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Ella Westley Tichenor

                How does someone born in North Dakota, in rural North Dakota, in a Norwegian immigrant farming community, end up, many decades later, in Cumberland, Maryland?  The answer, in the case of Ella Westley Tichenor, is “via Saudi Arabia.”  Not the most direct route.

                What a wonderful woman she was, Ella Tichenor, loving wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend.  What a journey her life was.  I met her only in the last months of her life.  I sensed at once that this was a person of love and kindness.

                Ella Marie Westley was born on May 20, 1918.  Her parents were both immigrants from Norway.  Her father a teenager when he left Norway, mother was three.  Ella was the middle child among eleven siblings who survived childhood.  Ella developed yellow jaundice as a new born, and, according to an older sister, wasn’t very pretty.  That certainly was the last time anyone thought of her as not very pretty.

                Three themes of her life were already evident during these early years.

                First was her love for music.  She appears to have taken to singing as fish do to swimming.  She sang throughout her life.  Singing was at the core of her well-being.  She sang lullabies to her children.  You’d be visiting her, and she would just break into song.

                Second was her strong connection to religion.  She was brought up in a very religious family, in a very religious community.  Her family attended revival meetings at the river bank.

                She said later that her heart was nearly broken when she wasn’t allowed to dance. “God made our bodies,” she said, “for moving in time with the music.”

                Certainly her religion evolved over the years.  From a Norwegian Protestant community to pastor’s wife in the more conservative of the Presbyterian denominations, and from there to being the member of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  I am confident that she found much of value in all of the religious communities she was part of.  Our mature religion is the product of our entire religious experience, indeed, of our entire life experience. 

                Her religious emphasis turned more toward confronting injustice, but she never lost her love for the hymns she grew up with.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Lift up your voice and sing; .  .  .

                Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How beautiful thy light.
                Effulgent as the noonday sun – yea, clearer and more bright.

Most blessed city of our God, for ever shalt thou reign.

                                                                                                                                                [H. Mary Cole]

                 A third theme was her connection, her love for other people.  I have to admit that I can’t imagine what it is like to grow up in a family with children in the double digits.  My guess is that either you come out of the experience with an acceptance of other people, a desire to be with them, to be helpful and supportive of them, or you become a committed introvert, having had a lifetime’s worth of relationship in the short years of childhood.  Ella reached adulthood with a love of people, a love that was so easy to reciprocate.

                 Ella went to school during her North Dakota years in a one-room school house.  Most of the other students were her brothers and sisters, and an older sister was her teacher one year.  They not only had to walk to school through the snow, but wolves would follow them.

                 I don’t know how farming in North Dakota compares to farming in Norway; I expect it’s difficult in both places.  Farming during the Great Depression was especially difficult, and the Westley family eventually left North Dakota, moving to Wheaton, Illinois.  Ella started the third grade in Wheaton.

                 Ella did a lot of singing in Wheaton, in church, in the family, and in school.  With two of her sisters she sang on the radio, WMBI.  It was her singing that led to her first visit to Cumberland.  It was in the spring of 1936, and the Wheaton College Glee Club was on tour.  They came to Cumberland and sang at the First Baptist Church.  It was the high point of the tour.  Singing in the White House, in the Oval Office, was dull in comparison.

                 It was in that era that Ella Westley’s life intersected with that of a serious young student of religion, the future pastor and academic, Alan Tichenor.  Ella and Allen were married in September 1937, in the Wheaton Bible Church.

                 Where they lived in the decades that followed was determined by Alan’s career, but wherever it was, Ella made it a loving, welcoming home.

                 The first stop was in Philadelphia, where Alan continued his studies after Wheaton and served as an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor.  It was in Philadelphia that the three boys were born, Pete, Mark, and Sam.  In 1944, when Pete was two, Ella and Alan opened their hearts and took into their young family David and Ruth, the son and daughter of Ella’s brother,.

