The World is a Dimmer Place

My family is close geographically and emotionally. I live in the town I grew up in and am accustomed to speaking with family, particularly my mother, every few days. It’s been 365 days now, since Mom and I spoke. A year ago, she sat, agitated, in her hospital bed waiting for her nicotine patch, a private room, and relief from the breathing difficulties that had worsened over Christmas. The kids and I were trying to take her mind off of her discomfort and chat a little before they returned to school and work the next day, but, she was too distracted to follow the conversation and eventually told us to go; not to waste all of our time together hanging around at the hospital.

So we went to dinner, promising to return shortly – we were gone for less than an hour. During that time Mom had a stroke and/or heart attack, and though she did not die for 9 more days, she never opened her eyes or spoke to us again.

I, who pride myself on communication skill, am haunted that I did not give or receive the vital information my mother needed that last conscious night among us. I conveyed no important parting words beyond that we loved her and would be right back. The only significant communication was Mom’s. She absolved me of the responsibility to stay and attend to her, telling me to go and take care of myself and her (grown) grandchildren. Typical – my mother’s final act was in keeping with her life – thinking of others and acting for them with no expectation for herself.

I aspire to such nobleness, but fall far short. And it is too late to be sorry.

In memory of our final day together and in tribute to her, I include the eulogy I wrote the day after Mom died and delivered at her funeral on January 10, 2014.

Mom - Christmas 2009

Mom – Christmas 2009

Betty Jean Hodges Stoneman

August 10, 1939 – January 6, 2014

“Time to Rise and Shine”

These are the words my sister and I often awoke to in our childhood – Mom calling us to get ready for the day – usually earlier than we liked and with less enthusiasm than she had.

I find a much deeper meaning now; a particularly poignant one on this day after Mom’s passing.


Rise to meet the challenge of the day – a feat Mom accomplished many times over 74 years.

She survived infancy, though her mother succumbed to illness. She grew strong in the loving home of her grandmother though they faced many hardships. She built a close relationship with her only sister though they spent many of their childhood years apart. She worked hard at her job, but never put her family and friends second to it.

She was the bedrock to my sister, Hannah, Nick and me even as ill health pursued her.

I share 2 tales, 50 years apart:

Mom told the story that her father came to visit one day when I was very small. He found Mom sitting with me in the floor amid the Saturday morning clutter of a working mother’s home, playing paper dolls. He chastised her for doing nothing with so much housework waiting. She told him that she was doing something – she was playing dolls with Lisa – and the work would always be there, but Lisa would only play paper dolls for a little while.

Almost two weeks ago, Mom came to our house for Christmas Day dinner. She was so weak she could barely get from the car to the house, but she was festively dressed and loaded with gifts and food. She had looked forward to seeing Hannah and Nick and refused to allow her obvious frailty to impede the family gathering. And Christmas Day was spent as usual.


Shine with the passion of your convictions.

As Hannah wrote in Mom’s obituary – the world is a dimmer place without her. From the depths of Mom’s soul, her light shone with love, honesty, and fidelity. The unconditional love she bestowed on her family and friends is something we will carry with us all our lives, making us better people for having known her. Her truthful nature allowed complete trust in her motives and actions, for they were never false.

Once you belonged to her, she was always on your side – faithful – standing and fighting with you against any challenge.

I have so many anecdotes to illustrate this point that I couldn’t choose just one or two. Instead I will share a poem that captures the depths of Mom’s sacrifices and reflects my small attempt to Rise and Shine to her standard:

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstien

Once there was a tree….
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree….
very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
Then one day the boy came to the tree
and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and
climb up my trunk and swing from my
branches and eat apples and play in my
shade and be happy.”
“I am too big to climb and play” said
the boy.
“I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money?”
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I
have no money.
I have only leaves and apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in
the city. Then you will have money and
you will be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered her apples
and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time….
and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back
and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk
and swing from my branches and be happy.”
“I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy.
“I want a house to keep me warm,” he said.
“I want a wife and I want children,
and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?”
” I have no house,” said the tree.
“The forest is my house,
but you may cut off
my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy.”

And so the boy cut off her branches
and carried them away
to build his house.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time.
And when he came back,
the tree was so happy
she could hardly speak.
“Come, Boy,” she whispered,
“come and play.”
“I am too old and sad to play,”
said the boy.
“I want a boat that will
take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?”
“Cut down my trunk
and make a boat,” said the tree.
“Then you can sail away…
and be happy.”
And so the boy cut down her trunk
and made a boat and sailed away.
And the tree was happy
… but not really.

And after a long time
the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,”
said the tree,” but I have nothing
left to give you –
My apples are gone.”
“My teeth are too weak
for apples,” said the boy.
“My branches are gone,”
said the tree. ” You
cannot swing on them – ”
“I am too old to swing
on branches,” said the boy.
“My trunk is gone, ” said the tree.
“You cannot climb – ”
“I am too tired to climb” said the boy.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something….
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.
I am sorry….”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy.
“just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening
herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.



My mother died last month. That fact appears to have little bearing on my career in education. Except when it has everything to do with it. 

This week I read several posts by a career coach blogger. She appears to be an experienced, astute former college professor whose blog relates the steps to attaining success in academia, a topic of considerable interest to me. But with each post I became more discouraged and depressed.

I have done everything irrevocably wrong. I failed to even try to publish my dissertation. I did not apply to any R1 institutions. I did not immediately embark on my second research project. I did not ditch the small college teaching position that financially sustained me through graduate school. I put my faith in the unfounded trustworthiness of personal work relationships. I declined job opportunities because they required a move.

I can attest to the accurateness of her advice – all of these (in)actions came with a hefty price-tag. I work in a dead-end, disrespected, poorly paid position. My stellar GPA, scholarly awards and fine teaching evaluations do not help pay off my student loans. My age is a detriment, not a sign of my extensive life and work experience.

And then I thought of Mom. Mom, who was just sitting on my couch a few short weeks ago, enjoying a piece of sweet potato pie. Mom, whose voice is still on a phone message asking what food she should bring to Christmas dinner. Mom, who was supposed to look after our cat when we go abroad in a few weeks. And she helped me put life, and success, into perspective.

As a read the positive blog comments, many from folks in their 20s who had plowed through college, grad and PhD programs, I began to get angry. I thought of my beautiful kids and the hours spent playing, watching, helping, guiding; how many auctions and yard sales Mom and I had attended; how often I just sat and talked to my grandparents, aunts and cousins; the times I worked with my mother or went on little excursions with the kids. I thought of working to build a loving, positive home while struggling with an abusive relationship and the loss of a child; of setting up a cooperative preschool or facilitating groups of other grieving parents. I thought of finally setting myself free to pursue the educational path I discarded many years before. These episodes and accomplishments mean nothing if I use “success in academia” as my paradigm. 

This perspective is not an excuse for failing to achieve. It is a way of seeing that I have achieved. It is my grounded theory of priority. I still plan to succeed in academia, but on terms I set for myself. This is the freedom offered by education; a freedom I earned along with my PhD. It is the vision clarified by the pain surrounding Mom’s death: serve my own goals, make family and friends the priority; career “success” is meaningful only when those integral to my life are with me to share in it.