The anniversary of my mother’s death is just before Thanksgiving, so at this time of the year my thoughts go to her—Erin McLavy Cavell.

Mamaw and Graham

On the day she died, we drove to Louisiana for the funeral and I sat down and wrote these words, which my siblings asked me to read at her funeral:

This year, with Mama gone, Thanksgiving will be sadder. And yet it is fitting that we gather during this Thanksgiving week to celebrate the life of Erin McLavy Cavell. For we suspect that all who knew her would give thanks for having had that experience. 

Hers was a gentle influence, and it’s not clear which descriptor was more apt.

She was indeed gentle, both in her dealings with us, her children, and with all she met. Her poise and grace were not tools that she used to rise above others but punctuation marks that signaled her acceptance of others. Few individuals could simply “be” with you as Mama could. We often brought home and into her presence friends who were going through a period of crisis or doubt. We knew that to be with Erin Cavell was to be in a place that was safe and with someone whose capacity to soothe was great and whose tendency to judge or criticize was virtually nonexistent. Amazingly, her heart survived for almost 76 years despite a pacemaker and despite having given it away to all who needed a comforting touch.

But as gentle as she was, Erin Cavell was far from inert. We, her five children, can certainly attest to the influence of her convictions. From her and Daddy, we learned what was right and wrong, sacred and profane, moral and immoral. She wasn’t heavy handed in the way she taught us. For example, she pinned to our breakfast room wall a picture of a starving Third World child. She thought it would help us be grateful for what we had—even if it was macaroni mixed with canned chili and washed down with a glass of powdered milk. She led by example and lived such a courageous and giving life that we felt compelled to follow.

As we got older and the stakes got higher, Mama regularly used gentle influence to show the way and keep us in the fold. Before we’d leave the house—to do who knows what—she’d hold us tight, make the Sign of the Cross on our forehead, and say these words, “I’m putting you in the Lord’s hands. Remember who you are and whose you are.”

Today, we are putting Mama in the Lord’s hands. Let’s pray that she will rest in peace knowing that her gentle influence continues to remind us of who we are and whose we are.

The phrase “gentle influence” was not something I had thought about before, but I’ve come to realize that effective leaders often have this special blend of sociability and solid beliefs. It’s hard to lead if you can’t relate to those you’re leading. Leaders who are principled but prickly will struggle to sell their vision unless they rely on clever strategies or brute force. Other leaders have oodles of charm but lack foundational values. Charisma allows them to forge alliances that work for a time, but the alliances drift or fall apart at key junctures. When leaders blend strong convictions and harmonious relationships, they are at distinct advantage: They inspire others, they serve others, and they draw others to them.

Parents are expected to be leaders in their family, but children are not empty buckets into which we drop our pearls of wisdom. They make choices and decisions, even when they’re very young. Sometimes they move toward us; sometimes they back away from us. Sometimes they admire us and sometimes they’re embarrassed or disappointed by what we do.

We can’t control what’s in our children’s hearts and minds. We can’t insist that they love us. We can’t make them respect us. We can’t make them believe what we believe or value what we value. They watch us and evaluate us. They see what makes sense and what doesn’t add up. They make judgments about whether we’re sincere or fake.

Wise parents know all this. They don’t try “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do.” They don’t assume a child will respect them simply because they are parents. They know that respect is earned each day.

So what does it mean to be the family leader? What does it look like?

There are lots of theories about leadership, but here’s a simple way to think about being the leader of your family: As a parent, our job is to carry three things.

First, we have to “carry the water.” That’s an expression that means serving others. For parents, it means looking out for and making decisions that benefit the whole family. Like it or not, it’s our responsibility to provide for our children’s welfare.

Next, we have to “carry the message.” Key decisions in family life (e.g., jobs, moves) are usually based on parents’ core values, but some parents keep their values hidden, seeing little need to openly share them with children. Our job is to carry the message of our values and beliefs to our children.

And finally, we have to “carry our self.” That means living a life that is worth following and imitating. It’s easy to overlook or downplay this part of parenting, especially if the non-parenting parts of our life are not going well. The lived example of a healthy, principled parent is a steady beacon that guides children through life.

For me growing up, Erin’s way of leading was gentle influence. At this time of the year, I am once again reminded of how she carried the water, the message, and herself. And I remember who I am and whose I am.