True Eulogy

This morning I went to my grandmother’s funeral, and listened to a pastor she would have considered young, who didn’t know her at all, say a lot of nice things about her.

This afternoon, I’m in the house in Midland, TX where she lived since 1979, sitting in her electric lift chair where she spent several of those years.

I’m here to write a proper eulogy.

My grandmother, Lillian Juanita Nichols, was so much more, and so much less, than what was said today. 

They called her a woman of faith and prayer who loved Jesus.  And she was.  But by the time they got done they made her sound like Mother Teresa.  And she so wasn’t.

Yes, she prayed.  But I never heard her pray out loud, not so much as a blessing over the food.  She was insecure about praying in front of others, and kept that something she did quietly between her and God.  She always told you she was praying for you, and responded positively when you told her you were praying for her, or if you prayed out loud for her, but it wasn’t something she did for show. 

She just did it.

I was also pretty hacked that the pastor had the nerve to call my hard-working grandmother the energizer bunny.  My grandmother pre-dated the energizer bunny, thank you very much, and had much more complex motives for always being the last person to sit down to the dinner table after everyone had been served. 

Besides, she hated to wear the color pink.

By the time my grandmother was my grandmother and not just a mother, she had softened into a much more understanding and sympathetic person than I believe she was as a parent, but even so, I hardly think she would qualify as “sweet.”  If she had been sweet, she wouldn’t have survived her hard life.

The pastor said the other word that described my grandmother was “excellence.”  He said one of her favorite things to say was “If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.” 

I never once heard her say that.  She usually said things to me more along the lines of “Pray and do the best you can.” And in my eyes, that’s what she did, and how I would personally sum up her life.

She thought an education was important, and always regretted that she hadn’t gotten more of one.  She got married at the age of 17, and commenced to having her seven children, but told all of her grand-daughters to get an education and travel before getting married.  When we pointed to her example in contrast, she would always say, “Yes, but I was too dumb to know any better.” 

Yet she took excellent care of her children- in the way her generation defined excellent.  That would be in spite of being a poor working class family, they always had clean clothes, a clean house, went to church, went to school, were taught a strong work ethic, were good citizens, and were expected to go to college.  However she often expressed regret to me later in her life that she didn’t know or comprehend the importance of playing with your children, or connecting with them emotionally, or spending what would later be defined as “quality time” with them. 

She said to me on more than one occasion, “We didn’t have all these books on parenting the way you do. We didn’t know we were supposed to play with our kids, we just knew we were supposed to provide for them.  I wish I had known then what you know now.  Now, don’t make the mistake I did- you be sure you spend time with your kids!”

She also expressed deep regret as a mother for not recognizing her daughter’s (my mother’s) mental and emotional illness for what it was and getting her appropriate treatment.  “We just treated her the same way we did the other kids,” she would say to me apologetically when we would discuss it at length after I became an adult.

Many years later when my mother’s undiagnosed disorders advanced to the point she refused to speak to me for the last few years of her life, my grandmother filled the void as both mother and grandmother to me. For several years I would call her every week and we would have long conversations.  No matter what I told her, she would always encourage me that I was doing a great job as a mother and how good my children were, words I never once heard from my own parent.  Every time I came to visit in person I would put my head in her lap and she would tell me the same thing.

She stayed married to my grandfather for 74 years, and put up with a lot of crap from him. (I loved my Papaw, but still sayin’.) She once told me, “Women always have to forgive the most and put up with the most, that’s just the way it is,” and her life certainly exemplified that belief. Yet she never once criticized me over the fact that I got a divorce after I explained the circumstances, which I considered remarkable.

My grandmother’s name was Mom, which kind of got confusing since that was my mother’s name too.  I called them both Mom when I was little which for some reason made perfect sense to me, but then it was decided my grandmother would be “Mom Nick,” and the name stuck and became widely used by most of the extended family.

When I was little she sometimes came to my house in Corsicana for my birthday, and sometimes for just random visits.  I remember her and my grandfather’s arrivals being the most exciting events in my little world.  She would usually clean the house thoroughly, and then cook a roast dinner on Sunday, which didn’t happen at other times.  When I got a little older and my mother was teaching me basic cooking, she insisted Mom Nick be the one to teach me how to make breakfast gravy, since hers was undoubtedly the best.  And so, one summer, she did.

I still love breakfast gravy.

Mom Nick liked things clean and in place, and she liked people to dress neatly and stylishly and match. She liked boys – and girls – to have short haircuts, which was the way she kept hers.  In spite of being thrifty to a fault (after all, she survived the Depression) she still went to the beauty shop to get her hair “set” almost every week of her life. She always noticed and commented favorably when I had my eyebrows plucked and my toenails painted.  The last two visits we had with her, my daughter Cassandra gave her a manicure and painted her nails, which pleased her very much.

“I think this nail is a little darker than the others, though,” she commented as she examined her hands after the last one.

Mom Nick worried about her family constantly.  If she wasn’t worried she was worried about not having something to worry about.  For this reason I became more and more reluctant to tell her when I made overseas trips for missions.  “You aren’t going OVER THERE again, are you?” she would ask me when we would talk on the phone. I would reluctantly admit that I was, and she would say,

“Now you be careful OVER THERE.”

