“Let’s Lean” - Jean Purcell - to remember and honor life of Mary Helen Purcell
Mary Helen Purcell was my mother-in-law—Mom Purcell and Mary Helen. The force of personality of my husband’s mother gave me many challenges from the beginning. She was a beautiful, 40-year-old woman when we first met. I was 20. After Jim and I married, she encouraged, bragged on, and believed in me. She did all she could to teach and share her skills with me on the rare occasions we saw each other.
Yet, often I felt overwhelmed by her in the early years of marriage. I finally decided it was a matter of sink or…rise toward her level of confidence. Along with her daughter-in-law, Barbara, I got to know a generous, brave, and inclusive woman.
Here is a little story that gives a picture of our relationship’s early years: When our two daughters were two years old and two months old, Jim and I moved to Maryland. We invited his parents to celebrate our first Christmas with us. Later she called us from Tennessee to say that they wanted to bring four extra people with them for Christmas.
I began to worry about things like food, space, and beds. And I was upset with her. But she laid out a strong case that turned me around: The other family would not mind doubling up. They had never been anywhere. They hardly had anything. It would mean so much to them to come and to visit Washington, DC!
Of course, all went well that Christmas in our tiny, very full house!
You know that Mary Helen’s way was unselfish, yet she had healthy self-regard. She loved to reach out, get going, and take charge if others were letting things fall. Yet, she also had a quiet humble way of faith. When she moved to Maryland 10 years ago, not once did she say anything to us about missing her former home.
When we were adjusting to her need for special help from Gilchrist In-home Hospice Care, a group of young couples decided to bring dinner meals to us for a while. They came in shifts and talked with her every time.
One of them, Kristen Johnson, told about one of their conversations. Mom Purcell was talking about her youth when she and Jim’s dad were home missionaries in a remote, poor, and rough area in the Tennessee Mountains.
After a while, Kristen remarked, “Mom Purcell, that was hard and dangerous work!”
Mom Purcell answered, “Yes, it was. They either loved you or they killed you.”
Not long ago, she and I decided to discuss Psalm 23. She began, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and put her hand firmly on her chest. “He’s my Shepherd. It’s personal.” Then she expounded more on that phrase, and her thoughts were so profound that I sorely wished we had a tape recorder going. It came from her life with her Shepherd.
One day in her last weeks Jim and I felt especially helpless. We had done everything possible. I sat on the side of her bed and leaned over, my head face down on her pillow, up against her head. That was my feeble effort. Our face-hug continued for a while. But did she know I was there?
Two days later when she did not answer me I leaned over her, worried. “Mom Purcell, Is there anything I can do?”
She answered in a whisper: “Let’s lean.” Did she mean what I thought?
“Do you mean like this?”—I asked, sat down and put my head face-down on the pillow, as before. She whispered, “Yes.” We leaned into each other and held it there.
In her last days, she would look up and point toward the ceiling. Once she sat up; her head and extended arms facing upward. She called out, “Does anybody have a testimony?” What did she see that was otherwise unseen?
Early one morning soon after, she went into the Lord’s presence.
During the service here last Sunday, I could picture Mary Helen in white—in perfect well-being—arms raised toward the higher heavens.
She always emphasized that faith opens a personal relationship with Christ. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I am sure she wanted every person to be able to say that.
Now we lean into God and His eternal care for His children. She is our beloved Mama, Great Grammy, Mom Purcell, and friend. Child of God, Mary Helen.