Laura’s note: My mother, Mary VanderKam, is celebrating a milestone birthday today. My father asked me to post this essay on social media and other places where she might see it, and where others could share their birthday wishes. So here we go — happy birthday mom!
by Jim VanderKam
As Mary approaches a significant birthday (she catches up with me this week), I thought I would record some of the things I love and admire about her. This is hardly adequate, but it is a start, with items listed in no particular order.
Mary is really smart. Back when we were in school, she was always at the head of the class. Once we started dating, I tried matching her but never could, and the gap is only getting wider. Besides her far greater knowledge about how the world runs, I cite as evidence our work on crossword puzzles. We have been doing them together for years. At first we would sit down with a paper copy of the puzzle between us (it was cozy!). As time went on and our eyes were proving too elderly to see the one puzzle clearly, we started printing up a copy of the New York Times puzzle for each of us, although we solved them together (OK, there may have been competition from time to time). More recently we have each had the puzzle on our laptops and solve them together. But this is how it goes: no sooner does the puzzle open on our screens than Mary says something like “54 down is … and it joins 47 across which fits with 52 down.” At that point I am still trying to sound out the word “across” at the top of the first column of clues. She reads voraciously. Sure, British murder mysteries are favorites, but she also loves to read about, as she calls them, intrepid women and can often be seen studying hefty volumes about writers and even New Testament scholarship. She reads plenty of news and is enjoying it more after the inauguration in January. She has helped me out by reading drafts of books. Her suggestions and corrections regularly find their way into the finished product.
Mary is truly accomplished. She is not only smart, she has had a highly successful career in teaching, whether elementary children, children and adults who could profit from tutoring, or young mothers (and some fathers) who needed educational help to make them more successful as parents and wage earners. As one of those young mothers said, Mary is a legend in South Bend. She has volunteered her time and skill as organist and pianist many, many times, has led church adult classes, and been a member and chair of the church council.
Mary is sincerely kind and considerate, genuinely interested in other people. When she comes across something like an article or piece of news that she thinks might be of interest to someone else and that that person would like to see it, she sends it along. She is quick to complement or congratulate others upon their accomplishments and service, and she has a gift for communicating an encouraging or comforting word when that is needed.
Mary loves each member of our family and is devoted to them. In these pandemic days, she makes a concerted effort to stay in touch and loves to hear from any and all of them (pictures are most welcome). She enjoys visiting them, when conditions allow (and they have, even during the pandemic), is eager to hear about their lives, and is happy to visit by phone or Face Time.
Mary likes to satisfy her curiosity about places and things. She takes pleasure in planning trips and does so with care so that we stay in good places and see worthwhile sights that do not involve standing in long lines. Once we became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, she, through diligent effort, found appointments for us—something we were so grateful to have. Mary likes to explore new places, even though her spouse can prove less enthusiastic. We have different approaches. Mary is likely say: Let’s try something different. Her husband would likely think: Let’s do the same old thing.
Mary is a really good cook, and I love to eat what she cooks. If this sounds like an old-fashioned arrangement, let me explain that, when we were first married, we agreed that I would do the cooking a couple of times a week. After trying that perhaps no more than once, it became crystal clear that the plan was not feasible or at least that the results were unsatisfying. So, our compromise has been that Mary cooks—though she is liking it less these days—and I clean up afterwards. I think I got a great deal, and I am grateful to her for innumerable yummy, healthy meals.
Mary and I share a background. It is nice to have that in common. We are quite aware of the limitations of the community from which we came, but we are grateful for its virtues. It is a wonderful gift to share a faith.
And Mary is a wonderful gift for whom I thank God every day! Happy birthday, Mary!
Jim VanderKam is a retired professor living in New Jersey.