You would think after 16 years, the ache would start to subside but for me, it just hasn’t happened. The memories are vivid. It was a busy Monday morning and I was working as an assistant manager in a call center. I had just relieved my switchboard girl so she could go on a break so the call came in through the switchboard.
Caller: Can I speak to Shelli please?
Me: This is Shelli.
Caller: Shelli, this is your father and I have the news you never wanted to hear.
Me: Are you not coming to Florida? ( a visit had been planned for later in the month)
Caller: Shelli… your mother is dead.
Me: Who’s mother?
I don’t remember anything after that statement until about 20 minutes later when I came to my senses. From what I was told, I started screaming, management poured out of their offices to see what was happening. They picked me up and put me in someone’s office while they called my husband. To this day, that is all a blank.
I quickly learned my mother had died of sleep apnea. She died with her mask next to her head on her pillow. In the hours and days that followed, we made arrangements to have someone take over the HVAC business we owned and ran in Tallahassee, Fla. then headed to Richmond, VA for the funeral. We flew into Richmond, stopped at a gas station to change clothes before we made our the funeral home.
It was surreal to see my mother lying in a casket. She didn't look sick or injured. She just looked asleep. I was still in such a state of shock over her sudden death that I couldn't shake the feeling she was going to open her eyes any minute and give me that look that only a mother can give to her daughter. My other vivid memory is some of the people that gathered at the wake were putting in a show of mourning and wailing but I knew they hadn't bothered to spend time with her in years so the relationship was almost non-existent. For some reason, one woman in particular put photos of her grandkids (kids my mother had never seen and been introduced to) in the casket with my mother. This woman hadn’t spoken to my mother in 20 years! I was filled with fury that they were using her funeral to make themselves look caring and I decided to do something about it. In that moment, I became the matriarch of the family. When they closed the casket, she was buried with Mother’s Day cards from my brothers and me, flowers from my father and that was it.
My mother had a rough childhood and it made her a hard person to get to know on a personal level. Like everyone else, she had issues but hers were amplified. However, her trials also taught her some key character traits that she passed on to me and I carry them to this day. Here is what I learned from her:
- Perfection isn't achievable but you should always strive for it. Her theory was you can always improve so push yourself beyond what you believe you are capable of doing.
- “Idle hands are a devils workshop”. The woman believed in keeping us busy. Between chores and sports and church-related activities, we didn't have time to get into trouble.
- Traditions keep family memories alive. Our family story is filled to the brim with traditions, especially around the holidays.
- A woman should always smell good. Mom LOVED Avon products and from my earliest memories, she would buy me their perfume pins. I have been wearing perfume since I was 5 years old. I may not always put on makeup but I am ALWAYS wearing perfume.
- Look past the hard shell of the person to see the broken person inside… and learn to love them THERE.
Because of my mother, I love parades, over pack for trips (Mom: “It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it”), am very patriotic, enjoy reading, love to surprise people with tokens of my appreciation, hold on fiercely to the family heirlooms that have been passed down to me, take lots of pictures at family gatherings, make homemade chicken and dumplings on snow days, watch The Wizard of OZ every year, love to watch sports, believe in good sportsmanship during athletic events and clean my house from top to bottom BEFORE I go on a trip.
My mother loved God, had big dreams and loved girly things i.e. jewelry and perfume. She refused to budge on her beliefs and would work until she dropped to achieve her goals. Sound familiar? It should. I am my mother’s daughter.
In honor of Phyllis Stewart Tench
August 11th, 1942 – May 3rd, 1999