Early this past Thursday morning, I lost my precious mother. She was recovering and largely free from pain following her recent surgery. My wife and I, who were staying on with her in her home following a delightful Christmas with all of the family, are left with a deep, aching void. As I write this, I’m seated in the living room of her home that she so loved, on the couch where she slept at night, looking across at her comfortable armchair where she’d sit, surrounded by her favorite books: the Desire of Ages, Acts of the Apostles, and books on how to be healthy and live a long, happy life. (Along with a spiral-bound notebook with notes she made in preparation for her upcoming driver’s license exam.)
She had been doing well, but had had to go back to the hospital last Friday and was recovering. We spent every day with her in the hospital and were eagerly looking forward to her return home, so we could continue helping her go through her stuff, and move her to a piece of property we could purchase together, where we’d continue enjoying her company and long conversations about many things. I so very much looked forward to her writing out the details of her life - many details that will sadly remain sketchy. I so looked forward to her continuing to write the screenplay she was working on. How I wish I had shared with her the rough sketch of the humble beginnings of a book on the Seven Trumpets that I was writing! But she was busy, and I trusted that we would have many years to enjoy her company, and that I would be able to avail myself of her brilliant literary expertise to help me hone my attempt into something that would grip the imagination of the general public. Tragically that will not be - until the resurrection.
I never imagined missing her this much. But I am so grateful that I do. And the reason I do really is the rest of the story.
You see, my mother grew up as an illegitimate child without a father. In fact, I don’t think she ever met him. Yet my grandmother sent her to Seventh-day Adventist schools and my mom even earned some of her tuition as a colporteur. But it wasn’t easy growing up with a mother consumed by guilt, living in poverty, in places that would now be condemned as un-inhabitable.
All her life, my mother would have a desperate longing for a lovely home and a wonderful man. I don’t know how it happened, but barely out of her teens, my mom met a delightful gentleman who would take her out in his sailboat on nearby Narragansett Bay. They were both young, idealistic, creative and artistic. Both were in love with the arts and strongly attached and attracted to each other. But he was not a believer and above all, she wanted to share her life with someone who would share her love for God and His Word. So, she eventually made the agonizing decision to break the relationship off. And break it off she did.
It was not too long afterwards, following her training to be a schoolteacher, that she moved to Fresno, California in 1957 to teach at Fresno Adventist Academy at the age of 21. There she roomed with another teacher, Kathryn Andrews, who taught typing. And it was in March of 1958 that my dad, Orlando Knittel, at the age of 28, who had been living and and working in a medical laboratory in Ukiah, California drove down to visit his folks, who lived in nearby Clovis.
My dad and my mom met at a youth conference in Fresno. When Dad got home, he sent Mom a letter asking for a date. On their first date, they played miniature golf in Fresno. Then they phoned back and forth every other weekend in April and May. Often they would go to Yosemite together on Sabbath mornings and come home in the evening. When school ended several weeks later, he asked her to marry him.
This was not an easy decision for my mother. She and Dad had some things in common - both grew up in poverty, and both were Seventh-day Adventist Christians who wanted to raise their children to trust in Jesus. But there were also many differences between them. She was a very artistic, literate and articulate young lady who had been raised in the cultured city of Providence, Rhode Island, while my father had essentially been raised as a redneck on a farm in the desolate, desert-like climate of Madera, California.
But my mom felt that time was running out for her. At 22 years old, many of her friends were already married and her marriage prospects were getting slimmer by the day (or so she believed). And after all, Orlando was tall and handsome, had a well-paying job and seemed like a strong Seventh-day Adventist. He would often read the Desire of Ages, a book about the life of Jesus, with her when they were together. So she said yes, and they were married August 24, 1958 in Providence, Rhode Island. By the fall of 1960, two years later, she was pregnant with me. My sister Carrie, and then Beth, Marta and Heidi followed.
When I was nine years old, in 1970, we moved out of our two-story home in Talmage, California to a mobile home that my dad had placed on a 10-acre property outside of town, nestled against a hill, with a creek running through it. Until then, our family had seemed so perfect, with a dad and a mom and my sisters. Mom homeschooled some of us, and made sure all of us were getting piano, violin, clarinet, trumpet, cello or organ lessons. All of us attended Ukiah Junior Academy barely 2 miles down the road. The move to the country was great for us, as we had 10 acres on which to play, a creek in which to swim and hills behind in which to walk. My father worked hard putting in a road, a bridge, a well, a barn, fencing and an orchard. I learned many skills from my dad, like putting up fences, welding, caring for animals, and fixing cars. My mom also taught us many things such as cooking, canning and cleaning.
