(A tribute to Betty Terry, delivered at her memorial service Saturday, 02/26/2011)
For years, I thought I wanted to be an English teacher and even began a graduate program. And then one day I had the sudden realization that if I did become a teacher, I’d continue to have homework every day for the rest of my career. Forget about it!
See, I procrastinate. But Mom didn’t. Every evening during her teaching days you could find her sitting in one particular living room corner grading her students’ papers and preparing her lessons for the next day or week. She hated waiting until the last minute to do anything. If she had a talk to prepare for church, she’d have it written days ahead of time.
Not me. From childhood, I remember many a snot-filled tearful meltdown the night before a big project was due. A perfectionist, I’d be paralyzed with fear and finally come to Mom to plead for help. And she would help, calmly and kindly. She’d never do the assignment for me, but she’d help out with soothing encouragement and creative ideas. “Let’s try it this way. How about if we make a shadow box in an old shoe box? Or an African hut made from clay?”
For a week, I’ve known I had to write this talk. But it was hard. And I put it off. I didn’t start getting my thoughts together until 3am this morning. The ideas were not coming. Where was my Mommy to help me figure it out? And then suddenly, I realized I was sitting in the very same corner where she sat each night to grade papers, in almost the exact same position. And I realized that she was there and that throughout my life, even after I moved across the country to California and stopped seeing and speaking to her everyday, she has been there for me, Encouraging me. Loving me to action.
Our mom was not just a teacher, she was… she IS our coach.
And she taught by example. In her life, she was a model of kindness and generosity to those she’d meet, no matter who they were or what their background was. She loved meeting people from different countries and was interested in learning about their lives. One of my favorite Sunday School lessons was when she brought our class two containers of chocolate chip cookies. One batch was colored a sickly green color and the other was a beautiful golden brown. What we didn’t know was that she had dumped several cups of salt into the latter group of cookies. They were inedible, while the green cookies were delicious. She wanted us to learn not to judge things… or especially people… by their external appearances. She didn’t. She reached out to everyone.
For a while when I was in high school, Mom was the seminary teacher for our ward [religious studies for L.D.S. teenagers each week day before school] and held early morning classes in the basement family room. Each morning, she’d cheerfully attempt to wake me up, and I’d respond in a way that was less than enthusiastic, to put it mildly, then come straggling down in my bathrobe and sit sulking on the stairs. I don’t remember the content of any of those lessons, but by her example I learned about commitment to a cause and perseverance in the face of daunting obstacles, including those as seemingly insurmountable as a the resistance of disgruntled teenagers. Mom never gave up on us. Never.
Mom loved to read and instilled that love in me even before I was old enough to go to school. Her favorite thing to do was to curl up in a chair with a book, whether her scriptures or a novel or a children’s series like Harry Potter. And even after the Alzheimer’s started eating away at her memory and she couldn't remember what she had read, you’d still find her constantly with a book in her hand.
After Mom finally lost her words and could no longer read or carry on a conversation, the power of her smile transcended words. She still radiated love. She was still our teacher.
Since Monday, it’s felt like there was a Betty-shaped hole in our family. It’s so strange to sit in the living room reminiscing and not be able to look up and see Mom sitting in her favorite corner. But as I sat in that corner last night, I realized more than ever that she’s inside me and still very much a part of our family. Her example and spirit are with all of us now more than ever. She’s still teaching. We just have to shut up for once and listen.