Monday, August 16, 2010

Three Women Who Changed The World

Every Mother's Day, and every late August and early September, I remember three women -- three mothers -- who changed the world. A wide spectrum of individuals and nations, families and fans, anonymous and infamous mourned when they died. Each woman is a powerful illustration of the impact one person can have on the lives of others.

Princess Diana
Diana, Princess of Wales. Photo courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald
The first was a woman of exceptional beauty and style. Born Diana Frances Spencer until her 1981 marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, "Princess Diana" was tragically killed in a car crash on August 31, 1997. Ten years later, her extraordinary life was commemorated with the spectacular Concert for Diana, in London's Wembley Stadium. Playing to a sellout crowd of 60,000 and a global audience of more than 500 million in more than 140 countries, the concert featured Sir Elton John, Rod Stewart, Fergie, Nelly Furtado, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Duran Duran, Josh Groban, and a host of other luminaries. Organized by Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, the concert was a virtual Who's Who of the music world.

And while the performances were outstanding, I was more impressed by the love and devotion of two young men who simply missed their mother and wanted her life and accomplishments to be celebrated. Even Australia's "Sixty Minutes" got in on the act by airing an interview with Prince William and Prince Harry. I felt an immediate bond with those two young men, mainly because I lost my mother just over a week after they lost theirs.

And whereas Diana was a passionate champion for the rights of the disadvantaged and people with AIDS, my mom was a passionate champion for a little fat kid with a wild imagination.

Born in Kansas in 1904, Vera Anna Florance Turner was ninety-three years old when pancreatic cancer took her life. She was a petite woman who loved dirty jokes, butter fried chicken, designer labels and White Zinfandel wine. I'll never forget her serving up a pot of boiled turnips that looked just like mashed potatoes, then laughing so hard she almost wet herself when we spit them out.

Vera Anna Turner
Vera Florance Turner
I learned a lot about laughter and pranks from my mom. She also cultivated in me two extremely valuable qualities: curiosity and imagination. She encouraged me to build things, collect things, invent things. I once drilled holes in my bedroom door, much like the points on a compass, in order to make an electric combination lock. She helped me build a photo lab in my closet and a chemistry lab in the basement. It's a wonder I didn't burn down the house. She taught me to cook and sew, and she attended every one of my football games, many of them in driving rain. Neighborhood kids were always welcome at our house, and often stayed for dinner (unannounced, of course). My mom was a wizard at making food stretch. I learned about sacrifice and giving from my mom. I also had the privilege of being with her the final weeks of her life, where we talked about life's lessons and the good ol' days. It was a chance to say good-bye ... to say things that needed to be said.

Although blind for many years, my mom loved strawberries. Especially Arkansas strawberries. If you've ever had one, you know what I mean. They are magnificent. One day during her final weeks of life, I happened to see some in the store and bought them. When I returned to her hospital room, I held one in front of her nose and said, "Here, Mom, have a sniff."

"Oh, Jim, that's an Arkansas strawberry!" she exclaimed at the unmistakable fragrance. And she proceeded to eat the whole punnet ... after which she said she wanted a hamburger and fries for dessert! She was always one for doing things her own way.

As she sat there in bed eating her strawberries, she admitted she was frightened at the prospect of dying. So I read some verses from the Bible that talked about eternity and how there will one day be no more disease or suffering or getting old ... how we'll be skipping and dancing and singing ... and of course eating strawberries.

When finished, I said, "Mom, I don't know everything, but I do believe this: the strawberries will be sweeter in heaven. Even better than these Arkansas berries. So if you happen to get there ahead of me, would you pleeease save me one? I know you have a tendency to eat every one you can find." She laughed and squeezed my hand. "I'll do it!" she said. "I'll save you one! I may even save you a couple."

My mom died peacefully on September 9, 1997. A woman of newfound faith. A woman at peace. A woman I will always remember and whose life I will always celebrate in my writing.

But there is another woman who died about the same time as Princess Diana and my mom. I wonder if anyone will ever give her a concert? I wonder if Sixty Minutes will ever devote any air time to her life? You certainly don't see her on many magazine covers, and to my knowledge she has never been listed in the Top 100 most beautiful women in the world. I reckon she should be, because she radiates warmth and love like no woman I've ever seen. Her name is Mother Teresa.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in Macedonia, in 1910, Mother Teresa felt the call of God at the age of twelve. At the age of eighteen, she left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. Soon after, she took her vows and began teaching at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, where she was so moved by the suffering and poverty around her that she started an open-air school for slum children.

In 1950, she started what would become known as the Missionaries for Charity. Its purpose was to care for the hungry, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for throughout society, including lepers.

Mother Teresa
"Mother Teresa" Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu

For Mother Teresa, serving God meant showing love and mercy to anyone in need. What a difference from those who claim to serve God but turn a blind eye to the suffering of others ... who blow up hospitals instead of building them.

In 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of all the lives she had saved. Not surprisingly, she asked that the $192,000 award be given to the poorest of India.

Some fundamentalist terrorists were recently discovered working in England as doctors. They were cloaked with mantle of helping people while secretly plotting to kill them. Mother Teresa, by contrast, once commanded a temporary cease fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas in order to rescue thirty-seven children trapped in a war zone hospital. When the Iron Curtain collapsed a few years later, her Missionaries of Charity initiated numerous projects in the former Soviet East Bloc. By 1996, she was operating over five hundred missions in more than one hundred countries. THAT, my friends, is serving God.

If you believe in the "butterfly effect" – that the tiniest of actions can cause a chain of events leading to a large-scale result - then your actions and mine can lead to consequences that can and will affect others. Perhaps one, perhaps one million – who knows?

And while I don't know everything, I do indeed believe this: one person CAN make a difference. These three did.

Three women who changed the world.

Three women who changed my world.

From his home in Adelaide, Australia, James Houston Turner writes suspense thrillers filled with these same kind of men and women. You may visit him at his website: