“If I could go back and ask my grandmother Monteith a question,” Mum said, “I would ask her how she became a teacher, late in the 19th century.
Where did she go to school? How long did she teach before she met and married my grandfather?
If I could be a fly-on-the-wall, I’d listen to their conversations about sending my mother and her three sisters to Kalamazoo College, back in the early 1900s. Imagine educating women like that, over a century ago.”
Mom smiled, adjusting her listening machine on the table in front of her. “You kids come from an incredible heritage, you know.”
I’d heard this phrase many times over the years. Our mother, Margaret, was approaching her 93rd birthday. Time was short. The opportunity for asking was upon me.
The irises of my mother’s eyes were no longer bright hazel. Faded, yet she could see that my hair wasn’t quite right and she’d tell me so.
“I have glaucoma and macular degeneration,” she said, pronouncing the terms with the articulation of a doctor’s wife. “I’m on oxygen 24/7, and I use a walker wherever I go.”
Yet, she rarely missed lunch at her table in the Deli of Freedom Village, and dinner each night with special friends.
I was with her when her left leg broke. We were listening to Glenn Miller’s "In the Mood," and I thought she was taking a dance step as she fell in front of the fireplace at our cabin in the Upper Peninsula. If I’d known she wasn’t revisiting her dream to be a Rockette, I would have taken her misstep more seriously.
“I have titanium in both legs, so I won’t be able to fly anymore. I’d set off the body scanners,” she’d tell you with a smile. Truth is, she never liked to fly.
Two years later, she walked into the hospital emergency room under her own steam, only to discover she had broken a vertebra in her neck. “I had such a headache — I thought I might need to have it checked out.” Without fail, my mother both amazed and charmed the hospital staff.
“I’ve broken my wrist and my heel. I don’t hear very well, and I’m a cancer survivor — twice!”
Indeed, her nine lives went on and on.
Two weeks ago, her memory was sharp; her wit and humor as rich as ever. Strong shoulders carried the weight of tears shed by her children, and laughter bubbled up through her chest when we teased her about flirting with the doctor as she asked him, “And what shall I call you, Sir Galahad?”
“Here, I want you to take this,” she said, passing me a $10 bill from her red change purse. “I can’t believe they’re charging over $3.50 a gallon for gas. Why, that’s highway robbery.”
She took such good care of her offspring, and her boys from World Vision — one in India and one in Jerusalem — Doctors Without Borders, Holland Rescue Mission, Habitat ... the list goes on.
My mother was born in India, a missionary kid. Her parents were members of the Arabian Mission in the early 20th century in what is now Iraq. In 1929, her father, Henry Bilkert, was killed by a warring group of Bedouin Arabs; he was 36, my mother was 9.
When my grandmother and Paul Harrison married a few years later, they returned to the mission field with the youngest of their brood, and left my mother and her brother in Kalamazoo with Grandma Bilkert.
“Mum,” I asked her, “don’t you have any negative feelings about being left in the states when Grandma returned to Arabia? You were only 12. I can’t imagine that.”
“Well, honey, that’s just the way it was. It was hard on all of us, but we survived. God took care of us.”
Five days short of her 93rd birthday, and still a survivor. That is why it was so difficult for us to accept that Mum and Grandma did not rally this time.
Mum listened to her children, with her tender ear tuned to our fragile heartstrings. God gifted us Mummy to be our rock, our safe place on Earth.
I hear my mother’s voice and feel the touch of her hand on my knee; a cool cloth for my feverish anxious self. She affirmed me in a way no one else could.
Her strength came as an answer to the prayers of the faithful supporters of Margaret, the little missionary child from Arabia. She grew up kind and generous, compassionate, and fervent about so many things: good books, music, raucous laughter, nature and all-things the cabin in the Upper Peninsula.
The last words I spoke to my mother, minutes before she was swept into Heaven, were of celebration. She would see her father and mother; her first family would be together again.
I am thankful for the prayers of those offered 93 years ago, and to our faithful God who answered them.
— By Ann Brugger, Tribune community columnist