If I could be any kind of Christian I wanted to be — if I could be any kind of person, period — I'd want to be like my mother.
I'm much like her in some ways. She was my mom, after all.
Alas, I'm not like her in the good ways. She constantly battled a sweet tooth and weight problems. I got that gene.
I've been thinking about her. If she'd lived, she would have turned 82 this month. Instead, she passed away in 2003.
Most of my life I didn't call her Mom. I called her Al, which was short for her given name, Alice. She seemed fine with that. She wasn't a stickler for formalities.
A few days ago, I reread a column I wrote about her when she died, and then reread a piece I'd written probably 10 years before that, when she was still in her prime. They bear out that I'm not just viewing her now through misty, rosy glasses.
I said about her way back then the sorts of things I'm about to say now. She was as near a saint as any human I've ever encountered.
Al grew up on a small tobacco farm. She never graduated from college. Mainly she served as the wife of a peripatetic rural minister and as a stay-at-home mom. Later, she also worked 22 years as a school secretary. Then she retired.
By the time she passed away, she'd been out of the workforce, and out of the public eye — to the small extent she'd ever been in it — for several years.
Yet, as word circulated in our community that she was ill, throngs of well-wishers flocked to the hospital to keep watch and pray. They lined two long corridors. Dozens of people. Scores of people.
There were so many they clogged the hallways. Nurses and aides couldn't tend their patients, and the staff finally asked Al's visitors to please go home.
Still, teenagers Al had taken under her wings sat around her bed all night until the sun came up, trying to joke with her and asking what she needed.
After she passed away a few days later, the wake and funeral were packed. People I didn't realize she'd even known wept openly. All ages and descriptions of people attended. You'd have thought a dignitary died.
That was my mom.
Basically, she wasn't in the spotlight and, as far as I know, didn't want to be.
But as I wrote shortly after she passed, she probably had more impact on more people than any 10 preachers combined, including my dad and me.
Here's what set her apart. Some of you may not like it, because it's no longer a popular virtue, if it ever was.
She was truly selfless.
She wasn't a doormat. She could — and once in a great while did — give somebody a bracing piece of her mind.
When I was about 7, we lived in an Ohio suburb terrorized by a rapist. I didn't know what a rapist was, but I understood that a bad man was breaking in houses to hurt people. My dad often worked evenings.
"What if the bad man breaks in our house?" I asked Al.
She led me to the coat closet in the main hallway. She took down a loaded .38 revolver from the shelf.
"Don't worry, honey," she said pleasantly. "If the bad man comes here, Mama will shoot him."
I'm sure my eyes bugged out.
"I'd hate to kill him," she reassured me. "I'd shoot him in the leg."
She was fully human.
But somehow she'd come by an unusually kind disposition and the ability to, with that aforementioned limit, lay aside her self-interest for the benefit of her fellow pilgrims.
When my dad took his regular notions to uproot the family and move to some other town or state, she'd pack and go, too. When I lugged home garbage sacks full of dirty laundry from college on weekends, she'd wash it.
When my nephew's buddies looked as if they might need a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies, she'd bake them, even if it was 1 a.m. When young church women discovered they'd married bozos, she'd listen to their problems for hours.
When new school teachers were overwhelmed by crazy kids or surly principals, they'd go talk to Mrs. Prather, and she'd offer them a piece of candy, then quietly put in a good word for them with administrators or recruit them better students.
People loved her.
Because she loved them first.
Because day after day, in ways obvious and barely perceptible, she emptied herself of ego, or at least set her ego to the side, enough to see others' hurts and respond. She was a serious Christian, yet Zenlike in her lack of hubris.
I'd like to know how she did that, and it's too late to ask.
Maybe she was born with a gentle, self-effacing personality. Maybe she made a decision to become that person. Maybe — I'm sure this is what skeptics would argue — she acted from a lack of self-worth, or saw herself as a voiceless woman in a man's world.
Maybe it was all of the above. I can't say.
However it came to be, she was a person rarely ruffled by life's ups and downs, one who never thrust herself into the limelight, one available to comfort the wounded and then satisfied to fade into the background.
That, I think, is the epitome of what a Christian ought to be: more concerned about others than about him or herself.
It's what I am not. But Al, I'll always wish I could be like you.