Edith Schaeffer 1914 – 2013 RIP
My mother Edith Schaeffer died today. She was the author of many books on family life and spirituality and co-founder with my father Francis Schaeffer of the evangelical ministry of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. She has just gone to be with the Lord, as she would put it. She died at home which was her wish. This was made possible because of my generous sister Debby and her husband Udo who completely rearranged their lives to care for Mom in her last years.
Mom completed a dramatic life with a final flourish: she died on Easter Saturday, to join her risen Lord. I last talked to Mom yesterday. Rather she slept as I talked. A few days before my granddaughter Lucy was on my lap and we were talking to Mom via Skype. That day she was awake.
Mom’s face filled the screen and she was looking at us on the laptop placed on the covers of her bed. I last had been with her in person two years ago when I’d spent ten days with her. Before she was bedridden (about four months ago) we’d talk on the phone and after that we’d Skype.
I’ve been talking to her every day for the last several weeks knowing she was slipping away. Since I care for my two youngest grandchildren, Lucy (4) and Jack (2) five days a week they have often been there when “Noni,” as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren called Mom was on the screen with us.
During one of the last calls when Lucy and I talked to her last week, Mom was beautiful with her silver hair in a ponytail and her red hair band and matching shawl. Trapped in a body she’d lost control of, it took all of her formidable willpower to acknowledge our love. She had a feeding tube in her nose and was slipping in and out of consciousness. Five minutes after we hung up she would not remember the conversation. But in the moment when I said “I love you,” she nodded back and was fully aware.
Mom was staring earnestly into the laptop screen her nurse had set up so we could talk via Skype. My four year old granddaughter Lucy whispered “Does she have her perfume on?”
“Your great grandmother always wears perfume. So I bet she does,” I answered.
I kept reminding Mom of who we were, speaking rather slowly and loudly, “This is your son, Frank, and I have my four year old granddaughter, Lucy, on my lap. Can you see her Mom? This is John’s daughter. John was our Marine. Remember praying for his safe return from Afghanistan? God answered your prayers, Mom. Say hi to your great-granddaughter Mom.”
When I asked if she knew we loved her, Mom acknowledged us with a slight nod and whispered “Yes.” Those turned out to be her last spoken words to me.
Mother was three thousand miles away in Switzerland. We were in Massachusetts. She was ninety-eight and dying. Lucy is four years old and thriving. We were in my home in the studio/office I’d built out of the old woodshed. We were surrounded by piles of manuscripts including, a stack four feet high of the twenty-three drafts of a new novel I’m working on. Lucy had her feet up on the top of the pile. My paintings were leaning in deep clusters against the walls and were hanging on every surface. The ubiquitous smell of turpentine and linseed oil was in the air. Mom had always loved that smell. When I was a kid she’d walk into my room, breathe deeply and say “I just LOVE the smell of paintings!”
Before that day’s Skype chat with Mom, Lucy and I had been conducting imaginary orchestras while listening to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G, full volume. Lucy launched an impromptu recitation of the Twenty Third Psalm, saying it all the way through. We’d also been looking at the weird and wonderful art of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lucy and Jack loved his pictures of sixteenth century peasants, beggars, and his apocalyptic fantasies. So even though Lucy and Jack had never met my mother and were like ships passing in the night we were actually having a very Edith Schaeffer day.
Mom’s great-grandchildren were growing up loving what she’d loved: words, art, music, gardening, cooking and playacting. Mom was unable to speak any longer but she was nevertheless communicating with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren every time they were read to, listened to music or when we painted together.
Since she couldn’t talk I read to Mom and Lucy out loud from one of her own books: Mei Fuh – Memories from China. My grandchildren love the book. Lucy knows it almost by heart.
As usual we had to skip the “sad part” Lucy never let me read, about how Adjipah the gardener ate Mom’s goldfish. Mei Fuh was the last of many books Mom authored and her one and only children’s book. Mom had been born to missionary parents in 1914 and the book was about her growing up in a missionary compound until she moved back to America at age six.
