You may have tangible wealth untold, caskets of gold.
Richer than me you can never be —
I had a mother who read to me.
— Strickland Gillian, “The Reading Mother”
I’ll return to my columns about aging after Mother’s Day. Two years ago, Eric Cox, publisher of the Knightstown Banner wrote a loving essay entitled, “Nice Try, But My Mom’s the Best!” He said, “Many will disagree and claim that their moms are best, but I know better.” Sorry, Eric, you’re wrong. Here’s the story of Ruth Kelly Gard Wallace:
Born in 1899, when she finished the eighth grade my skinflint grandfather — himself a teacher! — told Mother she’d have to earn her living, so she kept house for a physician and married when she was sixteen. She often said, “To me, Heaven will be where I’ll sit at the feet of great scholars and get the education that I never had.”
My father being too proud to accept government relief, my family went hungry during the Depression. Mother felt that two of the seven babies that she carried were stillborn because she was so malnourished. After Daddy became blind, she worked as a floral designer at the Knightstown Greenhouse where women were paid far less than the men. She supplemented her meager income by babysitting to help me attend college.
After Daddy’s death, she married my stepfather and was never poor again. When Edgar died, she resumed her frugal habits so she could leave “a little something” to her children. Mother was generous with others and donated heavily to charities, but she could make a dime squeak. She dearly loved bacon, but she’d cut a pound crosswise into three parts, use one for bean seasoning and eat the other short slices only two at a time. “Mother,” we’d say. “You can afford to eat a pound of bacon every day!”
A devout Christian fundamentalist Catholic, she continued to grow spiritually until her death at 87. “You know, those two gay men who live behind me? I didn’t approve of gays. I changed my mind after I broke my hip, and they brought me casseroles, checked on me and did shopping and chores for me. I have seen the error and sinfulness of my ways. Christ accepts everyone, and where he leads, I must follow.” Above all, she despised racial prejudice. “People will be mighty surprised — yes, mighty surprised — when they get to Heaven and perhaps discover that God is Black.”
Her love of literature was fueled by old Granny who read to her and my uncles by the hour, as Mother did with me. This woman with only an eighth-grade education read voraciously — Christie, Conan Doyle, Dumas, Dickens, Hemingway, Hugo, Ayn Rand, Steinbeck, Wilde . . .
She could recite reams of poetry. Her favorite was written by Lee Hunt, a friend of Keats and Shelly. It portrayed Ibrahim Ben Adhem, an 8th Century Sufi Muslim prince, who received a warning from God. He gave up his throne, became a wandering mystic and earned his keep. Hearing her recite the poem from the time I was a child, shaped my beliefs.
Abou Ben Adhem awoke one night and saw an angel writing in a golden book. He asked, “What writest thou?” The vision raised its head and answered in sweet accord,
The names of those who love the Lord.
And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Everything I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Amen to that! firstname.lastname@example.org