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I Was a Sixth-Grade Nerd

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When I was in sixth grade, I loved science. I was intrigued by the scientific method: making observations, formulating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis. My teacher passed out a flyer with a list of paperback books we could get for very little money. One book in particular caught my attention. It was a collection of science experiments you could do at home. I wanted that book.

I took the flyer home and asked for the money to get it. I’m sure it couldn’t have been more than 95¢. But we were poor, and the purchase seemed frivolous to my parents at the time. They said no.

But I wanted that book. I hit upon a daring plan to get it. My mom packed me a lunch every day, but she would give me a nickel (or maybe it was a dime) for milk. I started saving my milk money. When I had enough for the book, I filled out the form in the flyer and turned it in with my saved milk money. A few days later, the books arrived.

I was thrilled. I read and re-read that book and treasured it for years. It was my book in a way that no other book had been mine. I still remember many of the one- and two-page essays explaining and illustrating various principles in science. I learned how to use my watch as a compass—before digital watches, of course. I learned that you could easily set fire to a sugar cube just by rubbing a little cigarette ash on it first. I learned about the Bernoulli principle, which makes heavier-than-air flight possible. I learned how to tell a raw egg from a hard-boiled egg without cracking the shell. That book slaked my thirst for knowledge without quenching it.

I had a problem, though. I had gone behind my parent’s back to get the book. I knew they would not be pleased. I suppose I could have kept it a secret, but it was not in my nature. Besides, I loved my mom and dad and wanted to share with them the delight I had in discovering new things. I took the book home and told my mom what I had done. My mom took the book and said she would talk to my dad about it. I could tell she was disappointed, but I also thought she could scarcely keep the book from me when I had shown such resourcefulness in acquiring it and sacrificed drinking milk for several days to get it.

I don’t know what my folks said to one another, but they let me keep the book. Of course, they admonished me never to do anything like that again. Although I agreed, I was secretly proud of myself for defying them in the cause of knowledge.

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A Lack of Grief

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My mom died on April 2nd of last year. Before she died, I used to wonder how I would react to news of her death. I never thought I would have the deep and terrible sadness that I’ve seen in some people. I’m just not like that. But I did imagine missing her and grieving in my own way. Instead, I’ve hardly grieved at all.

I shed a few tears at her bedside when she was dying. I even got dewy-eyed at her funeral. But it was hard to be really sad knowing that she herself was ready to go and even looking forward to it. She was the one who insisted on not being kept artificially alive, who told the doctors to disconnect the machines that could only prolong her death rather than bring healing or hope. She was the one who welcomed death.

What sadness I did feel seemed more like self-pity.

Of course, I miss her. I always enjoyed talking with her, although our conversations had become less and less frequent. In recent years we were not close, not because of any rift between us but because I lived 9 hours away and had a family of my own who needed me more. I have grieved less than I thought I would. I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps I really am Mr. Spock.

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Mom

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My mom died last night. She left in peace surrounded by her family. I think she was actually looking forward to going. I arrived too late to talk with her; she had already slipped into a sleep from which she never fully awakened. Before I left Minnesota, though, I spoke to her on the phone.

“They’re disconnecting the machines,” she said.

“Are you going home?” I asked.

“No,” she said and then with a certain lilt in her voice, “Yes. I’m going home.”

“I’m coming to say goodbye. I hope you won’t go until I get there.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I know.”

The family gathered around her. We read bible passages that spoke of our hope of a resurrection or of the glory awaiting those who remain faithful to God’s son. We sang and prayed and gave glory to God. I am very grateful for my family and for their faith and faithfulness.

When I was little, I regarded my mom as the gold standard for all moms. She was large and soft, and I pitied other children with skinny, bony moms whose hugs could not be so comforting as hugs from my mom. She was the best mom. As I got bigger, my opinion changed little. I know, of course, that she was not faultless. But I can’t seem to remember her faults well enough to describe them. She was and always will be my mom.

She was always very alive. She discouraged self-pity of every kind and sometimes seemed judgmental because she held us to such high standards. Though she never finished high school, she also never stopped learning. Her mind was active and alive even when her body was weak or unresponsive. She read constantly. She believed that the only excuse for ignorance was youth. If you were old enough to read and understand, you were old enough to know what you ought to know, and if you were old enough to know, you were old enough to do what was right. I’m thankful for her high standards; I have the same high standards for my own kids.

But she was also gracious and compassionate. She took in strangers and befriended outcasts. She cooked for everyone and offered unstinting hospitality to all who came to her home. My friends, even when I was in college, loved the homey feel of our home where you didn’t have to worry about sitting in the wrong place and there was always something home cooked to eat. She was never afraid of ideas. She could hold her own in conversation with anyone, and she spoke with such unconscious authority that she was often puzzled at finding her opinions respected even by those who sharply disagreed with her.

Mom was fun. I didn’t realize it growing up. In fact, it sometimes seemed to me that other families had more fun than ours. Other families were certainly better off. But I doubt that any other family we knew had as much fun as our family. We all liked one another, and Mom never allowed any fighting or even name-calling. She insisted that we all loved one another, and, whether she really bent us all to her will or we were just naturally compliant, we did. We loved one another; we had fun together. We had picnics in the back yard. We played games; we went on long walks in nearby parks, the younger kids racing ahead and running back while Mom and Dad strolled along behind. Mom had a knack for making our free time fun without gratifying our whims. It was years before I knew we were poor. We were rich in fun.

Now she is gone. As I write, my sisters are sorting through photos looking for pictures of Mom to include at her funeral. We’re not very sad. There has already been a lot of laughter and a few tears. I’m sure there will be more of both. But I am confident that the laughter will outweigh the tears. Mom would want it that way. She wouldn’t want us to have a funeral without any fun in it.

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