I want to talk about my mother Linda Stevens. Sometimes this week when I’m talking to people who knew her I feel a little bit like I’m in Citizen Kane, a movie where everybody has a different perspective on the hero. But Citizen Kane was a tragedy in the classic sense. The hero had big flaws that brought him down. What’s happened to my mother is devastating to all of us. It’s horrible and unfair and we’re all hurting more than you can imagine. But maybe in a way it’s not tragic, because she died being exactly the kind of person she wanted to be. And she had enough time in life to do it. Sixty-one is way too early to go, and yet my mother used that time very well, struggling through extreme personal difficulty to achieve what she did.
When my grandfather talks about my mother, he remembers somebody who woke up every morning and first thing said her devotionals in a moment of extreme privacy, praying for everybody she knew and who needed her, a practice that took so long it often made her late. And as a lot of us remember, she was late a lot. My 10-year-old nephew Colin and niece Sophie remember their grandma as someone who always tucked them in and said prayers. Most of us remember my mother as someone who hated cigarette smoking, but our very close family friend remembers a time when my mother sat with her on a beach and relaxed and smoked an entire cigarette. That story rings true to me about my mother, because I think all of us, no matter who we are, sometimes need to go off and be an entirely different person for a little while. My aunt Linda, her former sister-in-law, remembers my mother as someone who had an intensely personal relationship with God and talked about Jesus with an intimacy, as if he were her best friend. She wouldn’t go see Passion of the Christ because she didn’t want to see that friend being abused. My sister remembers a lot of things, like I do, but especially that my mother, for the first years of our life, was the primary breadwinner in our house while my father, her first husband, was in college and looking for a career. While we two kids and my father stayed home and had fun and watched All My Children, my mom was the one working. Her foster children, Candice and Charisma, remember her as the woman who was buying them nice dresses and taking them to Europe because without my mother things like that would not have been conceivable for them. And it’s no small addition to say that very often my mother broke her own bank making those things happen. She was willing to give of herself totally to give other people the blessings she had taken for granted.
I remember a time a couple of years ago when I came home to visit Oklahoma for a conference I was attending, and my mother had to call me from her cell phone. “Eric, I don’t want to put you out, but there’s going to be an entire El Salvadoran family staying in the house with you tonight.” “OK.” I thought. “Can I … How do I … What should I … Well, OK.” Other times she would say to me that she was tapping her own bank account to pay for somebody else’s wedding. Many times it got to the point where she had me rolling my eyes. But I had to stop and remind myself that the world would be a better place if there were more people like my mother in it.
A lot of people are here today because they might remember my mother as an altruist and lawyer and a member of the choir and a tax preparer and a friend to people in need. I remember her as those things, too, but I also want to stop and remember the woman I met. My parents grew up in the ’60s and when I met them they were idealists. When I was a baby the songs she sang to my sister and me in the bathtub were Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan (which is why we asked that it be played here) and Yellow Submarine by the Beatles. My father always swore that the Frank Zappa records belonged to her, not him. It was part of our family lore that she was painfully shy when she was younger and told me that it took her a long time to come out of her shell. That’s a hard journey that I don’t want people to overlook because I think it puts the person she became into perspective and I think it explains a lot about her compelling need to help people later. But that shy, pretty woman was the mom that I met, and first loved even though it became harder and harder through the years for her to be that person. The times required her to be something new and life required her to give up the shyness and be strong for other people. Yet the memories of my mother the quiet, maybe even kind of hippie-ish woman are still vivid and almost as hard for me to give up. I feel like I’m saying goodbye to that person, too, which makes this very hard for me.
We had a house with too many cats, then too many dogs. And we had my father, her first husband, who was so colorful and who needed so much attention that sometimes it was almost like having a third kid. It was a little much for one woman to sustain. My mother could have and probably should have parted ways with him much earlier but she didn’t because of my sister and me. I believe to this day that most of the strength I have today I have because my mother made that sacrifice for me and they kept our family together for as long as they possibly could. I wasn’t able to tell my father, who died a few years ago, how much he had given me. But happily, I was able to tell my mother. And so again, where there could be tragedy, there isn’t.
When my mother divorced she spent a few years searching spiritually and emotionally and lost us kids to adulthood at about the same time. I went away to college the day she turned 40. And I wondered later if perhaps losing the identity of motherhood quickly was something that had hurt her more than she let on. Because I know her need to be a mother was not gone. Suddenly, one day Bruce Stevens came into her life. I was away at college and barely had time to get home to meet him before the nuptials were planned. With just a few hours to spare I met my new father. Before I had even come home from school, I was having my part written in a wedding and joining a family I didn’t know. It happened fast, and some of us thought at the time maybe too fast. But that feeling was quickly eclipsed when we saw my mother go through a spiritual renaissance. All of the energy she had spent searching and fighting through her shyness and confusion was suddenly extremely focused, and the shy mom who I grew up with turned into this powerhouse of ideas and energy and direction, who could act quickly on any moral imperative only because she thought it was right. And once she knew that it was right, all of a sudden, you could not stop her under any circumstances. A few years ago, she said she was taking as many foster kids and grandkids as possible on a trip to Niagara Falls, New York City and Washington, D.C. In about four days. In a van. From Oklahoma. I insisted that she was crazy. There was no way that trip worked. People in Oklahoma said it wouldn’t work, but when she wouldn’t let up, they said, “Hey, can I go?” And now we have the pictures to prove—she did it.
I think all of us know how hard it is to do the right thing—to take in strangers, to give money to charity, to sacrifice your time and your safety for an idea that’s bigger than you. And yet my mother seemed overnight to be stronger than all of us. She retired from the IRS and in her late 40s started talking about law school. She became a lawyer and started helping the entire family with various problems, even me with tax help. She became such a champion, that every new person in trouble became a project. She tried to figure out what that person needed to offer them strength, find out what their obstacles were and then help them overcome. And at the same time she had to assuage the rest of us who doubted that it could be achieved. Sometimes you felt like you were in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Baily’s father kept breaking the bank, giving to her church, her kids and her foster kids. Most recently, she brought in two dogs, who literally ate her house. There are no more cushions. There are no more rugs. They even ate the remote controls to her television. But my mother was the kind of person who had, through everything she had been through, learned to see from the Sparky and Max’s perspective. Max, the pit bull, was just a giant baby. And Sparky, the constantly barking mutt, was just a little dog who had been taken away from it’s mother too soon.
Well today I am seeing the world from Sparky’s perspective.