My Mother’s Smile: A Letter to My Children

Guest post by Joy Palma

It’s always a pleasure to share these pages with like-minded people. In celebration of Mother’s Day, I am delighted to feature a piece penned by my mom, Joy Palma, devoted to the memory of her mom. I was thrilled when she accepted the invitation to share with my readers from her heart. Mom is many things—a sought-after speaker, teacher, and writer—but above all, she’s my mom, and I thank God for her today as always.

Dear Children,

It’s been forty-eight years since I saw my mother’s smile. She’s been gone for as long as she lived, but the curl of her lips and the accompanying twinkle in her eyes are still vivid in my mind.

Like everyone who knew her, I loved your grandmother’s smile, and I knew just what would entice it to appear! Simply share the events of even the most mundane day, glance her way from the church organ as she played the piano, take to heart her amazing wisdom, or burst through the door on a surprise visit from college and there it was, like sunshine. I like to call it Sonshine, because I knew it reflected the One my mom treasured most. It was her relationship with Jesus that informed the way she looked at life and, though it wasn’t always an easy one, “the joy of the Lord was her strength.”

Oh, how I wish you could have known her! How Mom would have brightened your lives with her love and laughter and enriched them with her wisdom! No doubt, she would have told you stories of God’s faithfulness in her life, like the ones she told me. They echo down the corridors of time and still impact me today. I’d like to share a few of those stories with you, along with a couple of my own.

Your grandmother was a farmer’s daughter. She loved working in the fields with her parents and tending the animals, but she also loved school and dreamed of one day becoming a nurse. Sadly, by the time she was in eighth grade, her mother became so riddled with arthritis that she was no longer able to assist in the farming. Mom had to leave school to farm full-time with her father, while helping to care for her younger siblings. Decades later, as she so tenderly cared for my scrapes from playing, I commented on what a wonderful nurse she would have been, but she simply smiled and said that God had other plans for her, to become a pastor’s wife and mother and she was content. I thought of that story many times over the years, as my own plans were altered, and I learned to watch for where God would lead.

When she was twenty-four, she married your grandfather. This meant leaving the wide open spaces and fresh air of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania to live in a small flat upstairs from her in-laws and their teenaged children in Brooklyn, New York. For a long time, Mom felt like a bird trapped in a cage, but it didn’t stop her from doing “whatever her hands found to do as unto the Lord.” She helped my grandparents, including my grandmother, who was quite demanding, audited Dad’s evening Bible classes and busied herself in a variety of ministries at their beloved Herkimer Street Church where she particularly enjoyed teaching Sunday school.

One day, a little boy wandered into the church from playing on the streets of Brooklyn in search of the free cookies and milk he’d heard the Sunday school was providing. There, he met a kind young woman who welcomed him with a beautiful smile. Week after week, he returned to that class, as much for the woman as for the cookies, and he came to know Jesus. Thirty years later, I would hear the boy, all grown up now, tell this story at a Missionary Conference in Syracuse. As he finished, he said the woman’s name was Theresa Rubbo. Chills swept over me as he went on to say that he shares this story all over the world in his missionary travels. I had to laugh at the irony. Mom never sought the limelight. She was modest, just thinking of herself as a simple farmer’s daughter who never went passed the eighth grade. Little did she know that one day her name would be heard throughout the world!

After being married three years and suffering a miscarriage, Mom and Dad eagerly awaited my arrival. I was a month overdue when it was discovered that Mom had toxemia, called preeclampsia today. Forty-eight hours into unproductive labor, the doctors announced that both Mom and I were in grave danger of dying. They would attempt surgery but there was little hope. They asked Dad which one of us they should “try to save.” Years later, we would tease Dad that he was never one to make a quick decision but on that day, facing an impossible one, he simply cried, “Both!” He then proceeded to call everyone he knew from New York to Pennsylvania to join him in prayer and spent the entire night on his knees. As God would have it, Joy came in the morning.

