Mom, can it really be 20 years?

By Steve Sell
May 20, 2015

My first vision every single morning is that of my mother and father.

Right next to my alarm clock is a picture of my parents. So they’re the first thing I see when I start my day and that assures me of being happy for at least the time being.

But 20 years ago, May 20, 1995, was the worst day in my life. That was the day my mother lost her long battle with cancer after having never been sick a day in her life until contracting this most deadly disease. She was only 68, which didn’t make sense because longevity was a rite of passage in her family, which was of good Austrian-Italian stock from the old country.

It seems so long ago, yet it seems like only yesterday.

Her mother had died just four months before at 93 (Mom was so sick she couldn’t go to the funeral) and her father was 88. My grandparents’ siblings also lived well into their early to late 80s, so I always thought we would have Mom forever. Instead, I was just 38 when she passed away and I felt cheated. She left us much too soon and it forever has left a void in my life.

But at the same time it was also a happy day. God was gaining a heavenly angel who had been in so much pain for so long that it was difficult to watch her suffer one more day and I was actually relieved when he finally called her Home. Two months earlier she was in bed and as I sat next to her she looked at me and said, “it’s going to be all right. You will do fine.”

I don’t know how other mother-and-son relationships work. I just know how ours was and I can say God blessed me to have such a bond.

My mother and I shared the same passion — sports. She was a college football and basketball fanatic and would always watch games with me in her Notre Dame sweatshirt. She had been raised a Catholic, but when she married my Methodist father, they settled in-between as Presbyterians and greatly believed in their faith, as it took an act of God to keep them out of church on Sundays.

She also competed in The Independence Daily Reporter’s newspaper football contests and won quite often, which led to a story how the Sell family had the market cornered. One year I think between us, we won like three times.

Mom realized in my early years that I was not going to be the intellectual that my older sister was as she had raised the bar out of sight. For Susie, school was easy. She ranked in the Top 10 in her class and almost always made all A's.

Me? Hey, I ranked No. 49 in a graduating class of exactly 200. By the math I learned, that put me in the 75-percent range. Average. That was me.

It would have been higher, but that stinkin' Algebra, Advanced Algebra and Geometry threw me curves. Boy that’s sure come in handy in my profession, huh?

Mom did the little things that I never asked her to do. She always washed my clothes and hung them out on the line in the bright sunshine, giving them the sweet smell of the nearby honeysuckle. She would always to go the store and buy all my guilty pleasures, such as Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Cheese Waffies, Twinkies and Lime Sherbert. She would make my favorite patty melt every Saturday night while the folks were having steaks. She would cut the crusts on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cut them into a perfect four.

I wasn’t a bad kid growing up, but I wasn’t exactly Johnny Straight Arrow. You have to remember I grew up in the early 1970s when you were a “square” if your hair didn’t hang down to your shoulders and half the kids in high school smoked those strange-smelling cigarettes, though that wasn't my thing. 

The legal drinking age was 18 and I turned that well before my senior year ended. Let’s just say I took advantage and while Mom knew, she would never say anything when I came home reeking of the smoky Miller’s Tavern or the Sidecar Bar. I think she knew that she and Dad had raised me well enough that I would never cross the line and be of endangerment on the streets, though I foolishly probably was a time or two. Good thing one of my best friend's Dad was the Chief of Police.

I played sports — basketball up through my freshman year and also golf. However, I always worried about embarrassing Mom as I went from the sixth man on my eighth-grade basketball team to the last guy on the bench by the time I was a freshman. That happens when your height is stunted and quickness can take you only so far. So once I sank on the depth chart, I would never let her come to games since I warmed the pine and she respected my wishes and she never once watched me play golf, though it was something I was pretty good at. She knew she would make me too nervous since I was rather high-strung to begin with.

I can remember when I was trying to decide which college to attend after graduating from Independence Junior College, a time I went to school, played on the golf team and still found time to work 25 hours a week at the local newspaper as a cub reporter. I was all but decided on her alma mater, Pittsburg State, but then my friends wanted me to attend KU with them. Ever the procrastinator, and just like doing my homework, I waited until the last-possible minute before heading off to Lawrence. She was not pleased I took my decision up to the 11th hour, but it all worked out fine.

I didn’t come home much those two years, but when I did, Mom faithfully spent the weekend doing the loads of laundry I brought and bustling around the house getting her regular  chores done. When I was ready to leave, she compiled a care package that was the envy of my roommates with all my faves. My clothes were all bright and shiny and perfectly pressed. While I was out with friends, she was making sure I'd be presentable.

That was Betty Sell’s life in a nutshell, taking care of her family and others — and not herself. She was a pillar of the community, working as an office manager for my father’s dental business, as a bookkeeper for a corporation and serving as a volunteer at the hospital. She was integral in the annual Neewollah celebration, often serving on the publicity committee or the queen’s committee. That was one of her favorite times of the year as Neewollah was McPherson’s version of All Schools Day, except it lasted a week.

Mom was also a renowned cook throughout Independence, everybody wanted her Red Velvet cake recipe with the unique frosting, which to this day is often imitated but never duplicated. My Aunt Jo for years has tried her best to emulate Mom’s frosting, but can never quite get it down exactly the same. Mom would always tell me when she was making the Red Cake (Valentine’s Day, my birthday), so I could be right there to lick the frosting bowl. And nobody could match her homemade ravioli except for my Nanny Lena. There was no turkey for our Thanksgivings, it was ravioli and rolls, with a thick smell of coffee wafting in the air as she consumed it by the cup loads.

Don't get me wrong, Mom wasn’t a 100-percent saint — nobody is — but she was close in my eyes. All families go through trials and tribulations and the Sells were no different. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, but I wouldn’t trade my formative years for anything.

Mom and Dad had their plan all worked out. They had saved and saved and saved so they could retire and travel to see me, my sister's family as well as other parts of the country. But one year after Dad retired, it all came crashing down with the news Mom had cancer. She supposedly was in remission a time or two, but I don’t think it ever left her.

I made a lot of trips to Independence during May of 1995 because the end looked close so many times. The final night I saw her, she looked at me and her final words were, “you’ll always be my little boy.” I knew then it was just a matter of hours. We went home late that night and two hours later when the phone rang and woke up the house, we didn’t have to be told. We knew.

Betty Sell had one of the biggest funerals I’ve ever seen in our church. I held up pretty well until one of her best friends and the "other Betty" —  the inimitable Betty Dancer, mother of my best friend in the world — came through the visitation line. She told me it was OK to let it go and I did.

I’m sure Betty Sell would have approved, even though she never showed a lot of emotion.

Even if I didn’t have her picture by my bed, I would think of Mom every single day. She got to see the first 16 years of my working career and knew while I wasn’t a financial success like, say, a brain surgeon or lawyer, I was doing what I was born to do.

I always wonder as she looks down on me, with Dad now back by her side after they were separated for 19 years before he joined her last summer with his passing, what she thinks of the life I have made for myself in my 58 years. I’ve been fortunate to have been recognized for some of the work I’ve done and I’ve never done anything in my public or personal life that would have embarrassed her. 

She always told me to be kind and courteous and not say a bad word about anybody, though I have to admit I’ve probably broken that last command more than a few times. She taught me to treat people of all colors and religions the same, that we’re all God’s creations. And never once should I think that I'm better than anybody else, which I never do — I have no reason to.

Taking all of that into consideration, I think Betty Sell would think her little boy has done OK.