During the last Skype call Lucy made last week she asked Mom if she was “still upset about Adjipah eating your fish?” Mom tried to smile but with her teeth out and the tube taped to her nose her smile showed up in her eyes and not so much on her lips.
I felt bad that Lucy was seeing Mom at her most vulnerable to the ravages of age. So while we talked to Mom, I opened an album of pictures of her and whispered, “See how beautiful your great-grandmother really is? Look!”
Lucy nodded and said loudly to the screen “You’re beautiful, Noni!”
Mom heard Lucy and moved slightly and managed of a hint of a crumpled smile. Then Lucy said in a loud awed whisper,
“She heard me! She nodded! She smiled!”
I placed my hand on the laptop screen and showed Lucy that when the lower part of her face was hidden from the bridge of her nose up to her eyes and silver hair, Mom still looked like the lovely pictures in the album.
From time to time I’d ask, “Mom, do you remember that?” about this or that detail of her childhood and she’d open her eyes a bit wider to signal that she did remember. Any mention of her early years that got the biggest response. The neural pathways were shutting down and the last remaining seemed to be the memories of her life as a young child. The little girl who had once been Mom was looking at us through a thicket of memory loss and confusion. I reminded her of the five week trip she took back to China with my wife Genie when Mom was in her eighties. In the early 1990s they’d traveled for 5 weeks to Mom’s birthplace in Wenchow, on the coast of southern China.
Amazingly, given the communist “remake” of China and the destruction of everything old and beautiful that blocked “progress,” Genie and Mom found the mission compound still as it once was. Mom was welcomed by the people living in her old home and that allowed to wander through the buildings. Genie said that Mom remembered everything from the dusty courtyard where she had played, to the thick gate with the little barred window she used to look through while wishing that she could go into the street and join the passing processions during festivals.
I knew that each Skype call might be the last time I’d see my mother alive. So each time we talked I thanked Mom for her love and the terrific creativity she’d shown in how she raised her children. Reading Mom her book reminded me of the many hours my mother had read so many wonderful books to me out loud. She was such a glorious reader.
After about half an hour of sitting on my lap watching Mom sleep, wake and sleep again as I read to her, Lucy went to my easel and painted. A few minutes later she cheerfully called out to the screen; “This is a painting for you Noni! I’ll give it to you in heaven since you’re going to die before I see you.” Lucy said this very matter of factly with no fear, as if she was mentioning that she’d soon be seeing her great-grandmother someplace very ordinary. I don’t think she heard Lucy, but if she did, Mom would have liked what she said because my mother was nothing if not a believer in a literal heaven.
When the two hours or so we spent with Mom concluded Lucy was sitting up on a high stool in the kitchen while I was putting on her boots for the walk back to Lucy’s house.
“I’m so sad my mother is going to die soon, “ I said.
“You will be alright Ba,” Lucy said.
“How?” I asked.
“You have me,” she quietly answered and put her arms around me.
I trust my mother’s hope-filled view of death because of the way Mom lived her life. Mom first introduced me to a non-retributive loving Lord who did not come to “die for us” to “satisfy” an angry God but came as a friend who ended all cycles of retribution and violence.
Mom made this introduction to Jesus through her life example. Mom was a wonderful paradox: an evangelical conservative fundamentalist who treated people as if she was an all-forgiving progressive liberal of the most tolerant variety.
Mom’s daily life was a rebuke and contradiction to people who see everything as black and white. Liberals and secularists alike who make smug disparaging declarations about “all those evangelicals” would see their fondest prejudices founder upon the reality of my mother’s compassion, cultural literacy and loving energy.
Just before Christmas of 2010, Mom and I sat down together during a ten day visit and I told her about my (then) latest writing project that turned out to be “Sex, Mom and God” (the third in a trilogy of memoirs that began with “Crazy For God.”) I told her about the book in detail—including that I was going to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may, Mom.”
With a flash of her old self and a familiar defiant head toss, Mom said, “Go ahead; I don’t care what people ‘think’ and never did!” Given her memory problem, I should add that before it developed and before her eyesight failed, she read my other equally “scandalous” writing, including my novels and nonfiction works, which also drew heavily from memories that to some people might have seemed too private to share.
Mom wasn’t “some people.” I once got a letter from one of my mother’s followers telling me that, having just read my novel Portofino (a work of humor where the mother character, “Elsa Becker,” is like my mother in some ways), she was sure it would “kill your mother because of the hatred for Jesus that drips from your SATANIC pen!” Coincidentally, that fan letter (received in the early 1990s before I was using e-mail) arrived in the same post delivery as a note from Mom asking me for another dozen signed hardcover copies of that book so that my mother could send out more to her friends. Mom’s follower had signed her letter “Repent!” My mother signed her note “I’m so proud of you.”
Besides a loving God and her steadfast support for the arts — even when she disagreed with some of my writing — here’s who else my mother introduced me to: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Verdi and Vivaldi. She made them my friends. They are still my friends and companions and I have made them my children’s and grandchildren’s friends too. And that is my tribute to her example.
Here are some other people amongst others my mother taught me to love: da Vinci, Duccio, Giotto, Vermeer, Degas, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Breughel, Michelangelo and Monet. They are still my friends and companions and I have made them my children’s and grandchildren’s friends too. And that is my tribute to her example.
My mother read to me and introduced me to Shakespeare, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Anne Bronte, Susan Fennimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, Louis Carroll and A. A. Milne and… Woody Allen, amongst others. They are still my friends and companions and I have made them my children’s and grandchildren’s friends too. And that is my tribute to her example.
Here’s what my mother showed me how to do by example: forgive, ask for forgiveness, cook, paint, build, garden, draw, read, keep house well, travel, love Italy, love God, love New York City, love Shakespeare, love Dickens, love Steinbeck, love Jesus, love silence, love people more than things, love community and put career and money last in my hierarchy of values and — above all, to love beauty. I still follow my mother’s example as best I can and I have passed and am passing her life gift to my children and grandchildren not just in words but in meals cooked, gardens kept, houses built, promises kept, sacrifices made, and beauty pointed to.
My mother read me hundreds of books out loud, took me everywhere with her, provided order and beauty for her children from the mundane like scrubbing floors spotless on her knees and keeping our home orderly and clean, even when she had “no time” and was writing her book, to serving every meal I ever ate at home as a child with candles and flowers on the table and making the simplest family time an event. (Thank God we had no TV and Mom wasn’t ever distracted by a cell phone or the internet from being a mother and of course her children were allowed to connect with the actual physical world hands on because we were lucky enough to grow up in the pre internet/electronic filtered age of false second hand “experiences.”)
Mother taught me that sex is good, stood by me and my young wife Genie when we were foolish and got pregnant as mere (very unmarried) children ourselves, backed every venture I launched from movie making, to being an artist and writer, stood with me when I dropped out of the evangelical religion altogether, stuck with me even when I denied her politics and turned “left” and “went progressive.”
Mom spent every dime she had on keeping her family together through family reunions and setting her example of putting family first. She stood with her sometimes abusive husband as he became famous in the American evangelical ghetto, though she well knew that she was the stronger partner in her always productive, sometimes lovely though at other times disastrous marriage.
Mom treated everyone she ever met well, spent more time talking to “nobodies” than to the rich and famous who flocked to her after her books were published and became bestsellers. Put it this way: through my experience of being a father (of 3) and grandfather (of 4) I’ve finally been able to test Mom’s life wisdom and spiritual outlook and found out that she was right: Love, Continuity, Beauty, Forgiveness, Art, Life and loving a loving all-forgiving God really are the only things that matter.
Each time I pick up my little grandchildren (or hug Genie’s and my grownup grandkids) and pray for wisdom about how to pass on the best of what I was given I know it is my mother’s example speaking to me. I never go to a classical concert or walk into a museum without remembering how Mom saved her money to take her children to hear the great music played by the great performers and helped me to learn that creativity trumps death.
