When Tom Brokaw wrote his book “The Greatest Generation” as a valedictory to that generation that lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, he touched every family of my generation because those are our parents.
Last week we lost just about the last member of that generation in our family when my mother-in-law Eileen Craft Everest finally surrendered to overwhelming health issues at the age of 89.
I know all about the stereotypical mothers-in-law who inhabit television, movies and plays, who are shrewish, domineering and dismissive of their children’s choices for a spouse.
That was never true of Eileen. Hers was a welcoming heart. And if you joined the Everest family that meant you were in all the way.
Eileen and Bob Everest were exceptionally welcoming to the in-laws in their family. That meant a lot to me because I was a late joiner and this is a big family. They had six children (not to mention 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren) and that meant at Thanksgiving and Christmas it was easy to get lost in the shuffle.
But that never happened. I remember Eileen always went out of her way to let me know I was welcome, but then that was her way with just about anybody.
She was a second generation Irish lass – her mother, a Kelly, was born in Ireland – and she grew up in Danville, Ill., and that’s about as All-American as you can get. She was the oldest of six children and would raise six herself.
Now that would be enough for most women, but Eileen was always working. She met her husband after the war (there was only one “the war” to her generation), in Texas and she went to work for Texas-based Braniff International Airlines.
But My Lady Wife tells me she had always wanted to be a nurse. Eileen always enjoyed helping people. So she went to school at night and trained at Methodist Hospital in Houston. There she got to watch as Dr. Michael Debakey pioneered open-heart surgery and eventually the artificial heart.
A back injury ended her nursing career, but she continued to diagnose all of the ailments of her children, their spouses and the grandchildren. Nurse Eileen never quite went away.
She might have been a working mom, but my wife tells me she was always involved in the kids’ daily lives. She could play jacks or baseball with the best of them.
And I have to credit Eileen with turning out two of the best cooks I know, My Lady Wife and her younger sister Kevin Ann. I have been the beneficiary of that culinary education for what is now adding up to an appreciable number of years.
But I am not sure if it was so much her teaching or their learning out of necessity. Either way it worked out great for me.
She was an avid reader, and we had some lively discussions on those authors where we intersected, particularly Patricia Cornwell. She loved words and puzzles as I do, and I only found out after she died that she was a champion speller in Illinois.
She was a big Braves fan and liked to score the games. So she would tolerate my presence when a game was on if I didn’t gab too much.
My parents had been dead for many years when I married Kathy. I was used to an extended family that got together on big occasions and small. So when Eileen and Bob opened their home to me it was especially warming.
Bob passed away seven years ago after nearly 60 years together. By that time he and Eileen were living with my sister-in-law Kevin Ann and her husband Tom Chafin. Kevin and Tom don’t fit the in-law stereotype either. We would often come to visit them and Eileen with much relish and enjoyment.
Up until the end, Eileen kept her mental faculties and her dignity. She was always fastidious about her looks and kept herself well-groomed. It was not surprising she did her part during “the war” to keep up the G.I.’s morale by posing as what was called then a pin-up girl.
The military and USO would send out hundreds of bathing-beauty photos to remind the soldiers just exactly what they were fighting for – and she was one of them. I don’t know who was prouder, Eileen or Bob.
When her throat condition would no longer allow her to speak, she did not complain, ever. She resolutely took up her erasable pen and board. But that did make her blunt sometimes, cutting to the chase in as few words as possible.
I remember when Kathy and I returned from our first cruise together. We walked in and Eileen took up her board and wrote out her first question and handed it to my wife.
“How much weight have your gained?”
That had to be the first question, my wife fumed later. Not what did you see, or what did you do? Well, that was Eileen too. She was caring but not sentimental. And she said what she thought and told it straight.
I hope they can say the same about me.