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.

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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.

S: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Susan Wesley

On March 19, 1958, laughter died for a while at 707 S. Main Street.

While Mary patiently help one of her piano students perfect her arpeggios, mama’s youngest child and my closest friend, Susan Wesley, was hit by a car on Route 67.

Kate (then called Mary Catherine), Susan and I were returning from a visit with Mrs. Argall. It may have been a cookie day. This widowed, former Salvation Army lass from London baked fresh gingersnaps weekly. I believe it was on Thursday. All I clearly remember is that we walked the several blocks to her house and were heading back home in good spirits. Cookies can do that.

All was right in our small, mid-western world. Little traffic passed through our town. We’d never seen a traffic jam or a multi-car pile up. Greenfield felt very much like Mayberry RFD, just without the southern accents.

Mama even looked a little like Aunt Bea.

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Aunt Bea and Mary Scott Gash Thornton

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Cathy, at 11, was the oldest of our trio. I was 7, just 18 months older than Susan.

Susan and I were inseparable. Well, as inseparable as we could be with Susan spending days away at Children’s Hospital in Chicago and me attending school.

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Susan had been born with multiple birth defects. Instead of an arm, she had a finger-like formation extending from her elbow. My sisters who are nurses know more about it.  All I know is that she was fitted with a metal pinchers that hurt.  And she had no opening for her rectum which required numerous surgeries.

From the day she was born she spent weeks in the hospital, in St. Louis and later in Chicago. These trips took mom and dad away for short periods of time, so Cathy and I spent time with friends from church.

Unaccompanied visits to Mrs. Argall were not out of the ordinary for us. Living in small-town USA in the 50’s, children were safe walking just about anywhere, at any time.  We’d never heard of stranger danger.

Susan and I ran ahead of Cathy down Prairie Street. We turned right at the corner of South Main, went a block or so then turned to face the road. We were directly across from our house. At that time, Greenfield had installed cement steps leading from the sidewalk down the embankment to the highway. It made for easier crossing.

Susan darted ahead of me down the steps and tripped at the bottom on the edge of the road.

We had not seen a car coming. The car that approached us was not speeding at all.  But the timing was perfect.

Or awful.

At the exact moment Susan tripped, a car appeared from seemingly out of nowhere. The driver said he never saw her. I stood stunned as I watched Susan fall. As quickly as I could, I darted across the street and into the front room where mom was teaching.

From there the memories get jumbled.  I shouted that Susan was hurt. Mom didn’t believe me. Then a man rushed in and confirmed the accident. Mom rushed out. Someone called Dad from the school. Neighbors gathered. An ambulance arrived. The men in white carefully lifted Susan into the ambulance, mom and dad climbed in and off they went to the county hospital a number of miles away.

Susan died on the way.

I can’t remember much about the days that followed. I didn’t really grasp the concept of death. My biggest concern was that Susan got new patent leather shoes for her funeral.  “Can I wear them to church next Sunday?” I asked mom during Susan’s service. She shushed me. I knew she wasn’t angry, just very very sad.

I have few memories of talking about Susan with mom until I was in my 30’s. In the early days, I spent hours alone in my closet playing with Susan’s favorite doll. Or looking for her up in the clouds. Or talking to her while I walked to school.

Mom’s grief came out in her music. I’ve written before of her mournful playing in the middle of the night.  Her loss and heartache showed up in her collection of papers. Notes from friends about Susan. The bulletin from Susan’s funeral.  Hymn lyrics that offered solace. Faded pictures of Susan as a baby and little girl. Bits of poetry on loss and hope. Scripture verses that spoke of pain and comfort.

The loss of a child … it is unimaginable to me.  The pain, unforgettable.

When I was in my late 20’s, I worked as a live-in babysitter for a young family. My charge was primarily three-year old David but I also  helped Virginia with their new set of twins. During my stay, one of the three-month boys, Nathan, died of crib death.

I called mom in tears. On hearing about the sudden death of this little boy she sobbed. The pain of her loss from more than 20 years ago came back with full force. “Tell Virginia I am so very sorry,” she said.  “She will be in my prayers.”

Years later at the funeral of my brother John, she comforted me as I sobbed. “We cannot die from pain. We can live through anything,” she said as she hugged me with her warm, soft arms. “The Lord is with us. He will give us strength.  His mercies endure forever.”

