We drove east on a chilly late January day when the rain never once let up. It was the perfect weather for the occasion.
Floyd and I were making the long trip to Nacogdoches to fulfill the last sad obligations to his mother. Marye Frances Hancock Crawford, age 89, had died.
When someone has had a good long life, and been given the best possible death – in her own home, surrounded by her family and by the caregivers who loved her as family – grief is kind of complicated. Most of us are reasonably aware that we too will die one day, that the body does not last forever and the point is reached where there will be no more easy health, or mobility, or pain-free days. Floyd was as glad as one can be that he was there at the end. And 89 years is a pretty fair deal.
But nothing really makes it easy to lose your mother.
Marye was born in 1925 in Cedar Bluff, Texas – a tiny hamlet outside Nacogdoches – at a time when transportation was still frequently horse-powered and plows were pulled by mules. She would not know electricity or running water in her home until she was married. She grew up working hard (think picking cotton after school) and worked hard for as long as she was able.
She raised three children, worked full-time as a much-admired bookkeeper for a Nacogdoches feed company, and put more stitches into knitting, crochet, needlepoint, and quilting than could be counted in ten lifetimes. When I first met Floyd, her enormous quilting frame was set up in the living room. Yes, folks, every quilting stitch was put in by hand by Marye and her friends.
One of her knit afghans is keeping me warm even as I type this. Her hands were never still, was a comment more than one person made to me at the funeral.
Marye was a dedicated baker (I have told you about her pound cakes, but we should not forget a dazzling array of pies, cookies, and a memorable four-layer coconut cake that appeared every Christmas), helped harvest honey in the years when Floyd’s father Charles kept bees in Appleby, and kept immaculate but always comfortable homes. When I first met her in 2002, she was well-equipped to feed thirty or forty people at a moment’s notice without a paper plate or plastic fork in sight, and she did.
Fortunately, Marye was no saint. Close, but still human. She had strong opinions, a bit of a stubborn streak, and an affection for being in charge. The story was told at her funeral about the time(s) when she would be hard at work at her desk at Texas Farm Products and someone or other would come up from the factory to talk to her. If that person happened to arrive with a, shall we say pungent aroma, they could expect to be greeted with a generous cloud of Lysol Spray.
No wonder you always smell like soap, I said to Floyd.
She never did completely forgive her sons for the time they went west on a ski trip (these are fully grown sons, mind you, one of them had his wife along) and, arriving in the wee hours of the morning, decided against the expected “We have arrived safely” phone call to Marye. No one arrived anywhere without letting Marye know that the travel had gone just fine, no matter what time of the day or night.
One of the most remarkable things about Marye as far as I was concerned was this: despite the fact that she had the worst case of motion sickness I have ever encountered (she couldn’t watch our grandchildren swinging on the swing, or sit too long facing the lake behind her youngest son’s house if the water was too choppy), she was always willing to go places and do things. She took part in car trips all over Texas, flew off to visit her brother Dan in Baltimore, traveled in a camper to the Grand Canyon, joined us on a ski trip in Colorado. Discomfort never slowed her down.
It was one reason why, even at her neediest, you always felt like making whatever sacrifice you could for her: Marye never asked anything of anyone that she wouldn’t do – and hadn’t done – for others. When a family member was sick, she was at their bedside; and you wouldn’t have to worry about hospital food because she would cook you some soup and bring it to you in a Thermos.
Marye welcomed me into their family with unstinting warmth and generosity. She spoke about my grandchildren as if they were her own; in fact she had several sets of grandchildren in a number of different families. She may have had zero experience with a dog who lived in the house and slept beside the bed, but Travis was welcomed and treasured. When we visited he would always make a beeline straight to Marye and sit to be petted as long as she cared to rub his head. When he was a puppy and needed surgery, Marye paid for it.
There is something here about a kind of generosity my mother-in-law possessed. She could be quite strong-willed and strong in her judgments, but when it came down to any human being in this world, she gave. Time, food, attention, support. To family, to friends, to friends of friends. She loved company more than just about anything else; nothing pleased her more than a houseful of people.
When the time came for her to leave Nacogdoches, she relocated to a retirement complex near Floyd’s brother and sister-in-law. Their level of attention and care cannot be overstated. Whatever she needed, they provided. When Floyd’s sister was widowed, she moved with Marye into a beautiful condo in that same retirement complex. Marye gave up her high-rise apartment life happily, vastly preferring life on the ground floor where she could watch birds at the feeder outside the dining room. They watched every Texas Rangers game on television, and proved to be the Unruly Gardener’s Number One fans. Every time I published a new post, it would be printed up and read over and over.
Throughout this past Fall and into the new year, Marye’s health collapsed completely. A powerful infection attacked her and although her great heart remained strong as long as it could, at last her body had had enough. I cannot adequately convey the level of tender care given her by her children and my sister-in-law; Dan came down from Baltimore several times and was there with all of them when the end came.
Her professional caregivers couldn’t have been better; two of them made the long drive down for the funeral. For her years of loving care, Tameka – one of the only people who could get Marye up and out of bed when Marye did not care to get up and out of bed – will always be a member of the family.
Marye Frances Hancock Crawford was an amazing woman, and we will all miss her all our lives.