Today I’m driving to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), to visit my mom and dad (every relation). I’m going mostly because Mom had some minor surgery last week—nothing serious, but it does give me a good excuse to go see them.
When Dad turned seventy a few years ago I gave him a book called, “Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad, in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday.” It was so well received that when Mom turned seventy, two years later, I wrote one for her, too.
I wanted to share some of those memories here as a way of introducing you to my parents, so that while I’m driving down Interstate 95 today you can get to know the people who gave me my life, my faith, and so much more. If it’s true that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I’m glad I fell from this one.
MY DAD: James Somerville, b. 1931
1. The classic memory is this one: One winter morning all five of us boys were gathered in front of the little gas heater in that drafty farmhouse up on the hill in West Virginia. We stood there shivering, and complaining that, at ten degrees Fahrenheit, it was too cold to walk the mile to school. Dad came in from milking the cow, and when he heard our complaints he didn’t say a word. He just set down the bucket, took off his coat, took off his gloves, took off his hat, his boots, his socks, his coveralls, his T-shirt, his boxers, everything—and out the back door he went, naked as a jaybird. We watched from the window in disbelief as Dad leaped around in the foot-deep snow, got down and rolled in it, made snowballs and threw them at the window. And then he came in and toweled off, got dressed, and got on with his chores. Well, what could you say after such an exhibition? We got dressed and went to school.
2. I remember watching Dad split kindling on some of our family camping trips. I was amazed by the way he could prop up a piece of firewood, swing the axe over his head, and come down in one clean blow after another, splitting off beautiful, polished pieces of kindling that looked like they had just come from the factory.
3. Dad used to push back from the table after we had enjoyed an especially good supper and he was feeling relaxed and happy. He would get this twinkle in his eye and then ask, “Who are we going to make cry tonight?” which was his way of challenging us to a game of Monopoly. We loved Monopoly, and when Dad issued the challenge we would jump up to clear the table, get the board, make popcorn or peanut butter fudge (part of the tradition), and on the best nights we would put on crumpled fedoras and old neckties so that we looked like big city gamblers. Usually, it was Dad who made us cry. He knew the game of Monopoly backwards and forwards, had memorized all the pieces and prices, and had a way of making the dice do just what he wanted (“Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”). But there was always the possibility that one of us might win, and occasionally we did, and that’s what kept us coming back.
4. Dad taught me how to shave, of course. I watched him for years, taking mental notes on how to puff out my cheeks and upper lip for a smoother shave. When he watched me the first time he saw how much shaving cream I squirted into my palm and let out a gasp. “That’s way too much, son!” he said. I’ve been a frugal shaver ever since.
5. People have asked me what it was like to be a “preacher’s kid” and I have told them it wasn’t like that at all. For one thing, Dad didn’t have a regular church most of the time I was growing up. He was more like a home missionary, doing all he could to help the poor in West Virginia. But also Dad wasn’t “pious” in the sense that we ever felt guilty about having fun. Dad had fun, and we had fun with him. And anybody who can roll naked in the snow, wear a mop on his head to make his children laugh, or wrestle with five boys at the same time is not your typical preacher anyway. No wonder that I was not a typical preacher’s kid.
MY MOM: Mary Rice Whiting Somerville, b. 1933
1. Might as well get it out of the way: I remember that Mom used to wake us up in the morning by playing “America’s Favorite Marches” on the stereo, loud enough to wake the dead and almost loud enough to wake her five sleeping sons on a school day. To this day I have a fear of marching bands: “Sousaphobia” they call it, as in John Philip Sousa. But then again . . . sometimes she would come upstairs and sit on the edge of my bed and stroke my head gently while she eased me into the morning. “Honey? It’s a new day. The sun is coming up over the top of the mountain. The chickens are out scratching up their breakfast in the back yard. The bacon is frying in the cast iron skillet . . .” All in a very soothing voice that made waking up almost a pleasure. Ahh. That was sweet.
2. I remember the wonderful Bible stories she used to tell us when we were boys, especially at our second house in Wise, Virginia. We dragged our mattresses out into that central room upstairs and Eddie, Scotty, and I listened as Mom made the Bible come alive. It was there, I recall, that I first heard the story of Jael from the Book of Judges, how she crept up on the sleeping Sisera and hammered a tent peg into his temple. It was a gory story, but we were boys, and the gorier it was, the better we liked it. Much of my love for the Bible—and for storytelling—comes from the way my mother told those stories.
3. She once made my brother, Scott, an “airplane” birthday cake—just cut the shape out of a sheet cake, frosted it with gray frosting, and wrote “SWS” across the wingspan for Scott Whiting Somerville. I liked it so much I told her I wanted a rocket cake for my birthday, a month later. I think my mother stayed up most of the night before trying to make a cake that would stand up on cardboard tail fins covered in tin foil. When I saw it I was amazed. I had thought she would make one lying down, like Scott’s, and probably told her so. I may have forgotten to say, “Wow! Thanks for being the most amazing mom in the world!”
4. Mom used to write numbers on the ivory keys of her Steinway grand piano with a pencil so we could get our fingering correct as we worked through the John Thompson piano book, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.” That’s not something most people would do to a Steinway, but it was just one more way my mother taught us that people were more important than things.
5. I can’t remember how many times someone would huff and puff up our hill there in West Virginia looking for Dad, wanting some kind of help. Mom always seemed to have coffee to offer and some time to sit and listen. In my thinking this was how she helped Dad with his ministry. While he was out doing “Matthew 25” kind of work (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.), she was at home doing “Matthew 28” kind of work (making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded). Whether or not she thinks of it that way, one of the disciples she made—this one—does.
Thank you, Mom. And thank you, Dad.
See you soon!