Where did mom get her unflappable faith?

Mary continues to amaze me.

 

 

 

 

R: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Relatives and runions

 

When Mary’s kids get together the noise volume goes up considerably.  Add to that the din of dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren laughing and talking over the sound of a football or basketball game on TV and you have the makings of a headache. Not an intolerable one, but a headache nonetheless.

When mom was alive, her children made the trip home at least once or twice a year. Seldom did just one family arrive. If not all, at least a majority of the siblings arrived pulled into our driveway in cars packed to the room. The children would pour out of the vehicles and bring havoc with them.

It was great havoc.

Dad and Mom loved to have the family home. The dining room table was extended, card tables set up on the porch and in the music room and TV room. We put fresh sheets on all the beds and made up pallets on the enclosed front porch for the little ones. Extra bags of groceries found their way into the pantry and cooking began in earnest in the kitchen. Penuche-iced cakes, flaky fruit pies, golden brown homemade bread and rolls. Big pots of spaghetti or chop suey– and most definitely mashed potatoes. The Thornton grew up on carbs and carbs they loved! Every breakfast had biscuits and gravy. What better way to start the day?

When I was in high school, just three of us remained at home. Life at 601 Sycamore Street was quiet.  Dad, Mom and I.  We missed the clamor–at least I did.  Mom may have been a bit relieved by that time to be rid of ruckus of such a lively crowd.  I imagine she enjoyed the peace and her ability to read and play without interruption.

But with news of the arrival of family, dad and mom shifted into a higher gear. Cleaning, moving, advance cooking for mom. Mowing and fix-it projects for dad. One year, Watson decided to add an extra bathroom in the house. One tub, sink and toilet could no longer service 23 people at one time.

Dad would descend to his workroom in the basement and spend hours cutting and sanding blocks of wood for visiting grand kids. They needed something to play with and what better than good old-fashioned blocks. And then there was the Christmas he made box hockey for the young ones. Tournaments held on the front porch kept kids occupied for hours, hitting sticks, cheering and raising a ruckus.

 

Mary has been gone for 30 years. Three decades. Yet to me she feels alive when we get together.

She’s in the kitchen rubbing shoulders with her grandsons who have now become the experts on making both biscuits and gravy.  She’s in the living room beaming with pride hearing her granddaughters play the piano. She’s part of the non-stop conversations and outbursts of laughter as her children and grandchildren remain seated at the table long after the food and dishes have been removed.

We’re getting older now. Ruth is 85 and her twin, Alice has passed. Ruth talks of how much she misses her other half. Charles lives in Alaska as does Kate. They get together from time to time. Elsie died a few years ago and we grieve her absence. Her kids are great at getting together. Martha in California has been diagnosed with a very rare autoimmune disease. Her traveling is limited.  Sam remains in Greenfield. John left us before mom died and we miss him still. Kate is the one that does the most to keep in touch with all.  She travels each year to most if not all siblings. I’m in Ecuador and feel the distance almost daily.  This is where we are supposed to be and want to be but I feel the tug to be with family.

I miss the way we used to be. The grandkids now are stepping up and creating those family-packed, laughter-filled memories.

Mom would love to see it. The energy and love that flows when the Marquess people gather in Kentucky for riotous Thanksgivings, kids weddings or weekend fishing trips. She’d sit in on the stimulating conversations held by the Caldwells –where 10-year olds have been overhead discussing string and chaos theory. The boys who have grown into fine men bring their families together and celebrate life with their parents. Mary would be thrilled to hear her great granddaughters play the piano with such skill.  She’d smile at all the babies but she might prefer not to hold them. She’s done all that.

Dad took such joy in his growing family. He would sit silently at the table and smile from ear to ear, listening to his children joke with mama.  He said he was blessed with such a family.

By now, many of the younger generations can’t remember mom or dad. They have heard only stories. But let me tell you, those stories are repeated often and with great love.

O: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ One of a Kind & Oh, I Could Just Smack You

Blame this post on sisters Kate and Ruth.  I Skyped them last night and we got to talking about mom and the family. Kate’s down from Alaska for her yearly two-month jaunt around the lower 48. She travels coast to coast, attends her Professional Women’s Air Traffic Control Conference (though retired she still doesn’t miss a one), visits sons, siblings, cousins, and cronies. At almost every stop , she pulls out her organizing hat and gets to work, sifting through closets, going under beds and digging into forgotten drawers, tossing detritus and getting rid of stuff people no longer needs. With siblings getting older, it’s a good idea to downsize. Fewer things for the children to deal with when death comes a knocking!

