My mother, Laurene McCracken Needham, died on November 14th. She was just two weeks shy of 96 years old, and 2-1/2 months beyond the point at which she was still sharp and ready to pass on.
Mother was born in 1914 along with her twin brother, Lawrence, in Choctaw, Oklahoma. Their mother, Dolly Brown McCracken, died in childbirth, and the twins were raised for two years by several of their father’s eight sisters. My grandfather then married Maude Hill, whom I would know as my grandmother. Granddaddy McCracken was an ‘89’er pioneer (a young child in the 1889 land rush) and rode in the annual parade in his surrey with fringe on top – something that made a huge impression on me in my youth! He was the principal of a cluster of schools and later operated the Sunny Lane Cemetery in Oklahoma City – property of his wealthy brother-in-law – along with my grandmother, who ran the office for decades. She had been Mother’s and Lawrence’s school teacher before that in a two-room school. The twins grew up on a small farm with their older brother and sister and their half-brother, my Uncle Donald, right next door to the cemetery. Mother always spoke of the ‘play house’ Granddaddy made for her and Lawrence by planting a rectangle of tall sunflowers.
Here they are at their 8th grade graduation: Mother, the valedictorian in a dress borrowed from her cousin; Lawrence lacking no bravura!
They attended Capitol Hill High School and then graduated from Oklahoma A & M, which is now Oklahoma State University, in 1937. Mother got her degree in math and English and returned to her high school to teach. Also in 1937, Mother married my father, Herbert Needham, who had courted her during college. He went to work for the telephone company. After Janet and Dorothy were born, Daddy took the family by train to Boston for Naval Officer’s Training at Wellesley College. He kidded his whole life about ‘graduating from Wellesley,’ still a women’s college. He made it home from the Pacific theater of the war and returned to the phone company. Donna and I were born in the subsequent years. I guess we considered ourselves the typical ‘50’s middle class white family, though we all now know how extraordinary both our parents were in terms of honesty, intelligence, faith (never blind), open-mindedness, unconditional love, and fun. They were free of greed, neuroses and hostility. My parents talked out their problems and had a rule never to go to bed angry with each other. Mother no longer worked, but volunteered with the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, the PTA, World Neighbors organization - along with Daddy and Lawrence, and all sorts of Methodist church activities. She still worked at the polls every election day until not so long ago. She and Daddy were both expert Bridge players. In her youth, cards were forbidden as a game of ‘chance,’ and only the card game ‘Rook’ could be played in her very Methodist home. Once her grandparents passed on, her parents became big Bridge players, setting the tone for Mother’s life as a card shark. Here she is playing cards with her great-grandson Derek last August:
In the meantime, Mother was a great combination of fun-loving, fearless farm girl and serious contributor to the welfare of the world. Even though she was considered one of the sweetest, most positive and compassionate human beings around, she never hesitated to knock my croquet ball far into the neighbors’ yards upon capture; she could beat most everyone at ping-pong (later winning an Oklahoma Senior Olympics gold medal in this sport), and was at home on carnival rides that left me retching. I remember her visiting me at Northwestern U. in Chicago when the dorm curfew was 2:00 am. We rode the elevated train home from the Chicago ‘loop’ just in time, and Mother did what she always did: smiled at all the derelicts on the train. She did not have many inner fears and demons to project on others, so everyone was OK as far as she was concerned!
Mother and Daddy loved to travel. They drove all over the USA & Europe, though they had trouble getting out of Rome with all the roads leading back to it. One would drive for an hour, then they would pull over and walk around the car to stretch their legs and switch drivers. They were always equals. Mother wrote wonderful travelogues, particularly about the back road routes they liked to take in the US. Their last hurrah before Daddy died in 1990 was an 8-week drive to Alaska from Oklahoma. One can see on a globe that this distance is about a quarter of the longitude of the world, and it was covered at 52mph, when “the car handled best.”
Mother had a habit of instigating an endless variety of friendships. Once the daughters grew up and moved away, Mother was the designated grandmother for all the neighborhood families. I always thought this was ideal, as her openness and endless repertoire of games simply could not be squandered! The children would ring the bell for card games and the adults would come for counsel and comfort. She met a young German man who swam with her at the “Y” and introduced him to the Austrian divorcee across the street (they are now married); she visited the daughter of other neighbors, a professor of French film at the University of Hawaii, and kayaked in the ocean with her. She became friends with the Kuwaiti cook who brought his mother, one of several wives of his father, to meet her. She ended up knowing the entire family of her banker friend from Shanghai after they came to Tulsa to visit. She attended the weddings of her surrogate grandchildren all over the country. Once Mother had sold our family home and moved into the Methodist Manor retirement community in 2000, she met a young Russian pianist on an airplane who was coming to visit his brother in Tulsa. He ended up using the Manor piano to practice, working in plenty of card games with Mother, then played a concert for the residents. After his brother no longer lived in Tulsa, he actually returned to visit Mother, play more cards and performed another concert at the Manor. Another time she was on a plane reading Thich Nhat Hanh when she struck up a conversation with a Princeton philosophy professor sitting next to her. Of course, he lived near my sister Donna in New Jersey, so Mother called him on subsequent trips. Mother also had a regular Bridge game with my sister’s mother-in-law and two married gay guys. I took her to a concert of the local gay men’s chorus once when I was visiting, and she knew three men performing and the only other females in the audience – a lesbian couple she had met at some other event. She was friends with all of the staff at the Methodist Manor – nurses, aides, dietary, maintenance, administration, and, of course, her fellow-residents.
Mother was known at World Neighbors organization as the ‘most frequent’ contributor; this designation was honored with the World Neighbors Village Award. She was so dedicated to this self-help model of international outreach that she donated to them in honor of friends’ and relatives’ birthdays. Christmas presents were donations to the Child Fund International. She and Daddy also selected other charities as they traveled, such as for runaway teenagers, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY City, and Oklahoma Native Americans. They always gave 10% of their income away, in the old Methodist tradition.
Another element of Mother’s reputation was her joke-telling. She knew, it seemed, 100 jokes at any given moment, while I could remember ONE, and that for a limited time. She established herself as the stand-up comedienne at the Methodist Manor’s annual talent show for nine years, and enjoyed the notoriety as the funny lady there. After a couple of racy preacher jokes, the Manor monitored her subsequent routines! She was also famous for practical jokes, particularly with the grandkids. I believe the family favorite is when she greeted her grandsons Brad and Todd in Durango, CO with a pillow stuffed under her shirt to make her look pregnant.
My niece Amanda works for Southwest Airlines in Phoenix. When word went out that Mother was failing rapidly on her last evening, Amanda was able to immediately fly to Tulsa and sit by Mother the whole night until she died near dawn.
Newton and I got the news of Mother’s death in Natal at 10:00am on that Sunday morning. Miraculously, we were on a flight to São Paulo>Dallas>Tulsa by 2:30pm and arrived in Tulsa at 9:00am Monday, ahead of all stateside relatives. Our friends Rossana and Cassio and their 10-year-old, Olivia, had spent the night with us before their move to Rio de Janeiro that day. Our caretaker was visiting his mother in the interior. Like a bad television script with too many unlikely things happening at once, our friends sent us off and agreed to close the house and set the alarm before catching their life-altering flight.
Once my three sisters, Janet, Dorothy and Donna arrived at the Tulsa hotel, our work was cut out for us. Even though we followed Mother’s wishes that she expressed about her funeral last May, we had plans and calls and all sorts of arrangements to make. Our four heroic husbands – Rex, Bill, Larry and Newton - were content to stand by and do absolutely whatever was needed, while being generally ignored by us.
We met with the funeral director and found out that Sunny Lane Cemetery was now a highly impersonal corporate entity in the ‘Dignity’ cemetery chain. Even though we had a document with the exact plot number, and Mother’s name was already engraved on the gravestone, they were insisting that someone come ahead of time to Oklahoma City to verify the plot location because they had been sued for a burial in the wrong spot. Can you imagine their foisting their incompetence on grieving, extremely occupied families! Luckily, the head man responded in our favor after we threw around the family name.
There would be no casket at the Tulsa service, which took place at the Methodist Manor. There would be visitation for a couple of days at the funeral home, so they asked the daughters if we wished to pay for a hairdresser to fix Mother’s hair. To my astonishment - being a person who could not look at my father after he died in 1990 - Janet and Dorothy decided that they would fix Mother’s hair and make-up so she would look like herself as much as possible. I was so impressed with their courage that I did look at Mother. They did a beautiful job, but, alas, that body was no longer our mother.
The four daughters planned the celebration honoring Mother’s life with the Manor chaplain, a friend of Mother’s and an extremely calm and sensitive man who required nothing for the service, beyond our wishes. We cleared out Mother’s room at the Manor in two days (with husbands’ help), saving cherished items to pass along to relatives and friends. We wrote the obituary; called Mother’s list of friends; designed the program for the Tulsa service; bought flowers; planned the brief Oklahoma City graveside service, which we were to officiate; handled Mother’s business affairs; greeted friends, our children and grandchildren as they arrived during the week; and took care of details too numerous to recall. This we did in a harmonious collaboration, easily agreeing on most everything! Despite the emotion of the circumstances, we four daughters savored our busy days together.