                I have to admit that until recently I had never heard of Aledo, a very small town in western Illinois.  With Alan’s schooling completed, the young family – Ella and Alan, Pete, Mark, and Sam, and David and Ruth – moved to Aledo, where Alan served as pastor for a United Presbyterian congregation.

                David remembers Aunt Ella playing hymns for him on the piano.  One hymn he remembers in particular is “Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us.”  [played here by Betty Hadidian, Bradbury, Shepherd, Broadman Hymnal #13)]

                Pete remembers his mother’s fall from the cherry tree; she was up on a ladder, in the tree, picking cherries.  He was terrified when she fell; he saw her lying on the ground and thought she was dead.  She wasn’t dead, but she had broken her collar bone.  It was a time of enforced idleness for her, while the collar bone healed.  Pete remembers her reading wonderful stories to him; she would sit and read chapter after chapter.  She also baked cherry cobbler – what better response to an ill-behaved cherry tree?

                In 1951 the family moved to Saudi Arabia, when Alan was hired by an oil company to minister to their Protestant employees.  Because they were not allowed to take David and Ruth with them, they enrolled them in a boarding school in Frenchburg, Kentucky.  David soon followed his aunt and uncle in attending Wheaton College.  During the family’s first years in the Middle East, Saudi law prevented them from actually living in Saudi Arabia.  As a result they lived in neighboring Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, with Alan spending much of his time away from his family.

                Ella was pretty much on her own bringing up three young boys in a foreign country. For the three boys, it was a wonderful time.  On their bicycles, they had the run of the island.  They did a lot of lion cub fighting, testing their mother’s patience.  When it got out of hand, their mother would remind them, “you were born in the city of brotherly love.”  Ella’s role was to keep the wild Indians, her three sons, out of trouble.  The boys sometimes thought that they could take advantage of their mother’s deafness, not realizing that mothers do not need ears to hear.

                It was while the family was in Saudi Arabia that Kaaren came from Sweden to become a part of them.  Sam remembers his mother teaching him to sing harmony, so that together they could sing Silent Night to baby sister Kaaren.

                From Saudi Arabia the family came back to the States for three years in Davenport, Iowa, where Alan served his last congregation, and then returned to the Middle East, this time to Beirut, Lebanon, where Alan taught history.

                To be the mother of draft-age sons during the Vietnam War was not easy, and Ella’s three sons, like me, are of the Vietnam generation.  It could not have been easy for Ella to see her oldest son’s plans for graduate school disrupted by the draft and to have the constant worry while he was in Vietnam of whether he would make it back home safe, and sane.  Nor could it have been easy to see her two younger sons chose to go from Lebanon to Canada rather than to return to her native land, the United States.  She was the loving, supportive mother in a difficult time in our nation’s history.

                Returning from Lebanon, Alan and Ella settled in Cumberland, where Alan continued his teaching career.  Cumberland became the land of opportunity for Ella.  She resumed her academic career, cut short by marriage and family.  She had her own career as a librarian.  She found multiple outlets for her singing.  She had two granddaughters to nurture and sing with.  She had this Unitarian Universalist congregation to support her as she continued her religious journey.  All this, and Alan, too.

                Ella was persistent, but you would not think of her as stubborn.  Once, over the phone, son Pete made the mistake of suggesting that she was stubborn.  For the next 45 minutes she refuted him, until Pete finally gave in, withdrawing the suggestion of stubbornness and applauding her persistence.

                Ella had clear and firm ideas of what topics were off-limits for dinner table conversation.  Once when an issue relating to family dynamics was raised, she abruptly interrupted with the question, “Does anyone know where the top to the mayonnaise jar is?”  It was her way of saying, put a lid on it.

                Towards the end of her life, she was blessed with great grandchildren, Daniel and Sophia.  Daniel, I’m told, generally doesn’t like to hold still.  But Ella and great grandson Daniel would cuddle together.  Ella’s love would penetrate and calm the adventurous toddler, and Daniel’s love would give Ella faith in the future.

                And that is where I will leave her, cuddling with Daniel.

Rev. David Hobart Hunter

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Greater Cumberland

January 10, 2004


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