L: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Laughter

I am not sure which grandson came up with the word “Wheezer” to describe the Thornton women. Maybe we should blame John’s or Elsie’s boys. It sounds like them. Full of life and sarcasm. Whomever is to blame, the name stuck. The aunts officially became the wheezers.

We laughed when we got together until we couldn’t breathe. Tears filled our eyes and rolled down reddened faces. The more we laughed, the greater the crowd around us became.

People like to be around happiness.

Which is why, I believe, mom had so many people enjoy being around.  She loved to laugh. Her sense of humor was kind, never mean.

Sitting here now I can’t remember specific things she said. I just remember the gales of laughter that filled the air when she held court in the dining room.

Remove mom from the table and place dad there instead and the atmosphere completely changed. The girls would talk to dad of somber, serious things. Tears would flow. Good conversation took place but on a higher plane. God, scripture, living a Christian life — that was more the direction of the interactions with him.

Mom brought out the lighter side of living.

She found humor in so much. And she wasn’t afraid of making fun of herself. She would tell tales of her mistakes and have the room rolling.

For awhile, mom and dad lived next doors to Riggins Funeral Home in southern Illinois. On numerous occasions, mom was hired to play for services.

At that time, the organ was placed in a

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Dad and Mom lived in a small white house to the left of this funeral home.

small room off to the side of the large viewing room. A speaker in the wall allowed mom to monitor when she was needed to play. Mom also used the speaker as a monitor for her sound level.

 

During one service, she noticed she couldn’t hear the music very well through the speaker. She adjusted the the volume on the organ and continued playing. Still nothing. She added more volume. No change. Not thinking of any other reason for the lack of sound, she cranked the volume to its highest setting. At that point someone poked their head into the room and asked her if she was trying to wake the dead. It seems someone had turned the speaker off and while Mary, was attempting to soothe mourners with “The Lord is My Shepherd,” was in fact assaulting them with her song. She quickly corrected her mistake and peace was restored. The body was ultimately put to a quiet, melody-free rest.

Mom’s face crinkled when she retold her mishap. Her eyes lit up as she laughed at herself. And me, I wheezed. I loved to laugh with her. I believe we all did.

Perhaps the Thorntons have used laughter to hide our pain. I don’t know. One niece-in-law  (who has since opted to be an out-law) questioned the amount of laughter we had when we gathered for brother John’s funeral.

She thought it disrespectful.

I felt no disrespect.  I felt tremendous love and deep, deep loss. For hours we talked of John and the life he led. We relived memories,shared stories and celebrated the son, brother, husband and father he had been. We mourned his sadness and his untimely passing. While we cried, we also wheezed uncontrollably for the joy he brought to us in the short years he was with us.

Along with laughter, the tears pour. Bitter and sweet. Painful and joyful.  Death and life. We can’t have one without the other.

Mama was a woman of intense emotions I believe.  She didn’t speak of them often. She showed them to us most often and passionately through her music. We heard her sorrow late at night as she played in the darkness and sang her songs of comfort. And we witnessed it most certainly through her wonderful, infectious laughter.

I really miss Mary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I: It’s All About Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ I Cannot Tell

My sister Elsie Lois had a voice so beautiful I teared up when I heard her sing. When she and mom made music together,  I inevitably felt a sense of calm and peace.  All would be right in my world for at least the length of their songs.

Elsie was as innately gifted with music as mama was–Elsie’s instrument was her voice and mom’s was the keyboard.

My favorite song they did together was “I Cannot Tell,” a hymn written to the tune of the Irish classic “Londonderry Air.” Any time I was with them both, I requested it. When mom died in the 80’s, that song went silent. Occasionally I heard Elsie sing it, accompanied by one of my other sisters and it was beautiful. But it wasn’t mama.

All the girls played the piano. Ruth placed a close second to mom in my opinion. Alice and Martha tickled the ivories but I wasn’t around to hear them much. Elsie could accompany herself but preferred not to. Kate and I never made it very far with the piano.

By the time we came along, mom’s method of teaching piano to her children was to correct us from the kitchen. As she cooked in the back of the house, we’d play.  Every few bars we’d hear,  “No! F sharp. F sharp!”  We’d adjust our fingers and continue our struggle. Both of us gave up along the way.  Kate found her creative outlet in art quilts. I’m working on mine.

Elsie and her husband Vince left Greenfield for Hopkinsville, Kentucky and then Belle Glade, Florida. Their growing family — eventually eight children in all  — made the trip back home most Christmases or Thanksgivings.

On a cold winter day, the Marquess vehicle pulled into our driveway, the doors flew open and out tumbled tow-headed children of all sizes dressed in tee shirts and tennis shoes.  They had little need of winter wear in south Florida so dressing for Illinois winters posed a challenge. Layering was the key. And on the enclosed porch where all the children slept, a well-vented gas heater remained at the highest setting.

I never saw a child that Elsie didn’t love and that didn’t love her back. She could have been Francine of Assisi. She had a quiet way about her. She smiled warmly at strangers, engaged them with questions that sounded like she was totally interested.  And she was. She listened no matter how long they went on. And on. And on. Something I’ve not been able to do and, at age 65, probably never will

Mom and Elsie — in fact mom and most of my sisters — had a lot in common. Love of music and laughter. Great cooks. Contented wives. Struggle with weight. Women of faith. And, for the most part, lousy housekeepers. Mom outshone Elsie on the housekeeping. Elsie was much better with children. I believe all the sisters hold people as priorities.

The three boys are like silent partners.  They have important positions but speak little and go on about their lives without much fanfare.  Charles left home for the army when he was a teenager. Then he went to college, then seminary, he married and lived far from family. He is retired now, in Alaska. Sam, the middle son, remains in Greenfield and chose to farm. John died at 35 and left us stunned and silent.

So it seems the Thornton women are the ones that make the noise and sing the songs and gather the families and help keep the memories alive. Mom would like that. She loved to see her children together, filling her home house with music and commotion.

She wanted us to all get along. To remain connected. To be at peace. Once, when I was driving mom home from an appointment (she didn’t have a license) I made an ugly comment about dad. (I unfortunately went through some anger years and am afraid he felt the brunt of it.)  She turned to me and said,”He’s a very good man, Nancy, and he loves you.”

Watson was a very good man. He certainly loved me. He loved all his children deeply and demonstrated it through his actions and his presence. But mom’s love was different. I felt it. I heard it. I saw it. I knew it absolutely. And I loved it.

Now if I can give that to my daughter…

 

 

G: It’s All about Mary/#atoz challenge/ Great Family Photos

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Because my sister-in-law Marcia and my sister Kate don’t mind spending time looking through photos, I have a few family photos to share.

I study the images and wonder about these people with whom I share my lineage but whom I know so little. What traits do I share with them?

I know I’m much like two great aunts from Kentucky–outspoken, opinionated and abrupt.  I inherited creativity from both my mom and my dad’s side, with artists and musicians going way back. Like my father I have a red-hot temper that cools in a flash. I feel I was blessed to inherit my mom’s sense of humor.

One of my favorite memories of all time was something dad said to me.  Mom was not at home, she was off visiting a sister who had just delivered yet another baby. Dad, Cathy, John and I were sitting around round oak kitchen table.  We were laughing and carrying on when dad turned to me and said, “Why, you’ve inherited your mom’s humor.”

My 13-year old self was beaming from ear to ear.

What with giving birth to 11 children and cooking for an army much of her life, mom put on a few pounds over the years.  Her smile remained the same.

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The Thornton women back in the day.  (LtoR) Front:  Martha, Mom and me the wild child with the lovely hair and dress. Back: Ruth,Elsie, Kate, Alice.
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The Gash Family, probably close to the time mom and dad left for Japan.  (LtoR) Dad, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma Gash, Mom’s brother Perce and wife Elsie, Mom’s sister Alice and husband Ralph and son.

When Mom’s two brother — Perce and Charles — came to visit at the same time, I knew I would get earaches.  Both were exceptional singers and when they sang together (with mom accompanying them) my ears would pound. But, oh, I loved their concerts.

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A common scene in our family.  Mom at her piano and dad close by. He loved to listen to her play and he’d often break out in song. He wasn’t quite as skilled as his brothers-in-law, but he carried a tune quite well.
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Japanese family growing quickly.  Mom  with baby Elsie in arm, the twins Alice and Ruth, and Charles. The next and final child to be born in Japan would be Martha.

On the left, about-to-be-married Mary Scott Gash.  The silhouette was made of Mom in St. Louis two or three decades later.

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When mom wasn’t playing, she was reading.  Housework could always wait.

The Dining Room/It’s All about Mary #a-to-zchallenge

DOur white Victorian home at 601 Sycamore Street seemed much larger when I was young. Not that that’s unusual. Objects always appear bigger than they are when you’re a kid and you are the one responsible for cleaning them on Saturdays.

Upstairs held three bedrooms. Mom and dad’s which was off limits except for me to clean. The other two bedrooms were mine. I floated between them, depending on my mood. Larger and lighter was the front room. Smaller, quieter and a bit more formal the side room. By the time I was ninth grade, all the other siblings were out and about and I felt I held free reign of the second floor.

