Before I get started, I want to pause and offer some thanks. My mom would kill me if I did not show my good manners.
First and foremost, I want to thank all of you for being here. I know it’s a holiday weekend, I know you had other places to be, so we’re very grateful that you’re here with us today, that you are joining us to celebrate my mom, and that you love us, and her enough to be here. So thank you, it means more than I can tell you that you’re here with us today.
Also, I want to thank Lutheran Church of Hope, they’ve been amazing. Thanks to Lelia, thanks to Nick for honoring my mom by helping us plan the service. And Nick, thank you for getting to know my mom and being able to tell her story as I know you will later this morning.
Also, I want to thank Tina. Tina’s here to sing to today and to celebrate and to share her gift with us. My mom first heard Tina’s voice over 20 years ago and fell in love with it, and so it feels really appropriate that Tina is here singing songs that I know would mean a lot to mom, and helping us celebrate her, so thanks to all of you for being here.
It’s probably going to surprise you, but I was actually valedictorian of my class in high school and was actually a pretty good student. And as such, I was selected by my class to give the Commencement speech. So I had it all prepared, I had run it by my advisor, I had it approved. And the night before graduation I woke up about 2:00 in the morning, and I realized that I couldn’t give the speech that I had written, that is just wasn’t enough.
So I did what I always did and I went into my mom’s room, and I woke her up at 2:00 in the morning, and I said, “I need your help. I can’t give my speech tomorrow. I need you to get up because we have to write a new speech.” And without batting an eye my mom got out of bed, and we sat around the kitchen table for hours crafting the right graduation speech. I didn’t have time to get it approved, but at that point what were they going to do?
Last night as I was preparing for today — for this moment… I can’t tell you how much I wish I could’ve woken my mom up because I know that this is not going to do her justice, and I know it’s not as good as it could be. And I wanted so much to be able to reach out to her and to have her help me like she always has my entire life, to help me do this well and right.
But I have to go it alone this time, and so I beg your forgiveness that it doesn’t quite capture her the way it would have if she had been around to help me.
You know, the one word when I think about my mom, to describe her to you if you didn’t know her well, or to remind you if you did know her well, is that my mom was infectious. And every moment for her was a teachable moment, whether she was in the classroom as a teacher, whether it was just in a casual conversation, whether it was when she was writing Stevie Star or by example
My mom taught by taking moments and making them important, and by pointing out to us really the lesson underneath that moment, and in that she was magnificent, and yet at the same time, incredibly humble. She didn’t really see herself as a great teacher but everyday I assure you, she was a great teacher, and her lessons live on in all of us.
As I thought about how to talk about her today and how to try to sum up her life, and the meaning that she has for all of us, it occurred to me that while she is everywhere, and I see her everywhere, I see her touch and her influence everywhere, her most indelible marks are those that she left on her family.
So I thought I would share some of that with you so you could see her … really her glory and her magnificence through each of the members of my family, and how they live out her teachings, and how they are her legacy.
For my mom, family was it. It was the pinnacle of what mattered to her. And she found incredible joy when we were all together, and it was literally agony for her when we were at odds with each other. And she made incredible sacrifices for us as our mom and to anybody that she considered family.
So I look at my dad sitting here with us today, and I know that he’s here partially because he wants to say goodbye to my mom, but also because he knows we need him here and that’s the kind of sacrifice he always makes.
I can remember when I was a kid, I was helping my mom fold laundry and I was folding my dad’s underwear and it was a mess. They were holey, the waistband was coming off the underwear and there were holes all over. And dad I’m sorry, I know I should not be talking about your underwear in church, but it’s really important to the story.
But anyway, my dad’s underwear, I mean they looked like they were a homeless person’s underwear, and I said to my mom, “I don’t get it. Dad has a good job, we live in a nice house. Why does his underwear look like this?” And I will never forget the look on my mom’s face. The look of respect and love she had for my dad. And she said, “You’re not going to understand this until you’re a dad someday, but parents make sacrifices every day so that their kids don’t have to. And that’s what your dad is doing, is he’s not getting the new underwear so that you guys can have everything that you need.”
His wallet was the same thing. It was holey and it was worn, and I now understand as a father why he did that and the sacrifices he made, and his love of his family is so great. And in that, my mom lives on.
