Amazing Grace Indeed!
Seeing her before she died - a still feisty woman in her 70’s, first working her daily crossword puzzle then playing solitaire, smoking, and drinking bourbon from a coffee cup -- you could still feel her force, courage, and loyalty to the underdog. An attractive, athletic but small Scotch-Irish red-head in her heyday, extended exposure to the Texas gulf-coast sun had turned freckles into brown spots, her face leathery, and her green eyes cloudy from watching all those sunsets. But, we all knew about her exploits as a social worker, civil rights activist, and worthy opponent of the Houston School Board.
After she retired, she was tired of taking care of other people except for her grandchildren, choosing to spend time entertaining herself or letting the ocean do it. She avoided old people gatherings, perhaps fearing they might seek her advice or counsel. But, the stories she told my children, husband, and I were amazing – and mostly true.
The oldest of eight kids in a poor family, Mama was known as the “smart” one although she would have preferred to be the “pretty” one, she said later. The only family member to attend college, she worked her way through playing professional women’s basketball – before women were found to be too delicate to play full court. Anyway, it was improper for them to show themselves like that.
One night when Mama was driving home in grandpa’s old car, a man jumped on her running board, pointed a gun, and told her to stop. Instead she knocked the gun away, pushed him, and kept going. Unfortunately, when she got home and grandpa came out he found the gun on the running board – and Mama had cracked a bone in the side of her hand. That was the end of her driving that car for quite awhile.
When Mama finished a degree in social work in the 1930s, her first employment was working for the Toledo Ohio Family Court. Her job involved collecting infants and children that were being mistreated or neglected and finding them better homes. Mama told us a story about the time she went to a gypsy encampment to collect a child. When a dog came charging out, Mama stood her ground, fully prepared to shove her fist down his throat. The dog decided to have a seat at her feet instead, apparently overwhelmed by her 5 ft. presence. The gypsies gave up the child to be returned to grandparents.
Years later, when Mama settled down long enough to marry and raise a child, she demonstrated to me, her patients, and friends how to face down threats and to be hospitable and gentle. Keep a cabinet with food that can be ready whenever anyone drops in, don’t worry about the elegance of your home if it’s comfortable. Be sure to standup to the bigots and racists if necessary, but remember that some good people have bad ideas because of their upbringing – the mores of the place and time where they grew up. When someone is in trouble, help them.
Crank phone calls from the Klan or the John Birch Society didn’t much worry us. And, our generous and kind neighbor could be excused for not understanding why the world had to change and everyone be treated equally – even though he used words to describe others that would never come from us.
One time when I was 12, a frightened single neighbor lady told Mama that a Peeping Tom was driving by to spy in the window. Armed with a big flashlight and a hammer, Mama and I backed the car into our driveway and sat there until he came by again. There he was - we turned on the car lights and pulled out fast to catch his license plate number. After the police talked to him, he retired from his pastime. As usual, we avoided telling Daddy about this adventure. Mama taught proactive approaches to challenges and planning ahead as approaches to life.
Amazing grace indeed. I certainly admire my Mama still even though she’s gone. I am grateful for the lessons of her stories.