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Not exactly like our window, but close enough!

Downstairs,  the music room  with its large front window and beveled trim overlooked the front yard. As the sun set, beams of the afternoon sun reflected off the prisms, transforming the pale green walls into a display of shimmering rainbows.

Once my cleaning was done, it was here I sat and rocked in dad’s nubby swivel rocking chair. To enjoy the quiet in a freshly cleaned home felt therapeutic for me. The ultimate delight was having taken a bath and put on clean pajamas, I would watch the light and color dance across the room as I  listened to mama play.

Even then I knew I loved being alone more than just about anything else.

For me, the most difficult room to clean was the dining room. It was not a big space by any means. It held a small coal fireplace.  A plate rail around the room displayed mom’s favorite platters and things. All required dusting.

The family table could be extended to seat 12 or more, depending on how close everyone wanted to be. In the bay window stood a small, marble-topped walnut table. Intricately carved, it caught all the dust from the drive way when windows were open. A slightly stuffed side chair, claimed by our basset hound, Higgins, showed wear. When guests arrived, a clean throw hid the worst of the damage.

 

In one corner, next to the built-in cupboard that held mom’s good dishes and serving bowls, stood an 4-drawer metal file cabinet. Sheets of music and piano books overflowed. Saved articles, pictures torn out from magazines, a few choice books, various papers and spiral bound scrapbooks covered the top.

This was mama’s domain. Her office during the week; her table for entertaining on Sundays and holidays.

As a piano teacher, she stockpiled exercise books for early beginners to advanced level students. Over the years she had accumulated countless pieces of sheet music. Classical works by Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart, contemporary favorites like Rhapsody in Blue, Christmas music, choir music, hymnals and hard to find sheets from the early 1900’s.  A total mess to the untrained eye, but mama knew what she had and where to find it.

 

Mama was into scrapbooks before scrapbooking was cool. But she didn’t have any order in the way she saved things. Slap dash was her form of organizing. She stuck anything she found interesting onto the pages of myriad paper scrapbooks. Illustrations of sad dogs, cartoons from The Family Circle strip, obituaries of neighbors long past. She added cards from friends, photos from grandchildren, Bible verses that spoke to her. A recipe for peach ice cream was positioned next to an article about fine pottery in Japan. A grandson’s first grade photo appeared adjacent to handwritten stanzas to a favorite song.

These books of memories had absolutely no rhyme or reason. Anything her brilliant mind found funny or touching, uplifting or insightful was glued to a page. Lots of pages.

She kept her visual journals in their earliest days in Japan, raising the first pack of kids in the Ozarks and the second half of the family in Greenfield, Illinois. Their life back in Japan in the 70{s provided a lot of fodder for my mother. She kept scrapbooking until her final days in Cartersville, Illinois.

After mama died the five sisters (Alice, Ruth, Elsie, Martha, Cathy and I) and one sister-in-law (Marcia) spent hours sifting through the stacks of scrapbooks, determining what to keep and what to toss. The first ten years after her death, we kept the books intact. We stored the volumes in large cardboard boxes and each spring when we would gather for a week at our cousin’s lake house, one of the sisters would deliver the trove of memories. We spend many days and evenings pouring over the pages, reliving mom’s life through her memorabilia.  Only a few years ago (almost three decades later) were the scrapbooks disassembled.

These compilations of information said a lot about who mom was and what she loved. Every page was interspersed with newspaper articles, lyrics to songs, recipes, photographs, cartoons, Bible verses, pretty pictures, silly pictures, birthday cards and anecdotes she wanted to remember.

Her entries  yellowed and grew brittle. Pages fell apart. But over the decades, her collections revealed her lifelong passions:  Family, faith, music, food and humor.

 

 

C: It’s All About Mary/ Counting My Blessings

Growing up with Mary as a mother meant that music was central to my life. Our days as a family usually often began with her playing one or two hymns.

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The Thornton family well long I came to live with them. Mom delivered 11 children in all. I was #10.

She wasn’t much of a morning person. If she had her druthers she’d sleep until 9 or 10, I’m sure. Her favorite times of day were late at night when the family had gone to bed. But dad, as a guidance counselor at the high school, was up and out the door early during the week. On the weekends, he was the preacher, so definitely no late mornings then.

 

Mary dutifully rose and cooked breakfast for her husband and children. We ate together most mornings. Unless I was bleeding or upchucking, no excuse was good enough to miss breakfast or family prayers.  School bells could ring and I’d be tardy, but I could not miss devotions.

