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.

W: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Watson Says Goodbye

17806737_10209216265699263_1132299665_nMary 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.download

“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.

Mom.

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.

V: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-challenge/ Voracious Appetites

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When she wasn’t in the kitchen, she was often at a piano or in a book.

She started out a little bit of thing and ended her days definitely rounder around the edges.  Giving birth to 11 children in all (one child lived only a matter of days) adds pounds to any woman’s figure.  Add to that a fondness for food, a sedentary life and being a great cook and it’s easy to understand why Mary grew to become almost twice the woman she once was.

On a number of occasions, mama talked to me of her days as a young girl. How she played music for a ballet studio. This was the era before CDs, cassette tapes and mp3s. How one or more boys usually walked her home from school. How she was so limber she could bend over backwards and touch her … head? nose? some body part to the floor. Pictures of mom as a child are rare, but the few I’ve seen show a petite, happy girl with a stylish bob and fashionable round glasses.

My very favorite photo of Mary Scott Gash shows her as a young teen, facing the camera with a big smile and lots of confidence, totally unaware that her slip was showing a good two inches on the left.

Of all the things that mom left behind, this is the one thing I miss. Mom promised it to me but in all the moves and busyness of dividing up things and resettling dad, the sepia-toned portrait vanished.  That photo captured the essence of mama. Confident, happy Mary boldly facing the world while revealing a fashion faux pas.

Mom’s mother, Mattie, was a large woman. Short and very, very round. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Grandma Gash. She lived in the Wesco house when the oldest kids were young, having moved there after mom and dad returned from Japan.

The Thornton family car was either a Model A or a Model T (I have no clue, but definitely a letter of the alphabet). The tale goes that on one occasion Mattie wanted to go for a ride with the family. Dad (as politely as he could) had to help push up and into the back seat from behind, resulting in significant list to grandma’s side of the car.

For the most part, the Thornton women folk tend to be hefty.  Dad would refer to his daughters as corpulent, never fat. Mattie passed on the gene to Mary and she did the same. Many of the Thornton girls have fought the battle of the bulge for decades, some with more success than others.

I believe we’ve used food for a number of reasons.  For growth and nutrition, obviously.  To soothe troubled feelings no doubt.  To stuff negative emotions during trouble times. But first and foremost, food has been a source of fellowship, community building, enjoyment and socialization.  Conversations always go better with pie.  Biscuits help bridge any generational differences.

One of my nephews, Mark, runs a large camp outside of Chicago. About 20 years ago our family rented his camp for a week and held a reunion. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and in-laws, babies and old-timers from all across the country spent seven days swimming, hiking, boating, laughing and eating. Mark commented at the final meal of the reunion that our family had consumed twice as much food as the camp usually allotted for a week of guests.

Granted that was two decades ago.  Most tend to eat much healthier now. But I admit I love to see guests enjoy the food I put before them.

Mom did, too.  She served crispy fried chicken with mounds of her fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes.  Comfort food like creamed chipped beef or eggs on toast.  Of course platters heaped with biscuits that we learned to break open with our hands, never to slice with a knife. Mom visited her niece in California and came back with information on tacos and pizza. These exotic foods had not yet made it to our table in the late 50’s and early 60’s.  Mom’s first homemade pizza had cottage cheese as topping not mozzarella. It’s really not bad.

We made doughnuts from scratch and fried them up after Sunday evening church.  Mom taught us how to make taffy — how to cook the candy just so then pull it to the right consistency.  Rich homemade fudge that must be boiled until a drop formed a ball in a cup of water. Who needs a thermometer when you know that skill?

Gooseberry pie and homemade ice cream.  Tapioca pudding — my grandmother made the grape kind.  Hot, savory hurry and rice topped with tart pickle juice.  Grandma Thornton introduced that to the family from their years in India and mom continued the tradition. Chop Suey by the truckload.  In later years, mom and dad added tempura to their offerings.

Food — the making, serving and sharing thereof — was central to the family.  I do believe that is one way mom felt most comfortable in demonstrating her love.

I enjoyed heaping servings of everything she offered.

 

U: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Unforgettable

To those who knew her and loved her, Mary is most certainly unforgettable.

I wonder if, in my posts about her, I have glorified my 5’1″ mama. Made her bigger than life.

I hope not. I think not.

Warts and all, she impacted the lives of many in a positive, laughter-filled way.

A number of friends of mine have no such positive memories of their mothers or of their childhoods. I am amazed and impressed with the women they’ve become despite dealing with some pretty horrible childhood experiences.

My gratitude for being blessed with Mary’s spirit of joy, love and kindness will never go away.

