This was posted on my blog previously, but somehow it got deleted. Re-posting it now. Church of the Holy Apostles, Barnwell, SC. Delivered on February 8, 2012
It’s so very hard to adequately capture the fully led life of such an amazing person as Stella Tongour in just a handful of minutes. When I look back on her life, I am sure that she helped keep me fed, gave me rides to activities, sewed on Scout patches, and did all those things that mothers often do: cook, chauffeur, nurse, tailor, etc.. But it is not those things which will keep mother’s memory alive. She will continue to inspire my family and me and shape our lives, and hopefully shape the lives of others whom she touched, in the variety of ways that made her life so extraordinary.
To her, life wasn’t about business ambitions or budgets or those kinds of practical things which tend to consume so much energy every day. Instead, she was a life-long student, a life- long teacher, a deeply spiritual person, a lover of books, art, theater, history, and poetry. She was a linguist. She had so much compassion for others, and manifested that by being a lifelong volunteer to adults who had learning disabilities, or to the frail in the nursing home, or to shut ins.
I will always remember that her tradition was to bring what she called her “famous pecan pie” to a family who had lost a loved one or to someone who was sick. Dad used to say that if you see Stella coming with a pecan pie, pray that it’s not for you.
She will always inspire our family to never be satisfied with the current state of our own education. She believed that unselfishly sharing your education and talent are not only gifts to others, but to yourself. When she came to Barnwell in her 20’s she obviously didn’t have an American college degree. The war in Europe, marriage, and children delayed that. However, over the course of two decades she put together course work at USC-Salkehatchie, the Columbia campus at USC, and SC State University and ultimately obtained her B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and her graduate degree by the time she was in her mid 50’s.
All she wanted from all of this work was to have the opportunity to teach others. If she had been told that a potential job as a teacher would pay nothing, that wouldn’t matter to her. Her great source of pride were her students. In her memoirs, she recounts how proud she was that students dedicated a yearbook to her . She always would be thrilled when approached by her former students who told her that she had made a real difference in their lives.
She also writes in her memoirs that being a student at USC Columbia was one of the happiest times of her life. The interesting thing about that experience was that mother and I were undergraduates at USC at the same time. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good concept for a sit com: My Mother/My Classmate. My mother’s love for me was powerful, and she showed it, sometimes, to the point of some personal embarrassment. I recall returning to my fraternity house after class and finding “Michael’s mother”, which is how she introduced herself to my friends, regaling my incredulous fraternity brothers on how much she enjoyed a certain professor and although his course was challenging, she would highly recommend it to them. Or the time when I was in an auditorium style class with at least 100 classmates, and the professor was interrupted by a knock at the door. His embarrassing announcement followed: “If there is a Michael Tongour here his mother would like to visit with him about some obviously important matter.” I think she had a flat tire and felt she needed my help immediately.
Mother was always a voracious reader. In fact, at the end, when she stopped reading, we all understood the gravity of her illness. And what an amazing mind she had before she became so ill! Yesterday, I received a note from a dear friend in Washington who reminded me of this, and I am quoting her: “That great mind of Stella’s! She would remember every detail about me and my extended family when she saw me – even though years may have passed between that moment and the previous time."
She never quite lost her European accent, and was often asked where she was from. Her response was that she was Russian by birth, French by education, and American by choice. Mostly, she loved her Barnwell, and the people here. To her and to Dad, this warm and welcoming community was the place that allowed our immigrant family to live out its American dream. In her memoirs, she writes how happy her life here was and that she wouldn’t have wanted to live elsewhere.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t continue enjoying the adventures of travel, and the world beyond here. Her recollections are full of wonderful details of trips abroad and to other parts of the United States. But for Mom, it always felt good to come back home to Barnwell from their travels. She had a zest for life that she enjoyed manifesting in this beloved town, and that included community theater (her favorite acting role was Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof), volunteering at this Church, being a girl scout leader, book clubs, discussion groups, and being a loyal friend who was always there for anyone who needed some meaningful , heartfelt conversation about life. She especially cherished those friends here who shared their deepest thoughts and emotions with her.
For the most part, I didn’t talk to her in that way. In a letter I received from her 30 years ago, she expressed her regret that I was always so busy and that our conversations were too often brief and what she called “purely factual”. She said we primarily talked about “logistics”: my job, my activities and what I was doing at the time. Her idea of conversation, which she yearned for with me, was how I felt about things, and was I happy, etc---communications not focused on shallow things, but rather, from the heart. I think that little snippet from that long ago letter is a real window into her life.
She had more depth than I. I was often too impatient, too “practical” to realize that her life and the things that she most cherished were the parts of life that make it God’s divine gift to us. She loved her booklet of devotionals called the “Daily Word.” It is published by an organization called the Unity School of Christianity. I am not an expert, but its premise is that we all have an inherent divinity which is the Christ inside of all of us. Our lives here are really daily opportunities to manifest this divinity, this light of God. I know that Mother lived her life based on those principles, and that she was fully embraced by the source of that light early last Sunday morning.
In her last full day, my family was blessed to be able to tell her how much we loved her, and always would. We told her how thankful we were to her for taking the time to provide us with her memoirs, and that we would make sure that her grandchildren and those who came after them knew about her life and her contributions. I told her that I knew that no one would ever love me more than she did.
During our life, I did occasionally have moments when I followed her example and spoke from my heart to her. Those times gave her much joy. When Lalie and I were married, and during the wedding’s “Mother/Son” dance, I shared with my mother that “Lalie is a lot like you Mom. She is smart in the very best ways, and has a huge heart.” I have never seen my Mother happier. Mother knew then that I loved her, and I understood the gifts she had been trying to give me, an appreciation for the things in life that really count, and that I sought out those values in my own life partner. To her it was a validation of the way she had lived her life.
Of course, after we were married, Lalie wound up having long weekly conversations with Mother about the meaning of life, books, and feelings . It worked out perfectly. I’m still not good at it. Lalie is and Mom loved it. She told me that the best gift I ever gave her was Lalie as her daughter in law.
She had a lot of other blessings, too: a devoted husband of nearly 67 years, two children, four grandchildren, including, our daughter, Stella who is very proud to be her namesake, many friends, many of whom are here, but many have departed this world, and a strong faith . My prayer, and one that I think is already answered is that when mother left this world, she did so knowing that she was deeply and profoundly loved, and that she left behind countless people whose lives are better because she lived such a full life and that she truly contributed to the quality of theirs.
Thank you, Mother. God bless you. We love you.