When he saw his mother at Christmas, Lee Sills says she told him, "Honey, I just want you to do what you need to do and tell the truth."
Less than three months later, his mother, Ida Mae Russell Sills had died, and son Lee took her message to heart, giving his mother a debut and an exit at once in an obituary unearthing family secrets and turning her life into a growing Internet and e-mail phenomenon. Ida Mae Sills continues to charm: "She would never have forgiven me if I hadn't taken one moment to make people smile," said son Lee.
Ida Mae Sills continues to charm: "She would never have forgiven me if I hadn't taken one moment to make people smile," said son Lee. Ida Mae Russell Sills
Read the obituary notice written for Mrs. Sills, and share your comments and condolences in her online guest book.
Sills, 75, died of heart complications March 21, but she didn't just die. Her son puts it into a spiritual context: "Ida Mae Russell Sills slipped away and joined her beloved daughter in Heaven. Fortunately her husband Albert preceded her and joined his mother in a much warmer climate."
Sills had been married before to a high school friend named Karl. "Ida's marriage to Karl was a three-ring circus, engagement ring, wedding ring and suffering," as her obituary tells it. She would later tell friends, "I never knew what real happiness was until I got remarried, then it was too late."
Her son Lee, 42, was from the second marriage to Albert, and her "real happiness" with Albert was not a storybook love, as Lee recalls. "He wasn't mean or anything. Albert was a good guy, but he was never in mom's league. He wasn't 'quite right,' as she would say."
Lee, president of Kredit Banque in Orange County, Calif., says he wrote the obituary to try to capture the essence of the 5-foot woman with a bigger-than-life personality. "She would never have forgiven me if I hadn't taken one moment to make people smile," he says.
It not only recalls his mother's one-liner jokes, but begins with the revelation that Ida Mae began life as Betty Jean Cherry, a child given up by a single mother for adoption and sold by infamous baby broker Georgia Tann through the Tennessee Children's Home Society in the 1930s.
That is one reason why some family members were not "thrilled" with the lengthy obituary, which ran Sunday in The Commercial Appeal. It cost $650, but, "I didn't care," says Lee. "It's important how people think of you after the fact."
Lee says he consigned his father, Albert, and his grandmother to a "warmer climate" for their general attitude toward his mother. They were Catholic, and, since Ida Mae had been married once before, her mother-in-law called her "the whore of Babylon." It was only when Lee was born -- the only male child in the family -- that Ida Mae says she "became the Blessed Madonna."
Lee says his father was well off, owning dry cleaners and restaurants, but he wouldn't put in the swimming pool that Ida Mae wanted. "He kept saying, 'Next year.' Every time he said next year, the pool got a foot bigger."
Ida Mae worked as a telephone company supervisor and finally saved up to buy the pool herself. "I came home from school one day and she was bulldozing the backyard. Albert grew roses, and she bulldozed all but one of them. Later, she would say, 'Come on in, Albert, the water's fine.'"