Once breakfast was finished, we migrated to mom’s music room for devotions. Two sets of oak sliding doors were used to close the room off when mom was giving piano lesson.  In the mornings, the doors were open and we found seats between and around mom’s grand piano and organ .

Family devotions consisted of (if time allowed) singing a hymn, reading two chapters of the Bible and praying for every person we knew by name — including missionaries all over the world, the people they witnessed to and then some.

When dad prayed for the family, mom remembered the missionaries. Bill and Alice Widbin somewhere Africa, Dorothy Clark in Nigeria, an orphanage in India with a little boy named Jothi.  I prayed for Jothi for decades. One day not long before mom died, I asked her whatever happened to Jothi.  She said he had grown up and was living near the orphanage. Despite his physical and mental challenges he was  doing well.  Good to know our prayers worked for him I said.  “Oh, Nancy, hush!” she said with a smile. She sometimes like my irreverence.  But not always.

She believed in the power of prayer. Dad did, too. They brought everything to God in prayer. And they brought us right there with them. We got down on our knees around the circle of chairs (I tried to get the softest one because I could catch a few more minutes of sleep).  Dad or mom started the prayers and we went one by one until all had thanked God for our many blessings or asked God for help with someone and something. The other parent would wrap up our time of thanksgiving and petitions.

I hated this time as a child.  As a teen, especially, I was so embarrassed when friends would spend the night and Dad and Mom would urge them to participate in the ceremony.  Nothing and noone kept Mary and Watson from spending time with the Lord in the morning.

Family worship wrapped up with the Lord’s Prayer. By the time we got to “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I was up off my knees. By the “Amen”, I was out the door for school.

The middle part of prayers was reading the Bible.  We went front to back, Genesis 1:1 to the final verse of Revelations, two chapters a day, two verses at a time.  Starting with the youngest and going to the oldest. On the longer chapters, we could go around the circle three or four times. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the Bible through, Old and New Testaments, but I know I have countless verses committed to memory.  Even today, almost six decades after living at home, I can recall verses I read as a child.  I also firmly believe that we are all good readers because of these early days.  We learned to read at very young ages sitting together in the mornings sounding out words like Methuselah, Sennacherib and the pages and pages of Hebrew names in the Old Testament.

My favorite part of prayers, without a doubt, was when we had time to sing. Mom played her grand piano with such power and passion. She loved her God and she showed that love through her fingers on the keys, whether the melodies were hymn or classical pieces she had memorized.  As I write this I feel tears welling up inside. An ache for the woman who comforted me so often with her music. When I longed for something as only a teenage girl can long and it didn’t come to pass, when I had a broken heart, or when my feelings were hurt from someone at school.

Mama would sit me down in the easy chair next to the piano and she would play songs like “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Does Jesus Care?”

She played until my tears stopped.  And then we’d go and get a bite to eat.

Food and music.  It’s a theme you’ll see in Mary’s life.

For any faults she had (and yes, Mary Scott Gash Thornton had her fair share) she was a woman of intense love and faith, and my life continues to be blessed with the gifts she gave me every single day.

 

I regret that I have no recordings of mama playing.  Some may exist in the United States, in the homes of my sisters and brothers. But here in Ecuador, I have no access to them. Instead when I want to be with mama at the piano, I go to YouTube and plug in the name of a hymn that she would play.  The link below takes you to one of my favorites.

For friends reading who are not of the Christian faith or perhaps any faith at all, this may seem very foreign to you.  All I can say is I pray that you have a similar source of comfort and joy. Life feels easier with such a person.

My mother’s name was Mary.

 

 

A: It’s All about Mary

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Mary, Watson and seven of their nine living children

Mary Scott Gash Thornton left this earth with a deep sigh one Spring evening in 1986.

Dad held on to his faith for support but he so missed her. Never have I seen him look so lost as in the days following her death.

Mary made it past Mother’s Day, so she had recently heard from all of her children. The twins, Alice and Ruth, were the the oldest and each lived just a few blocks from mom and dad’s small rental home on the edge of Cartersville, Illinois.  The other seven kids, spread out from California to Alaska to Georgia had sent their flowery Mother’s Day cards or placed their phone calls.

I called because I loved the way mom sounded when she knew it was one of her children on the line. There was no mistaking the joy in her voice.  “Oh, hi,” she’d say with such warmth. Every time my face would break out in a smile.  She liked me. She really, really liked me.

Mom didn’t need a fabricated holiday to tell her that she was adored by her children and her husband. This five-foot two-inch woman knew she was loved.

