Life + Culture

The Happiest Woman I Have Ever Known: A Tribute to My Mother

The Happiest Woman I Have Ever Known

There is a beauty in simplicity. And there is a greater beauty in harmonious complexity. Referring to Jesus, Jonathan Edwards said that there is in him “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” That’s a quaint way of saying that sometimes things that seem contrary to each other come together in beautiful harmony.

Simplicity That Is Complex

My mother, Ruth Mohn Piper, was like that. She was the more beautiful for being utterly free from duplicity in her complexity. My father’s tribute to her, after she was killed at age 56 in a bus accident in Israel, included this:

Her beauty knew no vanity. She disdained the cheap, the tawdry, the make-believe. She loathed everything farcical and hypocritical. Her genuineness was transparent. She radiated reality. Life to her was neither a mummery nor a charade but a daily expression of untainted sincerity.

So, in a sense, there was utter simplicity. Not because of the absence of complexity, but because of the presence of unity, concord, integrity. Like the pure simplicity of an impartial judge whose verdicts have perfect harmony, though one defendant goes free and another goes to the gallows.

My mother’s “diverse excellencies” were woven together in such harmony that I was never off balance. She was predictable — like the rising sun. Which brought brightness and stability and security and restfulness into the hearts of her children. Her smile and her frown, her affirmation and her anger, her yes and her no were never enigmatic. They always came from the same root of truth and faithfulness and consistency. She was never a wild card, never erratic, random, capricious, arbitrary. She was a rock in the stormy waters of my life.

1. Laughter and Labor

The first pair of “diverse excellencies” that dominated and pervaded all the others was her joy and her industry. Her laughter and her labor. Her singing and her diligence. I know that Snow White and the seven dwarfs whistled while they worked. But my mother took this to a new level. Because she was almost always working. And she was the happiest woman I have ever known.

“She burned the midnight oil. Her hands were never idle.” Those are my father’s words. But my testimony is the same. I would go to bed with mother straightening the living room, and wake up — on Saturday — to the sound of the chamois (pronounced shammy) squeaking, as mother polished the glass table in the dining room. No smudges. Ever.

One of my stereotypes of Germanic DNA (her maiden name was Mohn) is sauberkeit (cleanliness)! During the three years I lived in Germany, I saw part of what made my mother (and me) tick. The women, with pails and rags in hand, daily washed the stone steps leading up from the sidewalk to their front doors.

Go to the Ant

As you might expect, her favorite book in the Bible was Proverbs. At least that’s the one she quoted most often to me. It’s practical. (It is also mainly about trouble-prone boys.) And it celebrates industry! “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). “Her ways?” No surprise to me.

The hand of the diligent will rule,
     while the slothful will be put to forced labor. (Proverbs 12:24)

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
     while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)

Whoever is slack in his work
     is a brother to him who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)

My mother would spare me being put to forced labor, and abetting the destroyer. So she taught me how to work.

And I mean she. My father was an evangelist and was away from home about two-thirds of every year. I was raised by two German women — Ruth Mohn Piper and her mother, MaMohn, who lived with us during much of my growing-up years. So when I say she taught me how to work, I mean she. Daddy taught me to fish and golf — and set a great model of powerful preaching and praying. But as far as practical work goes, mother taught me just about everything.

  • “Hang up your clothes when you take them off, and you’ll never have to clean your room.”
  • “Overlap with the lawnmower the part you already mowed, and you won’t have skippers.”
  • “Change the oil, and the motor will last longer. Do it yourself. There’s a special wrench for the filter.”
  • “When you weed the flower bed [which we did continually], grab the Bermuda grass at the roots; otherwise it will be back in a week.”
  • “Be sure the cooking oil is boiling when you put in the sliced potatoes, else the homemade fries will be soggy, not crispy.”
  • “Turn over the pancakes when you see the bubbles around the edges.”
  • “Run cold water over the pressure cooker before you turn the lid (or you’ll get your head blown off).”

