Before I begin there are a couple of things I need to cover. Last night my sisters looked at me…horrified…not the first time this has happened…and said in one voice, practically in unison, “You’re not going to your Mother’s funeral tomorrow dressed like that, are you?”
So I had to tell them a true story, about one of my last conversations with my Mother. There toward the end I got to spend a week with her and I asked her, I just flat out asked her. I said, “Mom, do you want me to go to your funeral dressed in a three piece wool suit on a hot summer’s day?”
Now you have to understand, it is from my Mother I get my highly developed and rather original sense of humor. So now Mom, bless her heart, she looked at me and said, “Why no, son, don’t go to my funeral dressed in a three piece suit on a hot day. Go there in a t-shirt and flip flops, because afterwards you might want to go swimming.”
So as I stand before you here today, I am dressed better than my Mother expected.
There is one other thing I would like to mention before I truly begin. I would like to thank my sister Jan and her husband Steve, for all the love and comfort they gave our Mother in the difficult last months of her life. Before that my brother Scott and his wife Kirsi opened up their hearts and their home to our Mother in her declining years. Before that my sisters Kimberly and Whitney, and their husbands Randy and Bob, gave so much comfort and joy to both Mom and Dad in the sunset years they lived in Texas.
Their behavior is a testament to our parents. May we all be so fortunate to have such devoted and loving children when our own end approaches. I thank each of them.
* * * * * * *
Our Mother was beautiful every single day of her life. When she was young, she was movie star beautiful. Now some of you might say, “Well, of course he’s going to say that. And on a day like today he’s even allowed.” So I brought pictures to prove that what I say is true. Now it would please me and make me proud if you took the time to look at these pictures and to ooh and aah. But if any of you steal these pictures, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth.
Some of you may remember Jackie Mackay. When he was about ten he told Mom, “Mrs. Porter, you sure are pretty.”
“Well, thank you, Jackie.”
“You sure don’t look like you’re fifty.”
“Well Jackie, I’m not. I’m forty.”
“Oh. Well you sure don’t look like you’re forty either.”
And when she was she didn’t. She was one of those rare people every bit as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside, which is better than almost any movie star you could name.
She was born Virginia Beth Quillin, a last name so unique and full of history and one she loved so well, she would give it as a first name to her oldest son.
For a moment today we remember her parents, Granny and Grandad Quillin, who lived such hard lives and produced such good children. For a moment we also remember her four brothers – Frank, Dale, Rob and Paul – each of whom proceeded her to heaven, each of whom fought in World War II, some with heroic distinction.
She was brought up on a ninety acre cotton farm in Konawa, Oklahoma. Except in the most remote corners of the world, no one picks cotton by hand anymore, not even slaves. But our Mother did.
The house she grew up in did not have electricity, and she read her books and learned her lessons by the light of a kerosene lamp. This was not unusual on the small farms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. But I hope you young ones, and you not so young ones, think about this when you step outside and flip on that cell phone, or click through the hundred channels on the remote tonight, because life was not always so easy or flip, and it could be argued, quite well I believe, that the very hardness of that time produced a better quality of people.
She started school at a one room school house when she was five years old. At the end of the first week she was promoted to the third grade. One of her older brothers complained to their mother about her class room ability. “Make Jenny stop answering all those questions. She’s embarrassing me!”
She graduated from high school when she was fourteen. She graduated from college when she was seventeen. While in college she appeared as Emily in a production of Our Town. She told once about being in that play, “I really wasn’t very good.” But I bet she was.
During World War II Mom worked at the Douglas aircraft plant in Oklahoma City. It was during these years she learned to fly and got a pilot’s license, and actually flew alone, soloed. There is a picture of her as a young woman in her aviator’s outfit, one foot on the wing of a plane, looking every inch like Amelia Erhardt’s cousin. How I wish I could put my hands on a copy of that picture.
After the war her younger brother brought around this guy he knew, a young petroleum geologist named Jim Porter, who was destined to become one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth, for he was to be married to our Mother for nearly fifty years.
She told me when she first met Dad, “He smoked like a chimney and every third word out of his mouth was a cuss word.” But pretty soon he quit smoking, and she must have had a good effect his language too, because I never heard Dad use a single swear word in all the years I knew him. They were best friends and made a great and happy couple, and of course on this day we remember Dad, too.
They had six children and she became what those of us who knew and loved her best will always remember her as: Mom. When we were very young and our family very poor and television so new we didn’t even own one yet, Mom ended each day by reading us a chapter from a book. Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn. Alice in Wonderland. The Pickwick Papers. What a treat to gather around our beautiful Mother at the end of the day and listen as she read to us great books.
When Dad found religion and began teaching each week from the New Testament, it was Mom who taught us the stories from the Old Testament. Now Dad had an engineer’s mind and a pedantic way of thinking and speaking and teaching, and I will be honest here, he could drone on. [nervous laughter from the audience] I see a few of you spent a Saturday afternoon or two with my father.
But never for a moment was I – or anyone else – bored when Mom held the floor, and told and acted out the great stories from the Old Testament. Abraham, Joseph, Moses. Joshua, Gideon, Samson. Saul, David, Solomon. To this day I can remember those stories because she told them so well. It is a shame video cameras did not then exist so there would be a record of Mom in her prime, entertaining us to the point of enchantment, and teaching us the Bible.
She did not like to sit and do nothing. When quite advanced in years, as President of Women’s Aglow, she flew all over Alaska, giving speeches in remote towns and Eskimo fishing villages and loved every minute of it, and if given a chance would have done it again.
When she finally did sit still, she read. It is no accident two of her children are published playwrights, one is a novelist, one just wrote his first screenplay. Another is a doctor. Now I don’t mean to slight the last one by not giving a label to her life, but she is probably the best looking of the bunch, and for that she can also thank our Mother.
For us, the six of her children, it is the greatest deal of the cosmic deck that we could call her Mom, for no one could ask for one better. Twenty-one others could call her grandma. Twelve more could call her great grandma. Now my math may be a fuzzy on these last two figures. But I can guarantee you she knew the exact number, and she knew all of their names and their birthdays as well.
And in this large tree of her descendants, if you find that you are smart and witty and love to laugh, if you smile easily, if even on your death bed your smile makes you beautiful, if your idea of a great day is when the whole family and guests and friends and relatives sit down together for a good and big meal, and after that meal you sit with your family and friends to play Liverpool Rummy or Twixt or Boggle or Thunder on Your Neighbor, so that you could compete, laugh and have fun with each other, if you are fair of face and have few if any enemies, if you are wise and warm, if you are a good and great parent to your children and love them no matter how far they wander, if you are made of good character, if you love to read and have a good mind and are more interested in ideas and thoughts and history than you are in mere gossip, then remember to thank our Mother, your Grandma and your Great Grandma, for you are in part these things, because of her.
If there is a heaven she is there. As another playwright wrote, “May flights of angels sing you to your rest.” Amen.
7 July 2007
Valley Center, Kansas