Risky Business

MapWhen Mom was in her mid-80’s, she wanted to drive from Chicago around the south end of Lake Michigan to our summer home, staying as close to the water as possible. The rest of us doubted the efficacy of her idea, an old lady driving through dangerous neighborhoods for no important reason, but we knew Mom.

She was going to do it.

She asked if any of us wanted to accompany her, and although many of us said, “Sure!” there were always reasons why it wasn’t a good day. Then Mom got sick of waiting. She left her home in Wilmette, 25 miles north of Chicago, and threaded her way south along Sheridan Road, Lake Shore Drive and route 94, enjoying a lake view all the way.

When she got to Gary and Hammond, she had trouble staying close to the shoreline because of the steel mills but said she never lost sight of the water (questionable). She finished her drive to the Michigan cottage on routes 20 and 12, reaching her goal.

Naturally we lectured her after the fact, but half of her joy was in showing up the rest of us. When I asked if she’d been nervous anywhere along the way she said, “Be friendly to people, and they’ll be friendly to you.” Who knows what she encountered.

Dad was accurate when he said, “Your Ma is a risk-taker.” When it involved our children, however, we cringed, like the time she let our preschoolers drive her car by having them crawl under her feet and push the break and gas pedals with their hands. Or the time she sent two 2-year-olds to the beach unaccompanied. We found them playing in the lake.

Another time she took our 4 and 5 year old girls to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Once inside the building, she remembered their snack bags in her car.

“Grandma needs a rest, “she said, plunking down on a planetarium bench. “Here’s the car keys. Do you remember where we parked?” The two little girls headed down the wide steps and into a sea of cars parked in downtown Chicago in search of snack bags. I can’t even list the multiple risks she took in doing this, though as always, it worked out fine.

Mom leading the paradeRecently some friends and I talked about risk-taking in relation to aging. As the years pile up, most of us get cautious, eliminating risk wherever possible, but then without our realizing it, the world begins to shrink, along with many positives.

We agreed it’s a good idea to force ourselves to take at least minimal risks. We should keep driving in busy cities, going out after dark, trying new foods, meeting new people, traveling to faraway places. But how?

By factoring in God, trusting in his care. But will he come through if we’re risking too much? He wants us to walk in wisdom, which is usually somewhere between wild risk and none at all.

Amazingly, Mom’s risk-taking never got her in trouble. Maybe God assigned extra angels to “keep her in all her ways.” Although her risk management was sometimes foolish, taking no risks at all can be foolish, too.

“Moderation is better than muscle.” (Proverbs 16:32)

Oh Mama!

Because so many of you blog-readers love stories about my mom, here’s a bit of info. As you read between the lines, you’ll see how she came to be the colorful person she was.

Mom at age 3Mom was born at home in 1912, arriving just before Christmas. Because she was a month premature, she wasn’t healthy, so the doctor told her parents not to name her. That way when she died, he said, they wouldn’t be too attached. And so she remained “Baby” through December and into 1913. By St. Patrick’s Day her father, a full-blooded Irishman, nicknamed her “Pat” after the holiday and called her that the rest of his years.

Eventually they named her Evelyn Pauline after an older brother, Everett Paul, who had died at the age of 8 in a school yard accident.

Mom at 18Growing up during the Depression, she learned to pinch a penny with expertise and made sure we could, too. She married a shy, 42 year old Swede when she was 28. Unable to wait until he popped the question, she proposed to him instead.

When asked what she wanted as a housewarming gift, she said, “Toys for children who might visit us.” Before she had any of her own kids, she made friends with all the neighborhood children, and even while in labor with her first baby, she delayed leaving for the hospital to pass out homemade cookies up and down the block.

Mom's wedding dayAfter having two little girls born 20 months apart, Mom was expecting a third when she began hemorrhaging and was rushed to the hospital. After being given the wrong blood type from an inaccurately labeled bottle, she nearly died. But God had other plans for Evelyn Pauline Pat James Johnson.

