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Chaplain Norris Burkes: Imperfect mom taught me to laugh, learn and pray

Some call her Ruby. Friends call her Dolores. I call her “Mom.”

But don’t dare call her “Tootie.” Only her siblings called her that.

The name she is most proud of is “Valedictorian” of her 1952 high school class of four. Carrying that honor, she crossed town to enroll in Baylor University. A year later, she eloped with my father for life as a Pastor’s wife in Northern California.



Four years later, she was struggling with two toddlers, when I became her third child in diapers.

Mom wasn’t Hallmark perfect.



She wasn’t my best friend, my confidant or my hero.

She never taught me how to cook, how to match my clothes or how to deal with my feelings. To this day, she doesn’t often express her hurts.

She told us that she loved us, but it seemed she had more of that commodity for my brother and less for my sister. She still maintains that preference.

She could ignite the house with her Baptist curse words like “dadburnit,” “by cracky,” or “dadgummit!” From the next room she’d yell, “If you kids can’t get along, I’ll throw that dad-blasted TV in the yard!”

It’s funny now, but not so much then.

Yet as I grow older, the father of four, I see how mom taught us to laugh, learn and pray.

If you were to meet the 88-year-old, you’d better understand my column humor.

For instance, if you boarded an elevator and asked the occupants, “Up or Down?” my mother might reply, “Up or Down depends on whether you repent and change your ways.”

I’ve been known to employ her pun humor when meeting a new chaplain. They are taken aback when I ask, “What abomination are you?”

Learning was a top expectation mom had for her children. She’d studied to be a teacher, so spelling, syntax and grammar were her forte. (That’s why she’s proofread nearly all my columns.)

Somehow, mom managed to budget for scores of Dr. Seuss books along with subscriptions to “Popular Science,” “Highlights,” and “Jack and Jill.” Each week, she added a new volume of the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia to her grocery cart.

She passed that love of learning to her children and grandchildren. When her granddaughter Sara established Chispa Project to bring libraries into Honduran elementary schools, mom signed on to be a monthly contributor (see more below).

But my mother also guided my faith. As early as I can remember, she’d dress her three kids in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and sit us in the pews of the Bay Area churches my father pastored — twice on Sundays and again on Wednesday night.

As a small child, I’d rest my head on my mother’s lap while she sang songs like “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well With My Soul.” Hearing the lyrical notes pass through her diaphragm and erupt with an operatic tone gave me a peace that my life was directed with a purpose.

Twenty years after she’d left Baylor, I nearly broke her heart when I attempted to enlist as a military air traffic controller rather than study to become a chaplain. She burst into tears and Baptist-swore she’d find a way to send me to Baylor instead. She did.

But it’s what she did two months later that changed my life forever.

She came to visit me in New Mexico, where I was working a summer job at a Baptist camp. She spied Becky’s name on a bulletin board and commented, “You were in kindergarten with that girl. You should go meet her.”

I did and four years later, Becky became my wife.

So actually, I think Mom is my hero after all. Happy Mother’s Day, mom!

Mom’s contributions will go a long way next week when I take 12 volunteers to Honduras to install a library focusing on literacy for girls. It’s a joint effort with Chispa Project and another non-profit, Niña/ Learn how you can help at https://chispaproject.org/girlpower/ or https://ninahn.org Checks to “Chispa Project” accepted at address below.

Chaplain Norris is available to speak to your church, civic or veteran group, hospital, or college. Please email him for details at Norris@thechaplain.net or leave voicemail at 843-608-9715. His past column and his books are available on his website, http://www.thechaplain.net

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