My blessed mother-in-law started talking about her funeral somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years ago so we “kids” became accustomed to nodding and smiling and “mmhmming” when that inevitable topic came up. Now we’re all sitting around on couches holding cups of cold coffee staring blankly at each other wondering what to do because she is gone from us.
Elizabeth Louise (Betty Lou) Kunkel Mitchell slipped away to her Savior in the dark early morning of October 22, 2021 in Nampa, Idaho. It was a moment she was preparing for over her entire life. And of course we will eventually snap out of it and know what to do because she, practical to a fault, prepared a little blue folder entitled “The End of Betty” which was written in her signature bold black Sharpie marker. We will follow her instructions. Mostly. And we certainly will not serve any “rubber ham” after the service. There will, however, be green jello.
When I entered this family as a girlfriend of the third son, I was 19 and then 21 when we sealed the deal and I officially became “Mitchell.” She accepted little townie girl me who had not a lot of common sense (okay, none) nor any experience whatsoever in domesticity. She modeled to me from the beginning how she dealt with people who did not exactly match her personality or background and when I questioned her technique in this area years later she said she decided from the beginning regarding me to “keep you and love you.” I learned and applied those words many a time as I morphed into the old one with young ones crossing my path.
I never could comfortably call my mother-in-law “Mom.” Or (heaven forbid) “Betty.” It was welcome relief when our first child was born and we launched into the forever label of “Grandma.” She accepted and tolerated it.
And she loved being a grandma. She understood children. Never talked down to them. Never made them feel small. And always required respect. One story that often gets repeated in our family gatherings is when we had left at least three of our four in the care of grandma for what turned out to be a few minutes too many and one of the kids met us at the door breathlessly when we came to pick them up and fairly shouted, “Hurry up! Grandma had it!” We could only imagine the scenario where the wonderful grandmother had uttered the words, “I have HAD it!” and that’s the message that got lost in translation. She even made one of our kids wait outside one time until we got back. Don’t mess with Grandma.
On the day after she was the mother of the bride in her only daughter’s big to-do wedding, she did not forget that a certain granddaughter was turning six and made a fun scavenger hunt for her and gave us all hats to wear. I can only imagine how tired she was but that was Super Grandma for you.
A child of the Depression (she said this often) and the very definition of frugal practicality, she would save three leftover peas from dinner, sew quilts from the fabric of used-up shirts that were originally curtains and brush her teeth with a bar of soap. I am not kidding you. A bar of soap. That’s like Army tough. Never did any woman on earth have more beautiful flawless alabaster skin with her entire beauty regimen being soap. A bar of soap. One time when I was newly married and visiting the family ranch house in eastern Oregon with my dreamy young husband, his mother, by way of instructing me about ranch life with no running water or electricity, bent me over the kitchen sink and washed my hair in an enamel basin with A. Bar. Of. Soap. Seriously.
Grandma’s arthritis made her forever prone to being cold. Her little house has one of the world’s most powerful furnaces and she used it to its full capacity year round. Those of us very assuredly not prone to being cold would sit in the wingback chairs in her living room and stare hopelessly at the thermostat set to 77, slowly collapsing and melting down the front of the furniture like we were like Saturday morning cartoons.
She boldly played the piano. Without much hearing and even less eyesight. The hymns were pretty much part of her DNA so once she got her fingers placed on the keyboard she could do pretty well from memory. A couple of years ago it was just the two of us in her living room and she sat down at the piano — she was not yet confined to a wheelchair. Here’s a little taste of that day. Right toward the end she is talking about trying to recall a song about “Beulah Land” which she often did. What a nice thought to my own soul knowing that she is now enjoying the full recollection of those words and notes as she plays and sings and worships without the bonds of her poor aching worn out body. Watch, please.
Grandma liked projects and her last big one was to mail hymnals to her grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She had gotten wind that there was a box of them in the attic of her church which she found unacceptable and her dear new pastor brought them to her and stayed to visit and honor her, even entertaining her immensely with the make believe of being a bookseller. He’s a good one. She wanted those wonderful music books in the hands of the younger generations. She knew that their words and melodies could speak volumes to hungry hearts if those hearts were prepared to listen. So mail them she did with the help of daughter, Nancy, and granddaughter, Maris. Quite an ordeal but they got ‘er done.
