In Memoriam

My mother passed away on this day one year ago. In honor of her memory, I’m reposting the eulogy I gave at her memorial service:

We are here to celebrate the life of Betty Hill Baker, born Betty Lou Hill, March 14, 1934, and my Mom. After 81 years of life, 61 years of marriage, that’s a lot of celebrating to do.

I was asked to deliver the eulogy probably because I’m her youngest and most likely to hold it together up here.

Let me tell you about my Mom.

Mom was the sixth of nine children born to Heiskell and Anna Hill. It was a close family. Mom’s siblings, in order, were:

Billy Wayne
and Danny

One of her brothers answered when asked if the Hills were Catholic, being so prolific, “No, just over-sexed Protestants.” I’m told grandmother Hill smacked him, but I’m betting she laughed. The Hills are fun crowd.

The Hill kids were spread out from 1923 through 1945, certainly some rough years in our history. Jim and Danny, her last two surviving siblings were with her when she passed.

As I said, Mom was born on March 14, 1934 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, a little town in the far Western corner of the state wedged between Kentucky and Tennessee. Her next sibling, Jack, was also born on March 14, but in 1938. Just so you get a feeling for the Hill family, from that point forward Mom’s birthday was celebrated on March 15 so the two of them didn’t have to share a birthday.

Growing up in the heart of Appalachia during the Depression years, things were certainly tough, especially for a large family, but the Hills always “made do.” The kids were kept fed and clothed and attended school, and as Mom has said on numerous occasions they might have been poor, but they didn’t really know it. Still, I think her upbringing helped make Mom one of the toughest people I’ve ever known.

When Mom set her mind to something, she accomplished it, no matter how long it took. When we lived in North Carolina, we would make an annual trek to cut firewood for the winter, stacking a cord or so each fall. Often some of the pieces would be very knotty or just a pain to split. In the evenings after unloading the truck, Mom would often be found with a wedge and a small sledgehammer, beating on these pieces until they submitted, long after the rest of us had called it a day.

In front of the house here in Tucson is a small hill covered in stone that Mom collected from around the property and stacked and placed until it met her approval. That took weeks.

One thing Mom always wanted was a nice dining room set – quality furniture. I think it was her 50th wedding anniversary present. Dad can correct me.

When Mom had her first knee replacement surgery, instead of general anesthesia she was given an epidural – a spinal block. The doctor made a video recording of the surgery, and as they were cutting the knee joint away and removing it, the nurse asked “Mrs. Baker, are you watching the procedure?” Mom said it was fascinating. I think if she could have watched her heart valve replacement surgery, she would have.


Mom and Dad met at Lincoln Memorial University. Dad grew up just down the road in Pennington Gap, though he had been born in Big Stone. Still, they didn’t meet until college, but once they did it was all over but the “I Do’s.” They married on the Fourth of July, 1954, honeymooned in California and then Dad shipped off to Japan for his stint in the Air Force.

Getting married on Independence Day has its advantages: You never forget your anniversary, you always have the day off, and there’s a big fireworks show to celebrate.

While Dad was overseas, Mom took a job as a secretary to an executive at a Washington, D.C. department store, a job she enjoyed very much. When Dad returned from overseas he finished his Air Force enlistment as an electronics instructor at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where they started their (somewhat smaller) family.

My brother Wayne was born November 15, 1956 in Illinois, and shortly after that Dad took a job with IBM in Lexington, Kentucky. For the next several years, Mom assumed the duties of housewife and mother. My sister Donna came along January 29, 1958, and after Anna Hill passed away in 1959, Mom’s youngest brother Danny came to live with the family in Lexington until he started college, beginning a trend of “temporary expanded family” that would repeat for decades.

I guess Mom and Dad didn’t qualify as “over-sexed Protestants,” because after two years and two kids there was a bit of a pause before I was born, March 9, 1962. Mom wanted just one more, and she was pretty much in charge of that.

Mom was an old-school “free-range” mother, back when that was considered normal, not child abuse. One of the “memes” running around the internet talks about the difference between growing up then and now. Part of it goes:

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we’ve lived this long…

As children we had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets, and when we rode our bikes we had no helmets.

We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle.

We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day.

We played dodge ball and sometimes the ball would really hurt!

We played with toy guns: cowboys and Indians, army, cops and robbers, and we used our fingers to simulate guns when the toy ones or BB guns were not available.

We would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a pickup truck on a warm day was always a special treat.

That kind of thing will get your kids taken away these days.

As I said, family was important to Mom. Every year we would travel back to Virginia to visit. Mom and Dad would load the family station wagon with our luggage and put us kids in the back for the trip “home.” No iPhones, iPads, iPods or even portable DVD players at that time. We got a stack of comic books. And a first-class E-ticket amusement park ride sliding around in the cargo area of the station wagon as Dad took us through the twisty mountain roads to the accompaniment of Mom repeating “Don, slow down!

Mom was the furthest thing from a “helicopter parent.” One of my earliest memories is coming into the house after stepping on the remains of a Tonka toy that had met its end in the yard in conflict with the lawnmower, tracking blood on the floor in rather gruesome amounts. There was alarm but no panic, and off to the emergency room I went for stitches and a tetanus shot. No big deal, just another day. Wayne broke an ankle, pretty much the same. Donna broke a wrist skating. Kids will be kids.

But woe unto you if you should, through intent or omission, visit harm upon us.

She wasn’t a helicopter parent, she was a “Close Air Support” parent.

Think napalm.