On my good days as a mother, I am thankful for the example she gave me.

On the days I fail as a mother, I sometimes think “What would Mary do?”

Well, Mary would honest.  Forthright. Firm, as needed. And when occasion called for it, apologetic.

Here are a number of  ways that Mary Scott Gash Thornton is unforgettable to me:

  1. How she loved Watson and stood by her man no matter what. I never heard her disparage him or not support him.  Any negative things she may have thought was expressed to him in private or in Japanese (which absolutely drove me crazy!)
  2. The way her voice lit up when heard me was on the phone. She made me feel like I was her favorite. I wasn’t. But she had a way of making each of us feel that way.
  3. Her commitment to keep in touch with friends, family and all those missionaries spread out around the world.  This in an age before email and Skype. Long distance phone calls were rarely used.  Letter writing was her mode of communication.
  4. Her love of reading. The Bible mostly. But also literature. She kept a log of the many books she read in her later years. It’s a treasure.
  5. Mama’s scrapbooks that could have been a goldmine for cultural anthropologists.
  6. She was the real thing. No pretense. I felt a sense of wholeness when i looked at her. She was who she was.
  7. Young people enjoyed her.  Dad and Mom had “adopted” a dozen or so Japanese students at Southern Illinois University.  The young people brought many friends with them week after week to my parent’s home for dinner, Bible study and conversation.
  8. Mama had a soft spot for dogs.  She didn’t let on about it but many a morning I overheard her talking to my dog(s) while she scrambled an egg or two for them.  “Don’t tell Watson,” I heard her say to my poodle, Edwin as she served him a hot breakfast.  Later, I heard my dad say much the same to Sir Edwin. So I guess they did have secrets.
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    Our long and winding road four-hour road trip that somehow became eight.

    Mom’s sense of direction was terrible.  Terrible.  Mine isn’t much better so put the two of us together in a car without a map and it becomes a Laurel and Hardy show. One particular drive from Greenfield to Carterville takes four hours at the most for any of our family members.  It took us eight.  “Why is it taking us so long?” Mom asked before she burst out laughing.  A mystery to this day.

 

All families have rich and ridiculous memories.

Most of mine revolve around my unforgettable, unabashedly reall mama.

 

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.

N: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Never-ceasing love

 

Mary was in a relationship with God before she ever met Watson.

She didn’t just agree to a creed or adhere to a set of beliefs, her faith was deeply personal. She met her Creator and she fell head over heels.  By the time dad came along, she was already knee-deep in her faith.  They made a good team.

I don’t know the story of how mama became a Christian and what prompted her to devote her life to being a follower of Christ. She never talked about that with me. I just knew that pleasing God was her life’s goal and that the hierarchy of love in our house was and always would be God first, Dad second and the kids securely in third.

Today, the word “Christian” has a bad rap. I believe that description is often inappropriately used to describe people and movements that are anything but Christlike. In fact, I’ve come to a point in my life that I choose not to call myself a Christian. A follower of Christ, yes. A person who desires to live as Christ did and taught, certainly. But a Christian? No.

Big difference. Huge.

Mom never reached that point of dissatisfaction or disillusionment. She delighted in being a Christian, reading the Bible, learning more about God and sharing her faith with any one who would listen.

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                              Watson, Mary and the “Japanese” half of the family:                                   Alice and Ruth, Charles, Elsie and Martha

Mom and dad grew up in the early 1900s when the fundamentalist movement spread like wildfire. For them, being a Christian had a lot to do with what you said, did, looked like and participated in. One needed a change of heart as well as a way of living. What you did spoke as loudly as what you say you believed.  Yet, in spite of living with a sense of “oughts”, mom’s faith was full of love, kindness and joy.

Well, most of the time.

Occasionally her legalism got the best of her and I’d hear her criticize a family member or person from church. Her harsh words were rare but when she spoke them, they hurt. I had the ability to let her criticism roll off my back. Other people, not so much.

I saw mom’s heart and felt her passion. She was fiercely loyal to her husband and children. There’s no way on earth she would waiver in her beliefs and commitment to God or kin. That kind of faith makes one strong.

That strength of hers gave me comfort. It gave me strength as well. Throughout my high school years I felt abandoned by friends and lonely as hell. Without fail, when I opened up and talked to mom about my feelings, she’s do three things.

She would play a hymn and encourage me to sing along.

She would read me verses from the Bible, like Lamentations 3:22-23–
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

She’d give me something to eat.

I never felt alone with mama. I feel the presence of God today largely because of her.

Mama’s love never ceased.

Great was her faithfulness.

 

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.