It was in the early 1970’s, with my mom in her 30’s, that the façade began to crumble. I distinctly remember the Kirbys coming to our home on a Saturday night for games and food. We loved those times playing with our friends, but on this particular evening as I watched Mr. Kirby envelop his wife in a long, close hug in the warmth radiating from our Franklin wood stove, my reaction was schizophrenic. On the one hand, it felt inappropriate and on the other hand, I found myself wishing my parents were like that with each other.
But they weren’t. My mother had come to recoil from my father’s touch. And there were reasons. My dad had no clue how to treat a woman. His only example was his father, who I remember as a somewhat selfish and controlling man. My father believed that bringing home a salary was enough. And then he would hand my mom $10 and expect her to do all of the grocery shopping with that. And it was tough if she needed more! It didn’t help that my dad compared his mother’s amazing cooking to my mom’s. Nor did the fact that he knew virtually nothing about the art of creating romance. My dad might buy Mom a new kitchen knife for her birthday - and then, months later, thoughtlessly grab that new knife out of the drawer and use it to spread tar on a leaking roof!
Furthermore, my mother had absolutely no mentoring on how to treat a man. My guess is that she assumed my dad would instinctively know how to nurture and support her. And that their marriage vows would somehow magically bond them together for life. Instead, my dad‘s actions told her that she really wasn’t worth that much. And my mother naturally pulled away, becoming cold and even cynical. As a result, my father poured himself more into work, feeling unloved and unappreciated, and my mother became emotionally dependent upon her children, creating confusion and pain. (I know. Her leaning on me for emotional support instead of going to my father - almost treating me like a surrogate spouse - was incredibly confusing, giving me an aversion to any kind of commitment, and contributing to my difficulty in finding the right woman for me.) Eventually, my mother’s deep-seated need for a man’s love evolved into her pouring herself into school activities that put her in proximity to men who were appreciative and nurturing.
And then the day came when she packed up her stuff and moved away. It was one of the few times I saw my father cry. I think it was hard on all of us, but especially on my youngest sisters. My mom would later come to regret her actions during a time when she was desperately trying to find love, value and affection.
After living at Weimer for a while, she moved to Southern California, officially divorced my dad, and began trying to put the tattered pieces of her life back together. She knew almost nobody, had no friends in the area, had no steady income, and without anything but a basic teaching degree, really no prospect of making a decent living. She was incredibly, profoundly alone, especially since her leaving home and divorcing my father ended up creating distance between her and her children.
In spite of all that, she somehow finished the appropriate schooling that would enable her to teach at colleges in the San Diego basin, and even spent at least a year in Guatemala honing her Spanish skills. She loved the salty fragrance of the ocean air and rented more than one place within walking distance of the beach, finally purchasing a house not too far from Carlsbad and its beaches.
My mother also began investing heavily in her local churches including the Dulzura and Point Loma churches. Somehow, over the years, she experienced an almost imperceptible change, from desperately trying to meet her own aching needs to being more and more intentional about blessing others. It was a huge shift, and it took time. Without question, my mom was already very giving in her younger years, but there was always that aching hunger for connection and approval just below the surface.
Now, however, she began imperceptibly to focus more and more on others; she would ask questions and listen intently, with genuine interest in another person‘s life. She wouldn’t interrupt to talk about her own troubles, or to say, “I know how you feel.” Instead, she would ask more questions. She learned to study people and find out what would make them happy. Then she would deliberately try to bless them by meeting a specific need they had shared. She remembered people’s names and what they told her.
For instance, she learned that I loved mangoes, and soon a box of the sweetest mangoes showed up at the local health food store, with my name on it. If somebody had a need, she was there. I don’t know how much money she gave away to people in need. I do know she gave many thousands of dollars to her own children when they needed it. Furthermore, she’d invite students, friends, neighbors or people she met at church into her home, connecting with them.