I never heard a philosophical word come out of her mouth. What could you do with something philosophical? You can’t clean it, or fold it, or stack it, or put it away.

I heard one time that women don’t sweat — they glow. Not true. My mother sweated. It would drip off the end of her nose. Sometimes she would blow it off when her hands were pushing the wheelbarrow full of peat moss. Or she would wipe it with her sleeve between the strokes of a swing-blade. Mother was strong. I can remember her arms even today, sixty years later. They were big, and in the summertime they were bronze.

A Matrix for Merriment

For all this work, as far as I could tell, life was joy. She was the happiest woman I have ever known. And I don’t mean she coped well. I mean she smiled, laughed, and sang. My dominant memory of her is a smiling face. Work was not drudgery. It was a matrix for being merry.

Whether it was her mother, sitting at the grand piano (which tells you something about our home), singing with full-throated, silver-haired vibrato a 1906 parlor song like “I Love You Truly” — the kind of sound teenage boys love to imitate with hilarity — or whether it was my mother humming “Heavenly Sunshine” while she ironed underwear (!), or my father and mother together singing “When We All Get to Heaven” in the front seat of the car heading for vacation nine hours away from Greenville, South Carolina, at Daytona Beach — my life was embedded in music.

This makes it hard for a young fellow to distinguish where work ends and play begins. And yes, my mother could play. She and Daddy drew my sister and me into their Scrabble games as early as they could. And when guests came over, the games of Rook or Pit or charades were raucous, with my mother’s laughing voice above them all.

Vision of Health and Joy

Never did she laugh more than when my father came home from being away for three weeks, or four weeks, or two weeks. It would be Monday night (since his meetings ended on Sunday evening). Daddy flew home in the afternoon. There was a special meal prepared. And at the table we would hear tales of the triumph of the gospel, and we would hear the new jokes that he had learned.

It didn’t matter whether they were funny. My father laughed so hard at his own jokes that the rest of us could not help but join in — mother leading the way. It would start with a short, soprano burst (at the punch line). Her silver head would toss back, and her long white teeth would flash under her sharp nose. Her tanned neck would redden as the tendons flinched. She was a vision of health and joy.

And not just in domestic settings. Once, on a deep-sea fishing trip in Florida, she hooked a seven-foot swordfish. The kind that cause boat captains to fly special flags as they dock. It took over an hour to reel it in, with everyone in the family taking turns at the reel. But it was her fish. Instead of having it mounted, she had salted steaks prepared and shipped to us on dry ice.

So the diverse excellencies of work and joy, laughter and labor, singing and diligence pervaded my growing up. The effect of that on me has been, I suppose, incalculable. Only God knows. But I am thankful.

2. Omnicompetent Complementarian

The second pair of diverse excellencies that made me stand in awe, especially as I grew older, was her omni-competence combined with a deep commitment to complementarian choreography in marriage — before anybody ever heard of such a clumsy adjective. What filled me with wonder was not just that Mama could do everything better than my father (except preach and pray and tell jokes), but that she did do everything better.

Submission’s Dance

Since my father was away two-thirds of the year, I knew my mother as both an omnicompetent single parent, and as a complementarian wife. You might think: this is a prescription for disaster — the man comes in and out of the home. But to mother’s astonishing credit, it wasn’t a disaster. When he was away, she did everything, and did it with ease and excellence. When he came home, she genuinely loved his leadership. He gathered us to the table. He got us to church. He called us for family devotions. He spoke the first and firmest word of discipline. He initiated going out to eat at Howard Johnson’s. He showed the kind of manly courtesies which today are despised. And in all this mother beamed. She loved it. Later I would learn that the Bible calls this submission.

