Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Elizabeth T. Henderson 1918-2008

My mom (who you see in the upper left-hand corner of this blog) was born in Champaign County, Illinois, in 1918, and grew up in Methodist parsonages across the middle of the state. Her family’s plans initially didn’t run to her becoming a medical doctor, but she worked and scrimped and saved her way through four years at the U of I and three more at its medical school in Chicago. The big city was not her home ground, and her classmates, mostly men, proved rather provincial. When she said she was going back downstate to practice medicine, they said, “But you won’t have any patients!”

She met her future husband while studying in an alcove at the Wesley Foundation on the Urbana campus, when he offered to help her with physics homework. They had five children and 59 years.

For six years she practiced medicine at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County, Kentucky, where it took a real Jeep (WW2 style) and hiking shoes to get to the remote cabins of some patients. With tubing brought in from outside, she cobbled together intravenous fluid dispensers as needed.

After their second child was born, the family moved back to central Illinois. They wanted to settle and put roots down somewhere; when the high-school principal in Farmington (Fulton County) found himself short of a math teacher at the beginning of the 1951-1952 school year, her husband got the job. They never left.

We lived about an hour from her parents, who we visited most Sundays. An hour’s drive at the end of the day is not the ideal situation for parents of five children under ten, but they had resources. Many times I recall Mom and Dad singing their old songs in clear two-part harmony -- “Down By The Old Mill Stream,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” -- as we drove through the hills of Knox County in the gathering dusk.

When I was very young, Mom’s medical friends were all female. Some time after we moved to Farmington, I had to be told that men could be doctors too. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. (This is an example of how parents give their children advantages they never had.)

As a child, Mom was painfully shy. Over the years she grew out of it. As a doctor in training, she recalled being the only one in her class who actually got acquainted with her patients. As a doctor in later years before retiring in 1989, she saw patients in her living room for fees that her former classmates would have found laughable.

She hated to cut down a tree -- once she scared off the city tree trimmers from the silver maples in her front yard -- but she never philosophized about nature. She took little interest in ideas as such, and she had a chronic suspicion of education or knowledge for its own sake. (“What’s he going to do with that?”) She endured hours of torture when I found her hated college history textbooks and enthusiastically read them aloud to her. Later, when I pestered her with all the conventional skeptical questions about Methodism, Christianity, and religion, her only answer was, “It’s done a lot of good.” But when I called her with a health crisis, at 3 am on her vacation, she knew exactly what to do.

She revered her parents but not beyond reason. “My dad was right about everything,” she said once -- except when he soft-pedaled the idea that war is always wrong. “He was wrong about that.”

Starting when her youngest was in diapers, she regularly drove to West Virginia with the kids and a hired helper -- a two- or three-day trip -- to substitute for doctors there. In the days before interstate bypasses, we never failed to get lost in Cincinnati. Sometimes she found adventure in her own side yard, where she once filled both hands with bird seed and lay in the grass until the birds landed on her to feed. Later on, she traveled to Nicaragua and the Dakotas for medical stints. In their 70s, she and her sister went to Baja California to see a solar eclipse. Even after Alzheimer’s had stolen much of her mind, she was always ready for a ride into town.

She loved babies and basketball games, flowers and garage sales. One of her fondest memories was keeping an eye on her oldest grandchild, then about two or three. Little Rachel looked up at her and said with great satisfaction: “Here I am, on my own front porch, with my good friend Grandma.”

Speaking in public was not her idea of an adventure, and she avoided it like the plague. But eight months ago, when her home town honored her, she unexpectedly took the microphone to thank those present -- and to add, of her life there and elsewhere, “I would do it all again if I could.”


Randy said...

Thanks for reminding me of that great old song:

Darn Body Oatmeal Stream
Wear a First Mate Shoe

Miriam said...

A beautiful tribute!

Jasia said...

I feel the love you have for your mom, and the admiration. She led an extraordinary life for one from such humble beginnings. Thank you for sharing her with us. It truly is a beautiful tribute.

Apple said...

This is a wonderful tribute. I'm very sorry for your loss.

Cathi B.W. Desmarais said...

Just lovely, Harold. Lovely.


I agree, this was a beautiful tribute - your mother was a remarkable lady.