She also invested large amounts of time and energy into her students. Up until three months before she died, she was still teaching at three different colleges in the San Diego basin. She got up at five in the morning some days, having spent most of her prior afternoon grading papers, to drive to her classroom and teach. It was not unusual for her classes to contain students who were new immigrants or from lower economic strata, desperately trying to better themselves. My mom would spend hours with them - in class using creative, innovative techniques to grab and hold their attention, and outside of class by phone or email or in follow-up tutoring sessions. I’ll never forget one student running up to her when we were visiting a church an hour away from her home. The student was ecstatic to see “Professor Knittel” and hugged her and told her how much her teaching had inspired her. During the time she was in rehab following her October surgery, I took a call on her phone from one of her students, which was soon followed by a card.
Though we knew my mother was gifted, brilliant and creative, we wouldn’t fully realize how much so until after her death, when we discovered plays or Christmas programs written by her, listened to a taped sermon given by her at her church, or read the reams of very technical essays on teaching methods and approaches. If Pennsylvania State University hadn’t prevented her from finishing due to health problems, she would have had her doctorate at the age of 80! But she was not one to tout her own accomplishments. Rather, she invested in others.
When Sylvia and I got engaged, we wondered how we would finance our wedding. And it was my mom who came to our rescue, investing huge amounts of time and energy into finding and paying for a reception hall, in addition to purchasing food and pulling a team together to prepare it. And on the days leading up to it and on the wedding day itself, I never sensed that my mom was angling for attention or connection. She was just there to serve.
Somehow she transitioned from calling me, to waiting for me to call. From wearing a hungry, searching look, to her countenance bearing serenity and peace, focused on others. Instead of angling to get her needs met, she studied how she could meet the needs of those around her.
Even so, it took years for me to be willing to get into the habit of calling her regularly. In the last years of her life, I would look forward to our weekly talks on Sabbath afternoon or evening. We would talk about things that interested both of us - a screenplay she was writing, special insights she had received from the Desire of Ages or Acts of the Apostles, and even church politics. When my wife and I would update our website blog page with a new article, she was usually the first to read it and respond. And we talked quite a bit about those articles and how their principles might be incorporated into a local church setting, and also about my attempt at writing a book on the Seven Trumpets.
And in my mind, she slowly began to change from someone who needed my emotional support to someone who was a friend and a mentor. From simply “my mom” to somebody that I looked forward to talking with; someone in whom I could confide.
So how did this shift happen? There were a number of factors. First, I cannot discount the transformative power of reading spiritual books such as the Desire of Ages, Acts of the Apostles, and of course, her Bible. Second, I can’t underestimate the accountability and service opportunities that regular church attendance provided. At the Point Loma Adventist church she would teach a weekly Sabbath School class, babysit children, be a friend to visitors and new members, and prepare food for the fellowship meal.
But perhaps the most influential change began sometime in 1991 when she found herself visiting my grandmother - her mother Sally Weiss - in my grandmother's tiny Ukiah apartment. The TV was on and tuned to a Focus on the Family program with Dr. Dobson. And in God’s providence, a Christian psychologist named Dr. Georgiana Rodiger was speaking that day.
Now you have to understand my mother. She always had to have the best! And to her, this television psychologist was the best. Somehow she got the phone number of the Rodiger Center, called and made an appointment and met with “Georgie.“
At the end of the session, Dr. Rodiger said, “Jean, there is a fabulous psychologist that I’ve mentored down near where you live. Her name is Dr. Pam Laidlaw and she’d love to meet with you.”
So it was that for the next 27 years, my mother had weekly visits with Dr. Laidlaw. And those visits became a powerful catalyst for amazing changes. At first, because the changes were so gradual, I’m sure none of us children were even aware of them. But over the years, we could see fear replaced by love, anxiety replaced by confidence, neediness replaced by generosity, and self-absorption replaced by a genuine interest in the lives and needs of others.
Don’t get me wrong; my mother gained much from reading her Bible and other spiritual books, and from prayer. But somehow her connection with that godly, gracious woman enabled her to realize God’s transforming power in her life, which isn’t surprising, since authentic, loving relationships that provide accountability and foster growth are so often lacking in Christ’s body today.
What I did not realize was that Mom’s transformation was a double-edged sword. My grief at losing my mother was intense, sharp and left an aching void. And in the week following her death, I called Dr. Laidlaw and essentially told her, “It’s all your fault; because of you I miss my mother so much more!”
But I wouldn’t change a thing. I am grateful for her persevering example of someone who escaped from the black hole of aching neediness that threatened to consume her, to become a fountain of generosity, friendship and blessing. My mother defied the odds and left a powerful legacy for anyone wanting to change their relationship with their children.