Mom told me about the next day. Looking out the window of her hospital room, she could see the shingles being blown off a roof nearby as the wind howled between the buildings. It was a hurricane of deafening sound and horrific force, but there your grandmother laid in relative quiet and absolute delight, cuddling me in her arms. It was at once both terrifying and delightful, just as my birth had been and just as our God is! I learned from her telling of that story about what it means to fear God in awesome wonder of both His unfathomable power and His incredibly tender mercies.

My birth prompted my parents to move into a home of their own in Queens Village in the borough of Queens. It had a stained glass window, beautiful staircase, fireplace and even a white picket fence that Dad built. I was only three when we moved from there into an apartment in Jamaica, just before my brother Joseph was born, but I still have crystal clear memories of that charming home. We loved it there! Though I’m sure it was a matter of finances that led to another move, all Mom would say with a smile is that it “had too many windows to clean.” She left me with the feeling that God had a new place prepared for us, and I learned to anticipate that when God closes one door, He opens another.

In 1955, Dad accepted the pastorate in Bayside, Queens and Mom took on a whole new role. There, she gave of herself to be the most self-sacrificing and loving pastor’s wife I’ve ever known. Declining a salary from the fledgling church, Dad worked as the foreman of a printing plant by day to provide for his family, while Mom tended to the needs of the flock until he came home. Everyone knew that they could always count on her help, counsel, and prayers. In church, she preferred to stay in the background. Though she taught Sunday school, played the piano and sang solos or duets with Dad, she preferred that others took center stage. If she hadn’t been so friendly, you might think Mom was shy, but she was just genuinely humble. I’d often see her working in the kitchen for church events, mopping up the floor afterward or with a vacuum in hand. From Mom, I learned that it’s one thing to do this kind of grunt work as a martyr and quite another to do it with a smile! From memories of her example, I chose my life’s verse:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord. (Col. 3:23)

Your grandmother loved to read, especially the Bible, and learn all that she could. She even took courses that were offered over the Christian radio station, but she never thought of herself as “educated.” That’s why it was crucial to her that I had every opportunity to have the education she never had. Each night, she would dismiss me from kitchen chores to study and took great delight in my accomplishments. Her favorite, however, was when I spoke in church. I can still see her smiling up at me from that second pew on the left. From her, I learned that whatever gifts we’ve been given are to be used for God’s glory, not our own.

One of your grandmother’s gifts was hospitality. Our home was always open to guests, and Mom was the ever-ready, smiling hostess. The conversations would be robustly punctuated by her infectious laugh. Often these visitors were unannounced or arrived with a half-hour notice, like the time Dad brought a group of ministers home late one night after a meeting. Mom had very little in the house and the stores were closed, but by the time they arrived, there was scrumptious soup with all the fixings, and the men lingered long around that festive table. They raved about her cooking as Dad glowed with pride and no one was any the wiser about those empty cupboards.

Then, there was the Blizzard of 1957, when dozens were stranded after a CCNA District Rally. People were sleeping everywhere in the church and in our parsonage next door. We children were four to a bed, which to me at age seven was great fun! The next day, snow covered cars and roadways, but there was enough pasta, all kinds being mixed together, and meatballs to feed an army; Mom enjoyed every minute of it as if it was an adventure sent from God! The happiness that filled our home in times like these, rather than the anxiety and anger that might have emanated from another hostess, showed me just how much the joy of the Lord really was my mother’s strength and I made it a goal to make it mine.

The joy of the Lord is your strength. (Neh. 8:10)

When I was eight, Mom went to work making transistors for fifty dollars a week so we could afford a new washer and dryer. After a year and a half, she developed such severe bronchitis from working in the cold atmosphere that was required to make them, that it weakened her heart and lungs and she was bedridden for months. What was her perspective on all this? One day, she asked me to come and sit by her bed so she could tell me.  She recounted how she had asked God for permission to suspend her work as a pastor’s wife for just a little while, long enough to buy the new machines, but the extra income was so helpful that she kept working even after they were purchased.  Your grandmother knew she had disobeyed God.  She was experiencing the consequences of that, but then she smiled and added that, by God’s grace, she was grateful to be getting better. Though I may not have known how to express it at the time, that’s when I learned that “obedience is better than sacrifice.”

