Swimming in an Ocean of Love
Memoir by Michael Usey
March 25, 2000
Lots of stories about Sylvia involve love and water. When she was six, she and her mother, Mildred, went to the store. Her father, Dan, thought he would mow the lawn while they were gone, but he could not get his lawn mower to start. Pretty soon he had the lawnmower in pieces, and had a dozen parts spread out next to him. (This is not a unique scene to those of you who know him: Dan in the midst of a disassembled engine.) As he worked he asked himself, “Why is everything wet? Even the carburetor is wet.” Soon Sylvia was bounding back from the store, “Hi Daddy!” giving him a big hug. “Aren’t you glad that I washed your mower for you?” Love and water.
She loved to water-ski, and she was good at it. Sylvia loved to ride in the front of the boat and feel the waves crash around her like she was a creature of the sea. The first summer she and Robbie were married, they spent ten weekends camping at Carr Lake and riding David Cash’s boat. As kids, Harriet and Sylvia swam countless times at different lakes and pools. They would meet underwater for tea parties, and talk about what it would be like to swim with dolphins, a favorite animal of Sylvia’s. Even then, as a child, she loved the dangerous ride on the front of a boat, slapping up and down on the water, while the wind whipped her long hair.
Water, water everywhere, in her story. Lying by the neighborhood pool and tanning easily and deeply, while her sister Diane stayed tanless most of the summer. That pool is the place where she and Robbie met in eighth grade. In a life-saving class taught at the pool, Robbie noticed the beautiful girl that he recognized from his school. There was a drill in which each person had to jump in the pool and take off his or her clothes in the water, and strip down to a bathing suit. Robbie counted out people in line and made sure he was Sylvia’s partner. Love first, lifesaving second.
When she and Robbie were first married, they were living in a trailer—not a mobile home, mind you. They lived in the “Park & Stay” trailer park in Chatum County. There first night there it had been raining—more water—when it suddenly stopped. They were lying in bed quietly listening to the calm after the storm, when, in the absolute stillness, a small animal jumped with a bang on the trailer from a tree, and ran the length of the trailer. In one motion Sylvia jumped out of bed and practically hit the ceiling. Later that same night, when they had finally calmed down, a muddy dog starting bumping the trailer from outside, and all sleep fled that night.
Jennifer and William, her niece and nephew, have many marvelous memories of their aunt. One of Jennifer’s favorites is of a church rafting trip. Sylvia and Robbie went as sponsors, and there is this great photograph of them riding the rapids just as the raft is slipping down some dangerous-looking waterfall, Sylvia, in a life jacket and gripping an oar, has an expression on her face that is equal parts terror and joy.
Sylvia loved the water of the ocean, the lake, the river, and the pool. How many of us here have lounged around the Previtte pool, enjoying barbecued burgers, splashing water, and laughter all around? She had a open home, and, like her mother, the clear gift of hospitality. I once attended a pool party at their house that was mobbed by about 40 teenagers. She and Robbie had recruited her favorite band, a wonderful Christian rock group with the curious name of Job, to play as their gift to the youth. So for 4 hours that August afternoon, a herd of young people swam and played and danced in the water to tunes about God’s love.
She surrounded the people around her with an ocean of love. She knew how to seize the moment, offering her and Robbie’s time and home and resources as they could. This was done in the midst of the chaotic swirl of life with 3 boys and all the hubbub, friends, sporting events, church and school activities that that entailed. One thing I really liked about Sylvia was that she wasn’t hung up on getting her home up to Martha Stewart perfection before she opened her doors. Instead, she let people in in whatever state her home or life was in, and thus created memories. As the best mothers know, years from now children won’t remember the dust or the scattered toys; they’ll remember what was done with them and for them. Sylvia understood this.
Like the James Taylor song, she showered the people she loved with love, showing them the way that she felt. She clearly enjoyed creating beautiful items to give other pleasure and to express herself. Our family (probably like yours) will treasure several creative Christmas ornaments she made us annually—cinnamon stick Santas with hand-painted faces, an angel of soft fabric bits and wisps. She and her mom amazed me, planning ahead mid-summer for elaborate, meaningful, hand-made gifts for the next winter.
In fact, Sylvia touched many people with these small tokens of her care and love. She was masterful at creating parties and party favors for church functions and school parties. She gave the best Halloween carnivals at College Park. She understood that small gestures to children could have a huge cumulative impact, brightening otherwise dull days, and making children feel special. Our boys received the best, most creative bags of goodies repeatedly from her. She taught my oldest in children’s choir, making a Native American pow-wow theme, complete with tepees you could crawl into, and beaded talking sticks. What fun for so many kids. Her own children will always remember the tradition of baking Christmas cookies with her to give away to others. She impressed us with this skill—small waves of love. Mother Teresa once said, “Do small things with great love”—which easily could have been Sylvia’s motto.
You did not have to be someone special to be loved by Sylvia. Diane remembers that she was someone who could be friends with all sorts of people: to two high school friends who didn’t like each other, for example. When Sylvia was asked by one friend how she could be friends with other, Sylvia said, “Look beyond what you see to the person within.” “Why would I want to?” her friend asked. She answered, “So you’ll be a better person, how about that?”
When she and Robbie lived on Orange County Road, out in the country, she became close friends with Alice and Aubrey, an older couple who lived next door. She passed on to her kids this love and respect for wisdom and age. This quality of surrounding others with an ocean of love is what made her such an effective missions committee member: she was attentive to the person on the fringe, the one hurting on the outside. She adored animals, like dolphins and dogs, cats and critters. Once she and Robbie witnessed a small kitten hit by a car. Before Robbie could stop the car, she was out the door, scooping up the kitten to take it to the vet. Twice in her brief life she rescued whole litters of abandoned kittens—a fact many of you know since not a few of you ended up with new pet cats because of her. And you’ve no doubt heard, seen, and been sniffed by Tamu, her 75 lb. pear-eating Dalmatian.
She had a fondness for flowers, showering them with love and water both. She had daffodils and tulips and Christmas cacti. Bill, her toughened, laconic police captain brother-in-law said about her, “She could brag on a tomato plant like she was going to use it to feed the third world.” She didn’t love everybody, though; she had strong opinions about some hockey referees that probably weren’t repeatable in church, and she detested it when an opposing team tried to get away with something. Like her dad, she had a high sense of fair play, and like her dad, she didn’t keep her sports opinions to herself. “The ultimate hockey mom” her obit said, and that still didn’t capture the half of it. She supported her boys’ sports with a passion, and she was there for their many games in body and soul. She was gracious and imaginative, as I said, but she could also be tough. Like her grandmother Lucy, Dan’s mother, Sylvia took whatever came her way without complaint. The people in the center of her tides of love were her husband and her three children. She was happiest in her life when she was with these four—yelling for the team at a hockey tournament, or goofing off with the boys on a vacation to Disney.
Each of her boys has many of her qualities. All three got her agile athleticism that allowed to her to swim and water-ski with ease.
- Gray, her oldest, has her drive; like her, he can be quiet, calculated, and determined. After all, it was she and Bill that planned and executed some of the larger family vacations with military precision. Gray was with the adults during almost all of the last difficult Wednesday, and he faced his mother’s death side-by-side with his father, with courage and candor. Robbie’s trust in him on Wednesday was a tide of holiness in a horrible day.
- Marty has Sylvia’s innate ability with people; people feel warmed by his presence, and he is deeply thoughtful of others, (except if they are on the other team). The Previtte family telephone answering machine has three mailboxes: one for the parents, one for the boys, and one for Marty. My first night in Greensboro as pastor I stayed in the gracious and wonderfully wild Previtte household. When I opened my eyes at 7 a.m. Marty stood before my bed, a huge plastic sword in one hand, and dinky plastic knife in the other. “Good morning, Mr. Usey,” Marty said. “Wanna have a sword-fight?” Half asleep, I said I did, so he handed me the tiny knife, while he kept the big sword. An amazing way with people, just like his mom.
- Sam, their youngest, has her love of life. Once, when Robbie and Sylvia were returning from a trip to Knoxville with friends, they found themselves in a huge traffic jam on I-40. Cars were not moving at all, and they were all listening to the radio turned up loud. Sylvia left the car and, with several others–get this—went dancing down the highway, weaving among the stopped cars, swaying to the blaring beat—turning a bad moment, into a fun one, as she often did. Which child does that sound most like? Sam I am, loving life.
At the center of her great sea was her beloved husband, Robbie. Although he loved her greatly before they left for UNC, Robbie remembers one particular moment that he decided she was for him. Sylvia was a freshman, and the fall term had just started. She was standing on the steps of her dorm talking to a handsome guy. Robbie saw them from a long ways off and thought as he walked to her, “If I wait too long, I might lose her to some shmoe like this—and what am I waiting for?” He walked up to the boy Sylvia was talking to and said curtly, “Get lost, buddy—she’s with me.” Of course, Sylvia was always one step ahead of us all. She had told Harriet of her love for Robbie, but said she just had to wait for him to figure it out. He eventually did.
Her final hours were in the midst of love and water too. Hodgkin’s disease caused a vast fluid buildup in her, which made her final months unpleasant and painful. The last day and half, the doctors had been forcing fluids in her to improve her blood pressure, but to little avail. The night before she died, she wrote a few notes to family and friends, including a wish for her life-long friend Harriet: “Happy Birthday.” When pressed to tattle Harriet’s age, Sylvia feigned ignorance, and wrote “I don’t remember” with her mock innocent eyes. And on Wednesday, in the midst of family and friends, she passed on, buoyed in that same ocean of love that we had first experienced from her.
Her early death is a great loss. Big lives leave big holes in us when they are gone. But hers was a life well lived. Her life was not tragic, but heroic—a life lived for the many people whom she loved–one freely offered to God and others. There are parts of the last three years that I will remember gratefully: Sylvia’s courage and sense of humor in the midst of months in hospital beds and pain. But I think I’ll remember best the Sylvia of the long, silky hair and glowing face and mischievous smile and swimmer’s graceful body—Sylvia of the golden heart and great ocean of love. For it is this Sylvia who, freed from her cancer today, is whole and healed, and waiting for each of us on some faraway shore.