Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Memory of Mama

Sara Maude Abbott was born on September 13, 1921. She hated her middle name. Her parents, who I suppose gave her that name, were Sandy and Nora Belle Abbott. She had three siblings: Clara, Sandy, Jr. and Frances, who died in infancy.

I know very little about her childhood. I am told by those who knew her that she was quite a selfish child. One story I’ve heard is how once on Valentine’s Day she received a bag of candy and proceeded to take a small bite out of each piece so no one else would want any of it. If such attitudes and actions characterized her childhood, something surely changed by the time she became an adult.

She married my father on December 22, 1946, at their pastor’s home in front of his Christmas tree with just three or four people in attendance. They were a fine looking couple. Even now, 33 years after her death, people less biased than I testify to the quality of their marriage relationship. They were both faithful Christians and loyal church people.

I came along in 1958. Another son, Stanley Abbott Ruffin, was born to them in 1960 but he lived only a few hours. So, for all intents and purposes, I was an only child. I suppose they spoiled me a bit—maybe a lot—but their love for me was the kind of love that taught me that actions bring consequences. They lavished kindness and generosity upon me, but they also lavished loving discipline upon me when I did wrong.

Mama stayed home with me until I entered second grade. Those were wonderful years
for me. I played in our fenced-in back yard with my dog Ruff and with friends named Cal, Dee, and Edward. My friends and I also roamed the woods across the street from my home, spending much time playing in the “branch,” a small creek that was usually very shallow but could become quite deep following a hard rain. I am grateful that she gave me the gift of herself during my early years. I’m sure that it was hard for my parents to get by on one salary during that time, but I’m also sure that they thought it important that I be under the constant influence of my mother.

Mama was not a big reader; I never saw her read anything other than her Bible, Home Life, and her Sunday School lesson. She did keep a copy of Dr. Spock’s baby book on her bedside table, but I doubt she consulted it much. I turned out too stable to have been subjected too much to the guidance of experts.

I confess that I never thought of Mama as a “smart” person. But I did always respect her wisdom. It was a wisdom that grew out of a clear sense of morality and out of a common sense approach toward life.

It’s strange to me that I don’t remember too many conversations between her and me. I guess that she led more by example than with words.

I remember once when it got back to her that I had said some hurtful words about someone. She very calmly and reasonably explained to me that I should not treat someone else in a way that I would not want to be treated.

I also remember the one and only time that I in her presence used a slang term to refer to someone of another race. “We don’t say that,” she told me. I protested that I heard other family members use it all the time. “Well,” she said, “you don’t hear your father and me say it, and you should follow our example.” That came from a woman who hardly ever left her little Middle Georgia hometown and who had not attended college and who thus had little opportunity to come into contact with other cultures. It was the love of Christ in her that made her that way.

She had the best kind of faith—it was simple and deep. I doubt that her thinking about God and Jesus and the Church and the world was very nuanced. She would be dumbfounded by some of the questions that I have spent most of my life pondering. “Why would it even occur to you to wonder about that?” she would probably say to me. But, if I could tell her that such matters were important to me, I think she’d understand.

Too many of my memories of Mama are colored by cancer. It’s funny how I think about it; I have always said that she was diagnosed with it when I was nine rather than saying that it happened when she was 46. It strikes me now that I tend to think of her cancer in terms of my life and my timeframe—she was diagnosed when I was nine and she died when I was sixteen. But that’s how I think about it. Almost half of the time that I had with her was lived in the shadow of breast cancer. It affected and eventually took her life. It also affected my life and, in some ways, it threatened to take much of my life from me. That it ultimately did not is due at least in part to the faith that she passed on to me.

She struggled mightily and she struggled well. When she experienced the nausea that came from chemotherapy, she took her medicine and said that there were so many people who were so much sicker than she was. One time, her doctor called her and asked her to visit with a lady in our town who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. He knew that Mama’s faith just might be contagious. She was often in the Middle Georgia Hospital in Macon, which was some 40 miles from our house. It was tough on us all. I never heard her complain. I tried not to.

Mama died in that hospital on June 22, 1975. The days surrounding her death and funeral were magnificent, in that hundreds of people came to pay their respects. She was not famous. She was not rich. She was not powerful. She was great in absolutely no worldly sense of the term. And yet hundreds of people came. Why? I believe it was because she exemplified grace, love, and faith. She would have said it was Christ in her. That makes it even better.

She was 53. She and my father had been married for 28½ years. Come June 22 of this year, I will have lived 33 years without her after having lived 16 years with her. I’m now 49, three years older than she was when the cancer struck her. I have been married for 30 years, almost two years longer than she was. My children are 24 and 21 and they have never been faced with a parent being seriously ill or with one dying. I am grateful beyond words.

I am the only child of Sara Abbott Ruffin. I am her legacy. I wonder sometimes how she would evaluate me and my life. But then I realize that she always loved me unconditionally. She would say that my life is my life and I have to live it the best way I see fit. She would be glad that I have tried to serve the Lord. She would be glad that I have tried to share his love and grace with people. She would be glad that I have been blessed with a good family of my own and that we have not dealt with the kind of trauma with which her family had to deal.

Here on this Mother’s Day, I want to say that I was blessed to be her son. I still am. I pray that I bear witness to her best qualities in my life. I pray that others can see Jesus in me like they saw him in her.

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