By Lewis Willis
Not only are there a number of people here — mourners — but there is also a flood of memories crowding its way into this small chapel. That’s the way it is at funerals. Sometimes a family can scarcely see the people who are present, because of the memories. Go ahead and remember — reminisce — that’s what I intend to do in my remarks to you today, perhaps in a way that some might consider irreverently!
We Willises have been a large family of nine people. Naturally, each has his or her own thoughts today. My thoughts of the daily activities of the family are primarily of things that happened before I left home. The events in the lives of the younger children, I was not there to witness, and, therefore, I cannot speak of those things. Forgive me if there is something I should have included in these comments; I either do not know of them, or, more than likely, I have simply forgotten them. That’s the way it is with us old men!
I thought for some time for a word or expression that would somewhat sum up the life of Mom. I finally settled on “family”; I think her family was the essence and substance of her life. Make absolutely no mistake about it, her first interest was God and the Church. But after that came her family. Anyone who knew her soon learned that her heart was centered on her children and grandchildren. Thus, I call to remembrance some memories about the Family.
Of course, the beginning of a family is the marriage. Mom and Dad had been happily married for 68 years when he died exactly one year ago to the day that Mom died, August 2. What an irony! She was never the same after Dad’s death. It is inevitable that such is the case. Two people who have been together so long do not function normally when one has gone. Theirs was a good marriage. If it experienced any major problems, I was never aware of them. Oh, there were the usual fusses and disagreements, but never did Dad abuse Mom in anyway, nor she him. She was the reason for his life! She loved and respected him, and they stood beside each other until the ravages of age separated them with his death. Mom’s failing health concerned him greatly and the changes brought by her decline he was never able to understand or accept. I am convinced that his confusion over nursing home living accelerated his death. You will remember he was hospitalized for the last time when, left alone the first night at a nursing home in Ft. Worth, he tried to get to Mom to comfort her in her distress. We would all have been surprised had he been indifferent toward her plight. But he never recovered from his anxiety over her condition.
And, Mom never recovered over her loss of Dad. She often spoke of her feelings of despair that she had not mourned his death as she thought she should. With Alzheimer’s disease, I’m not certain she had the capacity to mourn as she normally would have. If she was in possession of normal capacities, however, she knew Dad was much better off in death than he could possibly have been living in his condition. How do you mourn when someone goes to Heaven’s rest? So, death separated them. That’s what happens to us all sooner or later. Such is burdensome to observe, especially when one’s parents are going through that crisis. Sadly, we watched the ravages of age on them and their marriage. Personally, I am grateful they have now been delivered from that trauma.
I want to now speak to you of Mom. She and her kids are quite another story. There were always a number of children around. Alone, we were a crowd. But, she wanted our friends to come to our house to play, “so she could keep an eye on” her kids; she insisted on knowing what we were doing. I’m not certain there was much comfort to her in that knowledge. Some of the things she saw looking out the windows watching her kids had to be less than comforting.
She saw Cecil and Don painting Grandma’s house next door. They got to the end of the job, except the gable of the wall next to our house. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a ladder long enough to reach the top so they had to make some provision to enable them to finish the job. They took two step-ladders, with a 2×12 extended between them, then placed a straight ladder in the middle. Don held the feet of the ladder on the 2×12 while Cecil climbed to the very top, with paint can and brush, and finished the painting work. With the job finally done, it was time for some fun. Cecil asked Don what he’d do if he sprinkled him with paint. Don said he’d just turn loose of the ladder he was holding. Whereupon Cecil came crashing to the ground from the top, landing on his back and catching the falling paint can just before it landed in his face. The paint sloshed out right into Cecil’s face and hair — and folks, that was the days before water-based paint! Mom not only had to witness this debacle, she also had to clean the paint off Cecil’s head. She probably should have let him just wear it off!
Out that same window she saw Cecil and Billy light a possum on fire with kerosene. The possum, with flames leaping up higher than a man’s waist, headed straight for escape under the family house, directly under the window out of which Mom was watching. The possum ran toward the house, not once but twice, and the boys barely prevented the house being burned down! I’m sure she was comforted to watch what her kids were doing that day!
One of the most frightening things to happen was when she learned that Don was severely injured when the saddle slipped on the horse he was riding, catching his foot in the stirrup, and dragging him across a bridge. He was unconscious, and was taken to the hospital. You had to be in pretty bad shape at our house to be taken to the hospital in those days. After the marvelous medical care he received in Lufkin, he was sent home, still unconscious! And he remained unconscious for three days! Apparently it was thought he might as well be at home, after all, there were no broken bones. And, he survived, though we have always had an obvious explanation for Don through the years since that happened!
I was the third child; the only truly good one of the bunch! I was never any trouble; I was always doing exactly as I had been told to do. The only problem I ever had was surviving all the slanderous reports about me that Ouida gave to Mom. Though she is younger than I, that’s the way it is with oldest sisters. They always get their brothers in trouble. Unfortunately, remember Mom made us play at home so she could watch all of this confusion and hear hourly behavior reports.
Then, there was Sue; beautiful Sue! Always primping and preparing for her anticipated glamourous life! I cannot recall her every doing anything mischievous or mean. For that matter, I cannot recall her ever doing anything at all! Just sitting around looking pretty!
Mom watched out her window as Mike became a cowboy. He learned to ride calves at a very early age. Cecil came home from college, we had a new baby calf, and little Mike (perhaps three years old) simply had to learn to ride that calf. He had some difficulty at first but he soon mastered the art . . . when Cecil tied Mike’s feet under the belly of the calf! Mike bounced around the yard on that calf until he because an expert cowboy. Or, until the calf tired of jumping. Or, until Mom demanded that Cecil save her baby! I don’t know which came first. But, the shaking he received also somewhat explains Mike today, doesn’t it? I’ve heard him say that he has no hair today because that calf rubbed it all off, dragging him around the yard. I don’t knows if that’s true or not; something definitely happened to Mike’s hair though!
Now, Barbara was the youngest, and was therefore totally spoiled. The kids that were still at home as she grew up probably, at the time, didn’t even like her. Mom had decided that Barbara was going to be a concert pianist, I guess. Anyway, she saved her dimes and coins until she was able to buy Barbara a piano. This was probably the worst thing that ever happened to the other kids. Thereafter, anytime there was a job to do around the house, Barbara was unavailable to help; she had to practice her piano lessons. Mom must have really been “watching her kids” at that time. I’m a little surprised that both Barbara and the piano didn’t just mysteriously disappear one night!
Yes, Mom kept us at home, so she could watch us, and know what we were doing. She must have felt much better about us all, after witnessing some of the things we did! The other mothers of the community, no doubt, felt better about the safety of their children, knowing Mom was “watching us.”
There were times when discipline was required. Switches were the order of the day; she could use one better than most mothers. On a bare back, her switches seemed almost lethal. Psychologists and psychiatrists today, with all their psycho-babble, tell us how damaging discipline is for kids. However, I’ve now seen several generations of children who have been raised on their philosophy, and I prefer Mom’s child-raising philosophy more than theirs. I believe her approach worked better and I think my brothers and sisters share that same view. None of us was permanently damaged by her discipline.
Mom’s love for the Lord and the church must also be remembered. She did something special which certainly none of us understood at the time. You see, until Cecil, and then Don, started preaching, Dad didn’t go to worship. She always took us to every worship . . . alone! I do not believe there was a family in the church more faithful than ours. During the critical, formative years of her children, she was determined they would know the Lord. That was the principle work of Mom. Dad was off somewhere else at worship time. He was usually working on one of his trucks all day, getting ready for Monday morning and his logging work.
Sundays always began the same way. A big breakfast was prepared for all. After breakfast, Dad had the boys do the dishes, then help him make the beds, and he swept the entire house, from one end to the other. Meanwhile, Mom was getting the girls ready for worship. Each had long hair and she meticulously curled every strand; she did it perfectly, and they were beautiful. We all had special “church clothes” which Mom had carefully prepared ahead of time for the worship. When we went off to worship, we were wearing the very best, and cleanest clothes we had! We didn’t sit in the back at worship; we were seated on the front benches. For some reason, she always had me sitting on the bench directly in front of her and every time Ouida did something, Mom pinched me! I still don’t understand that.
Let me tell you something else I remember about the religion of our family in those days. In spite of our dire financial circumstances, we always had “meat” to eat on Sundays and Wednesdays. That’s because the preachers ate with us on those days. The men who preached here in Groveton always had a Sunday invitation to lunch at our house, and to spend the afternoon with us. If it was just the preacher, or him and his wife, or him and his wife and five kids, whatever, they all were invited to our house on Sunday. And, usually in the afternoon, the neighborhood kids assembled there as well. Some good football games were played on Sunday afternoons on the dirt road that ran in front of our house.
But, this was not all about food and fun. Mom was raising a large family, and she was determined to spiritually lead us properly. If Dad was not there to take the lead, then she had to do all she could, enlisting the help of the godly men who preached here, to see that her kids turned out to be Christians. If she had to work harder to accomplish that, she would pay the price. Cecil and Don, in their critical teenager years, came under the influence of these brethren, and they obeyed the Gospel. Through the influence of Mom, Grandma and Jodie, and those preachers, in time Cecil and Don decided they would spend their lives preaching the Gospel. They were nurtured along and encouraged by Mom and these brethren, and by the time they were in high school, both had Sunday preaching appointments in small congregations throughout this part of the country. Though Dad was still not faithful, the boys would each take a log truck, and drive to their preaching appointments on Sundays.
