Christmastime is supposed to be joyful. People in grief, though, often experience emptiness. The expectation of how they are supposed to feel, rather than how they do feel, creates anxiety. Books help.

My mother, Sarah Parker Ford, died in January after I spent a quiet Christmas day with her a month before. Throughout the subsequent months, I knew these holidays would be hard. Fortunately, a friend named Teddy Copeland sent me a book months ago appropriately entitled, “First Year Without Mama.” I read it little by little so I could compare the feelings I was having with hers.

Teddy lives in Florence; and her mother, Elise Clemmons Butler, died there in her late 80s in 2013.

In the book, she shared facts about her mother’s life as a diminutive Christian homemaker. For decades, Elise was a leader in the local Extension Homemakers Club and even served in later life on a state level. Her most prominent trait, Teddy wrote, was being spunky.

She once flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when Teddy lived there, and did not hesitate to rectify an omission that Spanish-speaking customs authorities made from the Butlers’ paperwork. “Mother immediately marched right back to where they had been, and Daddy let her confront the authorities,” Teddy wrote. Also, Elise returned to school to get a diploma after her oldest daughter obtained one.

Teddy’s mother was not only spunky but also funny. She had a favorite joke, which was mildly risqué; and she would tell it to her daughters, only after each married. She helped plan a surprise visit to a grandson in Atlanta. Because the family had arrived after dark, they told the grandson to walk outside and get the luggage. He pulled open the door and saw, with a jolting surprise, his grandmother.

As I read, I thought about how my own diminutive, five-foot-two mother was spunky and often turned the mundane into hilarity. Once when I was with my stepfather and her during a tornado warning, they donned bike helmets. She grabbed a pot and put it on my head.

We sat in a hallway, not shaking with fear, but shaking with laughter as winds howled over the roof. Once Mother tried on a pair of eyeglasses and remarked how they were the clearest she had ever seen. She reached a finger up to touch the glass, which was not there, and instead touched her eyelid. Her expression made me laugh so hard I had to leave the store.

Teddy’s mother cared for other family members. She once arranged, when she couldn’t, for her husband to watch over her sister whose baby was due.

My own mother once took in a newly divorced sister with two children and enlisted my father’s help while she worked. I remember how hard that time period was for her, but she didn’t complain. Mother’s philosophy, like Elise’s, was that family is family, and members do whatever is necessary to help each other.

Teddy’s mother often sewed at night as Teddy and her sister fell asleep and heard a humming sound that Teddy learned to associate with comfort.

My mother often arose at four or five to make biscuits for my father before he went to work. I learned to associate the tapping of her aluminum biscuit bowl with comfort. We four daughters could stay asleep another hour and wake up to buttered biscuits and jelly.

Teddy’s mother and father patiently sat one day and answered questions about their childhood, courtship, and marriage. Teddy made a video that she later shared with them and her sister. Nowadays, family members watch it and laugh at the hairstyles and strong Southern accents.  

A couple of years before Mother died, I interviewed her and wrote her answers. I made a booklet for my sisters about stories Mother told me. She and her sister once placed their baby brother in a wagon, pulled it out of the barn, and climbed in.

They had a grand time flying down a hill until the poles that normally attached to horses stuck into the ground and catapulted the kids into the air. Mother said she and her sister were unhurt, but the baby’s lip was injured and swollen.

They shook with fear as they walked up the hill to tell their mother.

Teddy described how her mother once bounded up and down a flight of stairs that led to the basement of their house to wash their clothes, obtain food from the freezer, and haul houseplants in and out during seasonal changes. It made Teddy sad when her mother could no longer traverse stairways.

I remember Mother’s hauling things up and down a set of steps from our back door to the driveway. Early on, she had only a clothesline to dry clothes and carried basketsful of laundry up and down. It breaks my heart today that Mother died from the after-effects of a fall when walking down a gently sloping ramp.

Like Teddy, I have precious memories of my mother. Recently, someone described memories as soft, comfortable pillows.

My hope is that people struggling during this holiday season with emptiness due to a death of a loved one will think of positive memories and allow their minds to rest on those “pillows” of memory. Perhaps they can make a list of their favorite memories. I promise the anxiety will turn to peace, which is what I am feeling right now after making my list.

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