My mother, Crystal Bell, passed away suddenly last Wednesday. I was given the privilege of writing and presenting a eulogy at her funeral. I decided to share it here as well for those who weren’t able to attend, and also for those who didn’t even know her. She truly was a special lady.
Today I am honored to have the impossible task of trying to capture the life of Crystal Bell in only a few moments and only a matter of words. She may have been a short little lady—or as she often put it, “I’m fun-sized”—or as Dad always put it, “She’s just right”—but she had a heart as big as the school bus she so often drove, big enough to fit a whole lotta people, and bright enough to change a whole lotta lives.
Over the past few days while we’ve all been thinking back on our sweet memories of this country girl with the big-city style, Mom’s been doing something else. You see, Mom has finally been seeing her Savior face to face. And if you knew her at all, you know how that interaction has probably gone. For once, someone else has had the last word—especially as Jesus welcomed her and made a fuss about her and told her the truth about what a beloved daughter she had become. Also, we know that Mom likely proceeded to ask Jesus about a million questions, just like she always did to us every time we came home. “How are you, Lord? What’s the food like here? Have you eaten today? Have you lost weight?” And no doubt she saved her most eager question for last: “Lord, what can I be doing to help around here?”
Yeah that’s Mom alright. And I can’t help but call her that, even though she was so much more: wife, friend, co-worker, servant, partner in crime. But the role she most enjoyed and best embodied was ‘Mom’. If you wanted to know what she valued most, you only had to step into any room of her home. Sprinkled throughout the family photos that cover the walls, you’ll find little antiquey decorations with simple statements. In fact, she enjoyed things like that so much that I’m worried about how Calvin Kennett is gonna stay in business without her around. One of those little decorations says this: “Home is where my heart is.” Mom had an eye for adventure and an itch for travel. If you wanted to watch her perk up, all you had to do was take her on a trip somewhere, whether it was down to the pool room or over to the Philippines. But as much she loved to go, she never strayed far for long because her heart and soul were also known by two other words: Amelia and Bradley. The love that all of us in this room experienced from Mom, Amelia and I were privileged to be the most direct recipients of it. She heartily agreed with Dad each time he said, “Whenever you become parents, your heart walks around outside your body.”
With him by her side the whole way, she poured into us the traits that made her so special. One of them was a bull-headed unwillingness to settle for anything less than the best. She lived by the saying, “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart.” If anyone ever wondered why Amelia and I were so driven in school, in sports, in church, in life—it was because Mom was at every game and studied every report card and filtered every friend and encouraged every opportunity and made every sacrifice to make it all possible. We were able to hustle and defend and win on the basketball court, because Mom always defended us. And also, the woman drugged us—she drug us to church on Sunday morning, she drug us on Sunday night, she drug us on Wednesday night, she drug us to Children’s Bible Drills and Vacation Bible Schools and FCA Camps and Chrysalis Flights.
In other words, she instilled in us a deep sense of living by good and right convictions. And to Mom no words were more fitting for us to live by than those of the Bible. It was because of this that Amelia and I both came to realize we needed a Savior in Jesus Christ. As early as I can remember Mom was taking us on mission trips and vacations far away, so it’s no wonder that I would one day sense God’s call to ministry and missions, and that Amelia and I would both become world travelers. That’s why one Mother’s Day while I was overseas, I wrote to her: “I just want you to know that you’re a mother strong enough to raise a son who would follow God to the ends of the earth, and a mother wonderful enough for that son to think of you every day.” Amelia put it more simply: “Mom is my best friend.” But it wasn’t always easy for her. Like the time Amelia and I hid her praise and worship music because we got so tired of listening to it on the way to school. Or the time I hit my sister with the claw end of a hammer. Or the multiple times she slammed various parts of my body in car doors. Or the time Mom accidentally left me at church. Or the time Amelia hit the gas instead of the brakes, and drove through the garage door.
Yet Mom knew how to hold her ground, like the time I made fun of Amelia for doing gymnastics. She marched me straight to the gym and signed me up for gymnastics too—the only boy in the building. Or the time she heard Amelia curse and chased her down the basketball court mid-game. Or the time she heard me curse and washed my mouth out with Lava soap and sat me on the front porch to tell Dad what I had done. (Dad just shook his head and chuckled when I told him—half amused at Mom and half scared because he knew where I learned to cuss.) Or the time she felt like either of us were slacking in a ball game, and told us when we came out of the locker room, “Either give 100% or don’t play at all.”
She was one tough lady. Whether it was driving a tractor the day she went into labor, or stepping on a pitchfork that went through her foot, or hiding her fight with chronic pain, or killing a snake that got into her garage (with Granny’s help), or power-walking a 5k with no practice. Mom was an expert at showing no weakness. It always grieved her deeply when exciting things came to an end. I never knew until I came back from a big trip. For my thirteenth birthday Dad had taken me to see Michael Jordan play in Chicago, and I was so sad when it was all over. Mom crawled onto the bed with me and told me how sad it made her when things came to an end, and we just cried together. Mom exemplified fighting through hard things—which was a great preparation for us on a hard day like today.
Now that also meant you had to watch out, because when her identity as Mom mixed with her toughness, it created something I like to call, “Mama Bear”. Anytime Mom perceived a threat to her family, she became as protective as a mama bear. Let’s be honest, we all experienced Mama Bear at least once. Dad said she was a 5’2” stick of dynamite, and you didn’t want to be around when it went off. Like the time Dad was dared by Russ Goff and Jonathan Roberts to throw Mom in the pool. Ol’ Mama Bear emptied an entire bottle of squirt butter on his head. (But Dad still put her in the pool.) Or all the times I thought she might whoop somebody after a hard basketball game. Or anytime she caught us doing something she thought led down the wrong path. Heck, one time Mom felt like the coach on an opposing team was being too hard on his own players, and Mom had a little talk with him after the game.
But more than Mama Bear, Mom was known as Mama Bell. That’s not what her children called her, but all the people whom she treated like her own children. There was enough room in Mom’s heart for anyone God put before her. She had a way with young people, especially children. She considered herself a kid at heart, always ready to have fun and be silly. The name Mama Bell sprouted up from among mine and Amelia’s friends, whom she loved to hug and encourage and host, just like they were her own. Her home always looked like something out of a magazine, and I think she surely must have been the one who taught Paula Deen how to cook. Friends weren’t allowed to leave Mama Bell’s house unless they had gained at least five pounds. Like the Thanksgiving that she baked three turkeys for just six people. “I just wanted them all to have plenty of leftovers,” she said. This week one of those friends, Drew Guffey, mentioned he remembered how we sat with Mom and ate her peanut butter fudge until we were sick to our stomachs—but just kept doing it over and over again anyways. Another one, Seth Frost, when he heard about Mom’s passing, said, “That’s Momma #2 for me.”
Mama Bell’s kiddos ranged from students she taught in Sunday School to kids she served on mission trips to our classmates and teammates to teenagers in my youth ministry to the countless kids she bused over the years. They each got a taste of what we were blessed to experience all the time—a love that would do anything for you, and the kind of attention that really made you feel special. As Mama Bell’s own children grew older and gained families of our own, she tended to channel that love toward little ones who showed up on her bus. Anytime we talked with Mom, she was always beaming with stories of children on her bus. She knew them by name, would buy them gifts, expected them to behave, and took time to talk with them about their lives. When I arrived at home after I got the news, one of the things I did was go out to her bus and peer inside, and envision all the stories Mom told us and people have told us. I pictured children gathered around her, eager to tell her about their day, and hearing important little life lessons. I’m glad that so many others got to experience the same things we did for all these years. She also welcomed any little animals that showed up at her home. The care she gave them was tender and thoughtful, like a full-fledged member of the family. Mom couldn’t help but be Mom.
Yet there was one among the crowd of children whom Mama Bell called her sunshine. In fact, with this little one she went by a different name: Granny-Mam. You see, last December came the day she had looked forward to for so long: she became a grandmother. My wife Katie gave birth to our daughter, Elisabeth. No one drove faster to the hospital than Granny-Mam. Though she was weighed down by several painful health issues over the past year, the happiest we saw Mom was (1) at Amelia’s wedding and (2) anytime she had Elisabeth in her arms. The name Granny-Mam fit her just right—and always will.
Oh, to have the time to go on with so many more names and stories! And in scattered moments across the bittersweet days to come, I’m sure many of us will tell some fine tales about Mom. Yet in closing today, it would do no justice to a proper memorial of Mom if I failed to mention two who made her who she was, who laid down their lives for her. First, was her loyal husband and my Dad, Howard. He is known and loved throughout this community as a gentle and hardworking man of integrity. However, I have had the unique perspective of watching and learning how a husband is to be endlessly faithful to a wife for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, in good time and bad, ‘til death do them part. Some people might think that Dad was just on the road hauling oil or groceries. But the fuel in Mom’s tank to love and serve and give in the way she did, was always supplied by Dad. No one cheered louder for her in life, and no one will grieve deeper for her in death. And there will be no human she’ll be gladder to see in Heaven, than Dad.
And the second who laid down his life for Mom, was Jesus Christ. Mom trusted in Jesus as her Lord and Savior. We say that a lot around here—what does it mean? It means that God helped Mom to realize that she could never love people enough or do enough good to save herself. She saw that her deepest problem couldn’t be fixed by anyone but God. She didn’t just see her sins and shortcomings—she saw that those actions came out of sinful heart—and only God can change a sinful heart. Instead of trying to clean herself up, Mom believed some really good news: that Jesus really came and lived the perfect life she couldn’t, and then laid down his life for her by dying on the cross and rising again. She asked him to give her a new heart, a clean one, and he did. This is grace, God’s free gift of a new heart to anyone who will receive it and give up their old one. All the good that we’ve talked about in Mom’s life today, it came from the new heart that Jesus gave her. All the blessings we’ve enjoyed and spoken of today that came from Mom’s life, they’re a million little evidences of God’s grace and love. And all the hurt we feel now that she is gone, is somehow yet another gracious gift from God. He’s reminding us that everything in this world, all that we experience from birth to death, is temporary. He’s calling to us from heaven to not put our hope in things that don’t last. What lasts? Jesus tells us in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Mom was the one God used to help me stop running away from God and get a new heart. And she would want the same for all of you. Especially as she now sees him face to face, and is finally herself being the little child who is held in loving arms so dear.
Mom, Mama Bell, Granny-Mam—we’re sure gonna miss her. But she will live on in our memory. And someday I’ll see her again. What about you?