My mom and dad made sure that our house was the hangout house. Our friends loved being at our house when I was growing up. And in fact, I can remember one time I walked into the house after practice, I don’t remember what sport but after practice, and sitting at the kitchen table was one of my friends talking to my mom. And I walked in thinking how cool it is that he came over to see me, and when I walked in the door both he and my mom looked at me funny, and in an instant I understood that I should just go upstairs because he wasn’t at the house to see me, he was there because he needed to talk to my mom.
So I went upstairs and waited for him to come see me, and that happened time and time again. Our house was the safe haven for everybody, and everyone could feel comfortable and welcome, and my mom was everybody’s mom.
When I look at my brother-in-law Eric, he’s the exact same way. Now he’s not Italian like my mom, but he welcomes people with that Italian embrace, with that welcome to my home. He goes out of his way to make people feel welcome and comfortable in his home, and that everyone is welcome at his kitchen table, just like everyone was welcome at our kitchen table. You never knew who was going to hang out for dinner at our house because everybody was always welcome. And in Eric, that hospitality and that safe haven that my mom built, lives on.
My mom loved to laugh, she had a great sense of humor, and there was no one that she loved to laugh at more than herself. She was quick to tell stories on herself. I will never forget there was a time she had been down to Des Moines to visit us, and about two hours after she left us, and remember the drive to Minneapolis is about three and a half hours, three hours if you drive at the speed of light like my mom did.
But anyway, after about two hours the phone rang and I picked it up and it was my mom, and she was laughing. And I said, “Are you okay?” I said, “You can’t be home yet?” And she said, “No, no. I’m in Omaha, Nebraska.” And I said, “What do you mean you’re in Omaha, Nebraska?” And she said, “Well, I was listening to a book on CD and I kind of missed my turn, and I didn’t realize it until I hit Omaha.” And she was telling the story on herself, and my mom was always the first one to tell stories on herself and to use her foibles to make other people laugh.
My sister Terri is a lot like that. She is incredibly well educated. She’s got her Masters Degree, she works as a school counselor. And yet, my sister by her own admission is pretty blonde. And she does crazy things and she gets herself into all these crazy situations. And the first one to tell that story and the first one to laugh at those circumstances is my sister. And through that humility and through that ability to laugh at herself, my mom lives on in my sister.
When I took over my mom’s finances about a decade ago, she always struggled with figuring out how to pay her bills and who to pay. I remember noticing in her check registry that she wrote a lot of really small checks to several charities that mattered to her, $10 here, $20 there. And she was always stressed out about her budget. So I said to her, I said, “You know mom, maybe what we ought to do is, maybe you ought to just pick one charity and maybe make a more significant gift to that charity and then you won’t have to worry about all of these little dribs and drabs coming out of your checkbook, because I know it stresses you out.”
I will never forget the expression on her face, and she shook her head, she was adamant. And she said, “No.” She said, “No, I can’t do that.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “I can’t do much for any of them, but I need to do as much as I can.” And that was my mom’s volunteer heart. My whole life, she was volunteering. She was the one back in the day when you could sign up for the Heart Association or the Cancer Association and they would send you an envelope and you had to canvas your neighborhood asking your neighbors for money. She was the one who did that.
I, as a kid, had a real love for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and they had these carnival kits where you could put on a carnival in your backyard. So I asked my mom if I could do that, and she said, “Of course you can.” So she helped me plan the carnival.
But my mom wasn’t content just helping me plan the carnival, we spent about a month driving around to toy stores asking them for donations. And I can remember one toy store literally let us take out two cart fulls of toys that we got to raffle off and use as prizes because my mom worked her magic and got the manager to let us literally walk through the store and fill these carts with toys.
Even as she got older, my mom was volunteering to fill lunch bags or backpacks for kids who didn’t have enough to eat over the weekend, and she volunteered in a million ways, she just had this spirit of serving others. And I see that service heart in my nephew Jake.
So Jake is going to Africa this Christmas by his own choice because he wants to serve people who need his help. He’s on all kinds of committees at school, he does all kinds of volunteer things. He’s 17 years old, and at an age where most people are very concerned about themselves, Jake is a giver just like my mom was. And through him, that spirit of volunteerism and caring for others, lives on.
