A man I know passed away last week after bravely battling a terrible illness. I met Tom in 2020 when I joined the local Educational Service Center board and we became colleagues.
He was always quick with a joke, eager to put a newcomer at ease, and a smart man who was always respectful of others. He liked to travel and learn. His wife Fannie also attends our meetings and is a kind soul. The two seemed perfectly matched.
But that’s the end of what I knew about Tom till I read his obituary and learned things that made me wish I had asked more questions while he was living.
Tom was a fan of lifelong learning, a Scout leader and a Sunday school teacher. He was a longtime Civil War reenactor and lifelong history buff. He enjoyed the outdoors, gardening and yard sales. Tom was an inventor who made an ice cream machine that operated by pedaling a bicycle. He even built a 1965 Plymouth from the frame up.
I always liked Tom but had no idea he was such a character. Old photos in a slideshow projected on the wall played while we waited in line. If I didn’t know it by then, Tom packed as much living into his life as he possibly could.
I had a newfound appreciation for Tom’s zest for life.
It made me a little sad to think of all the great learning I missed out on because I knew none of this. Of course, when getting to know someone, you don’t know what you don’t know and have to rely on them to give you some clues. I suppose that’s why we often learn so much about people from their obituaries.
As I looked at Tom’s wife and son, their family and so many friends lined up to say farewell, I started thinking about how Tom left a mark on us all. Every person there knew Tom for a different reason and everyone had different stories to share. Every one of us is richer for knowing him.
Later in the evening I strolled through the holiday lights at the Gallipolis City Park and stopped to visit the war memorial. I’m typically so taken with the statue above me that I fail to notice much else.
But on this night I saw the face of the soldier reflected in the marble wall of names below. It made me pause.
It occurred to me that something of Tom is reflected in everyone fortunate to know him. It’s nice to think that humans can live on through the influences we have on others. I won’t soon forget Tom or the lessons learned during the brief time we knew each other.
One of those lessons is to do a better job listening and paying attention so I can learn something I never knew I wanted to know.
It’s up to you to decide what that means. Travel. Go back to school. Get a better job. Retire. Walk in the woods. Go fishing. Buy a cute outfit. Turn up the music. Soak in some bubbles. Eat chocolate. Celebrate life. Do things you enjoy.
Life is more than drudgery. Do more than exist. Today is the first day of your life. Go live it.
My Aunt Mary Ann said that she wished she had spent more time listening to older relatives and remembering their stories. Yet, when I expressed interest in her stories and maybe writing some down, she didn’t understand why I was interested. She said her life was ordinary and that there was nothing to write about.
So I wrote this story using a few of her memories and my own observations about how she lived. I was able to read it to her a few weeks before she passed. It was important to me that she know that her life wasn’t ordinary and that the way she lived made a difference.
I read it at her funeral and have debated for a week whether or not to share it here. It’s longer than my typical post but I hope you have the time to enjoy it.
The picture is a snapshot of how I will always remember Mary Ann – a young single mother who dressed up as Raggedy Ann to take her daughter and very small niece to a Halloween party. That little Tweety Bird is me!
An Extraordinary Life
My Aunt Mary Ann believed that she lived a plain old ordinary life. That’s common among people to think there’s not much interesting to say about them. What they don’t understand is that everyone has a story to tell and that it is in the ordinary that we often find the most extraordinary things.
Mary Ann loved to reminisce, especially about her earliest memories of growing up in the little house below Allensville. Life revolved around the family and she had beautiful memories of time spent with her older sister Tootie (that was a nickname), younger brother Ronnie (my dad) and their parents.
She said that she couldn’t have asked for a better family as her parents believed that family was more important than anything and proved that time and again. They made sure they all ate together, they played with the kids, took them to Sunday School, worked hard, and did their best to give their kids all they needed and some things they wanted too. They taught their kids to work hard and to follow the Golden Rule.
Their dad had grown up poor and the Betts name wasn’t very good when he was a young man. Others before him had done wrong and the Garretts didn’t believe that Earl Betts was good enough for their Garnet. When they didn’t approve of the union, the couple eloped. He worked hard to prove the Garretts wrong and to be a good provider for his wife and young family. Mary Ann remembered that they taught their kids that their good name was the most important thing they had and that they needed to protect their name as though their life and everything they held dear depended on it.
Born just after the war, these three were among the last kids in America to know a world not dominated by cheap foreign made stuff. There wasn’t a Dollar General in every berg and people didn’t get a lot of new things every trip to the store. Televisions hadn’t yet infiltrated every living room, driving people in from the front porch where conversations happened and lightening bugs were caught. They were among the last generation to know a time when the family meal was more important than kids sports. They knew the joys of free time, of days playing outside and entertaining themselves with made up games, mud pies and playing house.
She remembered lots of snowball fights with her siblings. At one point during an especially memorable one, snowballs began falling from above. They realized their dad was on the roof of the house, performing an aerial attack. While he was a young man with much responsibility, it sounds like he could be a big kid himself.
