Saturday, February 8, 2014

R.I.P. Louise Roberts

I can’t imagine a better mother-in-law and her passing, especially so soon on the heels of my father’s death, was a tremendous blow to me as it was to her entire family. My emotions have been like a roller coaster as I laugh at past memories, grieve her loss, and feel relief for her release from suffering. My wife is in a similar emotional turmoil, only more so. I’ve lost a father, but I haven’t lost a mother. The experience may be similar, but I’m sure they can’t be the same.
Maybe it’s because no one loves you like your mother does. I’m certain of that. Momma’s just love on a different level. I’m a slow learner, so only of late have I come to see that mothers never stop being mothers no matter how old their children become. I picked this up attempting to care for my own mom. Recently, while I was staying with her, she shuffled, on her walker, into the room where I was watching TV and handed me a bell. I look at her in confusion. “If you need something,” she said, “ring the bell.”
“Momma!” I protested.
“YOU ring the bell!”
“Oh,” she said and left pushing her walker back down the hall.
They never stop being mothers.
Louise Roberts was a mother. She bore two sons and the woman I wed long ago, and for the thirty-six years I’ve been married to her daughter, she never treated me like a son-in-law but always like a son. We never had a cross word. She never hurt my feelings. She never forgot my birthday.
It was my honor to preach her funeral Tuesday, February 4, 2014, on a cold and rainy day. It was as if heaven itself was weeping with us at our loss and its gain. Preaching funerals is one of the things I dislike most in life, but strangely it is the thing I seem to do best. I started with a verse of Scripture I am sure God put in His book just for me: Ecclesiastes 12:10 which reads, “The preacher sought to find out acceptable words” (KJV). For every funeral, I seek words. Sometimes the word search is difficult. Sometimes that search is easy. For Louise Roberts’ funeral, the words dropped onto the page like snowflakes falling from a Montana sky.
I wrote them down, the words, in a notebook and looked at them, then began to make notes by each one. The problem I had was with their number and kind. There were too many words and they were of an odd mixture of nouns and adjectives. Parallel structure just couldn’t work and describe my wife’s mom at the same time.
One of the words I put down for her was “work.” Louise Roberts was of that generation and of that socio-economic group that knew what it was like to labor in the field. Her father, George Leonard, a huge Irishman who in his younger days had a penchant for fighting, was a sharecropper most of his adult life. Working all day in the hot sun was just what people in their time and place and condition did. A forty hour workweek and an eight hour day was not even a part of their thoughts, their world. And like many of that generation, her habits of labor never left her even when her condition changed, even when she no longer had to rise with the sun and take to the field.
When her children, Penny, Hank, and Danny, were school kids, she raised a large garden on their farm in Carroll County and sold her excess produce to grocery stores in Greenwood in order to buy her brood new clothes for school each year. Some people would call that “sacrifice,” but for Louise Roberts, it was not something that called for commendation, it was just what you did, what she did, what a mother did.
Inheriting her father’s bone structure, she was muscularly strong but my wife assures me her strength went far beyond the physical. “She was,” my wife told me shortly after her passing, “the strongest woman I have ever known.” I didn’t need my mate to tell me that. Again, I am a slow learner, but I had thirty-six years to observe her strength.
Endurance also made my list, but I’m not speaking of the athletic kind but the survivor type. She endured, survived polio, skin cancer, two brain surgeries, strokes, three aneurysms, one ruptured brain aneurysm, and a host of other physical maladies not to mention the emotional blows that come with all human life that lasts for a few decades. Like the energizer bunny, however, she just kept going.

She loved flowers and her yard, even as her age advanced and her health declined, was always in bloom, always an array of colors, of unspeakable beauty. She spent long hours pulling weeds both from her flower beds and the lawn. Over the years, the sun took its toll on her Irish skin, and late in life her forearms bloomed with cancers like her lawn bloomed with roses and petunias and zinnias and others, so many others.  

Besides flowers, one of the loves of her life was animals. She raised orphan deer, a hawk, an eagle, squirrels, dogs, cats, a cougar, a bear, several coyotes, three camels, horses, zebras, and cows. I’m sure I left out a lot because there was a time when going to Hillbilly Heaven, the name of the Roberts’ 300 acres of paradise, was like taking a trip to a zoo, a really good zoo.
She was eccentric, stubborn, and loved to fish. Like her dad, she would spend long hours on the bank of a Carroll County pond. If I showed up at Hillbilly Heaven with a pole or a rod-and-reel, I was not going to fish alone. I didn’t mind. She could bait her own hook, string her own fish, and both clean and cook our catch. Not only that but, oddly, she was good at spotting snakes. I say “oddly” because her eyesight was very poor, and one of her eccentricities was she would not wear glasses. She would not. She couldn’t tell the difference between an elephant and a dog, but she could see a snake faster than a snake could see himself. Be that as it may, the Peruvian Army couldn’t make her wear eyeglasses. The North Korean Army couldn’t make her wear eyeglasses. Under the threat of her life, she wouldn’t wear eyeglasses. In fact, no one could make her do anything she didn’t want to do, and one of the things she didn’t want to do was wear eyeglasses. Go figure.
I guess you can tell she was no Southern Belle. She was, in fact, tough, tough as a pulpwood truck. But tough as she may have been, and as competent as she was with a hoe and a fishing pole, she was also caring, and loving, and considerate. She cared for her parents, both when they were healthy and when they declined. After her mother, Mary Bell Leonard, suffered a stroke, she moved Mary Bell into her home and cared for her like nursing an orphan kitten the final months of her life. In fact, she was a caregiver to several family members before their deaths.
She was concerned about everyone around her all the time, and that I think that was her dominate trait. She wanted everyone, primarily her family, around her always. The chief word that made my page and rings in my mind today is “family.” Louise Roberts was all about family.
Every holiday was a gathering at her house. Christmas, New Year’s, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Yom Kippur, the Chinese New Year, Memorial Day, Robert E Lee’s birthday, my birthday, her birthday, her sons’ birthdays, her daughter’s birthday, the dogs’ birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, National Bird Day, Houseplant Appreciation Day, National Hat Day, Annna Vanwinkle Day, and Old Rock Day. OK, maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much. The point is, we were always there because she always wanted us there. And when we were there she wanted us to eat and make merry. She knew I liked candy, and there was always candy in that house. She knew that I liked sassafras tea, and there was always sassafras tea in that house if she had roots. She knew I liked water melon so there was always water melon if it was in season. She knew I liked ice-cream, and we always had ice-cream and I didn’t even have to pretend I didn’t want more but could eat freely, and I did.

Her son, Danny Brice Roberts, lives in Nashville, and she loved to take trips to Danny’s house. I made the trip once in April of 2008 when I ran the Country Music Marathon. My wife took her many times after that, and typically they stayed three to five days at a time. Besides their luggage, they would haul the dogs, three little canines who also loved to go to Danny’s, and make the journey like they were going to heaven itself. Louise always got so excited about going that they, Penny and Danny, wouldn’t tell her until about a week before a trip because she called them both four times a day when a Nashville journey was scheduled. She became like a kid on Christmas Eve and couldn’t even sleep at night. While in Nashville, Danny waited on her hand and foot and treated her like a queen. Like all old people I have known, she loved the attention.
She had a stroke on January 16th. She couldn’t talk, she was paralyzed on one side, but she could look at you and respond to you. She wanted to hold hands. I was with her that afternoon and got to hold her hand for an hour or more and feed her ice-cream before the nurses removed her tray. She knew me then. I am not sure she ever knew me after that. The final couple of weeks were difficult for her and us. I don’t understand suffering. It both puzzles me and troubles me, but I have come to see one purpose in it: suffering brings us to the point of letting go. Though we grieve and miss her terribly, we were willing to let go. She died February 1, 2014, at 3:15 in the afternoon. Her son, Danny, her daughter, Penny, and her fishing buddy, Zane Hodge, shared her final moments on earth.            

In a society that lionizes people who can’t handle life, who can’t obey the rules, who can’t control themselves, she was a marked aberration. The former group is often lifted up as brilliant and brave heroes. Louise Roberts, however, was a real hero. The world might not recognize her as such, but I do, the rest of her family does, and I think God does also.
Her husband, Ellis Henry Roberts, took her home at her death and placed her in a new family cemetery at Hillbilly Heaven. The final resting place for her worn out body is about a hundred and fifty yards west of her house. She faces east from a small rise overlooking her home as if she is looking down on her family. I think that is beautiful.