And of course, the fact that she loved Daddy’s leadership had nothing to do with her incompetencies. As far as I knew, she didn’t have any. It had to do with a deep sense of fitness about the way God has choreographed the dance of manhood and womanhood in marriage. I was blessed with a front-row seat at the drama of marriage in which my mother took the Oscar for omnicompetent womanhood as a complementarian wife.

Training Me How at Every Turn

While Daddy was away, I watched her handle all the finances: paying the bills, dealing with the bank and the creditors, running a coin-operated laundry on the side, and teaching me at every turn how it’s done. I watched her lead the community garden club, manage an Amway franchise, administer real-estate holdings, and deal with the contractors when we added a basement, more than once putting her hand to the shovel. And she served as the superintendent of the Sunday School High School Department.

When I needed help in school, we didn’t hire a tutor. There was Mama. She helped me with the maps in geography; she showed me how to do a bibliography and work up a science project on static electricity. She guided me through Algebra II, and convinced me it was possible. I doubt that my father could have done any of these things — surely not as well as Mama.

But for all her competence, it never occurred to me to think that the manhood of my father and the womanhood of my mother were functionally interchangeable. Both were strong. Both were bright. Both were kind. Both would kiss me, and both would spank me. Both were good with words. Both prayed with fervor and loved the Bible. But unmistakably my father was a man and my mother was a woman. They knew it and I knew it. And it was not only a biological fact. It was more deeply a matter of God-given personhood and relational dynamics.

3. Moral Backbone and Merciful Care

The third pair of diverse excellencies is moral backbone and gentle care — an unwavering sense of right and wrong mingled with merciful tenderness. I said above that she seemed to do everything with ease. Not quite. This was not easy. Two parents are God’s idea. Not the least because at fourteen I was six inches taller than my five-foot, two-inch mother. And I still needed the firm hand of a father — if necessary on my backside.

Belt, Soap, and Police

But she did what she had to do. She gave the law and she enforced it. I recall only once being whipped by this little woman with a belt. I skipped Sunday night church when I was about fourteen. That was a double offense. Delinquent attendance and deceit. What made this whipping so memorable is that I stood there like a stone, as if to say she could not hurt me. When she left my bedroom weeping, I felt low and despicable for treating her so badly.

Then there was the time she actually washed my mouth out with soap. Not a metaphor. Took hold of my hair, bent me over the sink, and stuck a bar of soap in my mouth. (I think it was Ivory.) What had I said to bring down this wrath? I had said, “Shut up!” to my sister.

Then there was the night in my mid-teens when she let me take the car out with some of my friends. In those days you could get your driver’s license at fourteen. On the way home, I got pulled over for speeding on Church Street. All I could think about was mother. Home alone with no man to back her up.

I walked in and told her I got a ticket. She wept like I’d shot somebody, marched me out to the car, and made me drive straight to the police station at 11:00 at night. She waited in the car while I went in, apologized, and paid the fine. Unforgettable.

Alone Against Racism

And then there was that regrettable vote at our church on a Wednesday night when mother stood entirely alone. I mention this just to show the kind of backbone she had, even when it was not a matter of shepherding her son, but instead of standing for justice. Racial issues were explosive in Greenville in the early sixties. White churches were being visited by African Americans to expose the racism of the responses.

Our church decided to vote that no black people be allowed into the sanctuary. Mother was the only no vote. She was heart-stricken. Not long after that, my sister’s wedding was held in the church, and when the black guests that came to the wedding were about to be directed to the unused balcony to avoid a scene, my mother took over for the ushers and escorted these friends into the sanctuary. She may have been barely over five feet. But on the landscape of my moral formation, she was towering.

But It Was Not So Simple

The rules were clear. Break the rules, pay the price. This was bracingly clean and clear moral air to breathe growing up. One did not wonder about right and wrong. And consequences were clear. But as I grew older, it wasn’t that simple. She knew it. And soon I would know it. For example, I knew that our family did not go to movies. And we did not go to dances. If you think this sounds stifling, it wasn’t. Remember, I had the happiest family that I have ever known.

