Friday, July 23, 2010

Saying Goodbye

My mom was a gardener, not only of plants but of people. She implanted seeds in her children's souls that have borne fruit in all our lives -- seeds of intellectual curiosity, the love of reading, of the fun of learning new things.

Once when I was complaining,"Why do we have to do all this homework," she replied, "Because it's more fun to know about things than it is to not know about things."

When we moved my parents from Odessa to Fort Worth in 2004, I dug up all my mother's iris and day lilies and transplanted them to my garden so she could still enjoy at least part of her garden after the move.

Mom died Thursday, July 22, just as the last of her day lilies was about to bloom.

Julia Hettie Sayer Sherrod was 92. With the help of Community Hospice she slipped very gently from sleep into heaven.

In addition to the standing ovation I am sure she received from the angels, she was certainly greeted by her beloved Alan, my dad and her husband of nearly 63 years. He died in 2005.

This all happened rather quickly. On the 4th of July, we took her to the hospital with what turned out to be a blood clot in her leg.

Early in that stay she was in pretty good humor. Once when my brother Michael opened the blinds and the light was too bright, she borrowed his sunglasses. We all agreed it was a good look for her.

We got the blood clot and the resultant pneumonia resolved and she was moved to a rehab facility. But on Tuesday she had a stroke. She could not speak, her right side was very compromised and she began having several seizures.

She was barely conscious, but when I placed her rosary in her left hand, she immediately began fingering the beads. So I sat down beside her and began saying the rosary into her ear. As I did so, she began sliding the beads between her fingers.

Mom was born September 15, 1917, in Black River, New York. She graduated from Black River High School at age 16.

In 2007, she and I traveled to upstate New York for the Sayer Family Reunion so she could see all her siblings - Colin, Dot and Bill -- all of whom are still alive and well.

The Official Sayer Reunion T-shirt.

The Fab Four.

Mom with her older brother Colin.

And with her sister Dot (Dorothy).

And her baby brother Bill.

We also visited the graves of her mother, Colice Sayer, and her grandmother, Frances Caulfield.

She showed me the impressive Black River.

It is a beautiful swift running river containing more water than any river she saw for years in Texas.

Mom's life was a rich one. Following graduation from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Albany in 1939, she was awarded a fellowship to St. Louis University where she received her Bachelor of Science Degree in nursing education in June 1942.

Mom and Dad at their graduations from medical and nursing school.

While she was in school, she managed a hospital and taught nursing at St. Louis University as well as at an African American nursing school. She was an excellent surgical nurse. One day in 1941 when a young surgeon named Vincent Alan Sherrod collapsed while preparing to do surgery, Judy rushed over to help him. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance. On September 8, 1942, they married.

The engagement announcement

Mom was the major wage earner while Dad completed a three-year residency in surgery at Missouri Pacific Hospital. He then joined the U.S. Army and was immediately diagnosed with tuberculosis. Unlike today, TB usually was a death sentence. Mom cared for him during his long convalescence and for the rest of his life, Dad often said it was her determination and support that kept him alive.

Helping Alan heal.

In 1949, Judy and Alan moved to Iraan, TX, at the request of his uncle, Frank Bascom, who worked for the Ohio Oil Company, later the Marathon Oil Company. Physicians were desperately needed in West Texas, and the oil company offered to pay for the move and set them up in practice if they would move their young family west.

Mom with her firstborn, Daniel Alan Sherrod.

And with her second son, Peter Stewart Sherrod.

And with me, her only daughter, Colice Kathryn Sherrod.

And finally with her baby, Michael Sayer Sherrod.

West Texas was in the midst of a several-year’s drought when they arrived. One can only imagine Mom’s reaction to the sere landscape after growing up in the lush beauty of upstate New York. She and Dad and the four of us lived through epic dust storms that took the paint off the side of cars and buildings.

Their first clinic in Iraan.

At the time, there were no physicians at all for three huge West Texas counties around Iraan. Mom and Dad worked as a team to deliver health care to the thousands of people in that isolated part of Texas. In 1957, they built a clinic in Iraan.

The clinic they built in 1957

Mom successfully wrote grants to establish a Well-Baby Clinic in Sheffield, TX, where she and Dad immunized the infants and children in these counties and taught young mothers to feed and care for their children. She also founded the Iraan Public Library. She and Dad were instrumental in establishing the Iraan Hospital.

Mom was a moving force in getting Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops established in Iraan. She was a member of the Iraan Garden Club, whose members were the embodiment of the triumph of hope over adversity, given the challenges of growing anything at all during the drought years. When three of us were in Catholic boarding schools in Austin and San Antonio, Mom drove 600 miles round trip to see us every weekend.

Mom, as the only other licensed health care practitioner in the area, often functioned as would a nurse practitioner today because Dad was so often away at the hospital in Fort Stockton or making house calls to remote ranches. While he was away, she ran the clinic and triaged the patients, taking the most seriously ill to Fort Stockton when necessary.

Once she had men secure an oil field worker with a broken back onto her ironing board and carefully load him into the back seat of her big car. Then she loaded us four kids into the car and drove us all to the hospital in Fort Stockton where my dad was doing surgery.

We saw this kind of thing all the time. People instinctively turned to Mom when they needed help. She exuded competence and calm.

M parents were devout Catholics, driving 30 miles to either McCamey or Rankin to attend Catholic Mass because there was no Catholic Church in Iraan. When they moved from Iraan to Odessa, they donated their clinic building to the Catholic Church, who turned it into St. Francis Catholic Church.

In Odessa, Mom continued to manage Dad's medical practice while also volunteering at Catholic Charities and serving as long-time treasurer at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Mom and Dad and Mom's beloved Scottie, Ian.

She was a member of the Odessa Garden Club, continuing her interest in gardening – an interest she passed on to me. She read widely and voraciously and was a published poet.

After she and I traveled together to China in the early 1980s, she recorded her impressions of the trip in poetry.

Mom and me at the Registan in Samarkand.

We also traveled to Russia and Uzbekistan, because she had always wanted to go to Samarkand.

Here we are in the spice market in Samarkand.

Mom at the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum

She and Dad also traveled extensively, making trips to Ireland, Europe, South America, New Zealand and Australia, and the Far East. In 1981, she accompanied Dad when the Odessa College Jazz Band (in which he played saxophone) toured in Mexico. Mom’s purse became famous on that trip. Out of it she produced a needle and thread to repair a band member’s trousers just before the curtain was to go up at the Mexico City concert; a small bottle of pure water for taking pills; a small bottle of Pepto-Bismol; and many tissues when allergies attacked the band. Judy was always prepared.

The clan gathered at their 50th wedding anniversary
Mom was preceded in death by our father, who died in 2005.

Mom is survived by her children, Dan Sherrod of Richardson and his wife Patricia; Dr. Peter Sherrod of Plano; Katie Sherrod of Fort Worth, and her husband, the Rev. Gayland Pool; and Michael Sherrod of Fort Worth and his wife, Dr. Melissa McIntire Sherrod; two brothers, Colin and William Sayer; a sister, Dorothy Sayer Foltz; nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

With Gavin Patrick Judge, her third great-grandchild, at Thanksgiving 2004. Her great grandchildren called her G-G Mom, for Great Grandmom.

For her 90th birthday party, her grandson Nicholas made her an amazing three-tiered cake.

Serenading Mom

And now, while we all rejoice that she is at peace, we know we will miss her every day of the rest of our lives.

Well done, Mom.

We love you.

Rest in peace.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Just "Imagine"

John Lennon was "my" Beatle. He and George Harrison won my heart early on.

I've loved all of Lennon's songs, but I've never "heard" a rendition of "Imagine" that touched me more than this one from the show "Glee."

For those who are not familiar with Glee, here's a description of the show from its web site:

"The series follows an optimistic teacher, WILL SCHUESTER (Matthew Morrison), who - against all odds and a malicious cheerleading coach - attempts to save McKinley High's Glee Club from obscurity, while helping a group of aspiring underdogs realize their true star potential. "

Thanks to Mark Harris for pointing me to it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Religious freedom and Ground Zero

Here is my response to the latest Texas Faith question from the Dallas Morning News Religion Blog. Read it all at:

TEXAS FAITH: Is a mosque at Ground Zero religious freedom too far?

Tue, Jul 13, 2010
Wayne Slater/Reporter

The debate over a mosque near Ground Zero has rekindled questions about religious expression in a nation that treasures religious freedom. Plans for the $100 million mosque just blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack have angered the families of survivors. It's become an issue in the New York governor's race where Democrat Andrew Cuomo answered his Republican opponent's objection to the mosque this way: "What is the country about if not religious freedom?"

There are conflicts, of course - say, when religious expression violates the First Amendment (school-mandated prayer) or endangers lives (outlawing Appalachian snake handling). And there's the annual dustup over singing Silent Night in a public building, which never seems fully resolved. But the debate over the mosque is different - and raises a more fundamental question.

What are the limits to religious expression in America? Are there any? Should there be?

Our Texas Faith panelists weigh in with a thoughtful discussion on the issue:

KATIE SHERROD, Independent writer/producer
First of all, curtailing mandated prayer in public schools is not a restriction on religious expression. To the contrary, it is a defense of religious expression because it allows ALL religions to express themselves as they see fit without the state forcing non-Christians to listen to Christian prayers. Prayer in public schools is not forbidden. Any student may pray privately in any way they choose. What is forbidden is state-sanctioned prayer.

Because let's not kid ourselves -- state-mandated prayers in the USA are always Christian prayers. Imagine the uproar if Christian kids were forced to listen to an imam pray to Allah over a school loudspeaker. That is also the case with the singing of Silent Night. It's a Christian song, as are most Christmas songs of course, given that the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Why should Jewish and Muslim school children have to sing Christian songs? Again, imagine the uproar if the school decided everyone was required to attend a Seder in the cafeteria at Passover.

