If you knew Sara Jane Box, you’re likely in one of two camps. Either you wish she had been your mother, or you’re incredibly grateful that she was. In the latter, coveted camp are my six brothers and I, along with many grandkids and great-grandkids who were privileged to have her as their Mema.
Back when she was Sara Jane McPhail and working at the Keystone Drugstore in downtown Houston, circa 1949, in walked a handsome man named William Box. He was immediately captivated by the beautiful woman with a stunningly sweet smile and sparkling blue eyes.
According to my dad, he couldn’t even wait until their first dance was over before he kissed her. Daddy also told me about the other women he dated after his first marriage ended and said he didn’t want to marry anyone “until Sara Jane.”
When they married in 1951, Daddy was 31 and Mom was 21. She instantly became the full-time mother of three young boys—Gary, Michael, and Kenny. After having three more boys—Randy, Dale, and Rex—plus one girl, the family was complete.
We all grew up together in a three-bedroom house at 514 Parker Road, sharing one tiny bathroom. Needless to say, we were close. With my older brothers’ biological mother completely out of the picture, I didn’t even know they were technically my half-brothers until I was half grown. We were just one big, loving family—then and now.
Here’s an excerpt from something Kenny wrote for Mom several years ago:
“She not only took care of me, but did it with a lot of love and attention, never once making me feel like I didn’t belong to her … This woman is as much my mom as if we had come home from the hospital together. That beautiful lady is Sara Jane … the only mom I have ever known and loved! With never-ending love and respect, your son Kenny.”With a house full of kids and very little money, Mom’s work was never done. Those were the days when clothes were hung outside on the line to dry and then had to be ironed. The days when every meal was made from scratch and every dish was washed by hand.
Until she got sick this year, Mom was still ironing Rex’s shirts, and she liked doing it. They lived together, so Rex remained on the receiving end of her labors of love, as well he should have. Since the night Daddy died 10 years ago, my little brother never left Mom’s side.
Eight years ago, Rex and Mom bought a two-story house together in Katy. After 57 years on Parker Road, she finally had her dream home. For Mom, it was the perfect house in a great location. She said that every morning the first year there, she would get up and just look around, in awe that it was hers.
In recent years, she slowed down on all the cooking she used to do, but Mom was still making her famous pies, banana pudding, and pineapple cheesecake. Still making dinner every Friday for my brother Dale and his daughter, Courtney. Still making lunch every Sunday for me, my daughter, Angy, and her kids. Still making Rex’s lunch every day for him to take to work.
Back in the early days, Mom would set the table at suppertime with sweet iced tea in jelly glasses and food in the pots and pans it was cooked in. Nonetheless, the meals were exquisitely delicious. Like her moist, tender pot roast with rice and homemade gravy seasoned to perfection. It wasn’t served up fancy, but it was good enough to be on the menu of a five-star restaurant.
Every single Wednesday was “bean night” because it was such a cheap meal. Fortunately, Mom made the best beans and cornbread in Texas, so it seemed more like a special treat than a cost-saving measure. I liked how she chopped pickles and onions for us to sprinkle on top of our beans. She always did whatever she could to make things a little better.
Mom tried to earn extra cash for groceries by taking on extra burdens. Providing childcare and baking pies for other people would have been profitable if she had charged what her services were worth. But she kept her prices so low that she either broke even or lost a little.
The house always had an extra kid or two she was babysitting. And for a while, the kitchen turned into a bake shop every Thursday when Mom cranked out stacks of pies, with the best homemade crust, to fill the orders Daddy took from coworkers and delivered on Fridays. Many people at Stern Dental Lab got to have a fresh-baked pie for the weekend, and it only cost them $2.50.
In spite of Mom’s workload, she managed to remain the prettiest mother in the neighborhood. It was always with pride that I introduced her to my friends, and I could only hope that I would be even half as pretty as her when I grew up. In elementary school, a boy in my brother Randy’s class once eagerly asked if Mom was coming to a school function and if she would be wearing “that blue eye shadow.”
