My mother, Laura Jane Rogers Pendergraft, born on October 17, 1933, was named for her grandmother Laura Ellen Whitley -- I was named for her as well. She passed away January 12 a little over a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. I was so surprised when we got the report. Mama hadn't smoked heavily ever, and hadn't smoked at all in half a century. She was a heart patient with Parkinson's, so those conditions were more expected to be the cause of her eventual end, but Mama didn't always follow expectations.
She went by Jane, but I only called her Mama. As my sister Rebecca (whom I only call Becky) shared at her memorial service, Mother sounds formal and distant. There are grown children who still call their mothers Mommy. Both our sets of kids refer to us as Mom. But in true Southern tradition, Mama was Mama.
When she was born at home, it was not an easy delivery. Growing up, we heard ... many times ... how the doctor used forceps to literally pull her out. which supposedly accounted for her long neck. Our grandfather said she screamed for three months. It's a wonder we wanted to have babies! This reminds me of something else - "Twilight Zone" was considered too dark for children in our household, and probably came on after our bedtimes. But the next morning at breakfast, Mama would tell us in great detail of the previous evening's episode, so vivid that we could relive every dark and scary moment.
Mama was a bit of a tom boy, but early on, she showed exceptional musical talent. At only 14, she marched into the local radio station and asked for her own show. She was given a spot in conjunction with a local minister, a Rev. Koestline, and she played the organ, specially trained by the organ company for three months. She played for school functions and the Rotary Club. She was also smart as a whip, valedictorian for the class of 1951 and voted as Most Likely to Succeed and Most Talented by her classmates at Albemarle High School. Later, I remember her sighing that she had more common sense than the psychologists she was secretary to at Western Carolina College when we were little, and we never doubted the truth of her statement.
Mama had entered nurses' training, after high school but left before graduating. Then, you couldn't be married in the program and she was discouraged from the long, hard hours taking care of lots of old men, she said, who tried to embarrass the young innocent students. Working at Starnes' Jewelers back home in Albemarle, she met a handsome red-headed teacher who came into the store. He was chaperoning a dance at her old high school, and asked her to be his date. At the dance, everyone parted just like in the movies she loved to watch every Saturday as a child, so that Herb and Jane could take the floor.
They married on December 26, 1953, and stayed married 64 years. They were not always easy years, especially when they lost their third baby, but the two of them taught us a lot about commitment, sacrifice, and carrying on.
Mama was a worker. At some point, she had three part-time jobs, or was it four? When we moved to Florida, Mama continued to work, in addition to being church organist or pianist. Her fingers were nimble, whether winning a typing contest or finishing a tax return, whether accompanying a cantata, or adding to the contemporary worship.
One of my most peaceful, early memories is lying in a church pew at the Methodist church in Cullowhee, North Carolina. The church was empty except for Mama and me as she practiced for the coming Sunday. Her music was flawless, and lying there, listening to her, I felt close to heaven. I think it was an accurate sensation.
Mama's nimble fingers helped her playing cards too. That era's version of gaming involved sitting tother around a table, talking and laughing while Canasta or Shanghai was played. She never, ever "let us" win, not so much a sign of her competitiveness as, I think, wanting us to be prepared for the realities of life: Whatever you receive, you have to earn.
When we were growing up, we watched one channel together, took road trips on the weekends together, went to see the relatives at Christmas together - her parents, Daddy's family, her sister "Susie Q," all the nieces and nephews. We read books together, went to church together. Rarely, to a movie or out to eat, two very big deals.
If I were to boil my childhood down to its core, I'd say that the two main things Mama and Daddy taught Becky and me were that there was nothing we couldn't accomplish, and that no matter what, they'd always love us. The first was perhaps a form of child abuse - who can live up to that?! - but the second always caught us when we failed.
One of my favorite Mama stories is the night we sat down to supper, David and I, our oldest daughter Terri and her toddler Jasmine. Before we said grace, Jasmine piped up. "I think we need to pray for GG." GG was Mama's nickname celebrating her role as great-grandmother. The grandchildren had called her Grambo or Grandma Graft.
It's important to understand that GG had babysat for Jasmine that day. The WHOLE day. When I asked Jasmine why, she said, "All day long GG kept saying 'Help me, Lord.'" Mama was famous for those mutters, simultaneously quick prayers for grace as well as pointed acknowledgment that things weren't going as she wished.
Mama was capable and strong, and a little, shall we say, controlling? She knew the best way to do some things, and felt a responsibility to share it, because she loved us and wanted us to ALSO know the best way to do it! I have, many times, heard her correct nurses or hospital staff about cleanliness. Because she and Daddy lost their son to a staph infection at a hospital, she was obsessive about germs. To her dying day, she would not let her bare feet touch the floor, at least by choice. That was Mama - refusing treatment to kill cancer, but worried that she might pick up something from eating cheese that might have gone bad in the refrigerator. A complicated woman, in other words.
