My Father, the Rev. Dr. Ross Evans, was a master gardener. Like St. Francis, he spent much of his devotional life pushing compost into the soil and coaxing tiny seeds into columbine, hand-plucking Japanese Beetles into a jar of gasoline for daring to attack his roses, and training Morning Glories up a trellis. He grew these for the sheer joy of seeing new life and beauty. But he tended his tiny bed of Lily of the Valley for one reason and one reason only: To shape their bell-laden blooms and elegant leaves into a boutonniere for his clerical suit lapel on Mother’s Day.
It was his way of honoring the woman who gave him birth and filled his early life with deliceious homemade carbohydrates of every description: Biscuits, homemade breads and cakes, dumplings, pies, and griddle corn (a kind of fried mountain cornbread). When my parents came to live with me in their early eighties, he pressed me hard for recreations of these artful carbohydrates, I was a competitive baker in state fairs at the time, and I’d won a few ribbons, and while I tried hard to reach his expectations, my culinary creations just never quite measured up. And I wondered why.
Now that I’ve lost some people dear to me too soon, and had time to think about that, I think his childhood memories were so precious to him that he enshrined them. He enshrined all those cakes and dumplings and biscuits. I see this all the time with the widows I work with, I’ve done it, too! We polish up the images of those we loved, because it makes living without them a little easier.
Daddy’s mother died when he was nine. She needed an emergency appendectomy and the tiny hospital in Glendale West Virginia only had one doctor. The doctor did a great job of getting her appendix out but he killed her with the anesthesia. When they brought her home, she laid in the living room, with coins on her eyes, for three days.
Her family were farmers in Pennsylvania and they couldn’t make it to the mountains in time to say goodbye. You couldn’t just leave dead people in your house much longer than three days. So it was just his father’s brothers who came, and a few neighbors. This was in the days before children had feelings, too, so no one hugged him or held him. His sixteen year-old sister was suddenly expected to take over her mother’s role, and she was busy cooking like mad to feed the people at the wake while tending to a two- year old, and, unbeknownst to the mourners, pregnant herself from her affair with a steel worker.
Daddy told me that he watched his mother from a corner of the couch, trying not to fall asleep, refusing to be put to bed at night, just to see if she would wake up in answer to his prayers. She didn’t. It was his first experience of hearing God say, “No.” and it shaped how he approached his parishioners’ denial and anger in his long years of ministry. At my Daddy’s funeral, many a person commented about how understanding he was when they expressed hard truths. I think his Mother’s early death was the seed God used to grow his empathy for ministry.
One day his Mother was there and the next she was gone. So every year he carefully created his Lily of the Valley boutonniere and placed it on his black wool lapel to say goodbye to the first woman he loved, and honor her in his heart.
In these frightening and isolated days of COVID-19, many people are celebrating Mother’s Day without their mothers, some of them for the first time. And because of this isolation, there’s no one there to hug away the heartache. So know that in this strange time, I’m holding the loss of these loving mothers, and you, deep in my heart.