After all of us kids were grown, she went to work handing out food samples in grocery stores. The self-proclaimed “sausage lady” eventually landed a lucrative job at a sign company, and she worked mostly to have money for helping others. Mom had a hard time spending money on herself, and she rarely did.
She squirreled away a lot of cash so she could treat some of us to the most wonderful, memorable camping trip to Colorado with 12 family members. My husband at the time, who was out of work, and I left with our two kids and $50. We came back 10 days later with over $100. Mom kept slipping us money to pay for gas, food, souvenirs, whatever there was to spend money on, and she would never accept the change. (Who actually makes money on vacation?)
When her job at the sign company ended, we hung our heads and mourned the end of the gravy train. Later when Mom worked as a part-time clerk in a hospital gift shop, what little money she made was used to keep that gravy train rolling along the best she could. She would stuff a little cash into pockets and purses whenever someone mentioned a need or a want.
I learned to be careful about complimenting something Mom wore. If it was a piece of jewelry, she would take it off and insist that I keep it. If it was a piece of clothing, she had it in a bag for me the next time I saw her.
When Rex and I were going through her belongings, we discovered that she kept every single card she ever received. One of them from me shows the kind of generous person Mom was. Inside a Thanksgiving card from 25 years ago, I had written this:
“I’m thankful for attorney’s fees, doctor’s fees, car repair, car insurance, new towels, laundromat service, meals, hugs, love, and support—and that just covers the last two weeks. If I tried to list everything you’ve given me, it would fill countless volumes. I don’t know what I’d do without you, and I don’t know how to tell you how very much I love you.”Naturally, Mom was also the best Mema in the world. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her grandkids or their kids. Two of the grandsons, Craig and Deke, even lived with her and Daddy for a while when they were grown. My daughter, Angy, along with Jackson, my special-needs grandson, also lived with them for over two years.
Mom never stopped trying to help Angy. The last four and a half weeks of Mom’s life, Angy came over every day to help me take care of her. True to form, Mom said she wanted to pay Angy for her “services.” She also said she wouldn’t withhold taxes and was reducing Angy’s hours to 10 to 4 so she could spend more time with her kids. We let Mom think all that was really happening because we knew it made her happy to think she was helping.
In her belongings, we also came across random things she had written on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes—things that for her were meaningful enough to keep. Several of them concerned children, such as these lines from a poem:
The world has no such flower in any landShe had also copied this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We find delight in the beauty and happiness of children that makes the heart too big for the body.”
And no such pearl in any gulf in the sea
As any babe on any mother’s knee
Mom’s heart was definitely too big for her body. I don’t think any mother could have possibly loved her kids and grandkids more than mine did. Her love was sacrificial and selfless, always putting us first and herself last.
Her acts of charity and kindness weren’t limited to family, or even to the living. Mom once read in the newspaper about a Vietnam veteran who died homeless and alone, and for many years placed flowers on his grave.
She used to bake desserts for the staff in her doctor’s office and drive other old folks around. She was still driving this year, still bowling every week on a league, and still going to the casinos in Louisiana whenever she could.
One day when we thought she could pass away at any moment, Mom told me it was time to go and asked me to help her get ready. I put makeup on her, brushed her hair, and spritzed her with body spray. But I honestly don’t know if she thought she was getting ready for heaven or Louisiana because she’d been talking a lot about both places.
Mom was truly the most tenderhearted, compassionate, merciful person I’ve ever known. Some might have mistaken her meekness for weakness, but she stood her ground when she stood up for people. A prosecutor in an assault trial discovered that.
Mom was the lone holdout on a guilty verdict, resulting in a hung jury. She just could not send the defendant to prison. It didn’t matter that he was a tattooed biker who had stabbed a guy in a fight, only that he was somebody’s son. If it were one of her sons on trial, she’d want him to receive mercy, especially since all the evidence showed Mom was that two boys were fighting and one got the upper hand.
Now, before this eulogy goes the usual path of only extolling the virtues of the departed, I’ll tell you about my mother’s faults.
She always sliced tomatoes too thick for burgers and sandwiches. She tended to burn the bottom of biscuits. The birthday cakes she made us were usually lopsided, and she was a dreadful cake decorator.
