What I Learned about the Universe from my Mother

My mother passed away last week after a short but valiant battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Here are my remarks from the funeral:

When my father passed away three years ago, I spoke about what I had learned about life from his words and example. Today I would like to do the same for my mother. As you have heard from my wife, Zina, Mom was a capable and creative woman. She was not, however, a woman of science. Some of the things I learned from her just do not stand up under scientific scrutiny, but I find myself passing on the same wisdom to my own children.

One of the first things I learned from my mother was that if you eat the crusts of your bread your hair will go curly. I’m not exactly sure why she figured a small boy would want curly hair—I certainly didn’t—but I believe this advice was meant to encourage me not to waste food. As a child of the Depression, mother hated to see food wasted. It was a moral sin. I remember her encouraging Susan once to eat all of her hotdog because there are starving children in Africa who would love to have that hotdog. Susan’s response: “well, let’s send it to them!” I have yet to see a scientific study confirming the crust-curly hair correlation, but I have discovered Mom was right about how eating carrots improves your eyesight, so I am not willing to discard her other theories outright.

Mom also had great medical advice, like don’t go out without a sweater because you’ll get a chill and catch cold. When I learned in high school health class that colds are caused by viruses rather than a lack of sweaters, I tried to tell this to my mother. I vaguely remember her rolling her eyes at such a wrong-headed idea. The idea certainly never sank in. She continued to advise me and everyone else to wear a sweater to avoid catching cold. Now I find myself giving the same advice to my own children. During the past few months Mom sometimes expressed frustration with how weak she was, how the chemo was making her feel so exhausted and tired and feeble. She once stated that she didn’t know whether it was worth it. I told her that she really only had one other option—that if she stopped chemo the cancer would kill her. To that she said, “No, I will not die in the winter! I will not have all those people standing out in the cold.” I thought that was very courteous of her. No doubt she worried that we wouldn’t wear our sweaters.

One rather strange thing I learned from my mother is that Sunday dinner is a good time for gory stories. Mom loved to tell about how she broke her arm as a young girl when she fell out of a pear tree, how her mother thought the bone sticking out of her arm was a tree branch and started yanking on it, how for a full year she had to have her arm in a metal cast that had a little drain in it for . . . well, I really can’t finish the story without getting hungry for a nice slice of roast beef and some mashed potatoes. Remind me later to tell you about the tonsil puss and the rotten pork. Mom had an uncanny ability to turn a Sunday dinner into a dissection lab. I think she would have made a great nurse because she loved to talk about, examine, and fret about all kinds of wounds and contusions. I suppose that’s how I ended up writing my dissertation on Frankenstein.

Mom also taught me how to cook. She made the best French toast in the business. (BTW, the secret is to add a bit of flour to the milk and eggs so it creates a thicker batter.) My friends loved to sleep over at my house because they got breakfast in the morning. Mom was an excellent cook—despite the Sunday dinner conversation. I remember hot sweet rolls when I’d get home from school, cakes made from scratch, and some of the best sugar cookies in the world. It’s no wonder all of us had trouble keeping our weight down. And mom loved to feed people. No one came to our house without her offering them—sometimes forcing them—to eat. When I went on my mission and wrote letters talking about how much I missed her homemade pizza, Mom worked out a plan to smuggle her home-made pizzas into the MTC, meeting us by the back fence.

Mother also taught me by her actions to never do something halfway. When I was in fourth grade and had a creative assignment for our unit on Utah history, she helped me make salt clay dioramas of Native American cliff dwellings and a scale model of Geneva Steel. I vividly remember her melting wax and letting us dip candles when she was the den mother for my cub scout den. And I remember a pirate-themed birthday party complete with treasure map, treasure hunt, and a hidden treasure chest. After Susan and I stopped bringing her creative projects to throw herself into, Mom took cake decorating classes and volunteered to make the cakes for my cousin’s wedding and my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary. She did special birthday cakes for all of our birthdays—I remember a guitar cake when I was young and a really wonderful reproduction of my 1965 Ford Fairlane for my nineteenth birthday. Later still, Mom took oil painting classes and became a really fine artist. She loved painting, and whether a flower, Marie Antoninette’s hamlet at Versailles, or a dilapidated barn, she could turn her subject into a lovely masterpiece. Mom’s creative energy was boundless and exhilarating.

