"I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your Grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also." 2 Timothy 1:5
There is an odd romantic chain in what is often called the circle of life. All that dwells in mothers has the remarkable potential to dwell also in their children. My mother was born in October of 1900, all but a hundred years ago. Her life testifies to this circle: she had nine children, of which I was the seventh. Her children were achievers, yet not notable in any worldly sense. After her funeral in 1977, all her family gathered on the front porch of her house to have a family picture made. It was the last photo ever taken of the entire family together. I have always been grateful for that picture. In this one photo of the family of seventy-odd souls that came from her - children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their spouses, of course - there were: a couple of doctors, a couple of school teachers, a preacher, and a school superintendent. But mostly we Millers - in-laws and outlaws - are customary sorts of people: grocers, aircraft manufacturer employees, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Most of us attend church regularly, as she did. All of us prize morality as she did. Most of us put a high priority on family as she did.
I have no ability, these hundred years since her birth, to separate the mother of my romantic notions from the actual mother that existed. Thus, the mother that remains front and center in my sensibilities may or may not be like the one who actually lived through most of the twentieth century. Yet I am aware of those hard-core virtues that she instilled in us for our own good. While only Christ is the infallible empowering means to true maturity, it seems to me my mother's wisdom served as signposts along the pathway to maturity.
There were any number of adages that she spun out that, woven into a single fabric over the years, would become the common tapestry of my sixty-year-old world view:
• Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. She was big on the golden rule.
• The Lord is my shepherd. She was big on God's providence.
• If you have but two pence, spend one for bread and the other for hyacinth for your soul. She wanted her children to work hard some of the time, but not all of it.
• No use cryin' over spilt milk, you only make it salty for the cat. This is another way of saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
• Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone. An alternate way of saying, misery loves company but doesn't get much of it.
• Every tub must sit on its own bottom. A "Poor Richardism" for, be proactive, take responsibility for your actions.
But while these grand adages kept my eyes on the horizons of emotional and spiritual maturity, I also appreciate the common things she taught me:
• Wash your face.
• Don't hit your sisters.
• Wear your galoshes to school, it's raining.
• It's time for your Saturday-night bath.
• Always wear the best you have to the house of God.
• Don't hold your book so close, you'll ruin your eyes.
• If your teachers have to spank you for misbehaving at school, you'll get another one when you get home.
• Sit up and listen to the preacher - don't giggle in church.
These are the lessons that have marked the best parts of my lifetime. These little legacies are so simple to define they could easily be overlooked. Mother did not always speak them in a rational tone of voice. They were said often, and often said loudly with sharp insistence - maybe even shouted. Mama didn't like shouting them. In fact, she had always hoped to get her children raised with her larynx still intact. But volume helps children to hear sometimes. And we did hear them. All seventy of us in the family photo have sojourned the last century without dirty faces, without getting our feet wet, or not ruining our eyes by holding our books too closely.
The little legacies are what keep us all nice to be near. Without them, the seventy people who attended her funeral would all be barbarians. In fact, these little admonitions, faithfully placed, are probably the reason all seventy of us went to the funeral. We all realize that what we have become is not the result of the grand philosophies, but the product of small advice faithfully given. Motherhood is little things well tended. The world would be a monstrous place without them.
I suppose one thing her life teaches me is that well-lived lifetimes are not terminated with death. Redeemed souls join that great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11, but also go right on making a difference in the clumsy, self-centered world they left to join God. My mother did not live seventy-seven years, as her grave marker states. She keeps right on living. How do I know? I washed my face this morning. I don't hit my sisters. I usually take a bath on Saturday night, I always sit up and listen to the preacher and I never giggle in church.
Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.