The year Ronnie was born, a storm buried southern Ohio under a foot or more of snow that Thanksgiving. It was the biggest snowstorm in Ohio’s history and the National Guard was mobilized to help. Mary Ann was just three years old but this historic snow was one of her earliest recollections. She remembered opening the door to find a path her dad had dug outside between two walls of snow. She was just a toddler and admits that it might not have been that tall but remembered these walls of snow vividly and with wonder in her voice.
There was a lot of wonder during these years.
Christmas was an especially happy time. In fact, she remembered holidays the likes of which modern kids will never know. “We didn’t get a bunch of stuff all year long so we really looked forward to Christmas. It was special.”
When it came to trimming the tree, the family had a few store bought ornaments but they mostly used things they made. She recalled making paper chains and stringing popcorn. She said her parents would hide small things in the tree as well, sending them on a treasure hunt to find what little gifts waited for them. She said “We didn’t get a ton of stuff but we liked what got. We were excited for our gifts and mom and dad made it as special as they could.”
Life wasn’t perfect but it was good and it was a blessing to have two young parents who had a drive to give their kids a better life than they had. She said they were probably poor but they never knew it because everyone around them was poor too.
By the time she was a teenager, the two younger boys – Randy and Merle – had made surprise appearances. This made them a family of seven that, by that time, lived up on Garrett Ridge. She remembered being old enough to help with laundry, cooking, chores and her youngest brothers when needed. It was about this time she noticed that not every family had a dad that helped around the house and parents who were partners.
She loved the life they had as a family when Randy and Merle arrived but believed that she, Tootie and Ronnie got the better part of their parents when they were little. Randy and Merle may have had more material items but the three older kids had more of their parents’ time and energy.
“Yes, I had a wonderful childhood. Of course, I was a good kid and didn’t cause trouble,” she liked to say.
Her brother Ronnie remembers things a little differently, often complaining that his older sisters were mean to him when he was a little boy. After years of banter and accusations that she was a little goody two shoes and he was a brat, I asked for her memories.
Mary Ann offered a firm denial.
“I never did nothing to that boy….. but if I did….he had it coming.”
She went on to admit that there was one small occasion that she did get him into trouble. Just one, of course. “He was having one of his fits he was so famous for and I had a sun burn. He hit my sunburned arm with a little toy truck. And I’ll tell you, it did hurt. But it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I made out when I went running to tattle. I should have won an Oscar for that performance. So yeah, I got him in trouble on purpose but he had it coming,” she insisted.
She grew up, got married and had a baby of her own but found herself in a bad situation. When she left that marriage, she took with her eleven year old Tracey and started anew.
These years were hard. “I was bound and determined not to take help. I wanted to prove that I could do it and I wanted her to be proud of me. Yeah, it was hard at times but I kept us afloat and she was all the inspiration I needed to keep going. I just had to look at her.”
And then, just as suddenly as the winds will shift on a spring day, there came a person who would change her entire life. That’s when she met Vearl, her best friend, the love of her life and her soulmate.
Mary Ann could be stubborn and sometimes opinionated but she had a wonderful sense of humor. Vearl was the only person who could match her wit and go toe to toe with her. She said he treated her “like gold” but that it was hard for her to adapt to having a partner who wanted to do things for her and who wanted to give her the best he could. She said it was hard to go from shouldering all the burden to having someone who wanted to help.
“He was the best thing that ever happened to me. Every year of discontent I ever had was worth it when I had him.”
Tracey once asked her why they didn’t ever go out and she said it was because they were just happy being together. They could watch tv, sit on the couch and talk or go out for ice cream and be perfectly happy because they were together.
Vearl fit in with the family just like another son and gave my grandmother someone else to feed. Food was always important in the family and there was nothing better by Mary Ann’s estimation than to have all the family together for a meal. She was a little wistful when she explained “Those are some of my happiest memories as an adult, having everyone together for a meal.”
Mary Ann was a wonderful cook who learned from her mother how to make pies and noodles from scratch and how to make the simplest dish taste amazing. But her mom took feeding people to a new level. She remembered bringing Vearl for Sunday dinners and said her mom always wanted to feed them as much as she could. “We would eat lunch at noon and she’d want to feed us again before we left at three. Vearl used to say you’re the eatenest bunch of people I’ve ever seen.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
As so often happens, passing time left a lot of empty seats around that table. Her parents, siblings and then Vearl and Tracey left this world, carving out a reminder that growing older is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
It was during these years that I learned my Aunt Mary Ann was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known and I have often wondered how it possible for one person to go on after so much tragedy. Many of us would be tempted to embrace the darkness, to be awash with grief and to become bitter. The rest of us might have sat down with a bag of Oreos and been overwhelmed by our grief but Mary Ann did not.
Instead, she made the best of each day, moving forward with whatever grit and determination it took. She understood that life is for the living so she got up every day, got dressed and did her chores. She read her Bible and worshiped at her church. She shopped and ate out with friends.
She always cherished time with her family. Mary Ann was never too busy to spend time with her family whether for a meal or to pass an afternoon on the porch. When she asked you how you were, she really wanted to know.
When someone was sick, she brought soup and cookies. When you were too busy to cook because you were having a yard sale, she brought lunch. Sometimes she just showed up with a homemade pie because she had cherries and felt like making a pie.
