This winter break, I’ve had the delight of watching my girls experience all sorts of “grown-up” adventures. How cool is that?
Y’all know I talk about my Daddy a lot because he was a man who inspired curiosity and adventure – today though, as I see my girls becoming strong, independent women – I need to talk about my mom.
Raising my girls has allowed me a bit of insight into the crazy, complicated woman called Opal. Growing up, she was everything I wanted to be and everything I feared I’d become.
One thing I do know is even with all the incredible women I’ve known and read, she’s the defining reason I’m a feminist. Now you do have to understand, could she hear that she’d be doing contortions that would awe Missy Copeland and/or the Cirque de Soleil. Nevertheless, it’s true.
One of the best compliments I ever received (though definitely not meant as one) was that I was raising my girls to be feminists. Yet, looking back – a lot of what I taught them, came from her. Funny, I spent so much time trying not to be her that I forgot what she taught me. Let me tell you her story, which could easily be an epic novel – history, tragedy, and romance – Forrest Gump in “chick lit”.
Born in what historians call the agricultural depression (which preceded the one we know), she was one of seven children. Her poor, but conventional life, changed while her mother was pregnant with the last baby. Her grandpa, Nate, was wild and free – so much so that no sanatorium could cage him. For those wondering, tuberculosis was the “C word” of the late 19th – early 20th century. There was no cure, but by the Depression era, science realized that removing a carrier from the population reduced its spread.
Yet my great-grandpa didn’t like confinement – he escaped back home full of bravado & TB.
It killed his son fast, and lurked in several of the grandkids waiting to be found. So, my mama’s girlhood was spent taking care of the little ones while her mom & older sister found any work they could.
So far, good Hallmark movie fodder— yet when she was 13, it fell to pieces. The TB came calling – and while thought mild enough in her sister and brother to escape radical treatment, my mama earned a ticket to the sanatorium. For the next 5 years, she fought a disease medicine was just understanding. Snow was rare in the Sandhills of NC, but one winter it happened. The docs had heard the snows of AZ were great for killing the disease so they pushed the foot of her bed out into the balcony so she’d experience the snow? It didn’t work. Some of her other memories were less medieval. Lots of nurses, military bases nearby — so there were dances. She would close her eyes & describe the dresses so vividly that when I looked at 1940s costuming. I could pick out dresses they’d worn.
All things end or change, at 18 she’d had all the treatments they could offer, but she stayed another 3 years working in the pathology department and discovered at that point she’d become indispensable to the chief pathologist, so they married.
She started a career at a local hospital, started at UNC — discovered that professors don’t like when you’re 30 minutes late for class because you had to sit down at the top of the stairs and cough for 45 minutes.
Despite that she kept working, kept advancing — and years passed. While at a hospital conference in Bloomington, she got summoned back to NC.
Sadly too late.
Her husband had died.
Widowed, career stable — she needed a new challenge. She decided to finish her degree. Attending a small nearby college, she excelled. Math, science and other STEM classes came easy, and then she met Shakespeare. Frustrated because Othello could have solved his problems with direct conversation, she approached the professor. He paired her with a tall, well-spoken veteran to help her understand the nuance. That he did, and a few other things.
Cool to her hot, slow spoken to her tumble of words, logic to her emotion — they couldn’t have been more different. Yet, they quickly fell in love. They married – he taught her to cook, she taught him to garden. They worked, they argued, and they traveled. Then she became pregnant. The doctors were horrified – her body, wracked as it was from TB, couldn’t handle it. She laughed at them – she’d always wanted babies. Thus, she had four babies in 3 years. The twins, born in the middle, were too little to survive — but Mrs. Pauline, who took care of us as Mama worked — told her my little brother and I were enough mischief for any one woman.
She worked those early years, while Daddy worked in another town and would come for the weekends. I remember her suits, listening to Pauline’s stories as she made dinner and one memorable bus trip to see Daddy. Mama said my doll and I were utterly filthy by the time we got to Greensboro — evidently, I thought I needed to meet everyone taking the trip and tell all of them I was going to see my Daddy.
