I’m in Germany for the month of May, so this will be the first Mother’s Day that I am not at home with my wife and children. The children are old enough to handle things for their mom, so all is well. But I’m been thinking a lot about my mother who died on Thanksgiving Day in 2009 while I’ve been traveling this semester. Especially when I was in Paris I knew that my mom would have loved to have seen so many of the places we visited and to hear the church bells on Sunday morning. She was from a poor, rural Southern family, but she always dreamed of seeing places like Paris. And I know she would have been happy that I’ve gotten to do some of things I’ve done. Moms are like that. But she is gone and Mother’s Day is always bittersweet now. And so, for those of you who knew her and those who would have like to have known her, here is my Mother’s Day present to her. It is a republishing of the memoir or Lebenslauf I wrote for her funeral. It’s a bit longer than those ugly hand drawn cards I used to make that she said she loved.
In the Moravian Church, it is customary to read a memoir of the deceased at the funeral. Here is my mother’s memoir that will be read this afternoon.
Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Brown Atwood
March 25, 1930 – November 26, 2009
Elizabeth Atwood was born on March 25, 1930 in Forsyth County, NC. She was the daughter of Solomon Levi Brown and Pearl Swaim Brown, and she had seven brothers and sisters. Elizabeth was known by many affectionate names through the years, which reflected the changing circumstances of her life. One of her older brothers tried to call her Wee Bess or little Bess when she was young, but instead it came out as Wee Bet, and the name stuck. She was still called Wee Bet by many relatives even when she was grown. She preferred the name Lib, and that was how most people knew her as an adult, but when her first grandson was born, he called her Nanny. Eventually most of the family called her Nanny since all of the grandchildren did. When she was in the hospital after her last surgery, some of the nurses called her Nanny. It was a name that expressed the love that many people had for her.
Elizabeth was born near the beginning of the Great Depression, and that terrible time had a profound impact on her life. When she was just a toddler the family moved to a farm in Iredell County where they lived in a large house. The family’s first house had burned down a few years earlier, along with most of Pearl’s family heirlooms. They moved into the new house with high hopes, but it was hard work living on a farm. Years later, Wee Bet could recall how frightened she was of the chickens when she had to get eggs from them each morning. She was too tender hearted to watch as some of the country food was prepared. It was lonely in the country with so little to entertain a bright child, and so Wee Bet made a pet of one of the goats and got in trouble one day for taking it into the house upstairs to her room. Mr. Goat was banned from the house.
Elizabeth and the rest of the family looked forward to Vacation Bible School each year, but the annual revival services and all too frequent funerals were frightening to a sensitive child. She loved to read and draw as a child, and she continued to do both for most of her life. Her brothers used to make things to amuse her and her sisters loved to sing. Her younger sister Ima was her closest friend to the end of her days. They supported each other through countless trials and tribulations, often meeting troubles with laughter. They were known to play tricks on each other, even as they got older. Everyone thought it was Ima who was the source of trouble, but Wee Bet had a very funny, wicked streak, too. She loved to laugh, and she taught her children not to take hardships too seriously.
Life was often hard. The Depression took its toll, and the Brown family, like so many thousands of others, lost their farm. They moved to Winston-Salem where Sol could work as a carpenter. They moved to a small house on the south side of town, and the children became active in the Sunday School at New Eden Moravian Church. Elizabeth attended Gray High School where she excelled in art. She went to work as a young woman and was able to help support the family.
Elizabeth married Wade Lee Weatherman when she was a young woman. This was during the post-war “Baby Boom,” and she and Wade Lee had three children: Reenea, Keith, and Lynn. She loved her children dearly, and they remained very close to her through the years. Since her husband was in the service, they moved for a time to Texas. She often talked about how hard it was to take the train back to North Carolina alone with three children and remembered fondly the small acts of kindness from strangers. Sadly, the marriage ended painfully, but she and the children were always welcome at Grandma Weatherman’s house.
Elizabeth and her small children returned to her parent’s house and she went to work at Western Electric. It was there that she met her second husband, Albert Atwood. His family had a dairy farm in the western part of the county, and he always wanted to be a farmer like most of his ancestors. Unfortunately, the Atwood Dairy could not compete with the new conglomerates, and so Albert had to go to work in the factory, too. After he and Elizabeth married, they were able to build a new house on land that had been part of the farm in the new development of Atwood Acres, on Atwood Road. It made it easy for their child, Craig, to remember his address when he went off to school. That was a hard day for Elizabeth as the last of her children went off on the school bus, but she was always there to greet the children when they returned.
Lib worked hard to make the house into a home and to be part of a growing neighborhood. Since the Atwoods kept extensive vegetable gardens, much of the summer was spent picking, shelling, shucking, canning, and freezing green beans, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. She was a wonderful cook, and the children did not mind the chiggers they got picking blackberries once the fruit was baked into a pie. Lib loved all children, and would make up funny songs to sing to them, including one about a “big gray elephant” and another about the donkey singing at the break of day. She knew lots of games and there was almost always laughter when she was around. As the children grew up and had families of their own and Lib became Nanny, she loved to attend family parties at their houses. Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4, and even Halloween were times to laugh over family stories. Everyone loved to be with her, but would playfully compete over who was her favorite. It was Craig, of course.
The family decided to join Hope Moravian Church, where John Walker was the minister, and everyone was deeply involved in the congregation. At one point, everyone in the family except Craig sang in the choir. People at church will always remember Lib’s hats which she wore every Sunday. Lib excelled in writing liturgies and poems for church. She had a gift for language, but she did confess once that she sometimes changed a word if she wasn’t sure how to spell it. One of the major themes of her writing was the need for people to live as Christ intended us to live rather than simply observing religious traditions. What is the point of a beautiful lovefeast, she would ask, if you do not live in Christian love? Lib had a probing mind, and she probably pushed one son into theology by posing questions such as whether Solomon was really wise to suggest dividing a baby between two women.
Lib loved art, and for many years she painted. Even after she gave up painting, she would make cartoons and cards for family members. At this point, the truth can probably be revealed that it was indeed Nanny who wrote dozens of letters from Santa Claus to children in Winston-Salem. She thought it was unfair that children wrote letters to Santa without getting a reply, and so each year she would compose Christmas poems with illustrations for children on behalf of St. Nick. As they got older, some of them noticed that Santa’s handwriting looked suspiciously like Nanny’s, but that only made them love her more. Nanny’s greatest joy was her four children, ten grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
She saw many of them through extremely difficult times, and she was like a second mother to Erik, Jodie, Nicole, and Mark. Young grandchildren often slept in the bed with her when they were afraid of the dark, and she would sing silly songs about Sweetums or play games to get them to go to sleep. Whoever went to sleep first would be the princess and the last one would be the frog. Her granddaughter Allyson would wake Nanny up if she fell asleep because she did not want to be the frog. The younger grandchildren Emily, Billy, Kelly, Sarah, and Madeleine didn’t get to spend as much time with Nanny because of distance and her failing health, but she loved them dearly.
Nanny suffered from ill health for many years, mainly gastric problems. She grew increasingly frail, but her mind and spirit remained strong to the end. In the last year of her life she attended the funeral of her beloved grandson Erik here at Hope Church, and a few months later was able to attend the wedding of her granddaughter Allyson also at Hope Church. One of the last times she went out in public was for the baptism of her youngest great-grandchild, Cooper, who is now part of Hope Church, too.
In August Nanny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she endured surgery for the sake of her family, hoping against hope for a cure. When it was evident that she would not recover she made the choice to discontinue treatment. She faced her death with grace, courage, and confidence in her Savior. She died on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 2009. It is hard for those who loved her for so many years to let her enter into the more immediate presence of Christ, but all were thankful that day for many years of love and joy. Nanny was ready to lay down her burdens and died peacefully. One of her requests was that no sad songs be sung at her funeral. She wanted to be remembered with laughter and joy. It is appropriate that her ashes will be buried here at Hope Church where she found so much joy in the midst of hardships and sorrows.
This 26th day of November 2009
The Rev. Dr. Craig D. Atwood