Celebrating Mary Whithead

Note: Mary Whitehead, mother of Community of Reason member Fred Whitehead, died on July 29, age 89.  He delivered the following remarks at the Celebration of her life on August 10, 2013.


Welcome to everyone, family and friends.  I am Mary’s son Fred.  In times of passage, it is fitting and desirable to recall the life and beliefs of our departed loved one.  Mary grew up in south/southwest Kansas, born to parents who literally pioneered that part of the State.  She experienced all the challenges of farm life, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; a book she appreciated reading was a collection of memoirs of that period, entitled The Worst Hard Time.

People had to be tough and resilient in such a time and place.  But from childhood, Mary was an avid reader.  She told the story of loving to sit in an easy chair, reading a book, with her mother stopping by and demanding: “Get to work!”  She loved her mother, and her mother loved her, but as anyone raised on a farm knows, the work never really ends, and culture had to take second place or third place.  Once her father gave her a pony, but she later reflected: “What did I want with a pony?”  It was clear she was not going to stay on the farm, and in her maturity she always appreciated city life, and the cultural attractions found there.

My grandfather Carl was probably a New Deal Democrat, but my grandmother Edna remained a staunch Republican.  I think Edna considered the Democrats rather disreputable, if not outright wicked.  Though Mary strongly resembled her father physically, she mostly took after her mother in her formative habits of mind.  For instance, I vividly recall when Adlai Stevenson was running for President (in 1952, and again in 1956), my mother announced at our small family dinner table that she could not support any man for President who could not run his own family.  Stevenson was divorced, and that was a serious blemish on his character.  My father, a “yellow dog” Democrat, just hung his head in exasperation.  Young as I was, I remember thinking: surely there are worse sins in the world than being divorced.

My grandmother detested beer, which she called “Ole Beer.”  She passed this dislike on to Mary.  I remember when she, Howard and I, walked down Main Street in Pratt, she rushed us by the entrance to the main town saloon and pool hall, what was known in those days as a “beer joint.”  Even on the sidewalk, the heady aroma of stale beer, and stale cigar smoke wafted out to assail the nostrils of innocent citizens.  It was a long time before I ever dared to venture into that den of iniquity, only to find it inhabited by a few old gents quietly playing dominoes and sipping glasses of Coors beer.

Following her mother’s commandment to “Get to work,” Howard and I were often sent out to our garden or the lawn, to pull weeds.  I hated it, but realized from the experience that there are things in the world you won’t like, but which you have to do anyway.  I confess that even to this day, as a result of that servitude, I love weeds.

Mary loved traditional ways.  On May Day, Howard and I made little baskets of colored paper, put in a few flowers like dandelions or violets, took them to the neighbors, where we knocked on the door, then ran away, while watching to see the reaction.  Do children have the experience of May baskets any more?

Mary had an impish side too.  She once told me that if I put salt on a robin’s tail, I could catch him.  Out I went, creeping up on a robin with salt-shaker in hand.  Of course, he always flew away before I could salt his tail.  I learned that not everything you are told is true, but I also saw the humor in being so easily fooled.

Mary was a considerate person.  When I was pretty young, I used a racial epithet for someone, perhaps even a classmate at school.  She admonished me quietly: “Don’t say that.”  I had heard plenty of people use it.  Southern Kansas, after all, was not that far from Oklahoma, then as now a very “southern” State.  I asked why not, and she replied: “Because it makes them feel bad.”  A lesson in ethics and language that shaped my entire life.

Another time—it must have been in the mid-1950s, I bought a replica of a Confederate Army cap, and I said “I like being a rebel.”  But Mary said, again, quietly but firmly.  “No, that wasn’t the right side.”

Mary was a life-long Presbyterian, and remained steadfast in her Christian faith to the end.  We used to have the most amazing discussions about theological matters. I once asked her if Presbyterians believed in God’s mercy, but she declined to answer, apparently apprehensive it was some kind of heathenish trick question.  More about God’s mercy in a moment.

A year or two ago I gave her a book entitled The Twilight of Atheism, and she responded: “It’s about time.”  So she held her own, calm, persistent, and resolute, courageous to the end.

She loved old time Gospel music, and I shared recordings of it with her.  Memorably, she liked one song, with the energetic refrain: “Get down on yo’ knees!”  She earnestly recommended to me that I follow that commandment and get down on my knees too, but I reminded her that Presbyterians don’t make it a practice to get down on their knees to anybody.

Years ago, I happened to be having a discussion about empathy and charity with a Jewish professor of some branch of science.  He said: “If you see someone begging, give him something, even if it’s just a small coin, give him something.”  He seemed emphatic about it, so I asked why so?  He replied: “It might be Him.”  Confused, I naively asked: “What do you mean Him.”  The professor replied: “Him, Him.  The Messiah.”  Astonished, I reflected on the meaning of what was surely a very old folk concept among Jewish people, that the Messiah might return to earth in the guise of a humble beggar, so we are obliged to always do something, should the person be Him.  If we ignore our needy brethren, we deny the Messiah himself.

Mary supported scores and scores of charitable and cultural organizations, in Kansas City, across the country, and even overseas.  Small donations sometimes, sometimes larger ones.  But she always gave something, and to many, many groups.

Outside apartments in Independent Living, there is a small ledge, where residents often place seasonal things— wreaths at Christmas, rabbits at Easter, Flags on July 4th, etc.  I used to bring all kinds of silly and even outrageous things to her ledge, just leaving them there for her to discover.  Among these was the bottle of “Repent Rye” beer, which is displayed on the table at the foyer.  And another beer that included on its label the words: “Hopping to Heaven.”  I once put a bottle of wine there, called “Ole Geezer,” but after tasting it, she poured the contents down the drain.  I suggested that she really ought to have shared the wine with a “Geezer,” but she declined that opportunity.  No Ole Geezer wine, and no Geezer.

So all in all, we had many great times together—days, months, years, decades.  When she passed, Kansas City experienced two days of gentle rain, desperately needed after a long drought.

This normally fiery month of August has been marked by rain, and cool weather.  “Say what they like,” observed the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, “there’s nothing above but the blue air, or the soft, gray cloud taking the gay sun’s gilding.”   So life goes on, the light blue chicory and delicate white Queen Anne’s Lace are blooming alongside the roads everywhere.

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