I never say “I love you” to my wife Genie, to my children Jessica, Francis and John or to my son-in-law Dani or daughter-in-law Becky, let alone to my grandchildren Amanda, Benjamin, Lucy and Jack without remembering who showed me what those words mean.
Mother was a force to be reckoned with, a whole energetic universe contained in one trim little female frame, and she used that force entirely for good.
Mother in the garden at dawn weeding and watering her wonderful flowers and vegetables… Mother typing up a storm while writing her thousands of letters and dozens of books… Mother so pleased that her good friend Betty Ford invited her to the White House to swim laps with her in the White House pool… Mother so please she’d met BB King at one of his concerts when she was 91… Mother praying with me every night before turning out the light as she let me in on her best secret: the universe is not a hard cold lonely meaningless place but a cosmos full of love… Mother never making a sarcastic remark about her children or anyone else and the life-long self-confidence that gave me… Mother deep in conversation with cab drivers and giving her books away (and money, personal phone numbers and her home address) to hotel maids and other total strangers she decided she could help… Mother taking impractical detours to look at something lovely… Mother always late for everything and praying out loud over meals long, so long, at table as she forgot that for the rest of us prayer was mostly a ritual though for her it was an endless conversation with the eternal… Mother cleaning up my vomit after I took drugs as a young wayward teen and then fixing me poached eggs on toast as if I was 3 again… Mother buying me art supplies… Mother’s horror at the “harshness” as she put it, of so many evangelical religious people and the way they treated “the lost” and her saying that “no wonder no one wants to be a Christian if that’s how we treat people!”
Maybe everything has changed for me theologically but some things haven’t changed. I’m still thinking of Mom’s eternal life in her terms because she showed me the way to that hope through her humane consistency and won. Her example defeated my cynicism.
Mom understood me and tried to speak when I said my last “I love you.”
I knew what she was trying to say. It’s the phrase she spoke most to me over my 60 year journey on this earth so far. I answered her thought, and I said, “Thank you, I know you love me and I love you too Mom.” The day before Mom died my last words to her were “I want you to know your prayers for your family have been answered. I credit every moment of joy to your prayers.”
I’ll miss her voice. I learned to trust that voice because of the life witness that backed it up. I know I’ll hear her voice again. You won Mom. I believe.
Books By Edith Schaeffer:
1969. L’Abri. Worthing (Sussex): Norfolk P. ISBN 978-1-85684-025-5
1971. The Hidden Art of Homemaking: Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House. ISBN 978-0-8423-1420-6
1973. Everybody Can Know. London: Scripture Union. ISBN 978-0-85421-405-1
1978. Affliction. Old Toppen, New Jersey: Revell Co. ISBN 978-0-8007-0926-6
1975. Christianity is Jewish. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8423-0243-2
1975. What is a Family? Old Tappan, N.J.: F.H. Revell Co. ISBN 978-0-8010-8365-5
1977. A Way of Seeing. Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell. ISBN 978-0-8007-0871-9
1981. The Tapestry: the life and times of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Waco, Tex: Word Books. ISBN 978-0-8499-0284-0
1983. Common Sense Christian Living. Nashville: Nelson. ISBN 978-0-8407-5280-2
1983. Lifelines: God’s Framework for Christian Living. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books. ISBN 978-0-89107-228-7
1986. Forever Music. Nashville: T. Nelson. ISBN 978-0-8010-8336-5
1988. With love, Edith: the L’Abri family letters 1948-1960. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-067092-4
1989. Dear Family: the L’Abri family letters 1961-1986. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-067096-2
1992. The Life of Prayer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. ISBN 978-1-85684-046-0
1994. A Celebration of Marriage: Hopes and Realities. Grand Rapid, Mich: Baker Books. ISBN 978-0-8010-8354-9
1994. 10 Things Parents Must Teach Their Children (And Learn for Themselves) Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books. ISBN 978-0-8010-8373-0
1998. Mei Fuh: Memories from China. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 978-0-395-72290-9
2000. A Celebration of Children. Grand Rapids, MI: Raven Ridge Books. ISBN 978-0-8010-1193-1