She captured my heart shortly after she captured my Dad’s. It was 1978 when Dad brought Mari and her delightful little freckle-faced, red-haired daughter to Louisiana to meet the family. Dad was a minister of music at a church in the Florida panhandle and Mari was the church organist, as I recall. Her demeanor was as attractive as her smile, and she had this knack of countering some of Dad’s one-liners with hilarious facial expressions in which her eyes would either cross, or go in opposite directions. The effect was a disarming humor that won me over immediately.
The following summer, I had the privilege of being the best man at Dad and Mari’s wedding. Of the many poignant and happy memories of that day, one stands above all the rest. For his wedding gift, Dad had written a song to Mari. Summoning his education, his passion for music, his love for his beautiful bride, and his adoration of the Author of love itself, the song opened with a few simple piano notes forming a phrase that was the musical equivalent of watching a flower bloom, each chord progression repeating the same basic phrase in a different key, as if one pedal after another were opening to reveal successive intricate and gorgeous layers of beauty and warmth. The melody, though not spelled out in the accompaniment by any means, complimented the work in note and spirit, its words enduring in my mind and heart even now:
In the presence of the Lord and all these witnesses,
I pledge my love to you forever more.
And to you my love my life I give completely,
Your smile your thoughts I always will adore;
Keep your gentle hand of love upon me,
Stay near me for your presence lights my way;
Fill my heart with love for you dear Mari,
This is my prayer oh Lord, today.
And I pledge to always love you oh so dearly,
More deeper than the deepest sea.
And to God we dedicate our lives together,
For our love was always meant to be.
Hear our prayer dear Lord and grant us all thy love,
Make us one now to serve you day by day.
May we always be reminded of your love for us,
For your love will surely guide our way.
Precious Jesus keep your hand upon us,
We need your guidance each and ever day.
And our home to you we dedicate it,
This is our prayer oh Lord today.
As Dad sang the words, “Hear our prayer dear Lord…” the song transitioned to a higher key, as if to underscore the conversion from a love song to Mari, to a full dedication of our family to God Almighty. Then, as the song concludes, those simple, single piano notes that opened the work return to bring it to a soft and beautiful conclusion. As she looked at Dad, her eyes welled with tears, she was no longer Mari, as far as I was concerned. She wasn’t just my second mom, or stepmother either. She was Mom.
Long before that day, however, Mari was a young girl herself and, eventually, a mother and mom to that red-haired, freckle-faced girl that would become my sister. “My room had a double window on the front & a single one on the side,” Mari would write years later. “From the single side window, I could see the pond Daddy had someone dig & small trees & small azaleas planted in an angled row.” Of course, young Mari would notice that the row was angled. With a sense of organization and an eye for detail that would leave the most demanding drill sergeant begging for mercy, nothing escaped those eyes. “When I hear crickets chirping, birds singing, or Whipperwills (sic) calling, ‘Chip the widow’s white oak,’ I think of summer nights….sleeping with the windows open.” As the years went by, my sister would sleep in that room and, later still, Sis’ young son.
By the way, have you ever seen anyone that learned to play Frisbee by catching and throwing it on one finger? I hadn’t either. But Mari could do it, for she evidently knew no other way. I had moved from Louisiana to Florida to attend college and live with Dad and Mari. Still 18 years old, I had excess energy that was best spent in the back yard with a plastic disc, as opposed to alternative methods of blowing off steam that are somewhat more destructive for a young man. Dad, Mari and I would adjourn to the back yard and, I swear, the first time I threw the Frisbee to her, she instinctively caught it on her middle finger! She wasn’t trying to flash an obscene gesture to anyone … it just, happened!! Then she twirled the thing around on the same finger and threw it right back to me! I tried to teach her more traditional methods lest she offend a neighbor,..but it was no use. She could play Frisbee and flip off the universe with more genuine happiness than anyone I’ve ever seen.
As the years went by, Dad and Mari eventually moved to the Atlanta area, where Dad worked at several churches until his retirement, and Mari not only continued playing piano and organ at church, but took on the duties of managing the financial operations of the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, a non-profit organization that takes in and cares for children and families in the most desperate of circumstances. Last April, after 22 years of service at the Children’s Home, Mari decided it was time to retire and her and Dad made plans to move back to the Florida panhandle.
It should be a simple ending to the story, yes? Yet things don’t always go according to plan. Less than two months ago, Mari was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The family rallied immediately, my sister never leaving Mom’s side, while I have taken an inordinate amount of time off from the road (and from Ricochet) to help Mom and Dad and Sis in any way I can. The tumor, called Glioblastoma, is especially aggressive and Mom’s condition deteriorated, seemingly by the hour sometimes.
Some of you may recall that my Dad is waging his own battle with Alzheimer’s, which resulted in the most beautiful exchange one morning over breakfast. With Dad’s Alzheimer’s and Mom’s declining cognitive abilities, they were on an even par that morning, with Mom asking Dad if he had slept well. “Yes I did,” he answered, prompting emphatic satisfaction from Mom as she said, “Good,…that’s so good to hear.” Then, a little while later she would ask, “How did you sleep last night?” and the happy exchange repeated itself over and over, as fresh each time as it had been the first. It was the most loving, heartwarming, and beautifully sad thing I think I’ve ever seen.
“Children have an awesome sense of wonder,” Mom wrote, “and are so trusting and forgiving. We as adults should always remember our child-like faith.” Her faith, her child-like trust in her Savior, tempered and matured by years of good times and bad, served as a guide for our family even as it illuminated her path with Christ. Early yesterday morning, September 23, 2013, the Savior reached all the way to Mom’s bedside, embraced her beautiful soul and brought her home. Heaven is a brighter place, and doubtless better organized as well, while back here we are simultaneously devastated, yet grateful that despite our terrible loss her suffering has ended.
Her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” Her watchword is ours, and Heaven’s gain is our loss. Rest in peace, Mom.