My mom was quite competitive, whether it was on the volleyball court, or in the family poker nights, my mom loved to win. But what made my mom so much fun to play games with was, not only was she competitive but she was a great loser. She was a great winner, she always loved to win, but she was a great loser. She was always quick to congratulate someone else for a game well played.
You know, my niece Josie is the exact same way. She’s a fierce competitor. She plays a mean game of volleyball, and she is an incredibly talented and gifted athlete. But what makes her teammates rally around her, and what makes her such a joy to watch in her competitions, is that she’s such a graceful loser.
She doesn’t begrudge the other team their win, she’s the first one to congratulate them on a great play, or a great game, or a great tournament. So while she’s a fierce competitor, she understands the love of the game and also the ability to recognize someone else for having a great game even if it means that they bested you. And in Josie, that spirit of competitiveness but also the willingness to celebrate someone else’s victory that my mom embraced, lives on in Josie.
My mom was Italian, and so what that meant was she loved in a big bold Italian way. There was no hug that lasted too long or was too tight. There was always room around the kitchen table at dinnertime for anyone, and she embraced how she could love on other people.
My nephew Max is exactly the same way. He is big and bold and funny, but he is the most loving kid and he is quick with a hug, and he is quick with an arm around someone’s shoulder, and his eyes light up when he sees someone that he cares about. And in that, and in his spirit of loving in a big bold way, in that my mom lives on.
My mom loved music, but she was a terrible musician and a terrible vocalist. She had the most off-key voice I have ever heard in my entire life. In fact, one of her favorite stories to tell on herself was the fact that being in choir when was in school was really a big deal. It was a status symbol and she loved music so much.
We grew up with music in our house all the time, but even in school she loved music and she wanted to be in the choir really badly. So she ended up having to cut a deal with the choir director, that she would never sing out loud. That she would only mouth the words if he would allow her stay in the choir because she wanted to be a part of that so much.
Like I said, we grew up with music in our house. Unfortunately, it was mostly Mac Davis music, but it was music. And I remember learning how to dance in the kitchen. My parents would clear all the kitchen furniture and my parents would blast Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and my mom taught me how to dance in the kitchen floor because she just couldn’t help herself. My parents loved to dance together, and one of my greatest joys was to watch them dance because they got completely lost in the music.
My niece Libby also loves to perform and loves to sing. Fortunately for her and her family and her classmates, she actually has a beautiful voice. But her use of music isn’t just to sing but it’s to celebrate, and it’s to share and connect with other people. And in her love of music, and in her use of it to celebrate life, that is my mom and it lives on in Libby.
Suzy was not born a McLellan, but man did she embrace the McLellan traditions. My mom loved tradition and created so many. One of the ones that many of you know and laugh about is what we call being tied up on your birthday. For those of you that haven’t heard the story and I know now you’re looking at me in this sort of a strange way, on the night before your birthday in my family, after you go to sleep someone sneaks into your room and ties curling ribbon on your wrists and ankles. And when you wake up in the morning of your birthday, it’s to remind you that you are a gift to the family.
My mom created all kinds of traditions, traditions around holidays, around food, around certain cookies at Christmas. She also created this thing called a money cake on birthdays. So she would take coins and wrap them up in saran wrap, and then you tuck it into the batter of the cake and then you bake the cake like normal. And when you eat the cake, you find money all through the pieces of cake, and that was our traditional birthday cake that we got every year as kids.
You know, nobody helps keeps those traditions alive more than Suzy. She makes sure that everybody gets tied up on their birthday. She makes sure that we sew pennies on New Year’s Eve. She’s the one who bakes the right Christmas cookies and the money cakes on birthdays.
My mom believed that traditions bound us together. That they kept us together as a family, whether we were in the same house or the same town, or scattered across the country, that by sharing in these traditions we were woven together as a family. And through embracing that idea and making sure that those traditions were honored, through Suzy my mom lives on.
My mom actually was crazy in terms of adventure. There was no rollercoaster too high. I can remember we went on a Disney Cruise and my mom had to have been in her late 60s, and she was the first one to convince Kelsey that they should sign up for tandem parasailing.