Mom had a heart the size of Australia and a personality to boot. My dad’s heart was smaller, more like Texas. He was reserved and severe and very generous. They made a good couple.

Mary and Watson were a study in contrasts. Over the years mom grew to be as round as she was short. Dad remained tall and trim and really quite handsome. She was outgoing to his formality. Mary entertained people while Dad preached, instructed and admonished. She could talk to anyone and engage them in stimulating conversation. He preferred to sit and observe. Talking made him very uncomfortable. He said he was at a loss for words except for when he was teaching or preaching.

Their opposites attracted and even after 55+ years of marriage they remained smitten . I knew without a doubt I wanted a marriage like theirs.

They married in February 1929, the same year her father passed away.  A year later, Mom and Dad sailed for Japan to serve as missionaries.

That move must have been difficult for her but she never complained in her letters. She was a St. Louis girl and they were moving to the outskirts of a city in a foreign country. She had no understanding of Japanese (Dad did, he grew up there). She didn’t cook or clean or sew. She knew nothing about birthing babies.  Mary Scott Gash Thornton only knew how to play the piano.

And she was good. She was very very good.

In fact, at age 8 or so, mom performed a concert in St. Louis to raise money for the WW1 war effort. Her talent was impressive. Professionals encouraged her to pursue a career as a concert pianist. She wrestled with the idea but ultimately chose dad and life with him as a missionary.

Not long after they married in St. Louis, they moved to Japan. She left behind her widowed mother, two brothers and sister. Her twin, Nancy, had died at age 3. Mary also left behind her piano.

Letters from Mom to her mother, Mattie, in St. Louis describe the challenges of her life. Of supervising house help who could not understand her nor her them. Of working with people who wanted her to get herself together and become more serious. To wear longer hair, not her fashionable bob. To be more serious and not so full of laughter. She was to become someone other than who she truly was. And she was to birth babies.

The Thornton family expanded rapidly to include the first five children.  Alice and Ruth (the twins), Charles, Elsie and Martha.  The Japanese family.  The better half of the siblings I’ve always called them.

WWII was about to break out, so Mary and Watson whisked their family back to the States until peace was restored. They had every intention of returning, but that dream was put on hold. Thirty years would pass before they arrived back in Japan to live.

In those intervening years, the Thornton family grew even more.  Mom bore 11 children in all. Sam, John, Mary Catherine, me and Susan.  One little girl died shortly after birth. A few years later, the youngest child, Susan, was hit by a car and died. The nine remaining kids married and did their fair share of multiplying. Mom got her piano back and dad stepped into the pulpit.

My father reveled in his grandchildren. Mom not so much.  She was tired of babies and burping and changing diapers.  She wanted to play her music and  read her books and visit with her children. One day she told me rather apologetically, “I really don’t care for the little ones. I enjoy the grand kids when they are 14 or so, when I can have a conversation.”

She’d earned time for herself.

During the month of April  I will use daily posts to introduce you to my mother, Mary Scott Gash Thornton. A remarkable woman in so many ways.  Few had her gift  and passion for music. Her sense of humor was engaging.  She’d entertain guests around the table, placing bank presidents next to the town drunk and all would be well. She loved her kids. She loved her Watson. She lived her faith. And she brought a world of music to the people around her.

My mother’s name was Mary.

 

All About Mary

The 2017 A-to-Z Challenge will begin in about a week. So for 26 days (not counting Sundays) I’ll be joining hundreds or (maybe) thousands around the world in blogging my way through the alphabet.

Last year I made itA2Z-BADGE-100 [2017] most of the way through the month describing our new life in Cuenca — from belching buses to homesickness, llamas to roaring rivers. Along the way I met up with some interesting people and made a few friends from far-off places.

This year my theme will be built around my mom. She was an amazing pianist and blessed my life with an abundance of music — both religious and classical.

The daily blogs will be fodder for a memoir I have in mind for her. In my family it seems like most of the focus has been on my father and his side of our ancestry.  Mom deserves her place.

She was smart and funny. Hated housework and spent hours on the piano every day. She was short and round and rosy-cheeked. Her children loved her dearly. Her husband of  60+ years adored her until her dying day.

This will also be a look at growing up as a fundamentalist Christian and becoming a progressive both in politics and theology. I will write of small town, middle America in the 50’s and 60’s. College in the 70’s. And life as the youngest in a family of 11 children. And every entry/chapter is centered around one of the most loving, interesting and talented women I have ever met.

I invite you to read along. Please pass on the blog site if you like what you read.

Mary was amazing!