I Must Tell Jesus

I came caterwauling into the world in 1951 and exited high school in the spring 1969. For all but four of those years, home for me was Greenfield, Illinois — halfway between St. Louis, MO and Springfield, IL.

Mom delivered me at a hospital in Rolla, Missouri but our family moved from the Ozarks to Greenfield when I was only four. Dad assumed the position as interim pastor for the only Presbyterian Church in town. He held that role for the next 14 years. I think the congregation or Presbytery forgot about the interim part.

Most of the 60 other students in my class lived out in the country. I was a townie and so envied the farm kids. They seemed closer to each other and more connected. And kids in the country always had someone to play with.


The family home place.  I believe this is where Grandma Thornton and her sister Effe grew up here. 

I felt very alone living in town — like an outsider. Not so long ago I learned our family roots went deep in Greenfield and in Green County. We Thorntons weren’t outsiders at all. My grandmother’s family went as far back as many of the families in the area. The difference is, we hadn’t stayed in the community.

Grandma married Grandpa and they moved away to exotic places like India and Japan and St. Louis.  They returned to Grandma’s home town when Grandpa was dying and just about the time Dad moved his tribe to Greenfield.

I have always felt like I didn’t belong. One summer in the mid-80’s, I was vacationing with my cousin in the Florida Keys. Phil’s mom, my favorite Aunt Elizabeth, was there and spent a great deal of time talking about my childhood. She voiced what I had always felt. “Your parents didn’t mean to, but I think they raised you to be pariahs,” she said. “You had so many rules it was hard to fit in.”


Lovely in person and spirit, my dad’s younger sister Aunt Elizabeth

True that. At least for me. I doubt all of my siblings would agree.  But her words perfectly captured my feelings.

There were good things, certainly, about growing up in our large family in the small town. Wonderful memories of get-togethers with siblings and their spouses and the ever-expanding number of children. Sunday visits with aunts and uncles and cousins from St. Louis. We’d gather at Grandma’s red brick house and eat curried beef or lamb with mint jelly. On holidays Grandma served money pudding with actual coins tucked inside. Grandma prepared the food and her maiden sister, Aunt Effe, would garnish the dishes to make them pretty.  A perfect team of form and function.

We had many happy occasions together. So much laughter and love.  But even then, when those city cousins arrived, I felt out of the loop.

We were different.


Seven of the 10 children living in Wesco, MO. I was born here and moved to Greenfield in 1955

Dad and Mama held high expectations for their brood.  We were to be separate from the world, examples to every one of what a Christian family looked like, obedient, respectful and perfect. We were taught to avoid making money as that would lead us astray. My parents didn’t care about grades in school. They just wanted children who honored them, loved God and lived godly lives.

I didn’t have it in me to be that kind of child. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t want to do it.  Sure as hell wouldn’t do it.

As I became a teenager, Dad and I fought tooth and nail.  Tempers flared, words were said and punishments doled out almost daily. My anger and resentment only grew stronger.

The battle of the wills came to a head one Saturday afternoon. Watson and I came to blows on the stairs and beautiful, gracious Aunt Elizabeth got caught in the middle. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, my aunt on the landing and I held my place at the bottom of the steps.  I shouted up to Dad, “Why do you hate me?” and he replied, “Why do you hate me?” I responded with all my pent-up anger, “Take your god and go to hell!”

Watson had met his match. I had his temper and had turned it back onto him.

The house grew silent. Aunt Elizabeth continued down the stairs and into another room. Mom ceased her work in the kitchen. I waited for the wrath of the Old Testament Jehovah to descend on me. Punishment came, and it was not as awful as I thought.

I lost my record player for months.  I moved to the front row of church for weeks. And I no longer could teach the little ones in Sunday School.  No belt lashing followed. No hairbrush or fly swatter either.

That day of our fight, dad returned to his study.  Mama led me into the music room and told me to sit next to her piano. Then she began to play– hymn after hymn–and I listened, then began to sing. The music soothed me, the familiar words comforted me. When she started in on the first verse of “I Must tell Jesus” however, I began to sob.

I must tell Jesus all of my trials,
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me,
He ever loves and cares for His own.

I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.

I must tell Jesus all of my troubles,
He is a kind, compassionate Friend;
If I but ask Him He will deliver,
Make of my troubles quickly an end.