Mom’s aesthetic sensibilities carried over to landscaping. She loved her flower gardens, and a year without petunias was, to her, simply unimaginable. She wore herself out a few years ago after planting the annul petunia crop, so after Dad died I tried to persuade her that she should give up the ritual and put in some shrubs. Her reply was simple: “what’s the point of living if I can’t have my petunias.” Mom also loved her vegetable garden. She loved a home-grown tomato, and we had a wonderful garden while I was growing up that yielded our most of our produce for the rest of the year.

One of the most important lessons I learned from my mother was dedicated service. Mom took care of everybody, but the most notable example was when, after her father passed away in 1976, Mom moved Grandma Meldrum into our house and took over much of her care. Mom knew that Grandma wanted to be in her own house though, so every day she would drive Grandma down to her home, pick up my aunt Florence who would stay with her throughout the day, and then she would drive her back down to our house every night. Mom taught us that you care for those you love, that service is the true expression of love.

Another thing I learned from mother is to overcome my fears. This may sound odd, because Mom was a chronic worrier. She worried about everything—like whether the roast should go a little longer or whether it should go a lot longer, whether or not the flowers would be out for Memorial Day, whether or not everyone had had enough to eat, and whether or not her family would be o.k. Once when she was visiting Washington, DC, Mom refused to take newborn Mary under a tree because she was worried an acorn might fall on her head. Mom worried. And when she didn’t have something to worry about she would find something to worry about. She believed, again in her typically unscientific way, that worrying was genetic—she claimed she got it from the Hansen side of the family and that her Grandpa Hansen was a true champion worrier. But Mom would not allow her worries to get in the way of life. When Geneva Steel closed and Dad was forced into an early retirement, Mom decided to go out and get a job. She was in her late fifties, had been out of the work force for over twenty five years, and I’m sure she worried that no one would want an older woman who had been out of the work force for so long. But she got her resume polished up and went out job hunting. It only took her a few days, as I remember it, before she landed a job with Mountain America Credit Union, where she worked for over a decade.

Likewise, when Dad passed away, Mom had not driven a car in many years. She had had quite a bit of surgery on her eyes and had lost a lot of her vision, but the doctors had always told her that she could still drive. With Dad around, she must have felt that it was better to not take any chances, but when he died she vowed that she would not let his death keep her from getting around to her monthly lunch appointments with her group of friends or from her artists’ section meetings or from her hair appointments. I worried—evidently I inherited that gene too—about my mother driving. I thought for sure she would end up in an accident. When one day she called me and told me she had wrecked the car, I was about to say “I told you so,” when she described the accident and I realized it was the other driver’s fault. Mom had just been waiting at a light and some young woman ran into her. Time and again, Mom overcame her fears and got on with her life.

Strangely, when she was diagnosed with cancer, Mom did not worry. She did not cry or fuss or fret. She just wanted to get through this so she could get better. For some reason she didn’t worry about what would happen to her. She told us she wanted to have a party after she was done with the chemotherapy. We never got to have that party, but we did have a lovely fairwell party the weekend prior to her death. We got her home from the hospital on Friday and then that weekend she had a steady stream of friends and relatives visit her to say goodbye. Mom was so weak I could not believe she could keep going. But I believe she was waiting to see her brother, Floyd, one last time. She was so proud of him; she told everyone—home teachers, friends, neighbors, doctors, nurses—about her brother who lived in Las Vegas. Floyd did make it up to visit her on Sunday and Mom passed away a day later.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer just prior to Christmas, and we were faced with the very real possibility that she would soon leave us. She had a hard Christmas this year, suffering the effects of the first round of chemotherapy. She had lost her appetite, her strength, and her much of her hair. She finally died the day after Easter. She was peaceful, calm, and brave. The fact that her sickness bridged these two holidays—the one celebrating the birth of the Jesus, the other celebrating His death and resurrection—highlights the tragedy of mortality and the ultimate triumph of mortality made possible by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. “In the world,” reads the Gospel of John, “ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Mom certainly experienced tribulation. From growing up during the Great Depression to the chemo treatments at the end of her life, her life was never easy. But Mom went through it all with grace and dignity. And thanks to the Good News of Christ’s sacrifice, we know she, like all of us, will overcome.

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