These acts of kindness and consideration kept her busy and productive. They kept her engaged with the people who mattered most to her. In doing so, she taught us some valuable lessons about living and mourning, about honoring those who came before us, and how to go on despite our grief. Mary Ann never allowed her struggles to define her but they certainly made her stronger.
She said two things that give me pause.
She enjoyed reminiscing, not because she lived in the past, but because those memories are a powerful tool for finding happiness today. “Memories help you through the hard times. When someone dies, the memories you have of them don’t die. So as long as you have those memories, you haven’t completely lost them. Those memories will keep you going.”
The other thing that seemed so fitting and profound was this. “Everyone has to go through things. Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned. Even though you’re struggling and even though you think you’re not doing too well, you may be helping someone else. You may be showing them how to do it.”
After watching her all these years, I am reminded of a scripture. “This is the Day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Yesterday has given us wonderful memories to help make the hard days better. It teaches us lessons and makes us smarter. It gives us memories that will help us keep our loved ones alive and make us grateful for having them. Mary Ann understood better than anyone that tomorrow is not promised. We can make plans and look ahead but there’s no guarantee any of us will see the sun rise on a new day. But today, this day, is the most important one because it’s the only one you have.
Mary Ann showed us this. She led by example, proving herself to be strong and capable. She was also wise enough to be grateful for those memories as well as for all that she had in the present day.
There are people in this world who do far less with much more. There are people who lose their way after a tragedy and who don’t understand that remembering a loved one is the best way to keep them alive. There are people who will never learn these lessons, much less so generously share them with others.
There’s nothing ordinary about this level of wisdom and grace. There’s nothing ordinary about my Aunt Mary Ann’s life. In fact, if you ask me, it was indeed quite extraordinary.
* * *
This is the story I read to Mary Ann but it’s not the end of her story. Her life on earth has ended after a long period of suffering and hardly complaining at all. Cancer is evil but she showed us that even though she couldn’t beat it, she could die with dignity.
She showed us how it’s done.
But that’s not the end of her story either. You see, Mary Ann was a believer. She knew in her heart that there is a better place waiting, a place where there is no more grief, loneliness or pain. There is no cancer. She was looking forward to an incredible homecoming where she would be reunited with her family and all those she’s honored and missed for so long.
The Native Americans believe that the prayers of grandmothers we never knew are still protecting us. I like to think that she has also met people she never knew in life but whose blood has coursed through her veins and whose prayers have protected her all these many years.
And when you think about it that way, things aren’t so bad.
When I read this to Mary Ann and I got to the part with the scripture – This is the day the Lord has made – she said Amen. That meant a lot to her, this idea that we must value each day we are given as though it is the best and most important day.
So these are the words I want to leave you with because I’m sure she would want it that way.
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad for this beautiful day and for this time we all have together. Let us be glad for the time we had with Mary Ann and for all those who have left empty seats at our tables.
Let us rejoice for these gifts. And let us rejoice for Mary Ann who we know is happy, at peace and who we know is rejoicing.
This photo comes from a rest area near Gallipolis, Ohio and captures the last gasp of the setting sun Wednesday night. The parking lot was stacked with eighteen wheelers and the exit ramp was lined with the big trucks as well. These truckers crisscross the country, keeping goods and raw materials moving and our economy moving. They are symbols of progress and activity in our country.
I had just come from a joint meeting of local school boards where we dined and offered up some beginning of the school year inspiration. We heard from a professor of History and African American studies talk about his ideas for inspiring young people and giving them the tools to build a better tomorrow. Like any good historian, he encouraged teaching the hard truth about our history as understanding where we’ve been will set us on a better path to tomorrow. It’s when we teach the hard stuff and stop politicizing education that we will see real progress.
I appreciated his perspective and left with much food for thought on the drive home. Yet it was hard to concentrate. You see, I was on my way home to visit a sick aunt who won’t live to see this better tomorrow that our speaker described. She has terminal cancer, a disease that has robbed her of all quality of life, of her ability to speak or perform the simplest tasks for herself. There’s no life in her eyes and I can’t help but think her existence is no way to live.
She could be gone by the time you read this. Maybe it will be days from now. It is not ours to know. While I don’t want to lose her, I hope for her sake that her suffering ends soon.
This week has involved far more in-person interactions than normal. People seem more stressed than normal. Some seem depressed or sad. They are quick to tell you that something isn’t their job or that you’re wrong. Others are a little edgy, looking for trouble and ready to hurl an insult.
I try to remember that you don’t know where other people are coming from or where they’re headed to at that moment. Maybe they’re coming from an inspiring event where they learned something or that left them excited for the future. Maybe they’re headed home to say goodbye to someone who matters to them. Maybe they’re simply working hard to keep moving forward in whatever they’re doing. Maybe they need to take a break and rest for a while as these truckers are doing in this picture.
The point is that we need to be a little more patient and more tolerant of the people we encounter each day. It costs zero dollars to be a decent person and you never know when a bit of patience or a kind word will make a difference to someone else. You never know when that person who was rude to you will suddenly become nice simply because you extended a kind word to them.