Well, in the seventh grade, Mrs. Adams’s home room won the prize for attendance. Mrs. Adams was the English teacher from whom I learned almost everything I know about English grammar. But that’s not the point. The point is that our home room got to skip school and go to a movie as a prize. So I told Mama and asked her what I should do. She said, “I suppose you should do whatever you think is best.” Whoa! The lawgiver and law enforcer just handed over the moral reins to a thirteen-year-old.

The same thing happened in the eighth grade. There was a pretty girl in my class who belonged to a group that annually held a Sadie Hawkins dance, where the girls invite guys. She called me and asked me to go. I fumbled around awkwardly with something like, “I don’t know how to dance.” To which she just as awkwardly said, “Well, we can sit and talk.” I excused myself to ask Mama what to do. Same response: “Whatever you think is best.” Oh no. A new world of moral responsibility was falling on me.

You’re probably wondering what I did, right? Well, that’s not the point. The point is that this happiest of all fundamentalist mothers, who could wield her authority with belt and soap and police, knew she was raising a man who would have to stand on his own convictional feet. And she knew me.

Yes, I did go to the movie. No, I didn’t go to the dance. As I recall, we were going out of town that night (mercifully).

Ceaseless Care

Perhaps one of the reasons I happily embraced the moral wisdom of my parents, including a high view of happy holiness and separation from worldliness, is that my mother was not mainly a lawgiver and law enforcer. She was mainly a tender, caring, merciful helper in my struggles. The biggest struggle was that I was paralyzed in front of any group where I had to speak. We are not talking here about butterflies of nervousness that people joke about. This was no joke.

I could not — could not — speak in front of a class. In the tenth grade, Mr. Vermillion required an oral book report in his civics class. I told him I couldn’t. He had no idea what I meant. I didn’t do it. My grade in that class reflected the failure. This misery all through junior and senior high school caused deep anxiety and many tears.

Mother took me to a psychologist at one point. After some Rorschach tests, the psychologist hinted that the problem might be my mother. I thanked her, left the office, and never went back. I did not understand many things in those days, but I did understand one thing: My mother was the one person in the world who was patiently, tenderly, lovingly helping me through those terrible years. And I was not about to blame her for anything.

Her care for me never stopped till the day she died when I was 28. Letters. Letters. Letters. For example, the last letter she wrote to me was from the airplane heading for Israel on December 10, six days before she was killed in a bus accident outside Bethlehem. In the ninety days leading up to that last letter, when I had just arrived in Minnesota, she wrote me fifty pages (I still have them) of news, encouragement, and advice.

I know God better because my mother embodied, with seamless authenticity, both an unwavering sense of right and wrong mingled with merciful tenderness. She was a lawgiver, and a law enforcer, and a gospel-saturated sage. How else will a child ever be prepared to know the true God of Scripture?

The Word of God

Scripture. What a glorious foundation for life — and eternity. Daddy preached it and prayed it. Mother worked it out in a life that must have been very hard. The older I got, the more I realized the sacrifices and the pain. Which made the joy all the more amazing and sweet. Under it all was the word of God. It’s the only book I ever saw her read. She was not a reader. So she saved almost all her reading for the most important book.

I have in front of me the black, leather-bound Scofield King James Bible that my parents gave me for my fifteenth birthday. On the inside, in her unmistakable handwriting, are the words,

Happy Birthday, Son
     January 11, 1961

“This Book will keep
     you from sin
Or sin will keep
     you from this book.”

     Mother and Daddy

Both their names. But it was her hand. Daddy was probably not home. That’s the way it was. The fact that I have always held my father in the highest esteem, and loved him deeply, and admired his ministry, is no doubt owing to my mother’s unwavering joy in supporting him. At her funeral, a man who was on that last trip to Israel said he saw them holding hands in the Promised Land.

Thank you, Father, for this marriage, these diverse excellencies, and this great woman.

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