(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
After Hugh’s death, Mary felt like a ship adrift on a windless sea. Having been through the long struggle with his neurological decline, she knew in her heart that his death was actually his healing–but that didn’t replace the empty feeling that gnawed at her spirit. During their long life-journey they had forged a spiritual bond so deep that it was unbreakable, even by death. In Mary’s mind, Hugh was an indelible part of her own being, and he would remain so until she joined him in eternity.
That’s not to say she was shallow on grief. Mary felt her loss with every breath she drew. Her response was to lift it all to God. She found comfort and strength through inspirational readings, and thoughts she wrote in her journal each day.
Especially helpful was an exercise she had used just a year before Hugh’s death, when faced with his increased withdrawal into the Alzheimer’s world. It was titled, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One.” In the still hours before she turned out the light at night, Mary would read again the list of “blessings” she had discovered. She read aloud:
- “I’m alive.
- I have a good, safe place to live.’
- I have enough food.
- I have a caring family and good neighbors.”
She paused. All of these things were still true, part of the glue holding her soul together. She read on:
- “I had many happy, fulfilling years of marriage to Hugh.
- I am able to physically care for myself.
- I am able to help others.
- I have nice furnishings, many of them Hugh or his father made, and it is comforting to have them about the apartment.
- I have suitable clothing–and can still sew for myself and others.
- I can read, and I enjoy a great variety of books.
- I can think positively, and try to remember to do it.
- I have many good friends who care about me, and I them.
- I have many acquaintances from long years ago.
- I attend an active Bible-centered church and participate in the United Methodist Women.
- I still enjoy God’s beautiful outdoors and still raise a few flowers.
- I have no enemies of which I am aware.
- I have the HOPE of eternal life.
- I have sufficient income to live comfortably (if I am careful of my choices).
- I have lived eighty-eight years and am in reasonably good health.”
Mary paused again, taking a deep breath. It’s so easy to lose sight of your blessings amidst your trials, she pondered. It helps to remember! A tear of sorrow mingled with spiritual joy made its way down her cheek. She brushed it away, sniffled, and went back to reading:
- “I had the love and companionship of a good, caring husband for almost 64 years.
- I have had the privilege and joy of giving birth to four beautiful babies, loving them, raising them, and seeing three of them marry and start families of their own–and of caring for, and enjoying, Paul’s special personality and companionship for forty-five years.”
Mary opened the photo album she kept in her bedside drawer. There was Hugh next to her, dressed in his light blue seersucker suit, wearing a smile that bespoke deep inner satisfaction. She closed her eyes for a moment, skipping back to the fiftieth anniversary celebration where that was taken…and then turned more pages. Pictures of Paul at various stages of his life…and her other children…and grandchildren. She shuffled through them, embracing each page and the life it represented with a tender touch. Then she set the album aside and read on:
- I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren to love and pray for as they grow.
- I am able to volunteer at the Bridgewater Home in the laundry, at the help desk, and at the Village Gift Shop. For the past seven or eight years I’ve been volunteering my time and talent in quilting at the Bridgewater Nursing Home. I enjoy this activity and it gives me an opportunity to help raise money for needs of the Home, as quilts are auctioned at the Fall Festival each year–or when doing quilts for an individual, the money going for this cause.”
Setting the photos and papers aside, Mary shivered. She reached for a quilt made up of rectangular pieces of cloth she had cut from Paul’s old pajamas and other garments that would have otherwise become rags. She pulled it around herself, leaned back on the bed, and closed her eyes. The years seemed to dissolve and she pictured herself with her Grandma Mary in the Big House, helping with housework, learning to sew and quilt. Truly the greatest treasures are things of the soul, not possessions. She meandered through snapshot memories of the times in her life when she’d found strength in her Lord, despite suffering, uncertainty, or fear. It helped to live with a sense of blessings, rather than loss. Settled in her spirit, she turned out the light and slumbered in peace.
Mary could have moved after Hugh’s death, but she chose to stay in the apartment they had shared. She enjoyed housekeeping and cooking. Tending her African violets contributed a sense of normalcy to her routines. She wrote letters to friends and family, and turned a portion of her bedroom into a sewing area where she laid out quilt designs. Outside she tended her marigolds and geraniums in the planting area between the front porch and sidewalk. On pleasant evenings she sat out there, enjoyed the breeze, chatted with neighbors, and nurtured peace in her soul.
Writing became therapeutic as she picked up a project she had begun after Paul’s death in 1989. Initially she saw it as a way to give her children and grandchildren a record of their heritage. She titled it, “Remembering!” Picking up where she’d left off, however, Mary soon realized she was doing more that writing a memoir–she was engaged in a healing process.
She penned, “In writing this, I am also realizing how good God has been to me to have seen me through thus far on my journey through life. He has been a steady ‘rock’ to lean on in times of uncertainty and stress.” She paraphrased a portion of Psalm 107, “Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.” She reflected how central this passage had been when facing her many challenges–especially in her efforts to give Paul a meaningful life in spite of his handicaps.
Sunday afternoons were the hardest part of the week. She went to Sunday school and church in the morning, but the afternoons were often long and empty. These had usually been joyful times of family togetherness. Sometimes her children or grandchildren visited, kindling afresh the flame of familial warmth. Mary knew she had to keep busy and focused beyond herself.
When an opportunity arose to volunteer at the North River Library, she plunged right in. She continued the volunteer work she’d begun with the local Alzheimer’s group back when Hugh had gone into the skill care unit of the Home. This group had just gotten started, working in a building adjacent to the Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg where she had once been the secretary. This had given her access to books and articles that had helped her understand what Hugh was going through, and how she could avoid irritating him. Continuing to help with this group now gave her a way to be present for others facing similar situations.
It seemed like God opened doors just when Mary needed them. She got involved more intensely with the “Quilters” group at the Home. This was an informal group where women came and went on their own time tables, helping each other piece and sew quilts that were auctioned off each September to support the work of the Bridgewater Home Auxiliary.
One morning each week Mary went over to the laundry where she folded towels and bibs. She watered flowers throughout the nursing home for a year. As she came to know more employees, she discovered more avenues for volunteer work. She worked in the gift shop for several years. Remembering that she chuckled to herself. I worked there until I couldn’t always identify the difference between quarters and nickels! It was an undeniable sign of aging and she took it in stride. When something didn’t work, she shifted gears. Two mornings each week she worked at the lobby desk in the Maple Terrace building which was a primary gathering place for residents and guests, and the site of the cafeteria, coffee shop, and activity room, among other things.
Mary thrived through all these things, but her losses didn’t stop when Hugh died. On April 12, 2000, her daughter, Merle, died in the hospital in Winchester. Merle had been a special source of strength to her mother, calling her every week, and taking an interest in her activities.
Mary had seen her daughter through the childhood years of heart murmur, and then the surgical healing of her heart. She had rejoiced when Merle became a licensed nurse, dedicating her life to helping and healing others. Along with that, Merle had raised three foster children as well as her own two kids. She had been active in her church in Winchester where she earned the affectionate respect of many for her love of children, and her commitment to faith and service.
Merle had suffered with diabetes for years, and her death came when she experienced a seizure and fell, striking her head on the floor. Her death was a harsh blow for Mary, but she had learned to walk with God’s Spirit through the dark valleys life sometimes involved. At the time of Merle’s death, Mary had just finished her “Remembering!” manuscript, and was getting copies printed and bound for distribution to the family. She had shared the journey of writing with Merle and had anticipated giving her a copy. Sadly, that would never happen.
Almost on the heels of Merle’s death came the loss of Mary’s dear friend, Peggy. She and Peggy had “been there” for each other supportively through thick and thin over the year since Hugh’s death. It was another deep loss.
But loss was never the bottom line for Mary. She always turned to her Lord, and found the joy of God’s Spirit that gave her enduring strength, and abiding peace. She knew peace not as an absence of pain or suffering, but as an inner spiritual presence that enabled her to thrive amidst circumstances which could have destroyed her. Looking back, the Dairyman’s Daughter knew she had first encountered this peace at her daddy’s side in the old Quaker meeting house, and from her grandma on the farm. Through her faith in God, she’d been able to keep it alive.
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)