Even in her last days, Mama would rally for a few seconds to tell us that they were out of paper towels, or remind us of an upcoming appointment. She didn't give up control easily. She was a caregiver who sometimes wished someone would take care of HER. God seemed to grant that request at the end of her life. Treasure Coast Hospice and Lake Forest Park Senior Living staff provided consistent and compassion care for her, for which the family is very grateful. That last week, though, when Ashley, one of the hospice nurses asked her about something, Mama didn't even open her eyes. She was too weak to shrug, but she simply said "Whatever." THAT was as significant a change to the nurse as her not wanting to eat, or her falling blood pressure. Mama was not a "whatever" kind of gal most of the time.
It was a relatively long and slow decline, going from getting tired on the way to the dining room, to needing someone to push her there in a wheelchair, to not leaving her room, to not leaving her bed. It's hard to watch someone so vital, become so weak. It was hard especially, I think, on the grandchildren, who had known her as the silly Grambo making scary faces or giving piggy-back rides. She stopped caring about wearing her wig or make-up, or was (more likely) unwilling to inconvenience anyone by asking for help. My son told her one time that she was the consummate Southern lady, make-up always perfect. That pleased her greatly, and to let that go was just another indication of how determined she was to be done with all this nonsense and get on to glory.
Mama was resolute in her decision to donate her body to science. A heart patient, she also had Parkinson's and cancer. When her grandson, my youngest son Adam, died following a car accident, he saved five lives by being an organ donor. She decided she could help too. We don't know at this time how her donation to a group called Science Care was used, but we're at peace knowing she did exactly what she wanted. Eventually, her body will be cremated, and Science Care will send us the remains. Honestly, we're not sure what we'll do with them then, but Mama did say NO WATER. She can still get us to do what she wants, even from heaven.
One of Mama's greatest regrets was not finishing nursing school. She was so proud when "little" Becky, our youngest daughter, became an RN. But she was proud of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was what Joyce Landorf Heatherley called "balcony people" in her delightful little book with the same title. Had geography and then her health allowed it, she would have been at every soccer match, every football game, every school program, every celebration. She was thrilled to attend her grandchildren's graduations, promotions, weddings, to be at the hospital for births. She loved playing with kids herself, making faces, dressing up, having them sit by her at the piano. She saved every picture, every card. She treasured us, her daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. She prayed for us. At her memorial service, I asked those in attendance to really think about that. She prayed for both family and friends, so virtually everything each of us encountered or endured or triumphed over, in the midst of every good decision or horrible mistake, Mama's prayers were right there in the midst.
In her obituary, it was stated that she encouraged everyone she met. She once said she had a "kissing ministry," the perpetual loving mother finding new children to support each day. She called CNAs by name and blew kisses to ladies across the dining room at the assisted living facility. She kept photographs of children whose names elude us. She loved. We didn't always appreciate that, because it motivated her to correct and instruct when we didn't necessarily want correction or instruction, but that's what mamas do.
In her final weeks, Mama said she wished she had something profound to say. There were family situations she always thought that if she'd just said this, or just said that, maybe she could fix it. She was a fixer. I'd remind her that some things may not get fixed, this side of heaven, but we could trust God with the details. She hoped that at the very least, the unity of family and friends at her life's end, would start a move in the right direction. Several things happened that seem to indicate that she, once again, got what she wanted -- good decisions, a softening of hearts, rekindling of friendships and other relationships as we stood around after her service talking of old times, looking at photographs, hugging one another in shared emotion.
Mama was raised in a church-going family, and rededicated her life to Christ as an adult, always faithful in attendance and service until her health prevented it. But even then, a pastor who held services at the facility where she lived said that she would challenge and bless him when he visited. She'd ask deep questions, quote verses of scripture that were especially meaningful to her. She trusted her heavenly Father with her life, as well as her death, although she was getting increasingly surprised, even disappointed, every morning she woke up here. She was so ready to be reunited with friends and loved ones. To see her baby, to see our son again, and her father (George Adam Rogers), for whom both boys were named. Her mother Polly (Pauline Whitley) and sister Marie Tucker. Friends from Lake Forest Park who went before her -- Julius, Howard -- friends from the Lunch Bunch who'd gone to school with her in Albemarle.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, she put in her order with the Lord to go in her sleep. Doctors had explained some of the possible scenarios, and she said no thank you. Like almost always, she got her way. We will miss her, every day. Some will regret not having visited more, or telling her they loved her one more time. When you think about it, no one ever says, "I wish I hadn't gone over as much as I did. I wish I hadn't spent so much time with someone who has passed." I encourage those people to stop. Life is much too short, no matter how long it lasts, to live with regrets. Instead, let that wistful and wishful thinking motivate us to visit more, love more, share our lives more.
As people of faith, we believe that this is only a temporary separation. We believe in eternity, in heaven. And if we believe that, then the transition to the "other side" is a promotion, a graduation, a healing to beat all healings. C.S. Lewis wrote that when people die, infants continue to grow until they reach their prime age, and the elderly get younger until they do also. If that is true, then Mama is now slender and beautiful with a full head of dark hair, unfettered by age and infirmity and devices to help her walk.
In Mama's senior year book, each graduate picked a phrase to go with their list of accomplishments at school. Mama's choice was a paraphrase from poet Bessie Anderson Stanley: She has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much.
I think that sums up Mama's life nicely.
A link to Mama's obituary and a guest book may be seen here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tcpalm/obituary.aspx?n=laura-jane-pendergraft-rogers&pid=187883633
(c) Ellen Gillette, 2018