As the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington over the last week, many of us turned to our parents to ask them their stories.
“Where were you on that day?”
“How is our country different?”
“Are you hopeful for the future?”
My best friend (and friend of this show) Blair Murphy Kelley could not have this talk with her mother—because her mom was dying. Blair, who is also a college professor like me, has been by the side of her mother, Frances, for the past year as she battled an aggressive, malignant brain tumor.
When her mother was diagnosed, Blair—already the mom of a terrific nine-year-old—was in the last trimester of her pregnancy with her son, now 10 months old. For months Blair has been nursing both her son and her mother. I have watched in awe as she has borne up under enormous stress, with unwavering grace, humor, and kindness. She and her husband celebrated their 12th anniversary last Sunday—the same day her parents, Frances and Leroy Murphy, achieved 51 years of marriage. Early Monday morning, Leroy held his beloved wife as she transitioned out of this life.
The Murphys are my family. Blair is truly a sister to me. Fran fussed over my wedding dress. My daughter called her “Grandma Murphy.” She watched MSNBC religiously and talked politics with me whenever we were together. She was snarky, funny, honest, generous and loving.
I will miss her. But not the way Blair will miss her.
This morning she will lay her mother to rest. Blair will miss Fran with excruciating, daily emptiness that will lessen but never disappear.
But Blair is more than Fran’s only child–she is a brilliant, trained academic historian. So Blair did not wait to get her mom’s stories, she learned her history, knew her childhood, and now that Fran is gone, Blair can pass the stories to her own children. I was so moved by the loving tribute Blair wrote for her mom I wanted to share it with #nerdland.
It is a reminder to ask the questions now. When our parents pass, what remains of them is what we know of them. Blair’s telling of Fran’s life is a final gift of child to parent:
Frances Geraldine Duncan Murphy was born in Thomasville, North Carolina on December 21, 1938 the first child of the late Brunell and John Dee Duncan. Migrating north when she was just a small girl, the family settled first in Philadelphia, and later moving to Woodbury, New Jersey where she grew to young adulthood. After graduating from Woodbury High School, Frances attended her beloved Howard University, majoring first in Pharmacy and later in Psychology. At Howard she made lifelong friends, rich memories, and sparked her love for reading the news and her desire to travel. Working at her summer job in the typing pool at the Navy Yard, she met the love of her life, Leroy Murphy, on the bus. They began dating that summer, and he demonstrated his real commitment to her by traveling down to D.C. to visit during the school year. After her graduation in 1961, she and Leroy married in 1962 as she began her career teaching in the Philadelphia School System.
During her early career she taught several early grades, but soon fell in love with teaching the third grade. She felt that third graders were the perfect students; old enough not to be afraid and cling to the legs of their mothers on the first day of school, but not so old that they don’t have a deep respect for the authority of their teachers. She loved introducing her students to the times tables and cursive writing, her handwriting looked just like the letters that lined the top of the blackboard. Frances taught in the Philadelphia school system for thirty years, first at Waring Elementary at 18th and Green, and then at the Durham School at 16th and Lombard.
Frances was an avid traveler visiting 19 different states and 12 countries in her lifetime. Even after the birth of their only daughter Blair, they continued to take regular vacations. She particularly loved her trips to Jamaica, the south of France, Hawaii, San Francisco, and London. She also loved reading and watching the news. She read two or three newspapers during any day, and was an avid follower of politics. Even after being diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2012, she worried first that she might not be able to cast her second vote for President Barack Obama.
But most of all, she loved the church. A longtime member of Grace Temple Baptist Church were she was married, she was active, first in tutoring, then leading Vacation Bible school, and later an active member of the Deaconess. During the last decade she joined the Missionary Board at Grace Temple and served on the kitchen committee. She treasured the work of preparing the repast for grieving families, and sharing time with the other women working in the kitchen, exchanging cooking secrets and stories. She believed it was her call to humbly serve and enjoyed it thoroughly.
After moving to North Carolina in 2008, she and her family found a church home at Peace Missionary Baptist Church. Although she considered herself “retired” from leadership while she was a member, she loved attending service and always left inspired by the leadership and vision of Pastor W.E. Daye and the loving support of the church family.
After a year-long battle with cancer, Frances passed from this world on August 26, 2013, the day after her 51st wedding anniversary. She is survived by her husband Leroy, her daughter Blair Kelley, her son-in-law, Patrick Kelley, her grandchildren Julia and Brooks, her brother Brian Duncan, and sisters-in laws, cousins, nephews and nieces.