When I turned 3, I learned what tuberculosis was. I guess the doctors were partly right; it came back with a vengeance spreading fast and offering her two choices. She could die or she could try a radical, chancy surgery that might prolong her life by a few years. Either way, my brother and I couldn’t stay with her – she didn’t want to be as generous as her grandfather. She chose the surgery. Daddy took me aside and kneeling to my eye level asked me to take care of my little brother. Then, my parents were gone — and the next six months, we got to see my mama three times. We went to the hospital and Daddy would bring a picnic. We sat at a table underneath this big, spreading tree and she would come out on the balcony from her floor that seemed halfway to the sky for the small me. She would tell us stories of “Chippy & Chappy”, the naughty squirrels that lived and romped in the tree. I learned the words, thoracic surgeon, and told everyone that’s what I would be; I would make my mama well.
When Daddy brought her home, she was different — paler, fragile, and angrier. I learned later they’d removed her entire left lung, a piece of her right and told her she had 2 years to live. Of course, we moved to Greensboro – she couldn’t work anymore, and Daddy needed to be closer if she needed him. Looking back, can you imagine? In the course of a year, she has to leave the home, the job, and the support system she’d known her entire adult life. Her body can’t be trusted to last longer than a couple of years. Thrust into a new environment (a 100-year-old farm), with two toddlers and a pre-teen (my darling big brother from Daddy’s 1st marriage) — she’s a full-time mom who has to cook (!) dinner every night.
Somehow, over the next few years — she became a leader in the schools, the community, and the church. I remember silly things, the teacher who called to tell her I was playing “tea party” with an African-American girl at recess — “are they doing anything wrong?” my mom inquired. The teacher was just a bit concerned — “if they aren’t breaking the rules, it sounds fun” was Mama’s answer. I remember her crying when Roe v. Wade passed — I was little, and I asked why. “All those girls will live”. As I got older she explained that working at the hospital, she hated Mondays. That day, so many girls would come in butchered from botched back-alley abortions. Now to be clear, she also told me if I had pre-marital sex or got pregnant out of wedlock it would kill her, but she regarded abortion as a medical procedure and it needed to be safe. Her school participation was legendary — kind of like “Church Lady,” PTA lady was a familiar figure, briskly walking up the halls, crafts & pocketbook in one hand, pushing the oxygen tank with the other.
A year passed, another — occasionally we would have to do an emergency trip to the hospital because some scar tissue had broken loose and she was hemorrhaging bright red blood — just to let you know, that’s a scary road trip. With just her fraction of a lung, her heart would swell and congest sometimes. She regarded it as so inconvenient — because she had things to do. Once she had planned a reception for the state Labor Secretary and the Montagnards at Daddy’s college — she was hospitalized the day before. So Daddy & I stayed up all night finishing her decorations, and I made some food. I thought it was cool at the time. I got to skip school and play the hostess — but I had to keep notes, so I could give her all the details.
That last summer, she was so mad. She’d beaten all the predictions — it had been thirteen years. She just wanted a few more. She wanted to see us graduated, in college — and she knew it wasn’t going to happen. As she became more bedridden, we had to flip a straight chair upside down behind her pillow to keep her propped up at 45 degrees so she could breathe. I learned to percuss her back to loose her chest. Leading her to the bathroom, she hated — I was her teenager, not a nurse. Then it was time for me to leave for school — “don’t go,” she pleaded, she railed, she finally cried, “you know, I’ll be dead before you come back.”
I sobbed the entire way to school — and 2 months later, when Daddy showed up to bring me to her bedside at the hospital — she was on the ventilator and seemingly unconscious as I stood there. “Mama,” I whispered, “Mama” I took her hand, and though the nurse said it was just a spasm, I know she squeezed my hand back.
Her funeral was packed — I only remember bits and pieces. The lady who helped take care of her had the most enormous feather in her hat, the bad boy she had helped pass 7th grade was there, and the soloist who’s chin wattle my mom mocked unmercifully at home sang and I almost laughed out loud at how Mama would have reacted.
Every step of the way, Opal carved her own path. We say now, “nevertheless, she persisted”, that was how my mom lived every single day. She worked 25 years so that when her surgery came, she was able to retire fully pensioned. She created a new full-time mom life with no role models or blueprints. She defied medical expectations. She could make anything and made jokes that could warm your heart or slice you raw.
As I said, I would love to share so many of her gifts with my girls – yet I want them to find the happiness that eluded her, to find the grace to forgive the vagaries of life. Most of all, I want them to never be afraid to jump.
“The more a daughter knows the details of her mother’s life the stronger the daughter.” – Anita Diamant