Although doctors cautioned Mom not to become pregnant again, our brother Tom came along on Dad’s 50th birthday, a definite bonus to all of us. To this day I think Mom tricked Dad, since she’d wanted nothing more than a houseful of children. Eventually she got her wish with 17 grandchildren, all living local and all in love with their grandma.

Mom plus her 3Mom viewed children as marvels to be cherished, protected and admired. She never encountered a child she didn’t approve of and although her influence rubbed off on them, her greatest joy came when theirs rubbed off on her.

She also loved music and practiced piano daily. In her teens she taught lessons, in her thirties played the four-keyboard organ for Moody Church, and in her prime accompanied enough weddings and funerals to put us through college, though she always gave the money back to the bride instead.

Mom at the Moody organMom memorized entire books of the bible, taught high school Sunday school for decades, and conducted in-home Bible studies throughout her married life. But she also loved a good practical joke and made frequent use of her whoopee cushion, plastic vomit, and artificial dog poop. No wonder kids loved her.

Dad used to say Mom was a risk-taker. Tomorrow I’ll prove it.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)

Ya don’t say…

Having been with Mom, Dad, and Nate at the end of their lives, I’ve learned one thing for sure: people on heavy pain meds are not themselves. All of us wonder what will come out of us in our final days. Dad remained dignified, and Nate was accurate and gracious to the end.

One hilarious motherBut Mom? Absolutely goofy. Her colorful statements were so entertaining, we kept a log at her bedside. She’d been a one-woman-show during her non-medicated life, and her words while drugged (for pain) stayed in line with her character.

Get ready to laugh.

  • Chewing on the hem of her hospital gown she said, “This tastes good, and I like the color. It’s also very nourishing.”
  • To a grandson: “Let’s play funeral. I’ll be the corpse. You be the soloist.”
  • To a sweet visitor: “I can’t wait to get rid of you.”
  • “The most important thing is my conversation with God. He talks out of the Bible, and I talk back.”
  • To me: “Let’s both get in the same bed and start a riot about same sex marriage.”
  • It’d be nice to see my apartment again, but I guess I’d rather go to heaven. I’ll wave down at you.”
  • Looking at our wrinkles: “Do I have strings all up and down my face? Because both Mary and Margaret do.”
  • To a nurse removing her dinner: “Save those leftovers! When I’m in heaven, if the Lord decides not to return to Earth, I’ll have something to feed him.”
  • “Maybe I’ll go to bed now.” We said, “You’re already in bed.” Then she said, “Boy, that was easy.”
  • Son Tom asked: “How do you feel?” She said, “With my hands. How do you feel?”
  • After restlessly working both legs out from under the sheets, she began laughing hysterically We said, “What’s so funny?” She sputtered, “My beautiful legs!”
  • To me: “I wish you a Happy New Year and that you’ll get prettier.”
  • “If I can do anything for you, let me know. I can only do things in my miserable way, but I am the way, the truth and the life.”
  • “It’s nice when parents are just starting out and know that ‘Jesus loves their little children.’ That helps when they don’t know anything.”
  • “Maybe I should change my mind about going to heaven tonight. There’s lots of happy people here, too.”
  • “I served 10 salmon. Put the rest over there. It’s brain food. It’s ok, but not great.”
  • “When I die, just drown the [pet] bird and throw him in the toilet.”
  • Pushing an invisible item around the end of the bed with her foot: “I’m trying to get that muffin over into the corner.”
  • A friend called and said, “Who’s there with you?” She said, “Just Mary and Margaret, if you call them visitors. It’s more like a zoo.”
  • “Today I’m better. I have happiness running out of my lips.”
  • To a visitor: “I’m going to throw up any minute…on you.”
  • Fingering her hospital gown: “I’m going to send this to Joyce. She likes blue and can wallpaper a room with it.”
  • “If I ever wrote a book, it would be about the magnificent mercy of God.”

These are just a few from 26 pages of Mom’s colorful statements. She spoke often of her approaching death but never with uncertainty or fear. One of her last statements while “under the influence” was, “Some stumble, some fall, but if we love Jesus Christ, we all eventually get home.”

She got home 19 days later… but forgot to take her leftovers.

“We would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)