(Over there was any place outside of America.)

However it is worth noting that my grandmother actually made a trip to the Holy Land with her son in her sixties, and a trip to Hong Kong to the wedding of yours truly when she was 78.

She liked to keep up with what everyone in the family was doing, and then tell the rest of the family the news when they called or came to see her or when she wrote them letters.  She would usually gloss over the fact that some family members seldom called or came to see her and say of them, “They are busy, I guess.”  And although sometimes a wistful expression would cross her face when certain names came up, she never criticized them. 

My grandmother believed in seriously dressing up for work and for church (she was southern, after all), although she would complain the whole time she was pulling on her control top panty hose and squeezing into her girdle. The minute she came in the front door after work or church she started undressing as she made a beeline to her room to change into a loose fitting house dress before making another beeline to the kitchen.

At bedtime there was another sacred routine of beauty preservation that would include washing her face with miracle water, rubbing in cold cream and wrinkle reducer, putting clips in her hair and putting on a hair net, applying lotion to her hands, and later, taking out her false teeth.

After it was all finished she would look in the mirror one last time and sigh regretfully.  “Don’t get old,” she would admonish me.

My mother often told me I was more like Mom Nick than I was like her, and honestly, I considered it a compliment.  I liked coming to her neat house.  I liked the way she paid attention to her appearance and encouraged others to do the same.  I liked the way she made sure everything got done before she sat down to read a book or watch the Andy Griffith show or Perry Mason while she ate her “chummies” - left-over corn bread and buttermilk out of a glass with a spoon.

I admired how she pretty much did what needed to be done, no matter how she felt about it.  Even if she complained while doing it, even if she cried while doing it, she got stuff done.
So, when I arrived at Mom Nick’s house yesterday, for the first time since she died, it’s not surprising that the first thing I did…

Was to clean her kitchen, and put things back in the same places where she kept them for the past 30 years.

Yes. I am Mom Nick’s grand-daughter, and proud of it.

My kids have their own memories of their great-grandmother.  My daughter Sabrina says she reminds of the outspoken  and long-lived grandmother sloth “Granny” in Ice Age 4.  It might have been her false teeth.  Or maybe it was the line, “I’ll bury you all and dance on your graves.”

My son Daniel’s first words when he saw her in her coffin were, “She isn’t wearing the red nightgown she said she wanted to be buried in.”  He also said regretfully, “I wish we could have had one more birthday together.” He was born on January 3rd, 2001, her 84th birthday.  She always called him her special boy.

Cassandra remembers Mom Nick always spoke her mind, and had definite fashion opinions.  She didn’t like French manicures or think boots looked good with a dress.  

However, I do think she would be happy with her final hair do.  The family had her personal hair stylist Sheri come to the funeral home to do it according to Mom Nick’s very specific preference.

And finally, back to her spiritual side.  Mom Nick never sang out loud.  She liked hymns, she liked music, she would hold the hymn book in church and follow along with her eyes, but I never heard her actually sing.  She said her voice was too bad, that she couldn't carry a tune, and that if she sang everyone would get up and leave.  If we protested she ended the conversation by saying she would sing when she got to heaven.  So when I spoke with her dear caregiver Haidi and asked her about her last week on earth, I was shocked to hear that she spent the entire week singing.  Apparently even before she fully entered heaven's gates she lost her shyness and began to use her voice. 

Haidi told me the hymn she kept coming back to over and over was Higher Ground.  Which totally makes sense when you read the words:

"I'm pressing on the upward way, New heights I'm gaining every day, Still praying as I onward bound, "Lord plant my feet on higher ground."

"Lord lift me up, and let me stand, By faith on heaven's table land, A higher plane than I have found; Lord plant my feet on higher ground."

"My heart has no desire to stay, Where doubts arise and fears dismay; Tho' some may dwell where these abound, My prayer my aim is higher ground."

"I want to live above the world, Tho' Satan's darts at me are hurled; For faith has caught the joyful sound, The song of saints on higher ground."

"I want to scale the utmost height And catch a gleam of glory bright; But still I'll pray till heaven I've found, 'Lord lead me on to higher ground.' "

"Lord lift me up, and let me stand, By faith on heaven's table land, A higher plane than I have found; Lord plant my feet on higher ground."

Interestingly, a hymn my mother also often sang. 

Even more interesting to think of the two of them singing it together now, probably with my great-grandmother Campbell chiming in.

I hope Mom Nick took a break for a minute and looked down to appreciate the fact that although I was too upset to sing much at her funeral service, I did get my eyebrows waxed and my toenails painted before I came.


  1. Well, I'll be. Sounds like our grandmothers would have been good friends—mine always had her hair set as well. (Also cold cream, house dress, corn bread and buttermilk.) This post made me miss her, so I know it is a fitting eulogy for your Mom Nick, the written equivalent to the red nightgown. Sorry for your loss and so grateful you experienced such a REAL relationship, nurturing and not fake and with depth and resonance—xoxo


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