My mother was an extremely intelligent lady. While I’m sure genetics played a role in that, it also speaks well of the Chicago Public Schools in her day (her day being the 1930s). Back then Latin was mandatory, as was a generous dose of Shakespeare. And, of course, proper grammar.
Mom had an extensive vocabulary and was the final authority in the family regarding any grammar related disputes.
Those were the days when poetry still rhymed; and it was common practice to have students memorize long poems or essays. My mother could recite Thanatopsis word-for-word (for what that’s worth – obviously quite a lot on my personal “WOW” meter!)
She also loved music. She had a beautiful soprano voice which she shared as a member of her high school choir. Her piano skills were legendary. Her tastes, however, leaned less toward the classical and more to the popular music of her day—which made her very popular at parties! She played a mean Up A Lazy River!
Mom and that piano also drew us sisters together as we’d stand around her and sing along to songs most kids our age had never even heard of: I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch, A Shanty in Old Shanty Town, The Lilac Tree Song, Two Sleepy People, I’m Alone Because I Love You, My Blue Heaven.
But I think Mom was most comfortable in her work environment. It gave her a sense of self-worth and accomplishment that always seemed to evade her in her role as homemaker. This was where she excelled. She had a strong work ethic and it showed in the high praise she earned from all her employers.
My mom was a high school dropout. Clearly, this was not by choice, but by circumstance. Suffice it to say her home life was wildly dysfunctional. But it never stifled her love of learning. That, I think, is a lesson from which we can all benefit.
No matter where we come from, whether we’ve had a life of privilege or one of poverty and oppression, we all make choices that affect who we become. It’s not about where you come from, but what you choose to do with the rest of your life that counts. My mother was proof that education comes in many forms; and it doesn’t always include a diploma.
Our house was full of books. When we had a question about the meaning of a word, instead of simply telling us the answer, Mom would point to the dictionary, or the encyclopedia. “Look it up,” she’d tell us. And there was plenty of reference material available in which to do that. The shelves were lined with Encyclopedias, The Book of Knowledge series, dictionaries, a Thesaurus, The Lincoln Library, Bibles and Bible literature.
To my mom learning was a never-ending process. She was always a voracious reader. Her tastes ran the full gamut, from poetry and Shakespeare to Harlan Coben, Lemony Snickets and Kinsey Millhone. But, in her later years, she developed a fondness for the romance genre, and author Sandra Brown, in particular.
She always said Sandra Brown kept her young. So, when Ms. Brown came to St. Louis for a book signing, I took Mom to see her and I’m so glad I did. She thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but as she wasn’t up to standing in the long line for an autographed book, I took her place.
When my turn finally arrived to speak with the author, I told her my 85-year-old mother was her biggest fan and what Mom always said about her books keeping her young. Sandra Brown immediately said, “Where is she?” and,ignoring the anxious protests of her handlers who were apparently more schedule oriented, she insisted on leaving her post to go meet my mother.
She gave Mom a big hug, and took the time to chat with her for a minute or two. The experience thrilled Mom to pieces and she spoke of it often. And that’s why, later, when she was in an elder care facility and asked, “Who is Sandra Brown?” I knew we were losing her.
We shared many common interests - reading, of course, but also antiquing and visiting historical sites. One year she joined us on a trip to Disney World. Another time, Mom and I took a trip to Kansas City and discovered the unforgettable Steamboat Arabia Museum.
Through the years, we also went exploring other historic Missouri towns – Rocheport, Arrow Rock, Lexington. I can truly say that I remember every one of those trips fondly.
When we bought the house that would become our home for the next twenty years, we created a walk-out basement apartment for Mom. She lived there with us for over fifteen years, affording us the opportunity to develop an even closer (sometimes a little too close) relationship.
Mom loved that little apartment so much she actually bequeathed it to us in her will! Her patio door looked out on woods and a massive, thick-trunked oak tree that was probably twice as old as she was. It was love at first sight. Mom always swore she wanted her ashes to be spread beneath that oak tree.
Well, we heard you, Mom. It gives us great pleasure to honor your wish. So sleep on in this place you loved so much and...
Approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him,
and lies down to pleasant dreams.
-- Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant
Ruth Helen Knott Dill
October 10, 1925 - June 13, 2012
Note: This was written several days after Mom’s death in June 2012 and read at her memorial service under her oak tree.