Mary and Watson had their final days on earth well planned out and prearranged. They were to have no caskets. A memorial service would be sufficient. They wanted gifts to be made to their favorite mission organizations in lieu of flowers.
So when mom’s time came one spring night, she was cremated in Carterville, Illinois and the urn holding her ashes was hand delivered to dad a few days later. He placed mom’s remains on top of the cherry tansu in their bedroom. He would take it with him to the second memorial service to be held in our former hometown, Greenfield.
The Thornton family had one remaining plot at the Greenfield Cemetery and I suppose dad planned to place mom’s ashes there. I’m not sure. As the youngest child, and even though I was 35 at the time, I didn’t know much about Dad’s plans. He talked to the older kids about that.
I imagine Watson planned to bury mom’s ashes next to the graves of his parents or else close to my sister Susan’s plot.
Unfortunately, the burial never took place. Watson made the four-hour drive to Greenfield and left mom behind on top of the chest of drawers.
When dad returned to Southern Illinois a few days later, there she was. Exactly where he had left her. So one clear night dad walked outside into his backyard, opened the urn and threw the ashes into the wind and over a fence to the empty field next door.
What he said into the night, what thoughts he had as he set those ashes free, what words he said in prayer I’ll never know. He’s gone now, too. Besides this was a private sacred time between lovers of more close to 60 years.
Children don’t need to know their parents’ grieving.
But I do know something took root in that cool spring evening.
Five months later, well into the fall, I returned to Carterville to visit dad. As I drove up to the house I noticed a profusion of color in the field next door. Bright, bold and hearty Black-Eyed Susans — one of mom’s favorite flowers — flooded the the wide open space.
“I’ve never seen flowers here before, ” I told dad as we stood together in the back yard.
“They’ve never been there before,” he said.
She was back to remind dad and me and anyone else who noticed that her she was still with us. I probably made (and make) much more out of that field of color than dad did. But no one will ever convince me that it wasn’t Mary who helped transform that wide-open empty field into one beautiful fall bouquet.
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.
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.
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.”