Sorry to say, I need another grief break. My mom, Shirley J. Naughton, passed away on Sunday at the age of 83. It wasn’t a total shock because she’d been having brain-shrinkage issues and was obviously declining mentally. The Older Brother, who’d been taking her to a neurologist in St. Louis, told me a year ago if I wanted to visit Mom while she was still all there, I’d best not wait. We made a trip to Illinois soon after, and were planning another trip this spring. Social distancing canceled that trip. We figured we’d make a trip to see her this summer once the lockdown is over.
Just over a week ago, she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. There was nothing doctors could do except recommend comfort care. The Older Brother and Younger Sister took her home. When I woke on Sunday, Chareva told me my nephew Grant had called to say Mom had passed.
Like a lot of women in her generation, Mom married young. She was 19 when she and my dad tied the knot. She was only 21 when The Older Brother was born, and 23 when I was born. For many years, she was just Mom to us, a housewife and mother. But she always had a lively mind, so in her late thirties, she enrolled in college classes. She ended up earning a master’s degree in English literature and went on to teach composition and literature in local high schools. I met some of her former students when I was college. They couldn’t say enough about what a marvelous teacher she was and how much they enjoyed her classes.
Even after she officially retired, she was always busy. As her obituary explains, she was involved with the local symphony, the local arts council, the Abraham Lincoln Museum, a gourmet cooking club, activities with her grandkids, etc., etc. I used to tell her she needed to retire from being retired. She didn’t slow down until the brain issues forced it on her.
I called her a few days before the stroke to check in. She was mostly coherent and told me she’d found a box of letters I’d written to her over the years. She told me she loved re-reading those letters they were well-written and funny. She told me the one about “mom school” in particular made her laugh out loud while bringing a tear to her eye. I wasn’t sure which letter she meant.
I didn’t know it was the last conversation we’d ever have, but in retrospect, it was a fitting goodbye. I dug through my files (I’ve long been a fanatic about backing up my work) and found that “mom school” letter from nearly 20 years ago. I’ve posted it below because I think it says as much about Mom as anything I could write now.
I’ll thank you in advance for your condolences, then I’m taking some time off.
You’ve said more than once that you hope to discover your purpose in life someday. Since you’ve read rather a lot on spiritual topics, you probably know that people who have near-death experiences are often told to return to their lives, and to remember that the purpose of living is to love, to learn, and to teach. If that’s true, and I like to think it is, then you’ve already been living your purpose, even if you’re unaware of it.
When I was attending Illinois State, I met some of your former students, and they all thought you were a marvelous teacher. I could’ve told them that. I’ve been attending the Shirley Naughton School of Moms for four decades. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned:
Preschool: Moms are warm and they kiss you and they love you a lot. They don’t like it if you draw on the bricks. They still love you, though. When you grow up, you’ll probably marry Mom.
Kindergarten: Moms know how to make buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar and hot milk poured on top. This is quite possibly the best breakfast ever invented.
First Grade: If you don’t wear your scarf and hat, you’ll get an earache. Moms warn you about these things because they love you.
Second Grade: If you get an earache, it’s okay to wake up Mom in the middle of the night and tell her about it. She’ll hug you and kiss you so you’ll feel better. The next day, she’ll take you to the doctor. He’ll put oily stuff in your ears. And you should’ve worn your hat and scarf.
Third Grade: Moms know how to take an ordinary can of Spaghetti-Os and turn them into the best lunch ever invented. They do this by mixing in pieces of hot dogs. It’s a lot of work, but they do it anyway because they love you.
Fourth Grade: Really good Moms become den mothers for a bunch of Cub Scouts. They teach you techniques for creating modern art, such as gluing split peas to a jelly glass and spray-painting the whole thing gold. You can give these masterpieces to your grandparents.
Fifth Grade: Moms don’t like slugs. If you find a slug on the sidewalk, you definitely should not put it on the kitchen counter shortly before Mom walks in to cook. Hearing your mother scream isn’t as much fun as you might think. If you do put a slug on the kitchen counter, Mom will still love you.
Sixth Grade: If you learn a new song at school, Mom would like to hear you sing it. If you sing really well, your Mom will say so. If you don’t sing really well, she’ll say you do anyway. You probably shouldn’t judge your talents based on what Mom says.
Seventh Grade: If they are surprised, Moms can forget what their own kids look like. If you forget your homework, you definitely should not let yourself into the house through the garage door and surprise Mom coming out of the bathroom. In this situation, Moms often mistake their kids for axe murderers. If you do grow up and become an axe murderer, your Mom will still love you and tell people you’re just confused.
Eighth Grade: Moms love dogs. They also love hamsters and guinea pigs. If you want any of these animals, you should go straight to Mom.
Ninth Grade: If you make a Mom angry enough, she’ll spank you. This isn’t a great concern, however, because it doesn’t hurt and you’ll both end up laughing. Also, it will probably only happen two or three times in your entire life.
Tenth Grade: Good Moms love your friends and feed them better meals than they get at home. They also talk to your friends as if they have brains, which is true almost all the time. This means your friends will want to spend a lot of time at your house.
Eleventh Grade: Moms are smart. They can go to college and learn about English literature and philosophy and start correcting your Dad’s grammar. This is really cool because it gives you someone to talk to if you’ve also been reading philosophy and literature and enjoying it. The bad news is that sometimes you’ll end up talking until 2:00 in the morning and spend the next day feeling tired and not all that philosophical.
Twelfth Grade: If you’re studying literature in school, you should raid Mom’s library and see if she’s already read whatever book you’re supposed to read next. If she has, you could almost write a term paper on what you glean from the notes scribbled in the margins. At the very least, you’ll have some interesting points to raise in class and impress the teacher.
College, First Year: Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.
College, Second Year: Moms don’t mind if your band practices in the basement. They like hearing the same song fifty or sixty times in one week.
College, Third Year: Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.
College, Fourth Year: When you come home for weekends and holidays, Moms celebrate by making Beef Bourguignonne. This is the best dinner ever invented and only takes a couple of days to whip together.
College, Fifth Year: Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.
Early Twenties: If your best friend gets married, Moms make moussaka for the rehearsal party. This is the second-best dinner ever invented and only takes a couple of days to whip together. The next morning, it’s also the best breakfast ever invented.
Later Twenties: If you write a play, Moms will be reasonably sure you’ve established yourself as a literary genius.
Thirty: Moms don’t care if you don’t do anything for a living as long as you’re not completely miserable. Moms will assure you that if you follow your dreams, something good will happen.
Early Thirties: Moms are good to your girlfriends and can even miss them when you decide you didn’t actually mean to get engaged. Some girlfriends will tell you they wish they’d had your Mom instead of theirs.
Mid Thirties: Moms make excellent comedic material. If you can’t make people laugh by talking about your Mom, you’d better find another career to pursue.
Later Thirties: Great Moms make great Grandmas, too. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t necessarily live in little houses that smell bad, and it can make you feel warm and fuzzy to see how much your nephews like going to grandma’s house.
Forties: Little boys don’t actually grow up and marry their Moms. But the lucky ones grow up and get married and are almost ridiculously happy – because they learned how to love and be loved from their Moms.
Thanks, Mom. You really are a marvelous teacher.
I love you,
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