[This was a eulogy given on November 9th in Birmingham, Alabama, at Covenant Presbyterian Church.]
Something of great value has passed from this world into the next. If you are here today, it's because you knew and loved Mary Louise Graves Stegall. And if you are here today, it’s because Mary loved you. We honor her by our presence, as well as our grief.
For me, it seems Mary has always been in my life— a constant among all variables—but in reality she intersected my story when we were each pregnant with our third child. Our girls, Shannon and Emalee, are the life-long friends we became also.
Mary grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, the only girl among three brothers. Her mother, Emalee, a gracious woman who exudes Southern charm and charisma, could walk into any room and make each person feel special with her gift of connection. Mary wished she were like her. Instead, her mom bemoaned the fact that Mary took after her father—Big Jack—frank, matter of fact, and to the point.
Mary came to faith early at age eight, and never lost her zeal for spiritual endeavors, always serving in many capacities at her church—from overseeing the kitchen at Vacation Bible School, to participating in world missions, to singing in the choir.
She went to Auburn and graduated with a Home Economics degree, which she used consistently throughout her life. Mary was practical and hands-on, excelling in sewing, cooking, and teaching— a homemaker par excellence. After college, she spent a year with Campus Crusade for Christ in Texas before marrying her one true love, William (Bill) Stegall.
She and I shared much in common: Longing to be women of excellence. Loving our husbands. Mothering our children as a sacred calling. Serving at home and in the church. Desiring to bless others by living out our faith. So it was no surprise when we were drawn to each other decades ago at a Bible study that met in my home, taught by our dear Barbara Barker. It was there that Mary entered my door and decided to stay. To hear her tell it, she was determined to be friends and so she “bugged me” until I conceded.
I’m forever grateful for her tenacity, as I’ve been the greater recipient in a friendship now spanning four decades. It would’ve taken longer to become close friends without her determined pursuit. She invited me to lunch, asked me to her home to let our girls play (although I’m not sure how much playing they did at four months old), and invited me to linger outside and chat over a glass of mint tea. Always the quintessential baker, she once made a cake for a child’s birthday and had icing left over. As she left to run an errand, I covered graham crackers with the pink and green icing the way my mom always did—with a knife. She graciously thanked me when she returned; little did I know that Mary, the expert cake decorator, planned to do the same thing with icing piped through special tips, creating beautiful designs.
As a mother, Mary was determined and intentional. She was the only person I’ve ever met who planned her pregnancies so her children’s birthdays landed in the “correct month.” I couldn’t even tell you what the “correct months” were. But, in her mind, they’re the ones in the early-to-middle part of the year so the child is older and better equipped to begin school. And even before they were born, Mary prayed they’d “hate baseball, and be attractive enough to be pleasing but not beautiful, so beauty wouldn’t be a problem.” Early on she thought about school zones when purchasing a home, while I was just glad to have a house. When her children were in grammar school, she stressed the importance of studying hard so they could enter the college of their choice, while I struggled to help my kids through concepts of fractions or reading for comprehension. I now believe she had the same determination as she approached death—yielded to God yet perfectly timed down to the minute, just as she wanted it.
Mary had the gift of giving. She always shared her blessings—her comfortable home, her time, or family dinners. I was on the receiving end of many of her gifts. Once during a time of financial hardship, I was shocked to open an envelope overflowing with $300 cash, which just happened to cover an overdue electric bill. I didn’t know who sent it, but years later realized it was Mary. Another time, I teared up because I couldn’t afford a birthday party for five-year-old Shannon. Mary quietly handed me $30, hoping it would help. I stretched that money with handmade games, decorations, and a homemade cake—now expertly decorated because Mary taught me in a class, along with other friends. No one realized my meager budget for the birthday party—or her loving gift.
Mary had traveled extensively overseas, while I'd never been out of the United States until recent years. Even though we were both excellent seamstresses, I preferred hand sewing or making dresses to her bigger projects of creating draperies and reupholstering furniture. She worked late into the night on a project; I petered out early and opted to start fresh in the morning. She seemed to have a secret energy source; though not effervescent, it was steady and constant. Mine always seemed to be running out.
I loved to hear Mary laugh. She didn’t do it often, but when she did it was contagious. She and Bill loved to tell a story about their friend, “Weird Larry.” It seems poor Larry once suffered from a stomach virus on a road trip. His description of systematically removing clothing as he drove between gas station restrooms really got to Mary. Even though not a pleasant subject, she would double over in laughter with tears running down her face as she pictured him wrapped in a blanket at the last restroom before driving the rest of the way home. Unfortunate situations seemed to tickle her funny bone, especially where Larry was concerned.
Mary had the gift of wisdom. She gave valuable counsel when asked, sometimes going beyond what others really wanted to hear. Her greatest fault, or her “Achilles heel” as she put it, was her desire to control, which caused many problems—especially in her marriage. When she and Bill walked through a difficult time, she tamed this need to control. Mary worked to put it to death, to keep her mouth shut, to be willing to do something other than what she thought best, and to let unimportant issues go without debating her viewpoint. It was a lifelong struggle, even in her last days. Once I happened to overhear a discussion between her and Bill as they entered the local country club for what she thought was a simple dinner.
“William, the dining room is this way.” They were members at this club—she knew where to go.
But Bill insisted. “No, they said to go down this hall.”
“Ok . . .” I heard the hesitation in her voice and the relinquishment of a potential argument as they walked into a large room filled with friends gathered for her surprise 60th birthday party. All four children had secretly come in for the event, some from as far away as California and Boston.
A great listener, Mary patiently sat for hours when someone needed to talk. I should know. When I went through a devastating time ultimately resulting in divorce, I told her she saved me thousands of dollars (which I didn’t have) in counseling fees. Sometimes she’d have words of direction, but more often she’d moan or frown in sympathy with my latest heartache. Or she would pray—simple, heartfelt prayers that lifted heavy burdens and helped me keep going despite the pain. Like Job, I didn’t need to be told what to do; I needed someone to sit with me in the ash heap of despair and listen.
Besides being a listener, Mary was a “doer.” Her family, friends, and church have lost an extremely gifted and dedicated worker. She was creative in every endeavor and energetic until the end of any project or holiday. Her name may have been Mary, but she was more like the biblical Martha in her committed serving. Mary was also known for a particular shade of blue, much like the dress I am wearing today. For those who knew her best, this color will forever be known as “Mary Stegall Blue.”
When Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer thirteen years ago, I’ve never witnessed anyone battle the disease with greater strength or courage. Seldom complaining, she went through both radiation and chemotherapy while teaching middle school students, only missing a handful of days during treatments. As the disease progressed, the principal allowed her to rest on the couch in the home economics “living area” when needed. She kept going, even when receiving the diagnosis of stage-four cancer. After eight years of battling the disease, her doctor finally told her she could retire and apply for disability since her symptoms continued to escalate. She breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you.”
I gave Mary a name years ago based on one of the characters in Hannah Hurnard’s classic book, Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In this allegorical tale, a woman named Valiant lived in a dark valley yet continued to display great strength of heart and character. She rose to any occasion—daring others to stand in her way—resolute and stalwart. And for that reason, she and Mary were alike.
Her name may be Mary, but to me she is “Valiant.”
In the last months of her life, a word seemed to come from the Lord: the name “Valiant” was to be changed to “Vulnerable.” It was time to take off helmet, sword, and shield and to exchange her weakness for Christ’s ultimate strength in passing from this world to the next. This she did with honesty and grace.
Toward the end, her family and friends prepared as much as possible, knowing no one could be ready for what was ahead. At first, we found it easier to be mired in the depths of denial— while she always seemed strong and continued to beat the odds. But as it often is with this disease, you can’t stay there. After living with stage-4 cancer for seven years, denial turned to facing the inevitable, however strong the desire to keep it at bay.
It became time to change the prayer focus from what we wanted to happen to what it seemed God was doing—calling her home—and choosing to heal her in heaven rather than on earth. Desperate prayers for healing changed into preparations for the journey ahead. A suitcase had to be packed for the other side, but rather than apparel, toiletries, and shoes we folded in faith, hope, and long suffering instead. And covered it with love. Always love. Instead of washing needed clothing, we bathed her with tears, knowing this helped her don garments of a heavenly calling. And the release of tears enabled those of us who watched handle the pressing grief in our hearts.
Those who knew Mary best have lost something of inestimable value—a loving and supportive wife of 43 years to Bill, whom she endearingly called “My Love”; only daughter to Emalee Graves Newbold and the late Jack Graves; devoted mother to four children— Sarah, Will, Emalee and Mary Beth; treasured sister to Bunk, Jack, and Jeff; respected mother-in-law to KC, Jenny, Mark and David; beloved Mimi to Elle, Evelyn, Aubrey, Annie, William, Jeb, Henry, Alice, Sawyer, Caroline, Elizabeth, and Anna; valued sister-in-law to Jan, Randa, Renee, Leigh Ann, Bert, David, Deborah, Frank and Sandra; proud aunt to twenty special nieces and nephews; dear niece and cousin to twenty-four other family members—to one, Kathy Nolen, she was more like a sister growing up; and a trusted ally to many, some of whom were lifelong friends. A new friend, Mary Fulgham, faithfully and lovingly served her as a caregiver in her most difficult days.
No one will be able to take Mary’s place in our lives, and I don’t think anyone is even supposed to try.
As for me, I’ve lost one who knew everything about me, yet still loved me. Someone who entered in and out seamlessly no matter how long it had been since we’d last spoken. Someone who knew the history of my life without having to be reminded. She was the first to encourage me to publish my writing. Early on she’d say, “I can’t believe those words are in your notebook and I don’t get to read them!” To be her friend was an honor and privilege. I didn’t say goodbye, only “See you on the other side.” For, often as it was in life, she simply went ahead of me into the next experience. She told me she’d be doing cartwheels and back flips when my name was called on the heavenly roster.
Henry Van Dyke wrote a poignant poem entitled “Gone from My Sight” about sailing from earth’s shore to that of heaven:
I am standing by the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch
until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sun and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, "There she goes!"
Gone where? Gone from my sight--that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the places of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone by my side says,
"There she goes!" there are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to pick up the glad shout:
"Here she comes!"
It’s time now for another “V” word to be added—Victorious. Even though it doesn’t feel like it today, we know she is victorious in heaven because of the finished work of Jesus, her Lord. He defeated death and paved the way for her and all who believe to live forever with him.
So Mary, dear Mary, we commit you to the great cloud of witnesses who receive you on the other side—to Jesus, the angels, honored saints, beloved family members and friends alike.
They’ll receive you as Mary—
But I’m sure they’ll know you as Valiant as well.