Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Most of the people who knew her saw her as a quiet, good person who lived a simple life.  She was that, but so much more.  Having known her, spent time with her, and interacted with her on many occasions and under a variety of circumstances, I really came to know her very well.

She grew up in a large family in rural West Virginia.  Her family didn't have a lot of money, and she helped her parents in many ways to care for and provide for her siblings, the house, and the farm.  She was only able to finish the eighth grade in school, and this was something she always resented her parents for.  If she hadn't had to help them, she thought she would have liked to finish school and go on to become a teacher.  She knew she was smart enough.

A local man who towered over her and who was a few years older than she swept her off her feet and they were married.  It was during a difficult time when our country was at war and he was called to serve in the Navy.  She was soon left alone to care for a baby girl.  She quickly felt "trapped" again by her husband's siblings, none of whom were married, but who felt they knew what was best for her and often tried to make decisions for her.

When her husband was discharged from the service, it was another period of adjustment as she stepped back from being the decision maker and he and his brother and sisters seemed to have her and her family's lives planned out, without her having much to say about it.  Her husband got a job that was over an hour's commute each way, and she was left to care for their farm and, eventually, their four children.  Over the course of several years, she had also suffered two miscarriages that no one ever talked much about, making her surviving children's ages widespread.

Each day she was up long before dawn to begin her chores on the farm, to get her husband off to work, and her children up and ready for school.  She kept them all fed and in clean clothes that she would often mend on her treadle sewing machine or by hand, and nursed them back to health when they were sick.  She took care of the animals, the garden, and canned and prepared their food to freeze for the winter.  She had supper prepared every evening when her husband got home from work, and she kept the children quiet and entertained while he relaxed and watched a ballgame or news on television and then he went early to bed.

When her husband passed away, she felt as if her own life would end.  She was so used to him making all the financial decisions, her health seemed to be failing, and she still had a lively 16 year-old daughter at home.  But with the help of family and friends, she survived and became more independent and stronger than she had felt in years.  She was torn and tormented about having her older daughter now take in and care for her "baby", but she knew it was the best decision...she didn't want her to feel  "trapped" or deprived of opportunities in any way like she had felt throughout her life.  She got acquainted with a new physician who got her on the road to better physical health.  She was now well past 50 years old and she learned to drive for the first time so she could become more independent and self-sufficient.  

She loved her children and grandchildren, was proud of them but was never outwardly boastful or prideful.  My sons had the wonderful privilege of spending a great deal of time with her, especially during their early years.  She enjoyed having everyone come to visit and just talk while sitting around the kitchen table and eating the simple meals and desserts she had prepared.  We would often joke or laugh about what kind of food to expect, but we truly loved it and knew it would be consistently delicious, comforting, and satisfying.  Her chocolate chip cookies, raisin-filled cookies, and apple cakes are especially memorable.  I will never forget the very first time I walked into her house at about 10:30 p.m.and she greeted me warmly with a smile and a hug and a large can of her chocolate chip cookies and a glass of cold milk.  I could tell immediately, though, that she was "sizing me up" to see if I was good enough for her baby boy.

Her love of God was quiet, steadfast, and sure, and she wanted to convey that to each one of her children.  She taught them right from wrong and stressed the values of good morals, character, reputation, and Christian principles.  She took them to church regularly and was a Sunday School teacher herself for awhile.  She read extensively and could have debated and answered most any question on biblical history, ancient archeology, and the teachings of Jesus.  I don't recall her ever missing a Bible-related question while watching and competing with the contestants on Jeopardy!

She never had the opportunity to travel far from home and, although she had many chances and invitations to travel later in her life, she refused to take advantage of them, preferring to remain close to home and the people and things that were familiar to her.  Her curiosity of faraway places and people seemed to be satisfied through reading magazines, books, and watching special television programs.

Her body language and other forms of communication often said so much more than the few words she spoke.  I quickly learned what each specific "look", tilted head, pursed lips, tensed jaw, crossed arms, muttered sounds, non-whistled whistle, and quiet rustle of a Pop-Tart or Little Debbie wrapper meant.  It seemed much easier for her to express her love and feelings in a personal card or letter than face-to-face.  She remembered birthdays and anniversaries with cards and sometimes small gifts.

It was difficult to watch this unique lady slowly fade away as poor physical health, mental decline and dementia finally began to rapidly take its toll and she could no longer care for herself or relate to those who loved her.  Some of the words that came out of her mouth were a little beyond the little four-letter "sh_ _" we were accustomed to hearing her mutter when she was really frustrated or exasperated.  We knew she couldn't help it when she didn't recognize us, but it hurt deeply.  She had run the race and fought a good fight, and we knew life with her as we knew it would soon come to an end, yet we just were not prepared at all when it happened.

Yes, Irene was a quiet, good person who lived a simple life.  But she was also intelligent, curious, quick-witted, hard-working, conservative, frugal, God-fearing, stubborn, honest, resilient, resourceful, loving, loyal, and devoted.  I learned a lot from her during the 30 years that I had the privilege of knowing her as my mother-in-law and my friend and I just wanted to take these few moments, during the month of the anniversary of her birth to say, "I love you...I miss you...and you made a difference in my life, Mom".

( © Post and photo by C.J. - please do not copy)