Mom had achieved her objective with her two oldest children. Through their influence, in time I also became a gospel preacher, as did Mike; all four of us. The girls all also obeyed the gospel. Ouida’s husband was an elder in the church, and Sue’s husband is a deacon. The family has had a significant impact on the church as a result of Mom’s faithfulness. When Cecil held his first gospel meeting here in Groveton, Ouida and I were baptized, and Dad was restored. Dad remained faithful to the end of his days! That, too, must be attributed to Mom’s faithfulness. Had she just lived as he had, none of us would likely be serving God today.
The preaching of Mom’s sons has been far-reaching. In those days, she could never have imagined the impact her family would have on the church of the 20th and 21st centuries. From this small town of about 1000-1200 people, her boys have gone forth. We have preached in most parts of Texas, into many different places in Florida, Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Hawaii, Alaska, and Wisconsin. Probably other states as well. We have preached in Eastern and Western Canada, in the Philippines, in Israel, Germany, and in Greece. We have had opportunity to teach many more through religious journals we have edited, articles we have written for publication, church bulletins we have edited, radio teaching we have done, published debates we have conducted, and books and tracts we have written. Who would ever have dreamed that a Mother living in a small East Texas town might touch the lives of so many, in such distant places, as Mom did through her sons? She put us in a place to be taught the Truth, and was determined we would know how important it is to teach and defend it. It is a tribute to Mom, for without her direction, such would never have happened.
Mom was not totally absorbed in her husband and her children. She actively sought occasion to get out of the house and into her own activities. When we owned the Woodlake store, she was in it meeting, talking with, and serving the people of the community. Through the years, she worked many hours in the Post Office at Woodlake. She loved to laugh and joke, till near the end of her life. When the doctors told her she was dying, Ouida asked her if she wouldn’t like to go see Dad. She responded, “Let Sue go!”
Her passion was crocheting. Dad called it knot-tying. She made many beautiful items for her family and friends through the years. Her last big undertaking was crocheting family last names for her children and grandchildren. She even made some of these items for distant relatives and strangers. She crocheted probably 125 of these name displays. They are beautiful when mounted and framed. Young people, Mom would be pleased if, each time you see and admire her crochet work in the future, you would remember her, and her love for you which prompted her to spend so many hours making that “name” display for you.
Mom dearly loved to sing. All of her children can and love to sing, also. We used to travel throughout this region to singings conducted by churches of Christ. We had a quartet, consisting of Mom, Cecil, Don, and me. We entertained our area brethren with spiritual songs, until we learned that the worship of the Lord is not to be entertainment. Had we had our preference, we would have preferred to continue.
Many hours were spent at home singing. When the peas were picked each year, after supper we all went to the back porch to shell them. Sometimes there would be several tubs of peas to shell, so it took a lot of time. Sometimes the neighbors came to help with the task, sometimes we helped them at their homes. But, always we sang! We knew the words, the parts, and the music by heart. There were very few songs we couldn’t sing. We sang the “fancy, spirited” songs, and we sang the old standards. You know the words of one of them. Sing it with me:
What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry, Everything to God in prayer.
Listen . . . Listen . . . Can you not almost hear her singing the alto part years ago, or in later years, singing the tenor? Yes, we hear and we remember. That’s why we could hardly sing that old familiar song today.
Family and friends, ladies and gentlemen, these things of which I have spoken are family memories — Precious Memories. J.B.F. Wright penned a song by that title, some of the words of which stir our souls today:
Precious father, loving mother, Fly across the lonely years;
And old home scenes of my childhood, In fond memory appear.
Precious mem’ries, how they linger, How they ever flood my soul;
In the stillness of the midnight, Precious, sacred scenes unfold.
It has occurred to me that this will very probably be our last family gathering here in Groveton . . . this occasion then will itself become a Precious Memory, hopefully. We have briefly gazed back upon an ancestor and our ancestry. We have shared some laughs and some tears. And now we must take Mom to her final resting place beside Dad and Cecil. The moments will pass swiftly now; savor them each and every one. Paint the scene indelibly on your mind and heart as we go to Sumpter Cemetery. Remember each mile, each step of the way. And, should your travels bring you into this area in the future, remember their grave sites; pause to visit, to pay your respects, to remember.
Yes, We Are Going Down The Valley One By One, Frankie, then Cecil, Dad, and now Mom. She committed herself to place in our hearts and lives the faith of the New Testament. If you have never obeyed that Gospel, do so at your earliest opportunity; don’t waste any valuable time in doing so. If you are not a faithful Christian, repent of your sins, and start serving God again. If you are in a human denomination, get out while you can; you cannot go to Heaven in that human-controlled church. If you are in an unfaithful church of Christ, one teaching, sympathizing with, and/or practicing error, get out while you can.
We, too, will join that procession into eternity ere long, marching toward Judgment Day. Let’s all get ready so we can join our loved ones who have gone before, and by God’s grace and mercy, let’s enter the portals of Heaven itself, safely at home again with each other and with our God, as a family!
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