The building of the mosque near Ground Zero is another case entirely. Muslims have purchased land to build a building in which Muslims will pray and have services. The people who frequent that mosque will not be forcing anyone else to worship there or to listen to their prayers. This is exactly what the First Amendment is meant to protect. People walk by all sorts of things on their way to and from Ground Zero, including profane and offensive graffiti. Having to walk by a beautiful mosque should be no more offensive than having to walk by the beautiful St. Paul's Chapel.

Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing many children as well as adults. The Episcopal Cathedral is right across the street and was heavily damaged in the blast. Yet not one person objected to its being rebuilt near that Memorial because a Christian had committed that terrorist act.

Wrapping up xenophobia in outrage over 9/11 does more to dishonor the memory of those who died on that day than does the construction of mosque in a country founded on religious freedom.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Texas wind and my mother

My mother, Julia Sherrod, will be 93 in September. This weekend she was hospitalized for a blood clot in her leg, and after three days in bed, she has pneumonia. She's sleeping a lot, but when she's awake, she smiles her lovely smile at us and I think, "What a woman."

She was born in 1917 in upstate New York, about as far north as you can get without being in Canada. She grew up in Black River near Watertown. At 16 she went off to college and then nursing school in St. Louis, at St. Louis University, where she met and married my father, Alan Sherrod, who was in medical school there.

I know she must have loved him a lot, because she moved with him, two toddler boys and baby me out to Pecos County in West Texas, to a tiny town called Iraan. This was just at the beginning of the 1950s drought in West Texas.

I figure my mother, reared in the vast greenness of the Finger Lakes region, must have thought she had moved to the outer edges of Hell -- an arid dusty place where the only color came from an immense blue sky.

We've recently had some lovely rains in Fort Worth, a gift from Hurricane Alex. Mother has asked me every day if my garden is loving the rain, because she knows down to the marrow in her bones that in Texas, rain is the greatest gift of all. As I've spent time with her in her hospital room, we've talked often of the weather, for weather has loomed large in her life.

In her early years it was the cold weather of the north. She and her brothers and sister have vivid memories of snow drifts reaching to the eaves of their two story house in Black River, of walking to school through tunnels of snow.

But she has spend the majority of her life in the arid heat of West Texas. One of the first lessons Texas taught my mother is that the weather is about the only force Texans give in to, and they do that only because they have no choice.

Texas weather is a living entity to those of us who grew up here. The West Texas wind is a constant presence, like the sound of our own breathing, and only when it stills do we get frightened. The hair lifts on the back of our necks. Something ominous is about to happen.

Texas weather can kill. We grow up knowing that in our bones. People who have seen a flash flood, or a tornado, or a drought-spawned dust storm have an understanding of the term "an act of God" embedded in their souls. Only God could create such forces, or hope to control them.

As children we were warned constantly not to play in ravines or gullies, partly because of rattlesnakes, but mostly because of the danger of flash floods. Texas was held in the bone-dry grip of the '50's drought then, and the earth was packed hard as a grave.

The wind rattled dry mesquite branches and at church, everyone licked their dry lips and prayed for rain. Ranchers' mouths grew thin and hard, and caliche dust caked their sweat-soaked hair, turning it white even on young men. Tears were the most plentiful source of moisture, and they were damn few for these tough, tired people.

Their red-rimmed eyes scanned the skies until the dust storms drove them indoors. Rain had abandoned the earth, and so the earth gave itself to the wind.

The wind would move in slowly, pick up the earth, swirl it around and drop it again, maybe a mile away. It teased the earth with laughing gusts and dust devils. Gradually it picked up speed and earth until it was a swaggering brown giant, blotting out the sky.

The wind and the earth locked in a dark violent dance out over the flat lands and the sun hid. People fled inside and locked doors and windows. but they couldn't keep it out. Dust crept in everywhere as it tried to escape the wind, sifting under doors and windowsills with desperate ease.

The maddened wind flung the earth against all obstacles, blasting paint from cars and buildings, tearing up weedy bushes by the roots and sending them head over heels like clumsy frightened tumblers.

Then, the sound would change. The frenzied keening became mournful. As if sickened of the violence, the wind would slow, drop the earth from its grasp and move away, moaning.

The earth would settle back into its new places, waiting for rain to find it again.

Rain. It was the key to life, and a way of death.

But when the rains finally came, they had been too long away. The earth was hardened and rejected them.

With no place to go, the water ran frantically into the low places, gathering momentum as it went along. By the time it reached the lowlands and was forced into smaller and narrower gullies, its speed and force was terrifying.

Out of control, it gathered up cattle, goats, horses, people, cars, mesquite trees -- roots and all -- and slammed the entire writhing brown wall furiously against any bridge or obstacle in its way, taking parts of the highway and the bridges with it.

And then it was gone, leaving newly shorn ravines and gullies and an eerie silence in its wake. The earth would be damp for a few minutes, then the sun and the dry air would greedily devour the moisture.

Nothing was left to pay witness to its passing except frightened children and shaken adults, puny bystanders in this elemental affair of the heart.

The earth was not the same after such storms: new lines, new shapes were forced into being by the wind and the water.

But the people survived, heads bowed only to strong winds and God.