Wayne broke his ankle playing “touch” football in our back yard. He got a cast and a note from his doctor excusing him from physical activity for a period of weeks until the ankle could heal. He came home from school with the cast in poor condition, and when asked how that had come to pass, he informed Mom that the P.E. teacher had made him play football – under threat of otherwise failing the class. After a fruitless phone conversation, Mom got DAD, and off they went to see the principal, who was informed that their son was NOT to participate in any further P.E. activity until it was cleared by his doctor, or Dad would mop the field with the coach, and then the principal. Wayne got to heal up, and didn’t flunk P.E.

Donna contracted an ulcer while attending the same school. She was placed on a very restricted diet, so Mom would read the newspaper every day to see what the school was serving for lunch the next day to ensure that Donna could eat it, otherwise she’d pack a lunch. Problem was, the school often didn’t serve what the newspaper said they were going to, and Donna ended up having to go without.

Remember, depression-era childhood? Mom’s kids did NOT go hungry.

She called the school and got the runaround, so she called the district office and spoke with the dietician who drew up the school menus. She explained Donna’s condition and the reason for the call. Mom was assured that the dietician understood completely, and that the problem was the school staff taking it on themselves to change the menu – and that the issue would be resolved.

Mom received a call at home from the school Principal’s office. Please, they begged, never EVER call the district office again! But from that point on, what was published in the paper was what the school cafeteria provided.

A while later I started elementary school. One day I managed to lose some of my lunch money. I think lunch was $0.40 at the time, and I lost the quarter. The cafeteria staff wouldn’t let me even buy a carton of milk or a piece of fruit with the 15¢ I did have, so I went home that afternoon hungry.

Air strike!

Skipping the phone call, Mom made a trip to the office. Same principal. She read the office staff the riot act. From that point on, the office kept an envelope with my name on it with some money in it. If I, or even one of my friends was a little short, all I had to do was go to the office and ask for what I needed. If the envelope got light, they contacted Mom and she’d send me to school with enough to replenish it.

These are just three incidents. There were more, and most involved the principal of that elementary school. It got to the point that if he saw us in the shopping mall, he’d cross to the other side to stay away from us. Well, from Mom.

When I was in sixth grade the teachers in the school selected students for the opportunity to go to a summer science camp. I was one of those selected, though we were moving that summer and I couldn’t attend. Still, the invitation went out, and Mom went to the school to let them know that we were honored, but that I would not be going. The proud principal came out to meet the mother of one of the invitees. Mom said the shock on his face when he realized who was standing in front of him was priceless. He couldn’t get away fast enough. But he was greatly relieved to learn that we were moving.

We moved several times. From Illinois to Kentucky, from Kentucky to Florida, from Florida to North Carolina and then here to Tucson. From the time Dad came back from Japan, Mom took up the traditional duties of a housewife. She took care of Dad, us kids and the home until I started school in 1968, and then she returned to the workforce – first back in a retail office environment and then as a bank teller. Remember, the late 1960’s was the bleeding edge of the Women’s Rights movement, and women were promised that they could have it all – husband, home, kids and career.

She tried.

That’s how we got “popcorn night” and the invention of the mystery dish “Desperation.” Mom knew when to drop back and punt.

One of the reasons Mom wanted to work was to make sure her kids got the things that she didn’t get growing up. Mom scrimped and saved, clipped coupons and budgeted, and we got trips to the Florida Keys and Disney World, Washington, D.C. and one three-week whirlwind tour of the U.S. by rental motor home. Donna and I got college educations, and Wayne got tech school when he decided that college was not for him. No student debt when we graduated.

Thanks, Mom.

But she loved working, and interacting with coworkers and the public. She made a lot of longtime friends through work. She also made a lot of longtime friends of neighbors. Some of them are here today. Thank you for coming.

Mom also made room, as I mentioned previously, for extended family. When her uncle Billy Bounds was no longer able to care for himself, we moved him in with us until his Alzheimer’s advanced to the point where he needed 24-hour care. When Nanny, Dad’s mom couldn’t live on her own, she moved in with us until she passed away. Wayne and Donna moved in and out as circumstances required, but Mom also occasionally took in strays.

When we were living in Florida, Wayne was working at a gas station when three young German men came in. They’d come to the U.S. expecting to hitchhike across the country, but they weren’t having much success. It seemed that in the early 70’s nobody was interested in giving a ride to three young men at the same time. Can’t imagine why.

Wayne called home. We put them up for a while until they could buy themselves a car and continue their holiday. They kept in touch with us off and on for a few years after that.

When I was starting my career and had moved out of the house, I found out that my first college roommate had lost his job and was living out of his car. I wasn’t in a position to share my 600 square-foot apartment, but Mom took him in, taught him basic survival skills like budgeting and job seeking, and got him back on his feet. I knew that all I had to do was ask.

Sorry about that, Dad.

After Dad took retirement from IBM, they got to do the other thing Mom always wanted – travel. They went to England several times, Scotland, and Australia. I wish she’d gotten to do more, but I know she loved every minute.

Travel, Dad. Do it for Mom.

But go at least Business Class. Cattle-car sucks.

Well, I’ve been standing up here rambling now for about fifteen minutes, and if we started telling stories I’d be up here for hours, so I’ll bring this to a close. Mom had a long and happy life. She left us peacefully, surrounded by family. There will be no memorial stone, but I’d like to quote something a friend of mine wrote for the passing of his mother a couple of years ago:

Look into the hearts
Of those who knew me.
There, for good or ill
You will find my monument.
You left a fine one, Mom.

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