A few years ago Grandma started watching her son, Robert, lead worship at a church in Eugene, Oregon from her living room in Nampa, Idaho. Not an easy task. She could hardly make out which image on the screen was him and used headphones to turn it up to a volume that the rest of the room could not tolerate. Here’s a scene that would play out on many a Sunday morning.
Every Sunday afternoon she would have a phone call with son, Karl, and hear how his morning sermon had gone. She and he were co-encouragers. He spent many years in a caretaking role with her also. Their bond was strong and true.
Daughter-in-law, Dianne, spent multiple hours and days with Grandma being there for her, bringing precious great grandchildren to her, and setting an example for me personally about how time itself is a gift to our old ones. I’m a rusher-arounder. Dianne is calm. She knows how to sit and be. Grandma leaned on her and loved her dearly.
Fairly recently I was the poor less than ideal stand-in for her wonderful care taking daughter, Nancy, during a two-week period for a morning routine that involved water. Grandma asked me during one of those mornings at her house, “So what are you gonna write about this?” And I said, “I”m not.” So this is me not writing about it. But I do have to tell you one tiny little thing thing — several times over that two-week span of morning routines the two of us shed tears of uncontrollable laughter when I couldn’t seem to keep floods of water from creeping across the entire bathroom floor and within inches of the hallway carpet. Good times. Good times. Grandma knew how to laugh. And she taught me how to laugh at myself.
For all the talking and storytelling and holding court among the family she did, Grandma also listened well when the need arose. If a crisis visited the family, she cared and listened. I know my siblings-in-law will testify to this. She understood human nature. She could sit silently and let a person ramble and sniffle (speaking of myself here as chief crybaby) for as long as it took. And without a doubt you would walk away from a session with her like that knowing your struggles, needs, and cries of the heart would be brought before God by her. She prayed circles around everybody I have ever known. And in her later years she did it after she went to bed. Aloud. I loved her. I miss her.
During all the years of raising our children I tried both consciously and subconsciously to model my home, family, and much of my mothering after hers. I can’t say I’ve always been successful but she gets all the credit for being a worthy model to follow.
Betty Lou Mitchell’s life was blessed with people who loved her deeply and honored her until her dying day. But her life was not easy. She had physical difficulties, some of which began in childhood and followed her for ninety years. Her dream of home and children did indeed come true but not all was smooth. A husband who saw terrifically awful fighting in Korea brought home with him the tormenting dreams. She learned to live with that and cope. One precious full term daughter stayed on earth less than an hour in her mother’s arms and went back to Jesus. Six other babies never made it past a few weeks gestation each. She cared, willingly, for her own aging mother and mother-in-law, all the while teaching her own children what love and devotion to family looked like in a practical way. She nursed an ill husband for many years through poor health, eventual dementia, and an early death. And she honored him every minute . . . in front of the family who was watching her and learning. She buried her firstborn as he left us nearly eleven years ago–that was what I thought might take her down–but she lived through it. And over these last years she lost more hearing, her sight, had all her joints replaced, and lived with pain. And we watched her. She sang. She prayed. She played the piano. She told stories, a few of them on repeat. She devoted herself to her family. We loved her. We miss her.
There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth speaks these words: But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail. If you know the play, you’ll know her motives weren’t pure, but we’ll not go there. You certainly get her point. In today’s language, we might toss out something more like, Suck it up cupcake. We’re making memories here! Elizabeth Louise Kunkel Mitchell modeled real honest-to-goodness courage. Her courage didn’t follow either of the aforementioned cultural styles. She would tell you this: Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord Psalm 27.14.
She would not be defeated by limitations until there was no other choice. She did large print crosswords with heavy magnifiers and her black Sharpie. Most times passersby at the kitchen table would be roped into reading to her, but she still was trying to manage up until just a few days before she went home to heaven. Diet Pepsi within reach.
And now we say the hard goodbye until we meet again. I had not really shed many tears because of keeping the thought close to my heart of how free she is from pain, how she can see and hear and walk and and and . . .
. . . but then I thought of her glad reunion with baby Roni Lou
and her mother
and her father
and brother Butch
and brother Robert
and all her babies . . .
Standing as tall as her original 5’0″ would stretch. At the feet of her Master and Savior Jesus. At long last.
And then I cried.
Tears of gladness.
Love you, Grandma.
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation