One of my earliest memories of my mother is an image of her doing many things at once. She would rock my baby sister to sleep while giving me instructions (in song) on folding socks. I realize now that she was soothing, singing, rocking, supervising, entertaining and teaching all in that one moment, and I can still hear her voice crooning something like, “Those socks are Daddy’s, that sock is Joey’s” to the tune of “Lavender’s Blue.”
Today I still live with my mom and we still fold laundry together. She still needs coffee to start her day and often a nap is scheduled into the afternoon. Sundays are for long talks at the picnic table, more naps and maybe a funny movie in the evening.
But she’s part of a long line of hardworking women.
She worked long hours at the pharmacy before she became a mom, unexpectedly, in her first year of marriage. She then set out to raise nine children and is hard at work snuggling her second grandchild this year. She put us in school, pulled us out and homeschooled all nine of us. She always says that she and my dad both went through medical school, even though he’s the doctor, and she’s helped him manage a cattle ranch, a myriad of small businesses, an orphanage of over a hundred children, a non-profit or two, a busy family of eleven and innumerable DIY home improvement projects.
Even though my mom stayed at home from the time my oldest brother was born, she has worked every day of her life. Or, perhaps I should say, because my mom decided to stay home, she has had to work every day.
Diapers and feedings and laundry wait for no man (or woman!) and being a mom truly is a 24/7 job.
Her mom (my “Mema”) is one of the hardest workers I know. When she was fifteen, she started taking a series of city buses to downtown Houston for her job. She even drove herself to the DPS office to get her license! She worked in department stores and as a bank teller, she accompanied my grandfather on insurance adjusting jobs (chasing storms!) when he was in that line and brought food to the fields when he and his brothers were rice farmers. She too took on the challenging job of bearing and raising children, one boy and four girls, and keeping a home. Today she and my grandfather continue to lovingly serve our family by acting as secondary caregivers for my teenage cousin who has special needs, but before that they cared for Mema’s mother, whom we called Mema Ward.
Mema Ward was still more than able-bodied when her mind started to slip in her early eighties. First she left her stove on, then she’d forget who was at the door and, by the time I was a teenager, she was asking the same question dozens of times on end. My grandparents and great aunts spent over twenty years caring for my great-grandmother to keep her from having to live (and inevitably decline) in assisted living. They moved into her home and poured every bit of life they had into her until she finally passed away, just shy of 102. Even though I hardly remember a time when Mema Ward knew me by name, we all loved her dearly, loved to spend time with her and miss her regularly. Just this week my mom remarked that, though Mema Ward spent decades with dementia, her true colors remained.
Her spirit of gratitude, her love of service, and her sense of humor lasted through the decades.
It baffles me to imagine her coming into the world over 110 years ago, in 1906. She used to tell me of the first time she saw an car, how all the horses bucked and whinnied in terror. She had three daughters, and was unable to nurse them. This didn’t seem to discourage her, as she told us how she would keep cow’s milk cool in the bottom of the well and pull it up whenever they needed to be fed! Mema Ward was a drama-free, complaint-free woman for over a century. No work was too hard, no challenge too great, and there was never anything to fuss about other than her great-granddaughter not “wearing a sleeve” (she always thought I was cold!) or getting enough to eat.
She was also “an old maid” and thought she’d probably never marry when twenty-five came and went and there was no suitor. (I am about to break her record of singleness–all the other women in the family married even younger!) However, my great-grandfather, a few years her junior, had been falling in love with her, and they married under a big oak tree because it was too hot inside the church. She had no wedding gown, just a Sunday dress and a bus driver who would love her and provide for her for many years. As a matter of fact, though she was widowed at seventy-three, her husband’s scrupulous savings continued to provide for her remaining nearly thirty years.
In my memories, I rarely see Mema Ward sitting still. She was always frying bacon, wiping the table, sweeping the patio or folding laundry, even at our house! I vividly remember her bending over at the middle to pick up pecans in the yard. She would collect a bowl of pecans and then we’d sit together and crack them with little handheld nutcrackers.
Her hands were never idle.
She could tell a mighty riddle, banter with the best of them and play a mean round of Rack-o. She read her Bible every day. She spent no time worrying, gossiping or whining about the world, which really must’ve seemed to be “going to hell in a handbag” at times during the many decades she graced the earth with her presence.
She cooked, she cleaned, she read her Bible and, like the Proverb says, she quite literally “laughed at the times to come.”
To come to the end of your life, after over twenty years of dementia taking all the inhibitions which might’ve hidden your faults before, and have the people who bathed and fed you at the end mourn you with not an unkind word to report?
That’s what I call a legacy.
I missed so much of her life, having been born in the 1990’s, and in a way, she is missing much of mine, but when I think about the umpteen years we were together, I cannot imagine “fearful” ever describing her. She survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the stock market crash, many hurricanes, cancer, the loss of a spouse and, eventually, the loss of her own memory, and yet she was steadfast.
She kept smiling. She kept reading her Bible. She kept cracking pecans. She kept trusting God, with everything.
She did the hard work of caring for a family, the hard work of keeping a home, and she did the hard work of trusting God for over 37,000 mornings and evenings.
This year, Mema Ward earned another great-great-grandbaby in my nephew. Though it’s been a decade since she went to be with Jesus, little Luca Ward will hear the story of the woman he was proudly named for.
Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will “rise up and call her blessed.”
I have a feeling this legacy is just Mema Ward’s prayers being answered one-by-one.