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Photo by Max T. Belz

One naïve fellow

And the truth about his renaissance mother

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

My mother's oldest son (she had five boys, along with three daughters) tended in some circumstances to be a little naïve.

For a long time, for example, he supposed that a family of eight children was perfectly normal. He thought mothers everywhere worked late on Saturday night to make sure not just the house was sparkling clean, but the church sanctuary as well. And that even later that evening, she would, from scratch, make a double or triple batch of cinnamon rolls for Sunday breakfast and another couple of batches of butterhorn rolls for Sunday dinner. The doubling was because guests were also altogether normal.

It was normal as well for her to work a couple of haircuts into that Saturday evening schedule, along with proofreading the church bulletin. And to check out the behind-the-ears efficacy of all those Saturday night baths, and to offer warm hugs as little ones trundled off to bed.

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I know how naïve my mother's oldest son was because I was that oldest son. I thought it was perfectly normal for American moms every few weeks to take a couple of their boys to a nearby farm, stuff a dozen hens into gunny sacks, take them home where she taught us to be accurate with the first grisly blow of the ax, offer a mini-biology lesson as she explained the various "parts"-and then follow all with a leisurely sight reading of a section of a Mendelssohn concerto.

She taught my ninth- and 10th-grade Latin classes, where she expected me to call her Mrs. Belz instead of Mom. Five decades later, she would call me to ask whether I'd read an op-ed item in that day's Wall Street Journal; to ask whether I knew if such-and-such a church had found a new pastor; to discuss a Wordsworth sonnet; or to remind me of one of the Lord's promises in a Psalm she had just been reading.

This remarkable woman died Aug. 31. A devastating stroke interrupted her dinner table conversation with a daughter-in-law that included Wall Street Journal stories read that day about the Cherokee Indians, about some monks in Louisiana who specialize in making coffins, and about bluegrass performer Ricky Skaggs. Even at 91, her days weren't quite long enough to accommodate so cosmopolitan a range of subject matter.

To the extent that Jean Belz passed such a worldview on to her children, her students, and her friends, she might well be remembered as a renaissance woman-stretching the horizons and performance of everyone with whom she had contact. Indeed, her rich matriarchy in such matters makes her a specific antecedent to WORLD magazine itself. She never edited a page, but for good and legitimate reason you see her style of thinking on virtually every page.

Yet still, if you look only at the bigness of that mind and that worldview, you really miss the point. For Jean Belz, my early naïveté was actually on target; there really was never anything special about such thinking. Isn't that the way every creature of God is supposed to see things? Mom just kept sensing God's calling in every detail of her life-and then kept responding to that call as faithfully as she possibly could. But she knew it also took God's enabling even to come up with a faithful response.

"I worked hard to keep a clean record," she said of her early adult life, "but I failed. I lost my temper, was late for appointments, tangled with friends, and was impatient with my husband and children. But my pride was unreasonable. I only tried harder and refused to admit my faults."

"I needed help, a way out," she continued. "The Lord did not let me rest until I confessed my need of Him, and laid my sins on Jesus.

"After that day, my life was new-the grass was greener, the sky was bluer, my husband and children were dearer. I walked into the garden or drove down the road and knew that all the colors, shapes, and textures before me were made by the hand of the living God."

As renaissance as she was, that's still the most important thing I can tell you about my mom.
Email: Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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