On my kitchen counter rests a framed silhouette of a woman above the words of Proverbs 31:25: “…she smiles at the future” (NASB). This gift from a friend reminds me of my mother. Despite ongoing life challenges—and in her last year losing most of her teeth to radiation treatments—Bernice Lueders sure knew how to smile at the future.
If you flip through vintage photos of my mom, you’ll see her flashing her pearly whites. There’s the teen pose with her girlfriends on a car hood. The laid-back pose in the Adirondack chair when she was in her early 20s. I love the just-engaged photo of Mom and Dad. Fast forward and you’ll see the family Christmas photo with Mom holding baby me on her lap.
One of my all-time favorite photos is the glamour shot of my mom, then single, wearing a deep blue slightly-off-the-shoulder dress with neckline broach. Va-va-va-voom. As a young girl and even into my teens, I used to stare at this photo amazed that this was Mom. To me, she looked like a Hollywood starlet instead of the woman I knew who struggled with her weight and mental health.
No Staying Down
Even all these years later, Mom’s depressive episodes are still a mystery. Bless her. As best as I can piece together, she lived most of her adult life with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that manifested through hoarding.
Just typing those words makes me wince. When you share a family secret in public, shame wants to claw at your heart. But here’s the truth. Mom never let her own struggles keep her from helping others. Bernice did not stay down when she was down. She regrouped and got back in the saddle to share a smile, a laugh, some love with others.
That’s the mom I knew best. That’s the mom who loved her Jesus.
When I was growing up, most nights my dad, two brothers and I would watch television, and Mom would slip away to her bedroom and read. Sometimes when I tired of the males picking another of their boy-tough shows, I’d go check in with Mom and usually found her reading her Bible.
I don’t ever recall missing a Sunday service at our rural southeast Nebraska church, but I remember Mom telling me about a Billy Graham crusade in her Minneapolis hometown. This must have been Billy’s first Twin Cities crusade in 1950 when Mom was almost 20 years old. That evening with the up-and-coming evangelist boosted Mom’s personal belief in Christ and grounded her when she married my dad and moved to rural America, far from family and the big-city hustle and bustle.
Serving in the Little Things
Living among roughly 170 other villagers, Mom and Dad raised us three kids and built up their gas station and fuel truck delivery business. Everyone from easily 30 miles away knew my parents and my mom’s winsome smile and gregarious nature. She greeted everyone warmly when she did the books at the service station or trotted out to fill up a customer’s gas tank.
Day after day for decades, Bernice served us all in the little things. Making animal-themed birthday cakes for my brothers and me so we could share them at school with our classmates. Driving local folks to doctor’s appointments. Bringing holiday turkey with all the fixings to elderly widows and widowers. Sitting over coffee with a hurting friend. And of course, who can forget her cold tuna seashell pasta salad for any luncheon after a funeral service?
Finally, in her mid-60s, Mom’s mental health dipped, and she was hospitalized for a month. Her new medication did a 180 on her OCD and depressive bouts. Mom was even keeled and happily smiling again. But two years later, glandular skin cancer inside her lower lip left her with facial and neck scars. The cancer returned a year later. This time surgery plus radiation began to crumble her teeth. I can still see her bleeding mouth as another tooth would break off at the gum.
Although the medical treatments compromised her body, my mother never let her limitations squelch her faith and joy. Through all her physical setbacks, I never heard Mom complain or whine. Why? She stayed focused on God’s strength and serving others.
Psalm 23, a longtime favorite, comforted Mom, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” And Mom underlined Psalm 73:23-26 in blue ink in her King James Bible. Verse 26 is particularly fitting as she exchanged her weakness for the Lord’s. “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.”
Encouraging Others to Hold Steady
In early 2001, Mom was eager to get dental implants and return to normal eating again. While she waited to see the oral surgeon, she kept busy greeting customers at the gas station and playing with the grandkids. She also volunteered at church to visit the elderly and sick who could not attend worship services.
On Sunday afternoon, March 4, Mom visited several of these “shut-ins” from church, leaving them with a lighter heart. Two days later, my mom was hospitalized. Her compromised teeth and gums led to an infection around her heart, and the next say she suffered a massive stroke. Mom passed on that Sunday—one week after encouraging her shut-in friends to hold steady in their own faith.
The day after Mom’s funeral, I climbed the sagging cement steps to Viola’s tiny farmhouse, just a minute’s drive south of the cemetery. Viola couldn’t attend Mom’s service. It’s hard to make it to funerals when the only thing you drive is a wheelchair. Polio attacked this mother of two in the 1950s. Later in retirement, a heart attack killed Viola’s husband—leaving her alone on the family farm.
At the nudging of God’s Spirit that morning, I gathered several of the gorgeous funeral bouquets to deliver them to the ill and elderly from my parent’s church. Viola’s was my first stop. Fighting against the piercing March wind, I paused on Viola’s sidewalk. My mind shuddered, wildly threatening to talk me out of ringing the doorbell.
Would Viola recognize me? Would she even open her door to woman she hadn’t seen in decades? I sighed deeply, hoping Viola remembered me when I explained that I was Bernice’s daughter. Two days before Mom entered the hospital for the last time, she climbed the same sagging concrete steps on top of that windswept hill to visit and bring a smile to Viola.
Viola was the only person I knew growing up in our rural community who couldn’t walk. I loved Viola’s striking silver hair and her carefree smile. Her beauty radiated far beyond her disabled body.
Being There for Others
Polio and a wheelchair did not define Viola. Cancer and scars did not define Bernice. Viola, like Mom, smiled at the future.
After a heartwarming visit with Viola that chilly March day, I delivered more funeral flowers to two local nursing homes, then to Benny and his wife, Marie, whose cancer was gnawing away at her strength.
I am warmed by the memory of delight I offered to each of Mom’s church friends. That day I followed in the footsteps of my mother and my God. One of Mom’s last acts of compassion on this earth was to visit the ill, the lonely, the hurting.
One of the life-enduring gifts Bernice passed on to me is her serving spirit. It’s the same spirit reflected in the Gospels when Jesus urges His followers to visit and care for the widows, the sick, the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-40). It’s the same spirit that prompts me today to take my collies on pet therapy visits to cheer the sick in a local hospital, to drive widows to doctor appointments, to call and write a friend in prison.
Jesus is the servant of all, and people scrambled to be around Him, even begging to touch the edge of His cloak so they would be healed. Every time we serve someone—friend or stranger—we are essentially helping that person touch the cloak of Jesus. It’s what my mother did right up until she was called to heaven. Mom did not let missing teeth or a scarred face keep her from visiting others who were too ill to leave their beds and homes.
People saw Jesus’ nail-scarred hands in Mom’s own hands marked by shaking tremors. They saw His compassion when they scanned her beaming blue eyes. They saw His gentleness when she served her home cooking. In being there for others, Bernice allowed God to radiate through her humanness and frailties.
Mom wasn’t an orator, an evangelist, or musician, but she could tell stories, make others laugh, and always share a smile for today and the future.
This article appears in the May 14, 2003, Power for Living edition produced by David C Cook publishing.