Tempted and tried I need a great Savior,
One who can help my burdens to bear;
I must tell Jesus, I must tell Jesus:
He all my cares and sorrows will share.

Tension existed between Dad and I until his dying day. I loved him deeply but I never felt I was good enough for him. Not Christian enough.  Not spiritual enough. With Mama, however, I felt nothing but tenderness and love despite not living up to all she had hoped.

P8060977 (2)Now I have a 12-year old daughter who, despite being carried in another woman’s womb, is the spitting image of me. Maybe not in looks but we share a red-hot temper, strong will, intense passion and an independent spirit.

All I want for her to know as she grows is that she is unconditionally loved, celebrated for her uniqueness and encouraged to become whatever she wants.  I also want her to know that, aside from being able to talk with her father and me about anything, she can always tell Jesus. He comletely understands and cares for His own.



Y/ It’s All about Mary/a-to-z challenge/ Young People’s Class & Youth Group

I spent most of my Sunday evenings until I was 17 with Mary in the musty brick basement of (what was then) the Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, Illinois.

Our motley youth group gathered there in the evenings,  our butts squirming on the cold metal seats of the same tan folding chairs that have long populated church basements coast to coast.

Mom, dutiful wife of the preacher man, assumed the role of teacher for our handful of young people in the church. What we lacked in number, however, we made up for in energy and laughter.

While the Bible states that parents hold the primary responsibility for raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, Mary took her role as teacher of the young very seriously.
imagesShe provided flannel graph stories and maps of the Old Testament. We had a model Tabernacle that showed us where the presence of God resided.

Mama pulled out huge maps showing where the Israelites wandered for 400 years, the lands of the 12 tribes of Judah, the city of Jerusalem and routes of Paul’s missionary journeys. il_570xN.451302875_d3xo

Mom held Bible drills to help us learn the books of the Bible. She would call out Nehemiah 1:12 or Ezekiel 4:2 or some other obscure verse and our fingers would fly through our red-letter Bibles. First one to get to the passage won.  Believe me there was a whole lot of jumpin’ and shoutin’ going on.  She hardly ever called out a verse in Psalms because we all knew that was huge, long book smack in the center of our Bibles. That wasn’t a challenge at all. The Old Testament– now that was difficult.  The New, not so much.


I’ll be a sunbeam for Jesus, to shine for him each day…

She had us memorizing Bible verses weekly. And singing sweet, chirpy choruses that are still stuck in my mind five decades later: Climb, climb up Sunshine Mountain,  I’ll Be a Sunbeam for Jesus, and I Have the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart.   My favorite was, Zacheus was a Wee Little Man, complete with all the motions. They don’t write songs like that anymore.

Prayer served a central part of each meeting and we dutifully bowed our heads as mom prayed for children our ages all over the world. Jothi, an orphaned, mentally challenged, poverty-stricken little boy in India, stayed at number one on our top-ten list of people to pray. He held that spot for well over a decade. Of course, we also prayed for church  members, teachers, the president of the United States, upcoming tests and all things important to growing girls and boys.

As we little kids grew into pre-teens, the flannel graph stories went away and the model of the Tabernacle disappeared into a metal cabinet somewhere.  Choruses grew quiet. We joined with the adults in singing hymns. Even verse memorization ended.

By the time we reached high school, our young people’s class had evolved into an official youth group that met before evening service. Kids started coming from other churches. My brother John and his wife Marcia were the youth leaders and they kept the atmosphere relaxed, fun and energized.


Every year, about the third week of June, you could drive through town, down Route 67 and observe a line of fidgety, highly active little boys and girls doing their best to hold their line outside the red bricked Presbyterian Church. Vacation Bible School, the harbinger of summer was about to begin.

We’d arrange ourselves close to the basement door, jostling for the two most important positions — those at the front of the line were bearers of the U.S. flag and the Christian flag.

Mary sat at the piano and, at the proper time, she’d start playing Onward Christian Soldiers and our troop of little believers would march in as to war.  We sat in our rows of tan metal chairs and started the day with songs of praise.

After the music got the juices flowing, we’d break off to go to our classes. Accordion doors would slide along their tracks, snap into place (or not)  and close off each age group. More flannel graph stories drove the message home. We’d learn Bible verses that supported the lessons and tackle some amazing handcrafts.  Oh, the things you can make from seed corn and Popsicle sticks.

Then it was snack time.

Mrs. Wiesner brought the best snacks. Homemade refrigerator cookies with big slices of almonds. Other mothers brought food, too, but for me the highlight was biting into one of Joey’s mother’s homemade cookies.almond-icebox-cookies

How much of what we learned on those sticky, hot summer days inside that cool church basement did we remember?  Was there value in lining up and marching in to church to the beat of a call to war?

World War II wasn’t far behind us. Ten years at the most. We had a hymnbook full of songs with militaristic lyrics. Battles against Satan, victory over sin and death, being more than conquerors – all these messages filled our little brains with thoughts of waging war and reigning victorious.

Years later, when I had outgrown Vacation Bible School and moved away to college, I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo and became anti-war. A pacifist.  I lost my love of John Wayne war movies and America the Great and began to look at U.S. intervention in foreign wars very differently.

But that’s another story. One far removed from the many years of Sunday evenings and dozens of hot summer days spent in the basement of a small church in Greenfield.

Mary wasn’t the only one who invested her life in the young people at the Presbyterian Church.  LaVerle Hilyard, Barb Kahl, Normadeen Young and many other women poured their love, attention and energy into raising a generation of  boys and girls in the knowledge of their Lord.

Mary seemed to be their leader. As the minister’s wife, the music leader, the Bible School teacher and a mother, she had her hands full.  And in all those Sunday evenings and hot summer days, I never heard her once complain.

K: It’s All About Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Kids, Kids, Kids

imagesTen Little Thorntons and How They Grew.

Now that sounds like a book.

When I was young I firmly believed my family had the makings of a bestseller. We were twice the family the famous Peppers were (as in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew) and they had a whole series devoted to them.

I was so envious of their success — even if it was fictional — that I refused to read any of Margaret Sidney’s stories. I still haven’t read any of the volumes and I’m 65.

Some resentments are to put down.

I’m not sure where the feeling originated, but I believed everyone in the world, once they got to know us, wanted to be a Thornton. In my tiny, yet-to-be-fully-formed brain I knew that we Thorntons were one-of-a-kind.

No one said that. My parents certainly didn’t believe it. Maybe it was just that I adored being around my siblings and their families so much I doubted others could be as wonderful.


Mom and Dad in front of Greenfield Presbyterian Church where dad was interim pastor for 17+ years!

Mom and dad were very strict and focused. They didn’t waver in their faith or commitments. They took the Bible literally and did their best to live out each and every principle of their perception of Christianity.  They believed we needed to be examples and placed a heavy burden on each of us.

The older kids may disagree about the burden part. But I know I felt pressure to be on best behavior at all times — and it sucked.

Dad ruled the roost. Mom followed his lead and seldom questioned him. At least not in front of the children.  When mom held a different viewpoint, they conversed in Japanese. No need for the kids to hear a disagreement.  That wouldn’t be a good example.

But I could tell.

Mom was speaking her mind in a foreign language but letting dad have his say.

Growing up, I just didn’t witness fights. Mom and dad never argued. At least in English. At least in front of me.

I was 18 the first time I heard a raised voice between them. I had returned home from college for a weekend. They were preparing for their move back to Japan. Dad decided to give their possessions away. Everything. Mom wanted to hold on to her piano and organ.

“Let’s loan them to someone until we get back,” she said.

“No,” he insisted. She resisted.

His voice rose a few decibels and they gave away her piano and organ.

I feared that brief argument would destroy our family. The end of the Thorntons as I knew them. We weren’t over, of course. Mom and dad went on to have almost 20 more years together.

Mom dearly loved each one of her kids, but she never praised or bragged about us to any other women. That would be pride. Pride is a sin. One of the big ones. And mom tried very hard to avoid any evidence of sin in her life. It is for that reason she also refused to look in the mirror for more than a few moments a day. Vanity was also a top contender.

SIN. What is it? In those days it seemed to be specific acts one did or refrained from doing. Sin was a list of behaviors that must be abstained from or repented of as quickly as necessary. Even as a child I found it all too much. Too hard. Impossible.

Don’t work on Sunday. Obey your parents. Do not swear, dammit. Stay married no matter what. For goodness sake don’t rob or steal.  If someone has something you want, stop wanting it. Follow precisely these very specific  commandments and you’re saved from eternal damnation.

That’s what I heard. I daresay that’s not what they believed or meant to communicate at the time. Or maybe it was.

They certainly mellowed over time.

Mom and dad did their best to be spotless examples to the 10 little Thorntons while we grew. And I believe in many ways they served as excellent role models — unjust not in the ways they would expect.

Mom showed me how to live, not by what she said but by through her love for dad and the family and for people in general.

I watched her when she wasn’t aware.

I saw her smile at dad or hold his hand when they walked. Love.

I felt her intense loyalty and admiration for him when she scolded me one day for something unkind and uncalled for I said about him.  Love.

I witnessed her getting up early, morning after morning, and making him breakfast. She would have preferred to stay in bed. And knowing dad, he would have let her. She did this because she loved him.  And he her.

She spent hours at the dining room table reading her Bible. Or playing hymns on the piano.  Not because she was supposed to, but because she liked it. She really really liked it. Faith and love.

My sister Kate reminded me just the other day about being upstairs and listening to dad and mom holding long, often laughter-filled conversations downstairs.  And dad reading a book to mom while she ironed.  They delighted in being together. Love.

Mama thought her words told me how to live. She didn’t have a clue that what impressed me most and kept me yearning to be more like her were the ordinary things she did. How her voice lit up when any of her children called her on the phone. The way her face beamed when someone she loved walked through the door. How people would open up and let their defenses down when she talked with them and asked them questions. Love

17918315_10209257440128598_964085524_nAnd let me be perfectly clear. Mama was certainly not perfect. Not by any means. To this day, a few grandchildren have not-the-fondest memories of Mary.  Mama could be direct and harshly critical of what she perceived her grand kids did or did not do to help their mothers. They were, after all, mom’s children.

Today, I look at the 10 Thorntons and how we grew and know we don’t need a story written about us. But I think perhaps Mary does.

We’ll see.





H: #a-to-z challenge/It’s All about Mary/ Holidays

Home for the holidays.

It sure wasn’t like the pictures you find posted on Pinterest or featured in Better Homes & Gardens. We were more a straggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a table full of food and tons of laughter.

Living on a tight budget meant the Thornton family didn’t spend a lot of money on Christmas. For many years we didn’t even buy a tree. Dad brought home a tree from Greenfield High School where he worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and temporary principal. Dad hauled the tree home after school closed for the holidays and we’d make it our own.

Me, with no patience, would glob strands of tinsel on the tree after we had wrapped the limbs in strands of brightly-colored bulbs.

c1a21f9aeb72b3f30a894abfe85a15f3I’d turn off the lights, stand back and squint to determine if and where more tinsel was needed. There was always need for more. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.


Our trees were like this, but uglier and with fewer toys

We had some pretty ugly trees but I didn’t realize it at the time.  And when aluminum trees arrived on the scene and dad conceded to purchase one, I was thrilled to replace tinsel with even more lights.


Mama was hands off to tree decorating, at least when I was at home. She left that task to Dad and the kids. She focused instead on practicing for the church cantata and preparing the children’s Christmas program.

Every Saturday during the month of December, had choir practice at the church.  Our choir, though small, sang loud and with great enthusiasm. Mom’s accompaniment drowned out any flat notes.

If I remember right, the cantata was on Sunday morning and the kid’s Christmas program was the Sunday night nearest the 25th of December. Mrs. Mears took charge of the centerpiece in front of the church.  She used a lot of tin cans–large coffee cans –which she painted gold or silver. The arrangements would contain something colorful and reflect the season.  Red and green (of course) for Christmas. For Thanksgiving, her motif might be seed-covered tin cans surrounded by ears of corn. The rest of the year fresh flowers from her amazing garden would fill up the front.

The children’s Christmas program followed the same format for decades. The youth group performed a song song or two. The little kids (and a few reluctant teens) acted out the birth of Jesus, complete with bathrobes and turbans made of bath towels or lengths of shiny fabric. Then Dad would wind up the evening with a short homily and prayer.

That was when the festivities began.

Everyone in attendance received a cardboard boxes stuffed full of hard Christmas candy. Families exchanged gifts and everyone saw to it that no one left empty handed.  The small sanctuary felt alive with laughter, conversation, children’s squeals and music. The world felt safe and warm and happy on those Sunday evenings.

I don’t know what my siblings had as their responsibilities at Christmas, but mine was to set up a little village on top of the organ speaker.