Mom didn’t check expiration dates on anything. At her house, I never put cream in my coffee or dressing on my salad without examining the date. She would even let pantry items expire. You’ve got to keep packets of ramen noodles an awfully long time for those to go out of date, but Mom did.
Her kitchen cabinets were a haphazard mess of plastic containers without lids and lids without containers. She also wasn’t the best housekeeper in the world. A little dust never bothered Mom.
And that is honestly the worst I can think of to say about Sara Jane Box.
Her language rarely got harsher than “bull corn” or “golly bum.” And I never knew her to say an unkind word to anyone.
She was so genuine that there was never a question about believing what you saw in Mom. Once during a family game of poker when she drew a good hand, she shot her fist in the air and squealed with excitement. We knew she wasn’t bluffing, because she couldn’t, so we folded.
Although she was quick to let out a “woo!” when the occasion called for it, Mom was a quiet, gentle person. And she had the cutest little giggle. The more tickled she got, the more her shoulders shook and her eyes watered. But her giggle never got louder, just more intense.
We always thought she bore a striking resemblance to Shirley MacLaine, and we weren’t the only ones. When “Terms of Endearment” was filming in Houston, Mom answered a newspaper ad for extras. After they got one look at her, they offered her the job of Shirley’s stand-in for the movie. We were all excited, but Mom turned it down because Daddy didn’t want her to be away from the house. He probably didn’t want her to be around Jack Nicholson, either.
Mom spent a lot of her time cooking and doing laundry, and when I was growing up, she never made me help. Consequently, she never taught me how to do it, just like her mom never taught her. The only work she made me do was clean off the dresser in my bedroom occasionally.
Now, some people might think I was spoiled, and I probably was. But not with an abundance of things or a lack of discipline—only with endless love, plenty of attention, and maybe a little more leeway from Mom than I should have had. Daddy was a strict disciplinarian, though, so from my point of view, they balanced each other out perfectly.
At any rate, I learned to cook and clean later when I needed to. Besides, what Mom taught me was more important, which was how to love with abandon and enjoy life.
After I was grown, she and I were great friends and shared a lot of fun adventures. Sometimes it was just the two of us, and sometimes it was with Rex, Dale, Angy, or Romaine, who was not only Mom’s daughter-in-law but also her close friend, confidant, travel buddy, and partner-in-crime. One of our adventures was a legendary trip to Vegas that involved nonstop laughter. It wasn’t about gambling, just about being together. Romaine, Rex, and our friend Tom know what I’m talking about.
Something Mom really enjoyed doing was surprising her loved ones with random treats. Like when she trick or treated me on Halloween at my job the year I was undergoing chemo. But instead of candy, she gave me two gold bracelets.
At least we tried to surprise her with an occasional birthday treat, which really tickled Mom. Like when Dale, Rex, and I surprised her with a train ride to Galveston and a day of fun. When Angy and I surprised her with private lessons from Enriqué, a professional ballroom dancer (Mom loved to dance). When Randy surprised her with tickets to Gene Watson at Dosey Doe (she loved the country western classics). Even simple things like when I surprised her at the bowling alley with a balloon and cupcakes for her team.
The last couple of years when Rex would take a trip, I would come stay with Mom. Every evening at 6:30, we’d have a glass of wine and play along with “The Wheel of Fortune.” Although she didn’t particularly like wine, Mom just wanted to share the experience with me. And although she was normally in bed by 9:00, she would stay up late because I did. She even made it to the end of a Texans football game. I think Mom was proud of that, and her enthusiastic cheering made it evident that she enjoyed it.
But regardless of what we were doing, we simply enjoyed spending time together. Any of her family or friends would say the same.
In the months following Mom’s stroke, she and I were together practically every day and most nights. The downside, of course, was the fatigue, stress, frustration, irritation, and desperation we experienced. But I wouldn’t trade one minute of our time together for anything in the world.
We also looked into each other’s eyes deeper and longer than we ever had before. Held hands for hours on end. Said all the things we wanted to say to each other, and said them again. How precious it was to hear her call me “baby girl” and to kiss her lips every day.