My mom loved hot air balloons and she loved fast cars, she got more speeding tickets than … In fact, she drove a gray turbo Mustang convertible, but she got so many tickets in it, I finally had to convince her to sell it because we couldn’t afford to keep paying the tickets.
In her early 20s, my mom packed up everything she owned and moved with Dad to South America because it was an adventure, and that’s where I was born. So my mom was always up for anything, and man do I see that in Kelsey. Kelsey is willing to do anything that is an adventure, whether it’s face painting or riding a crazy rollercoaster, or traveling across the globe with me, she’s game for anything.
I can remember hanging out with my mom and it was over Christmas break, and I think I was working on my Graduate Degree, and my sister was home from I think her freshman year of college. And my sister was off at a party with her friends and I was hanging out with my Mom, and I said, “What do you want to do tonight?” And she got a look in her eye and I knew that that look was trouble. And I said, “What?” And she said, “I think we should go TP your sister and her friends.” And I said, “I’m sorry, what?” And she said, “You know what? I’ve driven you TPing, I’ve bought toilet paper for you, but I’ve never gotten to go. I want you to teach me how to TP.”
So we went over to my sister’s friends house in the dark of night all dressed in black, and I taught my mom how to TP. She was in 50s, and you should’ve seen her hitting the deck when cars came by. And we hit the house good, we did a great job. About two weeks later, I was driving my sister and her friends back to college, and they were discussing, trying to figure out because everybody they knew was at the party, so who possibly could have TPed them.
I can remember looking in the rearview mirror and saying, “Well, I know who hit you,” and my sister saying, “Who?” And I will never forget the expression on her face and her friends face when I said, “It was Mom.” And it was this mix of disbelief and respect, and they were surprised but not surprised because that was mom, and that’s Kelsey.
Kelsey will go off to Europe on her own as part of a foreign exchange program, she will travel the globe with me. She is game for anything, and that spirit of adventure, that spirit of why not, let’s try it, that lives on in Kelsey. That is my mom’s legacy right there in her.
You know of all of the roles that my mom was brilliant at, the one that she was most brilliant at was being a parent. She taught us to believe that we had greatness in us, that we could do anything we wanted to do if we were willing to put in the work.
I think about all of the risks I have taken in my life, and all of the things I’ve tried and been successful at, or not, but things that I was crazy to even try, and I know that the origin of the courage I had to try it was my mom’s belief in me. And her saying to me over and over again, “You can do anything you want to do if you are willing to put in the work to make it happen.” And all along what she would remind us is, that her love for us was so fierce and so unconditional that even if we failed miserably, it didn’t matter. And that gave us the freedom to try anything and everything.
I know without a doubt that anything good I have done is because I always had her and my dad in my corner. She was present in every way for me. I literally talked to her every day of my life. We talked about meaningless things and meaningful things, but she was always there. And that gave me the courage to take the risks and to try, and to be brave, and to be vulnerable, and to reach for things I had no business thinking I could do because she knew better because she believed in me.
And I hope to God that is my legacy. I hope that I instill that same belief in Kelsey — that she is capable of doing anything if she’s willing to do the work. That she knows that I love her so much and so unconditionally and that I always have her back, just like my mom always had my back. I hope that that is my legacy, and that is how my mom lives on through me.
When I think about my mom’s legacy, certainly it is in all of us, and the lessons and bits of her that we now carry on. But bigger than that is the idea that every moment is a teachable one, and that with every interaction we have with another human being, we have a choice to make. Are we going to live a life that leaves a mark? Are we going to change how people behave and see the world because we created teachable moments? Are we going to be as infectious as my mom was?
I’ve thought a lot about death in the last few weeks, and I’ve thought a lot about legacy and what happens after you’re gone, and what’s left. And what I realized is, the only thing that’s left is the mark we leave on other people, and that is how you live a life of significance.
You live a life of significance not by who you are or who knows you, but you live a life of significance because you left a mark on other people, and they are better because of you. And there is no doubt that every member of my family is better because of my mom, my mom left really big shoes to fill in that regard. But it’s okay because as she told me many, many times, we are capable of anything if we’re willing to do the work.
Thank you for being here with us today, and thank you for celebrating my mom with us, and thank you for loving her and for loving us. And I hope you too, will live a life of significance and be infectious and leave your mark.
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