Angel hair served as the base. I would spread it out to form a cloud-like foundation and then, very  carefully I would place our treasured angels and elves, cardboard churches and other figurines just so.  I thought it was beautiful. Magical.  Again I would squint my eyes and look through my lashes at the scene.  Magical.  My villages appeared every Christmas until I left for college.

The highlight in our family was the meal, not the gifts. For many years, our Christmas dinner took place at Grandma Thornton’s house. She and her maiden sister, Effe, lived together a few blocks from our house.  Dad’s sisters and brother would arrive from Indianapolis and St. Louis and the commotion began. Cousins running wildly everywhere. The women moved to the kitchen to help Grandma and Aunt Effe dish up the traditional meal. The men grabbed the rockers and easy chairs and waited patiently until the food was served.  The high point of Christmas dinner at Grandma’s was her money pudding. In honesty, not my favorite dessert, but each serving held a monetary surprise!

Ask anyone who was there at any Christmas and they’ll remember the anticipation of biting into or digging around for the money.


Grandma’s famous money pudding.  She topped each piece with a butter/sugar hard sauce (no alcohol, of course).  Any bite could uncover a nickel, a dime or– the grand prize — a quarter.

Once Dot and Aunt Effe grew too old to host the clan, the party moved across town to our house. Mom held court in the kitchen with help from Grandma and the aunts. My sisters joined in because it was too fun not be to in the kitchen. Occasionally my brothers took part, too.  Kids ran in and out. Hot rolls came out of the oven. Someone mashed the potatoes. Dad always carved the meat, be it turkey, ham, roast beef or all three, until one of the boys decided it was time to take over.


Our frosted name plates disappeared at some point. Names were written and then erased for the next big meal.

I had the task of assigning seats. Mom handed me her frosted glass name plates and I determined who would set where. I felt very important.

Gift giving was not a big thing in our family.  I remember being disappointment most Christmas mornings at the dearth of gifts for me…the that soon faded. Everything else about Christmas day was fantastic!

My childhood memories of Christmas are rich in love, company, laughter, food and warmth.

Mom’s idea of a gift exchange was to go around the house and select things she loved that she thought someone else would appreciate. She’d stack her items to be wrapped on the dining room table and I would get to work wrapping. While I created bows and filled out name takes, she’s play Christmas songs on the piano. Or make a pot of tea.  Or sit and talk with me while I used up the tubes of wrapping paper and rolls of tape.

My daughter, an only child, knows little of a house full of loud, laughing people at Christmastime.  Our tradition is quieter, smaller and more focused on gifts.  I feel I’m doing her an injustice. We have been creating our own traditions, yes. But she knows nothing of the noise, the craziness of 18 or 20 people having to share one bathroom over Christmas vacation. She hasn’t helped put up tables in every room to accommodate a growing guest list. She has never spent long afternoons around a cluttered table with her mom and sisters, aunts and friends  talking, laughing and even shedding a few tears.  She hasn’t seen Dad and the brothers-in-law and uncles dozing in the front room or quietly playing games of chess until they hear the call to come back to the table for supper. Katherine hasn’t played so hard with her cousins that she collapses onto the floor in the glass-enclosed front porch and gives in to sleep. Nor has Katherine gathered with her tribe in the front room to close out the day with favorite songs and special performances by great uncles with booming voices.








F: It’s All About Mary/#atozchallenge Some Favorite & Unfavorite Things

FForget raindrops on roses and warm, woolen mittens, my mom favored fake chirping birds, ugly dolls, pictures of dogs and recipes of any kind.


A couple of years before Mom married– 1925

When 22-year old mom traveled overseas with dad to live in Japan as missionaries in 1929, she left behind the carefree life of a somewhat indulged daughter. They settled in the city of Sanda, close to and under the watchful eye of a very strict, highly opinionated single missionary, Miss Cribb.


Within months of living under the scrutiny of Miss Cribb, mama had lowered her hems, toned down the colors in her wardrobe, and covered up her arms (even during the hottest weather). She grew out her stylish bob and refrained from cutting her hair for the next 50 years.  She became quieter in public, showed less emotion and took on the appearance of  a modest, serious missionary.

My parents returned to the States before WWII broke out and dad became a minister. Mary fully supported him in his call and shared in his pastoral duties with confidence and, I believe, joy. She loved dad and she believed her role was to follow his lead in everything. That must have been hard as she was smart as a whip, opinionated, had a strong will and knew her own mind.


