Eulogy for a Mother-in-Law

My dear mother-in-law Sue Brumfield passed from this life June 13, 2007. In honor of her memory, here is posted the eulogy I delivered at Sue's funeral.

 

In Memory of Sue Lyn Brumfield

June 18, 2007

The first time I met Sue and Steve was on my second date with their eldest daughter Laura, now my dear wife of almost seventeen years.  As I recollect the evening, we had been to church one Sunday evening, gotten some dessert, and then drove to Brentwood.  Steve, ever desirous of intimidating any male that could conceivably be interested in one of his daughters, was on the telephone, and said nothing to me, did not acknowledge my presence, except with a note of utter disdain said with enough volume to ensure that I heard him.  He simply mentioned to the person on the other end of the telephone line that his daughter Laura had “just brought another new guy into the house;  I have no idea who he is,” and he droned on, with no interest in concluding the conversation quickly so he might make me feel at ease in his living room.  So I uncomfortably sat down in a chair, opposite the chair wherein sat Sue.  Then Laura and all three of her sisters sat in the same chair with their mother, and stared at me, Sue and the girls saying nothing, only staring, occasionally one of the girls whispering something into their mother’s ear, and then giggling.

As the word “saint” is often used, Sue was no saint.  That is, she was, like all of us, still dealing with her own character defects.  But recalling and reflecting and reminiscing these last five days, I have been reminded of the saints.  Take, for example, this silence which I uncomfortably bore as Laura and Sue and the girls all stared at me.  For many of us, silence is painful, and there must always be words, a glut of words being spoken.  Yet there is a long tradition in the monastic writers going back to the Rule of St. Benedict that reminds us that too many words is often a sign of pride.  Much talking is sometimes but a cover for insecurity, or pride, or vanity.  Words should be spoken when we have something to say, and Sue used words as a way of saying something she thought worth saying.  She measured them carefully—so, there is, for example, a beautifully written letter—the third draft apparently—still lying, unmailed, at the house, because she had not yet sufficiently measured all the words. 

Steve described the difference between himself and Sue this way:  Steve talks and talks until he finds something worth talking about, while Sue doesn’t speak until she has something to say.  I’ll let Steve speak for himself, given that I’m still married to his daughter;  but I certainly think he accurately describes Sue.  Now this is not to say that everything that came out of Sue’s mouth I thought the greatest depths of wisdom—she watched too much cable-news networks for that to be the case.  But still, she used words in a way always measured to minister, to bless. 

Ritchie Pickens recounted to me sitting at the dining room table with Sue:  they talked about the dogwood tree, that beautiful dogwood Sue loved and I love, that sits just outside the bay window in her dining room.  Ritchie only recounts that they discussed the dogwood tree:  but he recounts that more was happening than a discussion about the dogwood tree, because Sue could sense when someone simply needed to talk, was bothered or upset or disturbed, and her ministry of talking, in these quiet one-on-one conversations, was a manifestation of her gift of discernment.  My first such conversation with Sue was on my third or fourth visit to the Brumfield household, on the back porch, and we had a simple quiet conversation, about life, simple and quiet and free.  That back porch—where Sue especially loved the mornings with her coffee cup, where she could talk to the trees and the birds and her family—was a place where I suspect many people in this room today have had such quiet, redemptive conversations with Sue. 

There’s a scene in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in which Emily is asking to be allowed just one day to return from the after-life to enjoy one last bit of time with her loved ones.  It would be too painful, she is told;  no special day is necessary, I recall she negotiates, just one simple, mundane day, to enjoy the beauty of life.  Frustrated as she looks back upon those still living, she asks:  “Doesn't anyone ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”  That is, do people not realize the profound beauty and gift of life, present in every mundane moment?  The reply comes:  “No. Saints and poets, maybe; they do some.”