Probably the most challenging factor of my mother’s life was my dad. She loved him as dearly as he loved her, but it was not always easy. Imagine a man, a perfectionist at that, who worked two full-time demanding jobs, served as a District Overseer, troubleshooting problems throughout the Metropolitan area churches, was the secretary and recording technician for La Voce della Speranza radio program, acted like a godfather to fresh-off-the-boat parishioners who needed help with everything from Green cards to filing taxes, while still taking time to do the church landscaping for exercise and print the church bulletin on Saturday. No doubt, you are left to wonder how in the world anyone can do all that and why!  He wasn’t getting paid for anything other than his printing job, but Mom knew what drove Dad.

Mom and Dad in front of Bayside Church, Queens, NY

He, too, did whatever he had to do as unto the Lord and, given his personality, it needed to be done to perfection! She saw her role as supporting him in that effort, even when he was overstressed and testy. Her ability to see beyond the exterior into the heart of my father was perhaps her greatest gift, and God used it to bless all of us! It’s the reason why he still glowed whenever he spoke of Theresa decades after she was gone. He would smile at the very thought of her, because he’d been the recipient of her smile even when, as he was the first to admit, he didn’t deserve it. In watching my mother with my father, I learned about meekness, not weakness, but power under restraint!

In spite of her busy life, my mother always had time for your Uncle Joseph and me. In my mind, no day was ever complete without sharing all of its events with Mom, and I know the same was true for Joseph. There was something about her that inspired a desire to please her, and we knew that what would please her most, what would make her smile, was for us to love and obey God. To say that my mother was the heavenly-endowed wind beneath our wings would be to put it mildly. In the short time we had with her, she lifted us up to a place where we could catch the wind of God for ourselves, her ultimate desire.

In February of 1972, I decided to surprise my mother by coming home from college for a short weekend visit. I was busy preparing for a lead in our senior production, but when I heard about a ride I could catch to Queens, something inside me said, “Just go!” She was so surprised when I walked in the door, and oh, how she smiled!

We had an amazing weekend together. We treasured every moment, even walking hand in hand, as we shopped the outside street markets in Brooklyn, giggling as we munched on the pastries we purchased.  We spent long hours talking about plans for my wedding, which was just a few months away. In one of our conversations, Mom smiled with a twinkle in her eye and told me not to wait too long to have children. She encouraged me to go ahead with my teaching career and she would take care of our kids. Oh, how she would have loved that! I thought we were sensing such a strong need to be together, because we knew I’d be getting married soon, and we may not have times like this too often, but God knew an even greater separation was coming. She died three weeks later.

My precious children, you have pulsing through your veins the blood of someone who loved God with all her heart, soul, mind and strength. Though your grandmother never knew you, she loved you and prayed for you. She prayed that you would come to love Him the way she did. There is nothing that would make her smile more than to know you do!

With much love,

Mom

Author Bio

Joy Palma is a retired school teacher with a passion for teaching her favorite subject, the Bible. With a commitment to in-depth scholarship and interactive instruction, she delights in helping others discover their greatest happiness in a relationship with God that is nourished by an understanding His Word. Joy is the teaching-director for an area Bible study and a featured speaker at women’s conferences and retreats. She and her husband, Tim, have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

Published by Paul J. Palma

Paul J. Palma is a professor of Christian history and theology at Regent University. His new book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity, is part of the Routledge Studies in Religion series. Paul is a contributing writer for CBN.com and the Pneuma Review. He enjoys spending quality time with his family, whether on walks together, going to the beach, fishing, or work around the yard.

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