In 1973, when my mother, Jane, died at 50 of pancreatic cancer, everyone agreed it was much too soon for one so vibrant, so giving, so clearly an instrument of the God she served to leave the earth. It’s a long story, but she died only two-and-a-half months after our family had relocated to a new town in a new State, Fort Valley, GA, and even so, the First Methodist Church was filled to capacity at her funeral with those whose lives she had already touched in such a short time. Further, as testament to her long years of generous service to others, her obituary took up a full column in the Methodist Christian Advocate and both the Rev. C. Everett Barnes, Head of the Council on Ministries of the South Alabama/West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, and the Rev. Edwin Kimbrough, Senior Pastor of First UMC Birmingham, the largest Methodist Church (at the time) in the North Alabama Conference, had traveled for hours to jointly officiate.
So it is no wonder that I was very confused by her death. How could it be that God would find it necessary to remove one so young, so marvelous, as Mama; to elevate her to the next plane when there was still so much for her to do on this one? How could there possibly be any sense in that? What on earth was He up to?
Well, the Holy Spirit is a mysterious loveliness, and, dear readers, while we may not understand every move She makes, if we can just be patient, things do eventually make sense. I will always, of course, believe that Mama died too young, because she did, but looking back now, through the long lens of time, I can also discern the blessings that grew out of our sorrow, and at the top of that list would be my second mother, Betty Gates Wilson. I say “second mother” because, when I was 40, Miriam 37 and Mary 28, she adopted the three of us out of love both for us and our father, and so she literally was, from that time until her death, our mom.
I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately because the Bradford Pears have finally bloomed in New York City. I’m sure they came and went in the south in early March, as they are wont to do, but up here, they have only now appeared. If you don’t know what a Bradford pear tree is, they are prized all across the country for their dense white blooms that appear in the early spring and turn the trees into gigantic balls of cotton. You have certainly seen them, since they seem to be everywhere these days. They were all the rage, and something relatively new, when Betty built her Fort Valley dream house in about 1982, and she planted a grove of them in the front yard where, for the next sixteen years, they were her pride and joy. Nothing made her happier than when, just as she had planned it, they flushed out each March with their display of bright white set against the dark brown brick of her house.
And so, it was perhaps only right that they were at their absolute densest blooming point on the night that she died. Richard and I had been vacationing in Costa Rica, but, due to her failing health after years battling emphysema, had rescheduled our return trip to go to Georgia rather than New York, and arrived on a Friday night. She knew when we would be arriving, and Daddy told us that all week long, as each day came and went, she had asked him, “Is it Friday today?” and every day, when he said, “Not yet,” would look crestfallen as she continued pushing those tortured breaths in and out and in and out. She was determined to be there to greet us when we arrived, and by grace and her own stubbornness, when we drove up about four that afternoon, she was still very much herself, if a diminished version of the Betty we knew. We visited for a short while and then she rested for a bit while I helped get supper ready, then we gathered around her bed to eat while we showed her the photos so she could share in our trip with us. I also told her that her trees, which she couldn’t see from the bedroom, were in riotous display and looked wonderful, and that brought a huge smile to her face. Ours was a lovely, touching, loving reunion, even as we knew we were nearing the end. At four a.m. that morning, she died.
The next night, after the women of the “Fort Valley Funeral Brigade,” as I called them, had cleaned up the mess and headed home (the same four wonderful Methodist mothers that had kept the kitchen humming when our first Mama had died nearly a quarter-century earlier), I sat in Betty’s easy chair and wrote a poem about her pears that we ended up using on the back of the program for her funeral service the next day. And that is why I never see the cloudy whiteness of a Bradford pear that I don’t remember Betty.
Betty’s Bradford Pears
Her Bradford pears were peaking in a flush of radiant white
And clouds began to form above as day moved into night.
I would have wheeled her out to see, but she was just too weak,
So I settled for effusiveness when I began to speak.
I told her just how glorious, how flower-full they were
(Because I knew she knew I knew how much they meant to her)
And, soon enough, my tack began to generate a glimmer
That turned into a twinkle, as her mind began to simmer;
She looked at me with knowing eyes and said, “I’m thrilled to death.”
Then said it yet again, after a pause to gather breath.
As darkness fell, the sky began to shed its rainy tears;
The thunder boomed throughout the night as lightning lit our fears,
And as the roiling clouds moved on to other destinations,
Our Betty climbed aboard, at last relieved of respirations.
But as the sun returned to start our first dark day without her,
Her trees stood firm, homage to light that ever shone about her.
For hers was love that knew no bounds nor compromised devotions —
Outlasting every thunderstorm, outdistancing the oceans,
And as we make our way through time, through storms and trials and strife,
May every blooming pear tree be a paean to her life.
— George Thomas Wilson