Mom in Japan with one of the first five babies.  I have no idea who it is!

However, in the late 60’s, I observed a change in her. For one thing she cut her hair short. Very short.  The woman we had always known wore her long, dark brown, wavy hair in braids and a bun. Suddenly she was sporting a short permed look.  The loose strands of hair that constantly hung around her face disappeared and tight curls brushed her round cheeks.

One day, out of desperation, she blurted out to dad she had to get her hair cut.  The reason was that her arthritis made it difficult to fix her hair. He looked at her and said, “Fine, do it.” Watson, it seems, had never had an opinion about her hair. It was probably Miss Cribb living in her head for all those 50 years.

About 10 years before she died, mom bought herself a vivid red wool winter coat. There was nothing subdued or conservative about this piece of clothing. During the holidays she’d pin a Christmas wreath made of red and green gemstones on her collar.  She sparkled as she walked. She made me smile.

Then, she started wearing long pants. Pants! Our Mary was a’changing.

She enjoyed beauty.  She appreciated art.  But she didn’t need to spend a lot to enjoy it. Mom was known to tear pages out of magazines and thumb tack them to the walls.  A glossy 8×10 of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers brought sunshine to her cooking corner until grease spots from frying chicken and sausage destroyed it. Then she simply tore out another picture, tacked it into place and proceeded to cook.

Mom also liked ugly things.  She had this soft spot for anything broken, disfigured, off-kilter or unwanted.

Before leaving Japan in 1973, several of her Japanese students took her shopping for a doll. Not just any doll. These were finely crafted and costly. She was told to buy whatever she liked. She looked over all the fine porcelain dolls wearing elegant kimonos but saw nothing she wanted.  Then she spied one that spoke to her. Face painted not so perfectly, she pointed it out as her choice.  The students almost refused her.  Too ugly.  Not perfect, they said.  Perfect for her.  And now, it’s perfect for my daughter, Katherine.

Mom me a collection of little figurines, ornaments and ceramic animals she had assembled over the years. She stored them in her secretary, behind the glass door. Limp and ragged Christmas ornaments, misshapen objects that were well-loved. It’s a menagerie of broken toys and it’s a treasure.

She loved the comic strips. Especially The Family Circle.  For decades she cut out her favorites and pasted them in her scrapbooks. She mailed them to her children.  She tucked them in her Bible. They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere.

Mama loved ice cream and hated oatmeal. She didn’t care at all for seafood of any kind. But out of courtesy she would and did eat raw octopus to avoid insulting her Japanese host. “It was very, very difficult to swallow,” she told me.

Mom hated closed in, tight spaces. She loved going barefoot. She’d wear dampened hankies on her head in the summertime to help keep cool.  I have a memory of mom and me  walking the grounds of a Denver museum. We were visiting my sister who had just had a baby.  This was some free time for the two of us.  The sun was shining  and the heat was intense. We were hot.  Across the street from us, sprinklers in the park went on. Mom suggested we walk through the spray to get cool.  Off went our shoes and my 55-year old mother held my hand and laughed as we splashed our way through Denver.

And here’s the thing I love about mama most of all.

While she dearly loved dad and was clearly still his number one fan, she eventually grew tired of him preaching and teaching. Dad was prone to wax eloquent over the breakfast, lunch and dinner table, mostly about the Bible. The older he became, the more he preached. When it was just the two of them, she had no relief.  But when I was there, she had an escape. Another person in her house. Breakfast ended but dad had not.Mom got up to clear off the table. I started to get up to help but she looked at me and said, “No, stay. It’s your turn.”

Yep. My turn to be the captive audience. That statement made me love her even more.  In a family that ate, drank and breathed the Bible, my mom was saying to me, “Sometimes it gets too much.”

Oh, there’s more things I want my daughter and others to know about mama.  She kept horrific ceramic art in their home. And objets d’art  made from coffee cans. Not because she liked them but because  friends had given them to her.  She always chose people over possessions.  She would rather line the walls of her home with chairs for Japanese students who visited each week than have her rooms look well appointed.  Her living room and dining room looked like a chair warehouse.

Mom and dad had a crazy kind of home without much sophistication or refinement.  But there was always a place to sit. And everyone felt welcome.





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.


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.


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.