Gracious plenty: Remembering and celebrating a full life

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I had thought this week’s column would be a reflection on my recent trip to London following Christmas or a precursor to the Creativity Conference that I’m helping lead in two weeks in Orlando. However, those thoughts got preempted by the following, which were thoughts I shared at my mother’s funeral this past Wednesday, in which I hope others might find resonance and comfort in similar circumstances.

My mother left this earthly existence this past Sunday on the last day of 2017.

I might say she died that day or passed away or any other number of phrases, but the more I have lived with her, I’d say she has been leaving really for many years one piece at a time.

The past couple of months in particular, there has been very little light left of the one I called “Ma” or others might call “Audrey” so it came down to the simple common denominator for me of trying to simply be the one to say, “I love you” each day and give her the chance to say “I love you” back. And I was fortunate enough to have had those be the last words she and I exchanged, and for those to be the last words that she and my brother, Mark, were able to share.

I think really it was 11 years ago when my father died that she started the journey that ended this past week, and then a bit more when she moved into The Pines, and then a bit more when my wife and I decided to relocate here two and a half years ago to watch out for her. But even as each of those stages progressed, she brought up a phrase that she got from her mother-in-law, Grandma Harris, which had become her motto in later years. It was her favorite of adopted Southern phraseology, “A Gracious Plenty.”

When asked at the dinner table, “Do you want some more?” Grandma Harris would respond, “Oh no, I’ve had a gracious plenty.” And that phrase and what it represents is what Mama used to reflect on many times.

Before I moved back to Goldsboro, on the phone, and many times after, in person, Mama would talk about what a good life we’d had. She would say she just enjoyed remembering the times of her life, and then we would tell stories. There were stories of love and laughter and lots of humor, with an incredible cast of characters made up of family and friends. And each time, no matter how bad her knees would hurt or how fatigued she would feel, Mama would reflect on how full her life had been and the wonderful times we had together, a gracious plenty as Grandma Harris would put it.

But like I said, lately especially, bit by bit, those stories, those parts of her, had already gone on even before this week.

So, this moment, for these few seconds that I’ve got at her service, I wouldn’t be able to sum up all of that anyway, so I’d like to do something selfish. All of you who know me know that shouldn’t be that hard. I’d like to be selfish and take a moment not to eulogize my mother, but to thank some folks, maybe here, maybe not, on behalf of myself, my mother and my family.

First I’d like to say thank you to all of you here today and all those who continued to keep in touch with my mom with cards, visits, even if only distantly in prayer ... and maybe especially in prayer. At 90 ½, she outlived almost all her contemporaries, so it has been a blessing to have all you young folks to care for her.

I’d like to thank Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and especially the “ladies” (you know who you are) who stepped up to take particular care of Mom while she was at the house alone, and when she first moved to The Pines by looking after her, taking her to doctors’ visits, and doing all sorts of errands and looking after her needs. You, my original church family, have been for 50 years, Mama’s family right until the end. If you ever questioned doing ministry among your own, look no further than right here!

I’d like to thank the staff at the Pines (I know it’s called Brookdale now, but that’s what Mama called it, and that’s what everyone still knows it as). I’ve tried to say “thanks” as much as possible to all the heroes who worked daily to take care of my mother, from Judy at the front desk helping with an infinite number of details to what I’ve always referred to as the “A-Team” on the floor showing compassion and care that goes beyond doing a job and can only truly be called carrying out a ministry. Thank you for being the hands-on, 24-hour-a-day angels looking out for her for the past five and a half years.

And now, more personally, I’d like to thank my brother and his family for entrusting me with the stewardship of caring for my mother here in Goldsboro and his love and support, especially during some very difficult, and as I have described it “gray,” decision-making in the past few months.

And most selfishly, I’d like to thank my wife and my kids who have allowed my attention to be focused away from them, particularly on holidays and special occasions, to make sure that Mama was not forgotten. I’d like to thank my wife, who allowed us to relocate back to Goldsboro so together we could take care of Mama’s daily needs and be there to offer up that, “I love you,” regularly, sometimes even to the sacrifice of our own “I love you” moments for the rest of the family. I love you for all of that!

And perhaps to end a little less selfishly, thank you to God for giving us the mother who was best summarized in the Mother’s Day sermon I delivered titled, “My Mother is a Nut,” the title of which she loved, the content of which stated that she was crazy — crazy about her kids.

And that she was. She would say she was most proud of her two boys, but then there were sons number three, and then there were those daughters out there, and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and any number who all the while I’ve said the word “mama” picturing my mom, have absolutely no problem picturing the same woman in the same light. Yeah, thanks God for the woman who was crazy, crazy about her kids.

And lastly, Mama, thanks to you for a storehouse of sermon illustrations. Thank you for all the stories and images of love. We put some extra stuff in the casket with you because you loved all your stuff, and we made sure there were some angels to go along with you. But I’m counting on you being our angel to continue to walk with us like you always have.

So perhaps that’s enough to say. On behalf of my brother and me as her children, “Thank you.” On behalf of my mother, “Thank you.” And selfishly, from me to my own, “Thank you.”

For our mother and her 90-plus years, for our life together and for the eternity to come, “Thank you.” Indeed, it is a gracious plenty.

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.