My best friend, Lenna, arrived from Boulder, Colorado, to share in the family gathering as the member that she is. All the family and several close friends gathered on Thursday night before the Friday funeral to tell stories, to select keepsakes – particularly ceramic chickens from Mother’s famous collection and the costume jewelry she loved to wear - and to enjoy the rare phenomenon of all being in one room! We are a far-flung group.
The services went beautifully, so there was a sense of contentment among us afterwards. In Tulsa, the congregation sang a couple of Mother’s favorite old hymns, “In the Garden” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Dorothy and Donna did a reading in unison of Corinthians, Chapter 13.
We had one member of each of the daughters’ families present a remembrance: grandson Randy spoke about Mother’s inspiring character; grandson Brad spoke about what a humorous character Mother was; granddaughter Sara spoke about how positive Mother always was, even wishing in the face of pain to remain positive – and about how frank and modern Mother was when Sara interviewed her for a project on marriage in 2000. Despite the traditional nature of the funeral plans Mother had chosen - much like the life-long church services she attended - it occurred to me that Mother just did life so well…so I represented my family by leading a rousing round of applause for her!
My friend from junior high school, Susie Monger Daugherty, lent her formidable voice to our father’s favorite hymn, “Above the Hills.” This is to the melody of “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”) and was removed from the Methodist hymnal some years ago for being a secular tune. Daddy always felt that the melody itself was something sublime and evocative.
A family friend volunteered to provide food for a reception after the service. My sisters and I appreciated seeing friends from school and from our old neighborhood and cousins from both sides of the family, among many Manor residents and old friends of Mother’s.
We all drove the two hours to Oklahoma City for the Sunny Lane Cemetery burial. We spotted the graves of many relatives – Mother’s parents and siblings and our cousin who drowned as a young man, and, of course, Daddy’s plot, soon-to-be-shared. All ten grandchildren served as pall bearers.
Pictured here l to r: Brad (partially hidden), Jake, Todd (completely hidden), April, Elise, Randy, Sara, Mark, Amy and Amanda. (The man in front, on staff).
Great-grandson David sang an original song, “When I Leave,” to acoustic guitar. The previous director of World Neighbors, a dear friend of Mother’s, made some charming remarks, then Dorothy read several short ‘poems’ that Daddy had written:
Thank you God
For all the
Blessings of Life:
The ones we recognize
The ones in Disguise.
Everyone is unique,
But you are uniquer.
EPITAPH - LAURENE
Yesterday She served
Today She serves
Janet read a benediction and Donna and I attempted a harmony of the Beatles’:
“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
We were not entirely successful. The line does express perfectly the vast amount of love Mother carried to her grave, inspired by the affection and devotion she offered so generously.
Uncle Donald’s daughters provided the lovely reception at the cemetery, which we could never have done without them. We waited awhile to return to the gravesite until the casket had been lowered and covered. This allowed space for us to take a photo of the gravestone, on which are engraved lines from another poem Daddy wrote to Mother:
My nephew Todd from New York City has arrived for years at Thanksgiving at Donna’s in New Jersey with an original script for the funny annual family video. He has a blog on which he posted this tribute to Mother, including some fun video excerpts:
My Grandmother Needham passed away last night. She was almost 96 years old, and I think she'd be the first to tell you that the key to happiness is to not live past 93.
I was blessed to have her for so long, and I'm grateful that Samuel and Ethan and Jennifer got to have her for so long as well. She was a grandmother to be shared.
Some things I've learned from her:
3. Try not to giggle when you're bluffing in poker.
4. Make the world a better place because you were here.
I'll do my best to pass it on.
I will end with a tribute to my nephew Mark, who moved his family some years ago from Colorado to Tulsa. He became Mother’s self-appointed caretaker for years after Mother stopped driving, taking her to doctor’s appointments, sitting in on exams to get all the information straight, buying supplies, helping her to dress. He did all of this with a most willing heart and sweet disposition, and was assisted in much of this demand by his beautiful, generous wife, Jenny. My favorite quote of all came from Mark right at the end of the cemetery reception. I asked him, while introducing him to a second cousin from California, how long he had taken care of Mother. He replied:
“I think she took care of me until a couple of months ago.”