I think Sue was among those saints and poets who did often realize life in the moment, not least because she talked to trees and birds:  I think Sue got this habit from one she deemed the greatest saint she had known, her father.  It occurred to me last night that I think I got this habit—I confess, I do these days talk to trees and birds and squirrels and flowers—from Sue.  If ever this somewhat embarrassing fact inadvertently arises in conversation with others, I try to give this eccentric habit an air of intellectual respectability, by reminding people that St. Francis of Assisi did this, too.  But whether it’s intellectually respectable or not, such communing with God through God’s creation is a practice that humbly receives the beauty of life, the beauty of each moment, the beauty of God’s good creation, that is an utterly humble act of joy and gratitude. 

I wonder if this humility, and this gratitude, is why Sue sometimes chose such utterly unproductive ways of doing things:  when she would finally bring herself to face the fact that she would have to trim some branches from some of the long-leaf pines in the back-yard, she used an old rusty saw, slowly cutting at the branches for days—I told her that I could have done it faster with a butter-knife, but my needling my mother-in-law was to no avail.  I’m much too schooled in the American Protestant work ethic to worry with such a horribly slow manner of trimming trees—let me rent something with a 10 hp two-cycle engine from Home Depot, and I’ll take care of it.  But she slowly did her work, and, I suspect, talked to those trees, and apologized to them for any discomfort she caused.

This joy of communing with other of God’s creatures was a humility that was embodied in Sue’s life in numerous other ways:  in the ease with which she could be made to blush;  in her innocence that seemed sometimes naïve;  in that laughter, and in her smile, that we all loved.  It was a humility that also lived out of St. James’ counsel not to disparage the poor in the presence of the rich, not to pay more attention to celebrity than to the non-celebrated. 

Because of Steve’s work, Sue and Steve have both spent time around those with celebrity and wealth;  but I do not recall Sue ever recounting such incidents with any particular relish.  As a matter of fact, the only story I particularly remember Sue telling regards the time she met Ronald Reagan:  she was impressed that, when she was standing alone in one of the rooms at the White House, the commander-in-chief appeared, also alone, through a doorway, walked to her and extended his hand, and said:  “hello, I’m Ronald Reagan.”  That he would tell her his name, like any other human being, was what most impressed her.

Steve tells the tale of an evening when he was newly married, living in the so-called Lipscomb ghetto, the neighborhood of old duplex homes that once sat where the Ken Dugan baseball diamond now sits.  At the time Steve was working for the Johnny Cash show, filmed and aired from here in Nashville.  One particular evening, Bob Hope was the scheduled guest, so Steve phoned Sue, at home in their little duplex.  “Sue, why don’t you come on down to the show tonight, meet Bob Hope, and then maybe we could go out to dinner with the folks on the show,” said Steve.  “No, I don’t think so,” replied Sue.  “I was planning on vacuuming.”  She was seldom impressed with celebrity.

It is a great witness to Sue, it seems to me, that when the bank teller was told that Sue had died, that the teller had to step away because of her tears;  that when the lady at the cleaners was told that Sue would no longer be coming in, she cried.

This summer I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, the spiritual memoir of the famous Trappist monk who lived and prayed and worked and wrote for many years at the monastery called Gethsemane, in Kentucky.  In his memoir, Merton several times uses a phrase I do not recall ever having heard before:  he was describing a relative who had made a particularly profound, positive impact upon his life, and he described her as having a “disinterested love.”  I was intrigued by the phrase, and tried to make sense of such a strange juxtaposition of words:  after all, isn’t love supposed to be interested in the beloved?  But here he celebrates a “disinterested love.”  Merton went on to describe this relative as avoiding displays of too great affection, simply being quiet, letting deeds speak for words, employing words only when necessary:  there is, after all, a subtle but nonetheless dangerous temptation in showing affection and love for others—that we can let that display of love be an expression of our desire to get the beloved to do what we want, to fulfill our own interests, rather than allowing the loved one to be utterly free.  I suspect that if there is any stereotypical role in western culture that is able to say whether a person shows such a rightly dis-interested love, it would be a son-in-law:  and I bear witness, that Sue loved in this way.

We grieve her passing, which is for us too soon. 

And yet we do not grieve as those who have no hope.           

Amen.