My mother, Phyllis Bryant Gaston, was the most remarkable woman I have ever known — singularly, the greatest influence in my life – my idol, my very best friend. Born on August 13, 1917 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the third of seven children born to Y.D. and Hannah Bryant, Knoxville College graduate, Minister of Music for 40 years, teacher of excellence in Cincinnati Public Schools for over 30 years, voice and piano instructor, wife, mother of three, grandmother of four, great-grandmother of five, friend and so much more. She was and will always be ‘Mommy’ to me.
In 1995 Mommy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The day we received the diagnosis, we “kidnapped” her and she lived with me until her passing in 2005. I want to share a letter I wrote to read at her home-going celebration. I believe it best captures in snapshot form, the essence of the woman I knew, the woman who embodied the grace and love of God.
August 31, 2005
Wow! What an incredible journey you’ve had and now you have reached your final destination. You made it and my heart is overflowing with joy just to know that you have entered such rest in the eternal Presence of the Lord. I will miss you more than words can express, but I know that there’s no other place you’d rather be.
There is so much that I am feeling now. I am grateful that God blessed me to say I love you and share my heart with you before you went to be with Him. Grateful that He allowed me to be there when you took your last breath. There is so much that I am still processing: the many things I saw God doing right in our midst in these last weeks, the many promises that He fulfilled –not as I imagined He would, but in such sweet and precious ways. In all the time that we’ve had together, I know that this last month was among the most incredible and most significant. People will never know nor fully understand the magnitude to which you ministered to me in your last days. God used you so powerfully to speak to my spirit, to open my eyes, to show me how to listen for His voice in the small things, to see what He was saying in the simplest acts. The greatest, deepest, strongest work God has ever done in me, He did through you in your last month. He brought me to a greater understanding of healing and wholeness. He honored His word to you; He honored His word to me. I learned, in your living and in your dying, a new depth of His faithfulness, His grace, His peace, His joy and His love that passes all knowledge. Thank you, Mom, for allowing Him to do that and so much more through you.
I honestly believe that some of your greatest moments of ministry occurred in this past month. Your greatest impact was showing me the reality of the word of God in a way I may not have seen had I not walked this path with you. And while it so hurt me to see you in pain and to see you cry, you brought to life Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: “We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.” Your outward man was frail and weak, but God promised that I would see the mother I once knew, and as He opened my eyes to look pass the things which are seen to that which is not seen, I saw the spirit of Phyllis Gaston – so vibrant, feisty, determined, strong, assertive, outspoken and, yes, comical. Always encouraging. Always loving.
The treasure chest of my heart is so full of memories dearer than the finest gold and most precious jewels. You were always intentional about creating wonderful memories for me, intentional about making life a bit of an adventure, intentional about creating smiles. Every Christmas, every birthday and so many days in between were made special. I can see us in the kitchen of the house on Davies Place. You’d make fried peach pies or yeast rolls, and I’d eat one after another until I was almost sick and we’d talk all night. You’d wait up for me to come home from dates and we’d eat toast and talk about boys and everything imaginable. You were my best friend and I knew there wasn’t anything going on in my world that I couldn’t share with you. And I also knew there was nothing that could go wrong in my world that you couldn’t fix with a big bowl of ice cream!
I remember our house always being filled with the sounds of music. I’d struggle to play some Beethoven sonata, but you’d come join me at the piano, sitting next to me on the bench — you’d be the left hand, I’d be the right hand and that sonata came alive. So many days and nights you’d play and I’d sing—occasionally, Daddy would sing along. We’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d worship, we’d simply enjoy the Lord together. We made beautiful music together! You gave me a deep appreciation for all genres — from classical to anthems to hymns, spiritual and gospel music. Thank you, Mom, for the music! Thank you for the song!
You were always my staunchest supporter, my greatest fan, there for every recital, every school performance, every concert. I could have been one insignificant voice in a 200-voice choir, but you were there cheering me on. You always made me feel valued and significant. You always made me believe that whatever I chose to do, I could do and do well. You smiled with pride at every note I sang as if I were Marian Anderson or some other great performer. Every note I played on the piano was beautiful to you. I still hear you. “What is that song you’re playing?’ I’d respond, “Oh, just something I made up.” “It’s beautiful. You always did play well. Keep up your music!” I promise you, I will.
Every word I wrote was Pulitzer Prize winning stuff to you. In your eyes, I was one of the greatest teachers! When I told you I believed I was called to ministry, you supported me without question, and encouraged me even when I didn’t understand what the call was all about. You were there for me when I was through with “church folks,” when I was a little insane, when I wanted to run and hide. I just want to thank you!!
(To be continued)`