Editor’s note: Many EUU members will remember Martha’s mother from the EUU retreats that she attended.
By Martha Hicks
We have the rest of our lives to mourn those we have loved and lost, but we only have one final opportunity to celebrate that special loved one with others who have been privileged to know them. That is why I am sharing how how blessed I feel that Mary Ruth Kittrell was my mom.
If memory is the key to our identity, then loss of memory must feel like a loss of self. This is a tragedy for anyone experiencing it, but it was especially so for my mother, for hers was a lifetime of unique experiences, travels and struggles. In her 60s she feared more than anything else that she would lose her usefulness in her last years and for her, whose story is so rich and who spent her life making the world a better place, it was an especially hard blow to all of us when it became clear that she had Dementia. I remember when she was 90, the only time she really listened with concentration and intensity was when I was telling her one of her own stories from the past.
Mom always wanted to write a book dealing with her life. She kept journals for decades. When I asked her why she went to all this trouble, when she had so many other tasks, she replied, “Who will I be if I am no longer the teller of my own story?” These journals may still exist somewhere, but I would not know where to look for them. Out of love and respect for her, I decided to write as much of her story as I could find and share it with her friends and family. You will find a full version at maryruthkittrell.com and/or maryruthkittrell.org.
In Kansas’s state song “Home, Home on the Range”, the part that never fails to bring a tear to my eye is “never was heard, a discouraging word,” for this was one of my mom’s life philosophies. I am not saying that she didn’t give her honest assessment of a situation – be it shouting “play it again,” from the other room when I made a mistake on the piano, or insisting I put a little color on my lips before church, it was always a positive encouragement for me and all who would listen to her, to be their best selves. And though she would stick up for me, she always insisted that I fight my own battles, set my own priorities, but I have no memory of discouraging words.
Not one to be shy, she would strike up a conversation with anyone and was able to hold her own on most any subject. She was known for her sometimes brutal honesty, so you knew if she gave you a compliment, she meant it, but if you were lacking in any way, you could expect her to diplomatically mention it and then do her best to help you improve on it.
One might have wished that she were a little less pragmatic, a little less perfectionist, a little less insistent, a little more patient, a little more sensitive, and a LOT more tolerant of modern art. But could she have been more generous in mind and spirt? Absolutely NOT! She cared for my father with his Parkinson’s Disease tirelessly and unfailingly for twenty-five years. She cared for another friend from her church for several years during his fight with cancer. She was “there to the end” for neighbors and friends, bringing cookies to one and all for no reason but to spread cheer. She tended the flower beds at home, in her church and even well into her 90’s she was still “dead-heading” any flowers that had spent their beauty, regardless who they belonged to. When she met struggling members of her church with difficult living circumstances, she invited them to share her home.
My mother was an excellent seamstress and cook. She knitted and sewed most of my clothes even after I started school. I was particularly moved the year I discovered there was no Santa. I was about 6 years old. Before Christmas, I found an exquisite tiny blue knitted sweater and several tiny dresses in the same fabric as my dresses in my mother’s sewing box. Instead of being disappointed that Santa did not exist, which was now obvious, I felt ever so lucky that I had a permanent source of love and dedication in my mother, who was there for me every day and not just on Christmas Eve.
Since my early teen years this woman Mary Ruth picked up every bit of litter that she was able to spot. In her last years before she entered the Garden Terrace Care Facility, this also included wayward leaves, gum tree balls or twigs. My guess is that over the years, she alone has cleared altogether a ton of litter from three continents. An independent thinker, Mom set into place my code of ethics, my view of fairness and equality for all, be it for women, minority races, minority religions, the handicapped or animals. The only things she would not tolerate were cruelty, injustice and modern art.
For my love of music and travel, as well as my introduction to the Unitarian Universalist Church, I have my Mom to thank. Mom attended every concert I played in, and, in spite of my parents having very limited financial resources, she convinced my more skeptical father to allow me to pursue my dream of becoming a professional musician, buying first a piano, then a clarinet and then an oboe, when I decided that was my most favorite instrument. Music gave me the opportunity to travel the world, learning new languages and to live in new cultures. Mom never protested my immigrating to Australia, where she attended my wedding or protested me moving several years later permanently to Europe. Instead of complaining that she never saw her grandson, Jesse, she wrote him every week of his first ten years. She sent poems (some she which she wrote herself) and stories appropriate to his age – grand-mothering him from afar.
Her energy and stamina have made a difference in so many ways. She was passionate about all aspects of science, from geological rock formations, to botanic gardens and cloud patterns and weather. I was particularly impressed when she read cover to cover all nine books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization and his books on the History of Philosophy. In her teaching she saw the extraordinary and unique value of the journey of each individual she encountered. She allowed herself to be touched by each life that she had touched. She drew her strength and resolve from that process. That was how she was able to approach her work and her life, with what seemed to be limitless compassion and boundless energy.
There are still times when I face a multitude of tasks and I think, “I have no idea how I am going to approach this.” I never doubt, however, that I will figure it all out, whatever “it” might be. At the end of the day, I might feel tired, angry, sad, energized, happy — sometimes all at once, but thanks to my mother, I draw my strength from those around me. I thank her from the bottom of my heart for instilling in me so much resilience and so much love.
In closing, I would like to share an excerpt with you titled “On Death.” found in the book The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”