Mom didn’t go for one-shoulder hugs or half-hearted kisses. She hugged you tight—never let go first—and kissed you right on the mouth if you let her.
I will always be grateful to the best boss ladies in the world, Tracie and Melissa, for allowing me to take care of Mom and share that time with her. They let me do whatever work I could, whenever I could, from wherever I was, whether the hospital, rehab 1, rehab 2, ICU, or Mom’s house. I’ve known both ladies a long time, but I was put on their team just last year. God brought them into my life in that capacity for such a time as this.
Until the last few weeks, Mom’s wit and friendly personality were intact. She was making jokes and inviting every doctor, nurse, aid, and therapist she liked to join her bowling team.
A particular aid would always come into the hospital room singing. One day Mom slurred from the side of her mouth, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and the woman sang a fabulous, soulful version of it. The day we were leaving for rehab, she came by to give Mom a fond farewell. Victor was with her, Mom’s favorite aid whom she never stopped talking about. I requested one last song, and the woman performed a spirited rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” while Victor and I clapped, snapped our fingers, and danced.
When you were around Mom, there was always a chance it would turn into a party.
The EMTs arrived to take her to rehab, and she thought the two young men were so nice and cute that she insisted I take her picture with them. Then she instructed me to take it to Walgreens, have a poster made, and put it on the wall. I never got around to hanging it, but there is a poster.
As pretty as Mom had always been, she was not a vain woman. On several occasions when family members visited her in the hospital or rehab, she asked me to take a picture. It didn’t matter to her what she looked like in it, only that she would have another picture with a loved one.
While in ICU, which was 5 weeks into her ordeal, Mom proposed to one of the doctors. Later, she looked at Dale standing at the foot of her bed. “Hey, buddy,” she said, “I’m getting you a new daddy.” Even in such a dire situation, Mom enabled us to share some laughs.
Most importantly during this time—and for the first time ever—Mom and I shared Jesus. She got baptized in 1959 at the age of 30. But I truly believe all that happened that day was she got wet. Being as sweet, kind, caring, and loving as Mom is not an indication of salvation. She didn’t go to church for long after getting baptized, and she never even seemed interested in spiritual conversations until the last couple of years.
I had been talking to her about salvation one day last year and, as usual, she didn’t say much. Then we went to run some errands. “Let me ask you this,” Mom said out of the blue. “If I take all the Splenda packets from a restaurant table and put them in my purse, does that mean I’m going to hell?”
“No,” I replied, “that just means you’re a thief. It also reveals the sin nature you were born with. The only sin that condemns you to hell is rejecting Jesus and His payment for sin. Only unbelief is unforgivable.”
Randy also witnessed to Mom, as did as my son, Zachary. And others in the family prayed for her soul. A few days after her stroke on February 13, she testified to my husband, Robert, and me that she believed in Jesus and trusted Him for her salvation. Later, I asked when she first believed, and she said it was “sometime last month.”
So according to Mom’s own testimony, she was saved in January of this year. And I believe it because of what I witnessed in her. At the age of 86, for the first time ever, I heard Mom quote Scripture. The first verse was, “He will never leave me or forsake me”; and then, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
For the first time ever, I heard Mom pray out loud, with sweet words of praise flowing from her lips. For the first time ever, she initiated conversations about spiritual matters. For the first time ever, she asked me to read Scripture to her and sing Gospel songs, well aware I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. That alone shows the hunger Mom finally had for God.
While in ICU, she whispered, “I’m going to make it.” At first, I thought she meant she was going to get well. But then she said, “Jesus washed me and made me clean.” So I knew she was talking about making it to glory.
Mom asked Rex and me to promise that all the family would stay together after she was gone. We assured her that we would.
My dear family, the tie that binds us now is the love we share for Mom and the life we share on this earth. But the only way we’ll be together forever is if each one of us receives the gift of eternal life, which is only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to Him—the Eternal, Holy God and Savior—for allowing us to know, and be loved by, His beautiful creature named Sara Jane.