Kate leaves a path of well-sorted homes in her wake. Kind of like Johnny Appleseed but without the seeds, love of apples or desire to see trees. She just wants to organize America.

I asked Ruth if she thought I was romanticizing mama in this series of blogs and she answered with a swift and decisive “No!”  Mama, she says, was one of a kind. Of course all people are, really. Individuals. Unique in the world.

But there was something about Mary.

She was extremely smart and could hold a conversation with anyone. But she couldn’t/wouldn’t drive a car. She worked the keys on a piano like a virtuoso yet she got flustered operating a food blender. Mama came from the Gash family whose women were prone to be loud, outspoken even outrageous, yet I don’t remember her raising her voice.

Last night, my two sisters reminded me of two things mom would say. When she was surprised or emotional: “Oh, dear.” When she was flummoxed, on edge or vexed:  “Oh, I could just smack her/him/you.”

But she seldom did– smack anyone.  She struck me once on the face when, as an angry teen, I spouted off to her. I stepped over the boundaries and she snapped. She hit my cheek with her palm and, soon afterwards, apologized. Striking someone in the face was not something she ever wanted to do.

Normally she left the punishment to dad. I think they  took the good cop, bad cop approach to discipline.

I was on the receiving end of the bad cop discipline quite a bit growing up.  I was strong willed, determined, independent and mad much of the time. Dad and I just didn’t get along, especially in my teens and 20’s. We reconciled well before he died for which I’m eternally thankful, but there were some years there it was definitely best that he lived in Japan and me in the States.

For many years, Mom served as the middle man in my relationship with dad. She was 100% supportive of him and his decisions, at least on the surface. Should she disagreed with his responses to or discipline of me, she talked about it behind closed doors.  Or in front of me in Japanese. They  made good use of their second language.

They presented a united front in dealing with the children and, whether I admitted it or not at the time, I liked it. Needed it. Benefited from them being on the same team.

We have a story in the family of one of the few times mom was not completely on board with dad’s discipline. I wasn’t born yet but I love to hear it told.  It’s Elsie’s story but she’s gone now. I doubt I can do it justice.

First, understand that dad and mom put a great deal of value of good table manners. No elbows on the table whatsoever. We absolutely couldn’t talk with food in our mouth. As a rule, napkins were used. Food must be cut into bite-size pieces. We could not, under any circumstances, stuff our faces. There would be no shouting or singing at the table–except for those occasions when we sang the blessing together, which was mostly on Sundays and holidays.

Be present at our table, Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that we
May feast in fellowship with thee.  Amen.

As the “Amen” ended, I’d open my eyes to see which dish was closest to me so I could get first dibs. Serving bowls were passed clockwise. Guests of course were expected to be served first.

Elsie’s story took place when the family lived in the Wesco House in Missouri. It was a large, rambling two-story home with massive porches and lots of room. The older kids were still in school and I hadn’t been born yet.

Mom called the family to dinner and everyone gathered around the long wooden table. Dad said grace and the food was passed around.

Elsie was full of spirit as a girl. She loved to laugh and her laughter was infectious. That night, Elsie was extra hungry and she began wolfing down her food. Dad was not happy.

He told her to stop eating so fast. She got tickled and started laughing.

Dad said if she thought it was funny to eat like a pig, then she should really eat like a pig. He ordered her to move her plate to the floor and eat from there. She obeyed but her giggling continued.

pigs-eating-20113611One by one the other kids at the table got the giggles. One by one, dad ordered them to join her on the floor and eat off their plates. Out-of-control kids soon littered the floor around the table.

Only Dad and mom remained seated when mom began to laugh as well.

He gave up.  Elsie and the rest of the  little piggies returned to the table and dinner resumed. Dad gracefully admitted defeat and a favorite family story was born.

Mama loved to be with her family and to feed her family. She enjoyed being in the homes of her children, gathering around their tables, sharing meals and the commotion of multi-generations at play.

