y mother, Frances Poindexter Rowland, married at 19, and World War II began shortly after. For the first few years of the war, my mother was “Rosie the Riveter,” doing welding in a shipyard. “If I ever read about a ship sinking,” she once told me, “I always wondered whether it was my fault.”
Just after she learned that she was pregnant with my sister Twila, my father was shipped to England where he stayed until my sister was nearly two. Somewhere in the family archives are dozens of pictures of my beautiful mother holding her red-haired child pictures that were mailed to my father so he could keep track of his daughter’s development.
My father came home from the war in 1945, and I was born a year later. My father was Episcopalian, so his views of church differed widely from my [Church of God] mother’s. To complicate matters, my very strict, Pentecostal grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, and she was so convinced of the “holiness or hell” alternatives that she was willing to confront my father to keep us all on the straight and narrow.
During this time, my mother was the peacemaker, and the compromise she worked out was that my sister and I could go to the movies with my father every Saturday, but the rest of the week we were purely Pentecostal. My Episcopalian grandmother and most of my mother’s extended family were scandalized by my mother’s Pentecostalism, but she never argued or fought back. She simply was who she was the most integrated, consistent, and whole person I have ever met. Her faithfulness, goodness, and kindness ultimately quieted her detractors.
My mother’s life was centered in the church for all those years. “It was my career,” she once told me. My very earliest memory is of holding my mother’s hand and walking what seemed like a thousand miles to a meeting of the Ladies Willing Worker Band.
My sister and I learned to embroider before we learned to read, and our house was often fragrant with a boiling sugar mixture as my mother made fudge and divinity that my sister and I sold door-to-door to finance the church. My mother and her band of willing workers made andsold tea towels, hand towels, pillowcases, and cross-stitch aprons by the hundreds, and our household theology was intertwined with the need for commerce.
There was always a practical side to religion in our family: God would provide the spiritual blessings, but someone had to pay the church electric bill. I learned from my mother that the church is important, that it is our responsibility, and that it is worth working for.
My grandmother was the Bible scholar in our family, and her bedroom was filled with commentaries, and Bible dictionaries. She read the Bible constantly and could quote massive passages form memory. While my grandmother provided the intellectual side of our religion through her stringent Bible interpretation, my mother provided our religion’s warm heart. Much less strict than my grandmother, she embodied for us the kind gentleness of a Savior who was full of grace and love. We knew our faith was demanding and that membership in a church community brought responsibilities, but we learned from our mother the truest of all lessons, “God is love.”
Shortly after my father died in 1956, we discovered that my younger sister was developmentally delayed because of a birth injury. The story of my mother’s care for her would fill volumes, but the world has seldom seen a fiercer, more consistent, or more protective love. There was no special education in our town when my sister reached school age, and the school system claimed there were not enough children to start such a class. Undaunted, my mother went door-to-door, finding and recruiting students until she had enough for the district to open its first special education program. She saw my sister through a lifetime of ups and downs with a steady, uncompromising, unconditional love so rare and so beautiful that its power was stunning.
What better model could I have had of the unconditional and persistent love of Christ?