Editor’s note: while not “irreverent” at all, the following respects by Admiral LeRoy Collins to his mother are worth reading. Admiral Collins is one of the finest men I have ever known and he personifies what a good “public servant” should be. It is no surprise when you learn where he comes from…
An End of an Era
By LeRoy Collins, Jr.
The end of an era in my family came a month ago with the death of my mother.
At ninety-eight she was very old, and very wise. About two years ago she had a fall and started her gradual decline, which became increasingly painful to watch up close. We were fortunate in that we had her with us longer than most families have their mothers, but it was still difficult to see her decay before our eyes.
Before the fall, she asked me during one visit, “Son, you have traveled the world, seen many things, and met many people. What has made the greatest impression on you?” My immediate response was, ”you, Mom!” In my life I have been in the Oval Office of the White House to meet the president; traveled the oceans of the world in Navy ships and aircraft; flown supersonic; held the nuclear trigger of a Fleet Ballistic Missile nuclear submarine on underwater patrols; started a successful financial services business; and have been married to the same dear lady for 50 years with whom I have four children and eight grandchildren (all of whom live close by); but the bedrock foundation under it all was Mom.
She graduated from high school just months before the start of the Great Depression in 1929; she helped her mother wrap bandages for the civilian effort in support of World War I; she was a Navy wife holding ration books for 3 children during World War II; and she had a son (me) in the Navy spanning the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and through the start of the Persian Gulf campaigns in 1990.
She had a trait for finding beauty in people, places, literature, and things; at her graveside ceremony on December 1, 2009 I read her favorite poem to illustrate. Albeit the First Lady of Florida during 1955-61, she was always suspicious of the whimsy in many politicians. Since Dad was one of them, she would let him know her impressions of issues whether he wanted to hear them or not. She had the most remarkable ability to engage in rigorous debate, and even heated arguments, without being disagreeable or raising her voice. When she was displeased, the object of her ire knew it, but she did so with finely-controlled dignity and grace.
The day before she died, my sisters, spouses and I each said goodbye to her alone. None of us noticed any response from her frail yet peaceful face. I had suggested to my sisters that in deference to her many grandchildren with various job commitments, we should delay services to the following Saturday. But when Mom died the next day, they decided to do it all within 48 hours. One grandson came from California; a granddaughter and her family of five drove from Tennessee, while others came from Miami and Tampa. All 45 were there, their other personal commitments notwithstanding.
The afternoon graveside service on that Tuesday started with a procession of her surviving family from The Grove homestead in Tallahassee, through the backyard of moss-draped live oaks and pecan trees for perhaps 250 yards to the north, then on into a forest of tall trees overhanging a 170 yr-old family cemetery where my father and great-great grandfather (and his family) are resting. A few have been there for almost two centuries!
It was a dramatic moment…starting with four tolls of the “comeback bell” hanging from a stately oak limb, then a prayer by the Episcopal priest before starting across the yard silently. We were led by the crucifer in a white robe (a 12 yr-old great-grandson), followed by the priest (himself a family friend for over 60 years) in white vestments, and then eight pallbearers made up of seven grandsons and one great grandson. Next, Mom’s four children with spouses, followed by all the grandchildren and great grandchildren — less the infants.
All these lineal descendants came from Mom, who was an only child. I wish I had a photo of the cortege moving across a freshly mowed yard of perhaps fourt to five acres of grass, under centuries-old oaks and leafless pecan trees, under an overcast sky with not a sound from anyone. As much as I wished for a photograph, a photographer anywhere would have been a rude intruder to this reverent classical scene.
At the gravesite there were perhaps a half-dozen or so additional mourners, all invited, and very close to Mom, including dear Caroline, who had been with Mom at The Grove for 40 years, and Aaron who helped Mom outside in her exquisite yard of eleven tidy acres.
The service was simple, traditional and short. Two granddaughters read selected Scriptures, I made a few choked comments as the new “patriarch,” then read “Ode to the Water Lilly” (Mom’s favorite poem, which she recited verbatim when asked on special family occasions). We then sang one verse of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” She was then lowered to her final resting place, next to Dad in the most prominent site inside the cemetery gate. Throughout the 175 years of The Grove’s existence as a home, no one lived there longer than she did. We then re-assumed our order of march and moved tearfully as a crucifer-led silent platoon back to the big house before anyone said another word.
The only other commemorative event we had was a late-afternoon “open house” reception in the grand hall of The Grove’s main floor. Despite public notice of her death only 24 hours before, over 500 people came through the receiving line my wife and I started at the front door. Folks came from as far away as Miami, Bradenton, Tampa and Jacksonville. The Governor walked over from Florida’s Executive Mansion next door (a residence Mom helped design and build in 1955-57; she was the Mansion’s first occupant as First Lady during Dad’s term as Governor during 1955-61). After he came through the line, he walked out back, went to the gravesite and then returned to the backyard to join the great grandsons tossing a football around the yard in celebration of their great grandmother.
Approaching the Winter Solstice, the backyard started to darken around 5:30pm. In anticipation, Aaron had placed a dozen tiki lanterns to mark the path from the yard into the woods surrounding the cemetery. Their small but dependable flames were visible and even inviting from the back porch. They were still lighted following the start of a soft rain after dusk after all visitors had departed. With family still lingering and chatting in the big house, I quietly grabbed an umbrella and slipped out the back door….lured by the tiki lanterns still on duty…to visit Mom…alone.
It was a scene I had visualized many times, captured in the last chapter of my Father’s only book, Forerunners Courageous. It describes the burial in the same cemetery of the first Mary Call, i.e. the wife of General Richard Keith Call. She died in the early 1830s, herself barely 30 years old. Dad’s vivid account describes her burial by torchlight. I wanted to do that with Mom, but wiser heads prevailed. But now…I was there…the night of 1 December 2009, burying my mother by torchlight…in the rain. After a full surveillance of the scene and capturing my final thoughts, I extinguished the friendly flames lining the pathway.
Good night, Mom…and goodbye.
LeRoy Collins, Jr.
P.S. part of the settlement of Mom’s estate involves the transfer of The Grove to the State of Florida for a historical museum 90 days after her death. This arrangement was made 25 years ago while my father was still alive. While we hate to see The Grove leave the family, we acknowledged it could not be split feasibly among the family survivors yet still maintain its historic integrity. This way the proceeds gave our parents a comfortable old age, yet maintained the property as a cohesive historical landmark for the inspiration of future generations.