Tribute to Mary Frances

“Life isn’t always what you planned. Get over it.” This saying came to mind as I was berating myself for leaving photos of my mother-in-law at work. It seems that whenever I intend to blog and scan pictures, I leave my pictures one place, and I write in another. So big deal. I’m getting over it and just writing.

Last week (May 7) was the anniversary of two women who were very special to me: my grandmother and my mother-in-law. This post is about Mary Frances Bell Trudel (1907-2000), whom I had the privilege to know from 1981 until her death.

When I first met Mary Frances (I think it was after John and I were engaged), I was a little taken aback by her candidness. Some would call her blunt, but I soon grew to appreciate her tell-it-like-it-is qualities. She accepted me as a daughter right away, even though I was “taking away” her son. (I think she was really smart and knew that if she made me feel at home, she would always be in touch with John.) We didn’t exchange any cross words for 5 years. Some of my friends, like Joe Nave, who taught at Tennessee Preparatory School where Mary Frances was on staff as a nurse, might find that hard to believe. She had a reputation at TPS for hanging up on people abruptly when she was grouchy or when she decided that the conversation was over (without the niceties of “good-bye”). She was a registered nurse who dared to speak up for her patients’ best interest, even to the point of disagreeing with doctors. That didn’t exactly win her any popularity contests with the doctors, in a time when people didn’t question what the doctor said. But I think it showed the kind of person she was: a dedicated nurse who had a strong sense of right and wrong and cared about her patients.

Mary Frances was both a puzzle and a delight. We shared many laughs together, and she was always up for a party or meal at our house. She faced the realities of aging and physical decline with a mixture of courage and “I spit in the face of danger.” It was hard for her to give up her beloved car, a little white Toyota Tercel,  when she was 83, but we took away her keys after she pulled out in front of someone at Harding Mall (now a Walmart at the corner of Harding Place and Nolensville Road).

Mary Frances married the love of her life, Rudolph Emil Trudel, whom she met when both were working at Tennessee School for the Blind. R.E. was quite a card. I remember him holding up his arm toward Mary Frances the first time I had dinner at their house and saying, “Mary Frances, would you button my sleeve?” The trick here was that the button was missing from his sleeve. Mary Frances started to button the sleeve and realized that the joke was on her. She gave one of those “Harrumph” expressions, but I could tell she enjoyed his joshing.

Sadly, R.E. died on July 14, 1982, a little over a month before John’s and my wedding. He had a stroke or heart attack. Mary Frances never got over his death (you don’t exactly “get over” the death of someone you love), but she managed to get on with her life. She kept in touch with some friends she’d gone to nursing school with; I remember at least one who called her every day. A few years later, she accepted that she needed to move to a retirement community, and she sold her beloved home on Old Hickory Boulevard in Brentwood. I give her credit for listening to her children, Elizabeth, Rudy, and John, when they told her it was time to make a move and be in a place with other people her age.

The first years at McKendree (she was in independent living) were fairly happy ones for her. She enjoyed playing “canatsta,” as she called canasta, every Friday night with her friend Brownie Spain and others. She also delighted in the fact that she didn’t have to cook all her meals.

Mary Frances was a loving grandmother. When our son, Daniel, was born in 1987, she was right there at the hospital. Even though she was 80, she still got around well and helped take care of Daniel when he was sick. She continued to attend Crievewood United Methodist Church on Sundays when she’d spent the night at our house (it was right down the street from our church, Crievewood Baptist). When they took church directory photos, Mary Frances wanted to get hers made with Daniel. I treasure that photo; it was one of the best photos of Daniel’s early childhood (he was 3).

Oh, I almost forgot to give Mary Frances credit for introducing me to The Upper Room, the daily devotional magazine that is the flagship magazine of my employer (also called The Upper Room). She read her “devotional” faithfully every day and often quoted from it. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the global influence of this ecumenical magazine, thinking it was just one of those “Methodist publications.” I was snug in my Baptist world and hadn’t ventured outside of Baptist publications other than to subscribe to Guideposts magazine. Too bad Mary Frances didn’t live to see the day I started working at The Upper Room. She would have been thrilled.

When she was 82, Mary Frances was diagnosed with lymphoma. At first the doctor was just planning to give her palliative treatment because of her age. But the Trudel brothers, who were just as determined as their mom and often thought outside the box, differed with the doctor’s plan. They did some research and discovered the recent development of laparoscopic surgery. They asked Dr. Eddie Reddick, the pioneer (at least in this area) of the procedure, to do exploratory surgery on Mary Frances to determine the extent of her cancer. He did, and they were able to convince the doctors that Mary Frances still had a few “good years” left in her. She underwent 5 months of chemotherapy. Part of the time, she said, “I just want to die,” but underneath was a fierce will to live. I reminded her that surely she wanted to live to see the birth of our second child. Around Thanksgiving of the year she was diagnosed (I think the diagnosis happened in early October), the doctors told us that we needed to contact Elizabeth, who lived in Oregon, and encourage her to come home for Christmas, because it might be Mary Frances’s last one. Elizabeth did come home, but Mary Frances outsmarted those doctors…she lived for 10 more years.

I attribute her long life to what I call the “ornery factor.” She blew every theory I had about positive attitudes contributing to a longer life. It drove me nuts that she was often negative, but under every “Why am I still here? I just want to die!” I heard an underlying message: “I really want to live.” And live she did…on her own terms (mostly; she would’ve loved to have had her car) and outspoken until the day she died.

Mary Frances: a lovable, frank, fiercely protective and loyal mother and grandmother, accepting of people from all walks of life, realistic, courageous, faithful, loving, dedicated wife, exemplary nurse, and funny person. I still miss her.

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