Choosing the right words wasn’t easy, Mom

I know that I talk too much.

I spew out 140 words per minute, often for long stretches, and most of them are unnecessary. I’m never surprised when people walk away in the middle of my stories.

I write too much as well. I send emails with detailed messages. If I receive any replies at all, they often come with a simple “OK.”

Obviously then, I’m not the right person to design a commemorative rock for my mother. What I have to say would require a gigantic rock, or type so small that no one could read it.

Ken Bradford

But there I was, nine months after she died, looking for the right rock and the correct, short words.

Mom lived a long, relatively quiet life before her death at age 96 last October. If she had been born in a different generation, she likely would have been a professional writer. She wrote poetry in high school, and one of her poems about the war in the Pacific was printed in a national anthology.

But college wasn’t an option in her family. She got married at age 19 and raised a family. She didn’t return to writing until she was widowed at age 75. Unable to sleep, she would sit at a computer and write about her family life in brief essays that she rarely shared with anyone.

Mom had been an orphan. Her mother and father both died before she was 10. One sad Sunday afternoon, she sat unnoticed at the top of the stairs while her aunts and uncles argued in the parlor over who would raise Mom and her two younger brothers.

Everyone wanted the boys, she wrote. No one needed an extra girl.

All three ended up in the household of their aunt and uncle, Alma and Albert. The children’s needs were met but at a cost. Alma had seen other girls go astray and was very strict with Mom. She was not allowed to play with children who didn’t meet Alma’s narrow restrictions. Chief among those was that they go to a Lutheran Church connected to the Missouri Synod.

In their small city, there simply weren’t many Missouri Synod Lutherans.

Mom never learned to make her own friends. Throughout her life, she waited for others to determine for her whether she was worthy of friendship. I believe that is why she wrote. Her interior life was better than what she was living.

One of her essays was about the tense relationship between Alma and her other aunts. There was an eternal competition between Alma and another aunt, Anna, over the minutest of everyday details – who made the better pie crust, whose dress had the better seams, who was the thinnest. Often, they would force Mom to decide between them. 

She chose to be quiet and shy. That was the direction I was headed, too, until I reinvented myself late in my teen years. I tend to overcompensate now by not being quiet enough.

After her death, Mom was cremated and we chose not to bury her ashes. My brother Tom suggested there should be a stone someplace that would preserve her memory.

This was an easy project for me. Sara Stewart and Mitch Yaciw, my friends at Unity Gardens in South Bend, were happy to give me a large rock from their pile. Mom and Dad had been active with the German Township Lions Club, so it made sense that the memorial rock go at the old Lions Den at Wagner School on Portage Road. That’s where the township offices are now, and I got permission to put the rock there.

An old friend, Doug Kalk, had connections with a business that engraves rocks. I had all the elements I needed – except a message.

I thought first of lines from her poems. There was a line from one about Dad that I liked: 

“Your smile, your laughter

 are forever with me. 

You are engraved everlastingly

In my heart” 

This was too many words and a bit too personal. It also was inaccurate. It would be read mainly by strangers, and there was no way anything about them was engraved in her heart.

I had another idea, based on the Alma-Anna baking feud. Love the cook, not the cake. It was a solid lesson, befitting my mother. Perfect. Just six words. And that’s what I sent to the engraver.

Within a day, I got cold feet about the quote. The rock was going to be near a playground, so the primary audience would be young children. It wouldn’t make sense because it would be far away from any kitchen or cooks. I would have to tell the entire Two Aunts story whenever anyone asked about the rock.

I thought about a simple “Be kind” or “Smile” or even “Listen to your mother.” I needed something quick, before the engraver started making words. 

The rock would be on a playground. A big lesson from her life was that it is painful to be shy. I settled on “Never Be Afraid to Make a Friend.”

I like it, but I don’t love it. Some days, a better phrase will strike me. I’ll think about it, realize I would need to find another rock and then decide to stick with the friendship quote. It literally is set in stone. But is it what Mom would have wanted?

I’ve resolved that my children should not have to struggle with something like this. If, as I estimate, I’ve spoken and written about 250,000,000 words in my life, they shouldn’t have to decide if any of them have lasting importance.

Instead of a rock, I could be memorialized with a bench.

My message will be simple, sincere and true. “Sit here.”

Sit here.