December 15, 1939 – November 2, 2021
Eulogy – November 9, 2021
Ruth Vernell Lawson was born in the image of God on December 15, 1939 to Shorty and Enza Lawson in Pennington Gap, Virginia. In her first year her parents moved to High Point. Shorty was a truck driver and Enza stayed home.
Today we gather to honor her life. Her whole life.
Mom was an only child. As much as anything else she might’ve changed about her life, she always wanted brothers and sisters – more family around. Most of her lifelong efforts at having as much family around her as possible, as much of the time as possible, was a continuation of her never ending effort to fulfill that desire.
Later, she had a step-brother, Butch Reddick. Every time I ever asked her a question about her early life, if Butch came up, she always spoke fondly. She was grateful for anyone else she could consider family then. Even though they were both older by the time it was official that they were stepbrother and stepsister, they already knew each other and Mom already respected Butch. Butch was the only sibling kind of relationship mom ever had. She clearly treasured the ways Butch showed up for her over the years. Even still – today.
Part of what is true is that the early home mom grew up in was full of conflict. So much so that mom left home at sixteen. She eventually got married, dropped out of school, and went to work – mostly because she wanted to be in a more peaceful home.
That didn’t work out either, and mom’s first marriage ended. Her own parents divorced sometime after she moved out. Even though she’d already realized her own sanity meant that she couldn’t live together with them, the reality of them apart still broke her heart.
Pots and Pans
I remember when Sherry and Judy and I all first learned any of this – or at least when I did. I think it was news to all of us. Back in the early ‘80’s Hope Chests were a thing for young southern girls. This long drawn out process of accumulating a chest full of things you might use in a home once you get married – and then Hope you get to use it…
Sherry and Judy were both in that phase and all of their friends were too more or less. So every time one of their friends bought something from a high pressure salesperson, that salesperson got recommended to all their friends too with some sort of super insider discount if you act right now. You know how these things work. For a few years it was just a steady onslaught of people trying to sell mom various highly priced housewares for Hope Chests.
So that’s where we were. Mom had relented and agreed to sit through a presentation from a slick cookware salesman. I was there because I wasn’t old enough to be anywhere else and I remember how impressive this stuff was. By my memory it would do nearly everything but clean itself. I think the guy even hinted that if you used it just right you wouldn’t even have to clean it. I mean, we all knew he was lying about that, but the stuff was impressive.
Over The Line
We were all sitting around admiring the fancy cookware near the end of the presentation when it was getting close to time to fish or cut bait. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife:
- The salesman was mentally calculating a discount to offer to turn this presentation into two sales for two daughters instead of just the one he’d booked with.
- Timing being what it was, I think Sherry was farther into this process than Judy at that point. If I recall correctly, this particular visit was focused on her. So, naturally, Sherry was anxious about whether mom was nearly four figures worth of impressed enough to write a check that day.
- Judy seemed REALLY hopeful that the Salesman’s already hinted at double purchase discount would come in persuasively.
- Mom, as was usually the case when someone was trying to talk her into spending money, was superbly unimpressed with the whole thing.
By this time, of course, mom had a solid decade or two herself as a fairly successful direct sales presenter. And, well, at least this kid tried. I think even the three of us had been to enough Rubbermaid parties with mom to know that this guy had some work to do. I’m sure he got better…
In a final play to push the sale over the line, the salesman said something about the cookware being long lasting. He hinted that Sherry and Judy would want to pass it down to their children. At some point in the silence one of them, or maybe both together, arrived out loud at the playfully obvious question, “Hey – Mom – why didn’t you get any really nice cookware that you could pass down to us???”
Yeah Mom… Why?
That brought chuckles of, “Yeah, mom… that would solve the problem today. You could give yours to ONE of us and we’d only have to buy ONE set today instead of the TWO sets we’re REALLY going to need to get TODAY!” I think it may have been Judy trying to drive that last point home, but I don’t really remember. Mind you, I’m a purely uninterested bystander in all of this. But, it got REALLY entertaining as it went on.
The tension in the room REALLY broke when mom answered the question. After another beat of silence mom just said, “Well, I DID get a really nice set of cookware the first time I got married but when you leave in a hurry, you don’t worry about packing up pots and pans…”
I think mom instantly regretted letting THAT cat out of the bag. We were all three eyes big as saucers and jaws on the floor like, “Oh yeah – no, THAT’S a story – and we wanna hear it!!!”
Mom was suddenly much more interested in hearing the rest of the young man’s presentation. “Now that’s enough of that… We need to pay attention and let this man finish.” Of course we got it out of her later. Whatever she was willing to share.
I can’t know exactly what that moment was like for anyone else. For me though, as the youngest, it was the very first moment where it dawned on me that mom had had a whole life of her own. And, that a lot of it, at that point, was still before we all even existed!
That’s A Lot…
That was her start in life. She was a truck driver’s daughter from about as far west as you can get in the tip end of Virginia who had dropped out of school and survived two broken homes by the time she was in her early 20’s – mostly alone. That’s a lot to carry just starting out.
Ruth Vernell Lawson was not the type to stop though. She was not the sort to sit down or settle. Or, accept the idea that things were going to turn out any way other than some way that would be OK. She completed her GED and was working downtown when she met Ed Durham.
Dad had had his own misadventure with a brief starter marriage that hadn’t worked out. He’d married a high school sweetheart before responding to the draft. He went to Izmir, Turkey to get married housing details worked out so his bride could join him. Instead, he got a “Dear John” letter that said, “Dear Ed, I’m not coming to Turkey. And, this whole thing isn’t really going to work out because I’m not waiting for you to get back either.”
Dad was just back from all of that when Mom saw him at a little place near her office. He frequented a lunch counter around the corner from the school he was working through. She saw something in the Son of five generations of dirt poor sharecroppers who had just done 2 years in the Army and was about to go into business for himself.
Mom was maybe, lowkey, sort of a stalker…?
One day, one of us observed that it sounded like Mom had sort of, maybe, kind of stalked Dad a little bit – and had maybe lured him in without him ever really knowing they hadn’t just accidentally bumped into each other at lunch. I mean, she had him staked out and had pretty much decided what was going to happen and how it was going to go. All she had to do was help him figure it out.
Mom’s reply to the question about whether or not she’d “stalked” him: “Well, I only chased him until I decided to let him catch me.” He never knew what hit him and he spent the rest of his life dead level grateful it had.
They Pulled It Off
And that right there, friends and neighbors, was Ruth Durham off to a start at making a life for herself that would be OK.
As Mom worked to make a family around herself, I came along last in that story. The Fourth of mom’s children. It’s only information for me, but it was an actual experience to some degree for Sherry and Judy that Mom lost a son, stillborn, before I was born. Maybe he was the easy brother…
Most every day of my childhood I, we, were more or less sheltered from all that had been so broken and so hard for these two people who just wanted everything to be OK. As monumentally phenomenal as our Mother was, nobody is trying to pretend that she or Dad either one were perfect, or that they did everything just right. But, you’ve got to look at it on the whole.
Year after year, day by day, step by step, together – they did every single thing they could to make everything OK. And, more or less, they pulled it off as well as they could’ve possibly known how to do. They hid all that was hard and give us the best they could no matter what it cost them.
Welcome to the Party
Life around Mom was always some kind of party. No words can do that justice – you had to be there. If you ever were there to experience part of Ruth’s party, you knew you were always welcome back from then on. But, I can’t describe it with words – and that takes a lot for me to admit. But, you really just had to be there.
We all had that gift. We were there for the party. In whatever way you were a part of Mom’s life, Mamaw’s life, Ruth’s life. You got to be there – here – for the party.
Bobby, you sit with us as family today too. I want you to know how grateful I am for that. You have been a deep and loving part of so many phases of our lives. You put up with me as a young RA and were one of the many who helped mom and dad raise me.
I am so grateful that you were also a part of this phase of our lives too and that you brought Mom so much happiness in her final days. Thank You so much.
Everybody Has A Job To Do…
Listen, everyone has a job to do today. Some of the most recent memories of mom’s last days are not the best ones. Everyone’s job now is to search for all the very best memories you have. Keep the ones you need to from the hard parts – and let the rest go. Your job today is to begin the never ending labor of love of nurturing the best of all your memories of Mom, of Mamaw, of whoever Ruth was to you.
Now – there will always be a temptation to second guess all the “what ifs.” What if mom had listened to folks asking her to slow down and be a little more careful? What if we’d insisted more firmly? What if this had been different, or that…?
No. Listen, If you thought for one skinny minute that the woman I just described to you was ever gonna sit down, slow down, settle down, or ever do anything other than live every second of her life exactly how she wanted to – well – you’ve lost your ever lovin’ mind. I don’t know what else to say to you on that point ‘cause – I mean – I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention so far if that’s where you are with Ruth Vernell Lawson Durham.
Here’s What I Know is True
Here’s what I know to be true: My mother’s last clear thought that she held in her mind was of walking into a room filled with people she loved, and who lover her, to do a thing she enjoyed as much as any other – they were going to play cards.
I wish she hadn’t had the fog she endured in her final days. Even in her most lucid final moments of clarity at home, that was about all she was able to say about it all amid her snippets of memories – that it was all just a blur.
Perhaps there’s a kind of Mercy in that.
Her last fully clear, fully held, fully owned in her own immediate experience, absent any fog of confusion, thought – was of walking into a room full of people she loved to do a thing she enjoyed as much as any other. I’m not going to have any trouble at all finding peace for her in that.
Shuffling off the Mortal Coil
I’ve made a long practice of not trying to pretend to know anything about what heaven is like. I’m not going to start today. However, if we were to let ourselves speculate about what might be most fitting for Mom, [shuffling a deck of cards on the pulpit…] I imagine the experience might have been something a lot like making that last step into a room full of people she loves, sitting down at a table with Daddy, Shorty, and whoever else is available to play – maybe some of their friends from back before they even had us kids.
As Shorty might say, “It’s your turn ‘Dude.’ Here – this deck’s ready.”
[place shuffled deck on pulpit]