Mama mostly loved her stern, gracious Watson. And, oh dear, they made a great good cop, bad cop.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

E: It’s All about Mary/ Everybody has a Seat/ #a-to-z challenge

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Sundays and holidays found our dining room filled to over-flowing

Year ’round, family flowed in and out of our house.  Older siblings and cousins off to university returned with hungry fellow students. Married brothers and sisters brought their beautiful blue-eyes babies for the weekend or for the big holidays.  They littered the two upstairs bedrooms with suitcases spilling over with tee shirts, mix-matched socks, diapers and an assortment of pajama bottoms.

“Mom, I can’t find my pajama top!” some child would inevitably cry each night. “Just sleep in what you’ve got on,” was the response.

A crazy kind of love-infused chaos ruled when everyone landed at home at the same time.  Rooms filled with cackles and wheezes, snorts and guffaws. (A few years ago I learned the nieces and nephews referred to my sisters and me as the “wheezers.”  Why? Because we laughed so hard we wheezed.)

Children dashed in and out of rooms, around the table and up and down the steps, not once listening to their distracted parents shout, “Slow down!”  “Go outside.”  “This is the last time….”

And mom cooked. Man, did she cook. For a woman who couldn’t make a boiled egg when she married, she became quite proficient at whipping up comfort food on her tiny four-burner gas stove.

Homemade rolls were a sure bet for the entire tribe. Mounds of butter-rich mashed potatoes with rivers of white or brown gravy filled the plates. When meat was scarce, potatoes was plentiful.  But it seldom was on holidays or family gatherings. Platters of crispy fried chicken or not-so-thin slices of roast beef made at least clockwise rounds at the table. Plenty for everyone.

And everyone had their chores.

Dad was the meat carver. He pulled out his silver carving knife and sharpener and proceeded to rub the two together to hone a razor-sharp blade. He sliced the roast or ham or turkey and didn’t waste a bit.  Brothers John and Sam would be recruited in the kitchen to help mash the potatoes. John used sound effects to enhance his efforts in whip up the perfect dish.  The noise level in the kitchen increased considerably.

The sisters and other women folk moved between kitchen and the dining room, the swinging oak door seldom still. Freshly picked green beans were cooked with bacon. Steaming ears of corn weighed down each end of the table.  Jiggly gelatin salad with fruit cocktail was  served on a leaf of iceberg lettuce and topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip.

I had charge of plates of pickled beets and crudités and I took my task very seriously. Gherkins and dill pickles were well-balanced and properly placed with green olives, carrot and celery sticks.

Mom cared little about social rankings.  So she sat the prosperous bank president next to the town drunk.  When my closest cousin and his oh-so-smart friends from medical school drove up from St. Louis for dinner, mom would place our friend Joe Gemp in the middle of them. Joe was a 40-something, mentally challenged man who had become part of our family. People from the wrong side of the tracks found themselves right next to some of the community leaders. And everyone did just fine. Mom saw to it that everybody joined in the conversation.

Most of the family got up to help clear the table for dessert. Mom would bring out her homemade cake with penuche icing, berry pies and homemade cookies.  Coffee was poured and guests lingered around the table until mid afternoon.

My sister Cathy (now Kate) and I headed for the kitchen. Someone had to clean the dishes. Grandma and her maiden sister, Aunt Effe, would usually join in.  Joe Gemp grabbed a dish towel and set to work drying the dozens of dirty dishes.  The conversations continued and laughter prevailed.  My memories of Sunday dinners are as rich as the desserts that mom served.

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Grandma Thornton & sister-in-law Marcia were two of the faithful kitchen help

By this time in her life, mom had morphed from a slip of a 21-year old girl who married without any knowledge of homemaking skills into a middle-aged woman with greying strands that fell around her face as she whipped up magic in the kitchen.

We weren’t rich by any means. Dad pastored a small church and supplemented his income by working as a guidance counselor in the local high school.  We’d run short of cash by the end of the month and eat our fair share of macaroni and cheese,  but mom and dad always plenty of food for guests.

I didn’t realize at the time how rare it was to have so many people eat with us until much later when I learned some of my friends never had guests. Dad and Mom took their roles as host and hostess seriously.  In part they felt it was their duty as Christians to have people into their home. Mostly it was because they just loved people.  They made call to serve a delight for hundreds of men and women who dined at 601 Sycamore Street.

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.