She was Kath to her close friends, Dearie to my father, and always Mother (never Mom) to her six children. She held us on her lap when we were small and rocked us, sang to us, and told us stories. We begged for the ones about “when you were a little girl.” Katharine Gillingham was born June 21, 1899 in Philadelphia. We loved hearing about the butler who did tricks for her behind her parents’ backs and about the alarmed postman who rushed to rescue the screaming child with her arm down a dog’s throat until he heard what she was saying: “He’s got my peanut!” In 1922 she married Philip E. Howard Jr., a man who, because he had lost an eye in an accident, felt sure no woman would have him. They worked for five years with the Belgian Gospel Mission, then returned to the States when he became associate editor (later editor) of The Sunday School Times.
Mother’s course was finished on February 7. She was up and dressed as usual in the morning at the Quarryville Presbyterian Home in Pennsylvania, made it to lunch with the help of her walker, lay down afterwards, having remarked rather matter-of-factly to someone that she knew she was dying, and wondered where her husband was. Later in the afternoon cardiac arrest took her, very quietly.
Each of us (in chronological order) took a few minutes at the funeral to speak of some aspect of Mother’s character. Phil spoke of her consistency and unfailing availability as a mother; of her love for Dad, (“He was always my lover,” she said). I recalled how she used to mop her eyes at the table, laughing till she cried at some of my father’s bizarre descriptions, or even at his oft-told jokes; how she was obedient to the New Testament pattern of godly womanhood, including hospitality. Dave talked about her unreserved surrender to the Lord, first of herself (at Stony Brook conference in New York), and then (painfully, years later at Prairie Bible Institute in Canada) of her children; of how, when we left home, she followed us not only with prayer but, for forty years with hardly a break, with a weekly letter. Ginny told how Mother’s example taught her what it means to be a lady; how to discipline herself, her children, her home. Tom remembered the books she read to us (A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Sir Knight of the Splendid Way, for example), and the songs she sang as she rocked each of us little children (“Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Go Tell Aunt Nancy”) shaping our vision of life. Jim pictured her sitting in her small cane rocker in the bay window of her bedroom after the breakfast dishes were done, sitting quietly before the Lord with the Bible, Daily Light, and notebook. The last three years were sorrowful ones for all of us. Arteriosclerosis had done its work in her mind and she was confused and lonely (“Why hasn’t Dad been to see me?” “He’s been with the Lord for 23 years, Mother.” “Nobody told me!”). Still a lady, she tried to be neatly groomed, always offered a chair to those who came. She had not lost her humor, her almost unbeatable skill at Scrabble, her ability to play the piano, sing hymns, and remember her children. But she wanted us to pray that the Lord would let her go Home, so we did.
The funeral ended with the six of us singing ”The Strife is O’er,” then all family members, including our beloved aunts Alice and Anne Howard, sang “To God be the Glory.” The graveside service closed with the doxology (the one with Alleluias). We think of her now, loving us with an even greater love, her poor frail mortality left behind, her eyes beholding the King in His beauty. “If you knew what God knows about death,” wrote George MacDonald, “you would clap your listless hands.”
*In honor of Mother’s Day, we share this touching reflection from Elisabeth about dear Mother. This excerpt was originally published in the May/June 1987 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter.