Some weeks ago, we lost a true saint of St. Michael’s Church. Margaret Tenney was in our choir for many years and is now singing in the heavenly choir! Margaret’s son Charles wrote a wonderful reflection on his mother’s life. Whether you knew Margaret or not, read her son’s remembrance while pondering, what might be said about you on your last day? ~ Al Zadig
By Charles Tenney
My mother was born on Valentine’s day and maintained a sweet disposition throughout her life. Her parents both worked at Bryn Mawr College: He was a Canadian farm boy who taught the languages and history of the ancient world; her mother, a Southern lady from Richmond, Virginia, became director of admissions. She and her younger brother saw their parents’ devotion to hard work, deep learning, and time-honored tradition, but also saw them working calmly and steadily to change the world, by educating young women to become whatever their talents and work would allow, regardless of older ideas.
After college, my mother came to teach history at Ashley Hall. She told us how she and another teacher played a prank on the assistant headmistress, while they were writing midterm progress reports, and getting sick of the process; they wrote a report for a fictitious student, and in this report, they said all of the things that you can’t quite say about a real student, to their parents. The assistant headmistress, who had to read all these reports, thought this was hilarious; her name was Eleanor Tenney — my other grandmother. Yes, Mom married her boss’s son.
They soon moved to New York, and then New Jersey, near Philadelphia, with three baby boys arriving at about that time. Ten years later, it was back to Charleston: Dad joined the English Department at the College of Charleston, and Mom soon returned to Ashley Hall. My dad’s aunt, Betty Tenney, was already a long-time member of Saint Michael’s, so choosing a church was easy.
Teaching is more than a full-time job, and so is parenting. Mom seemed to be working all the time. School let out in the early afternoon, but I would always find her preparing lessons or grading papers, when she wasn’t doing laundry, or making dinner, or driving us around, attending our sporting events and concerts. She did find some time for reading and a few TV shows, and always found the time to drop everything when a boy needed his Mom.
I was in third grade when the lower school principal at our school begged her to come aboard as librarian. She taught a few classes about how to use the library, so I did know her as a teacher. I had some great history teachers at school, but I know that if I had had my mom, I would also know how to take notes in outline form, as she taught her girls to do. She was a demanding teacher, but not too proud to ask her students, or her son, to help her with her weakest skill, which was spelling. She would talk to her family about her work, about her students — no names, unless the opinion was positive. Bright students, students who struggled, students who were capable but needed encouragement. And, I’ve heard how good she could be at giving that encouragement. She loved her girls; she would tell me that some people would ask, “how can you stand to be around teenage girls so much?” and she’d reply, “I like it! After all, with my husband and three boys at home, for girls, it’s just me and the dog!”
My mother loved art, for its beauty, and for what tells us about the people in the past who created it. She loved beautiful places too: there was the family retreat in the Adirondacks, in New York, where we would go in the summer and spend time with our grandparents, our uncle, aunts, and cousins, including, sometimes, many, many second cousins. Less than a year ago, as we came down off the Ashley River Bridge towards Lockwood Boulevard, she looked out and told me how lucky she’d been to live so much of her life in a city as pretty as Charleston.
She also loved music, playing records for us when we were young, and singing with the choir at Saint Michael’s for many years. When I wanted to play the recorder, she was encouraging but serious about the commitment to practicing. Later she conspired with my music teacher to start me on guitar. But when I took up the trumpet, her encouragement, at least at first, was not because she loved music, but because she loved me. If you’ve ever lived with a beginning trumpet student, you know what I mean.
She loved her family very much and would tell her friends stories about her boys. And, she would treat her friends like family. One girlfriend of mine told me, “I like your mother, she’s bubbly.” She certainly was cheerful much of the time, just from being around people she liked, and she liked people so easily. Even in her final days, she would apologize to the nursing staff for how much trouble she was to care for, and how much she appreciated what they did for her. They all loved her. In the end, she was grateful for the life she’d led but ready to let it go if it was time. She put it into God’s hands. She’d prepared herself, and she knew that if she let me know that, she would make it easier for me. She was always so thoughtful that way.
I’ll always remember her sharp intellect and her gentle humor, but it was her love that defined who she was. She loved her family, her friends, her dogs and cats … and everyone who came today, and many who couldn’t make it here, she loved you, too.