Eighty-six years ago, my grandmother was escorted to a hospital in Peiping, China (now Beijing) in an ambulance, by a military escort because the city was under martial law. No one was allowed to be on the streets because of fighting with the Japanese. She gave birth to my mother, Mary Joan Slater (Mary Jo) shortly after. Yes, my mother was born in China. My grandparents were medical missionaries in China in the 1930’s. My mother’s first language was Chinese. Her first “family” were the other missionaries and the Chinese people they knew. Her first school was in Nantung. Her first HOME was China.
On December 26, 1940, the family was evacuated on the last ship out of China, after the Japanese warned that if they did not leave, they would become prisoners of war. It was hard to leave everything they knew and loved there, but the Slaters (now with my Uncle Bill and Aunt Joy added to the family) left for the United States. My mother was painfully shy, and was so afraid to move not only to a new school, but to a new country. My grandpa enlisted in the Army, and was gone for a few years, which was very hard on them, but so typical of a lot of families during WWII.
Meeting and marrying my father in college was the best decision she ever made. She was barely 19, and they eloped because her parents wanted her to finish college first. Fortunately, it all worked out, and my parents were married for 52 years before her death in 2002. I’m pretty sure both sides of the family were in a state of shock, but they soon realized the union was a perfect match. Both sets of grandparents were very good to each of my parents.
Mama was the perfect minister’s wife. She was so kind, sweet, smart, honest, and compassionate. She truly was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known….even through my horrible teenage years, where we didn’t see eye to eye! She was silly, a little spacey….I know where I get it…….and so much fun to be around. She was always willing to let down her guard to have a good time, especially as she got older. Tea parties and pretending with the grandchildren, “antiquing” and going out for tea with her five daughters, and playing with her dolls and her beautiful dollhouse (built by my Grandpa Penry and my father). I’ve never known anyone who could claim “cleaning” as a hobby, but she could! Her younger brothers, Butch and Chuck, could talk her into anything, even though it was rarely in her best interest! Rides on the back of motorcycles, and going down my grandparents’ driveway on a homemade go-cart (made from an old ironing board) were just two of the things they talked her into, and she regretted later. On a few other occasions, she made crazy decisions all on her own……swinging on a vine or a tire swing, and jumping on a trampoline when she was well into her 60’s……..as embarrassed as she was later about these things, she always had the childlike innocence to look for fun. As mature and composed as she usually was, she still had the ability and desire to look for fun.
My mother was also very strong. She had to go to work after being a stay at home mom for years. My father had been sick, and my sisters needed glasses and braces. Bills were accumulating. She learned to drive at the same time as my 16 year old sister. Right after getting her drivers’ license (at the age of 38), she went to work as a social worker, where she had to commute (not easy for someone who had just learned to drive!). Social work is a tough job, but she did it for a lot of years! She lost both of her parents and a younger brother, and even though she couldn’t talk about them without crying, she kept going, showing her love for them through her memories of them…..and her tears.
Being a minister’s wife was not always easy either, but she loved and supported Daddy through every difficult situation (including the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas in the 1960’s). She always taught Sunday School, and I know she impacted hundreds of young lives through her own ministry. She and Daddy were definitely each other’s biggest supporter and the best of friends. They made a great team!
So Mama has been gone for nearly 15 years now, and today would have been her 86th birthday. It’s not easy for me, but I always celebrate her birthday by eating Chinese food, and usually go to an antique store and drink a cup of tea. Tonight, Al came home with roses for me, in Mama’s honor……..
I know I will never be as good as she was, but I can always strive to be better than I am. She had a way of saying my name, or giving me a look, or poking her finger in my side to get me to behave! Sometimes I swear I can feel that same poke, or hear her say my name…….you know, when your middle name gets tacked on the end when you’re in trouble…..”Lauri Ann!” I know I inherited her sense of fun, and I am grateful to her for that, along with so many other things. I know when I do something that seems a bit….airheaded……it’s her way of getting back at me for laughing at her for doing similar things! My sisters and I refer to these times as “Mary Jo moments.”
My mama was a pretty special lady. She led a fascinating life from her beginnings in China to her years as a minister’s wife, a mother, and a grandmother. I miss her every day. But today, I celebrate her, and the time I had with her. I’m very lucky. I love you, Mama.