She was born May 19, 1924, in Parrish, Alabama, one of nine children, the second oldest of seven girls. She was a small girl when the Great Depression gripped this land in its massive jaws, crushing hopes into dust and snapping dreams like petrified twigs. She never wore a T-shirt proclaimingI Survived the Great Depression. She was not given to boasting of hardships endured. That was not the way of her generation. It was simply a fact of life that one accepted without fanfare.
Her name was Sylvia. She was my mother.
Asa, her father, was a farmer and gospel preacher with a barrel chest and hands like a catcher’s mitt. Those same rough-hewn hands would wield the Sword of the Spirit before his congregation with great skill, administer correction to his children, and equally assist in welcoming a newborn baby calf into this world.
She adored children. As a young single woman, her nieces often stayed with her at her house in Cordova. She had a kind and sweet disposition but was given to anxiety and nervousness. She once had a minor incident while driving her car. She was not injured but her nerves were so frayed, she vowed to never drive again. That vow remained unbroken for the rest of her life.
While working at the Indian Head Cotton Mill in Cordova, she met a young man named Arnold. He was handsome, with a slight build and tanned features. He was from a dirt-poor family in the Barney area. Like his brothers and sisters, Arnold had grown up with little education. He’d enlisted in the Army at nineteen, but the war ended before he was to leave for active duty. They began a courtship. On March 26, 1960, Sylvia stood wearing a white dress and veil and took his name as her own.
Two years later, their first child was born. I was hardly a month old when the cotton mill closed, leaving my mother and hundreds of others out of work. She remained at home for several years. When I was in elementary school, she went to work for People’s Nursing Home, which would later become Shadescrest Health Care Center.
She once spent three days in jail. If you knew my mother, you’d laugh at the absurdity of that statement. She was not one to toe the line between lawful and unlawful. Sometime during the early 1980s, the employees of the nursing home went on strike. As much as she’d rather work, she had no choice but to stand in a picket line with her co-workers. I don’t recall the exact details but one day a Jefferson County sheriff showed up, rounded up a handful of picketers, and took them directly to jail, neglecting to pass GO or collect $200. I’m not sure why another county was involved, but my mother happened to be among the lucky ones who got a free ride to the Jefferson County Jail. As stunned as we were to hear the news, we had to laugh at how farcical the whole thing was. It was like Barney Fife tossing Aunt Bee in jail for jaywalking.
My mother loved to laugh, and I was always eager to provide her a reason. Sometimes I’d call her on the phone, disguising my voice, and pretend to be an old woman or a family member, saying the most ridiculous things. Eventually, she would see through my clever subterfuge. “Oh, you nut!” she’d laugh. One morning as she was making breakfast, she asked me to go wake up my dad. I walked into their bedroom and tossed back the covers. Without uttering a word, I leaned down, scooped up my dad in my arms. “Boy, what are you doing? Put me down!” he scolded.
I carried him to the kitchen, where my mom stood beside the stove, her back to me. “Where do you want him?” I said, stifling a laugh. When she turned and saw me standing there, holding my pajama-clad dad in my arms like a child, she let out a guffaw that would rival all guffaws in the history of guffaws. I carefully lowered my father into a chair so he could enjoy his breakfast.
In later years, my mother’s memory began to fade, as well as her physical health. She forgot things. She would fall while walking to her mailbox. In 2008, while living in a nursing home, she became seriously ill and spent several days in ICU. Doctors did what they could to prepare my sister and me. One Friday night, a sweet nurse came in and, with a warm wet cloth, washed her face. She asked us if she could read some Scripture. I don’t remember this lady’s name. All I remember was she was a nurse, she was African-American, and she was one of the kindest, sweetest women I’d ever seen. We agreed, and she opened a small Bible. In a voice like an angel, she read:
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,
He makes me lie down in green pastures…
Whenever I sing that hymn now, I get a lump in my throat.
Later that night, her organs began the process of shutting down. Knowing she was about to leave us, my sister and I leaned over our mother and spoke softly to her. We told her how much we loved her. We thanked her for all she had taught us. And though it was not what we wanted, we told her it was okay for her to go. Within minutes we heard the constant, high-pitched whine of life support machines. As tears streamed down our faces, we imagined the Shepherd gently clasping our mother’s hand, leading her through those green pastures, and guiding her home.
Our mother was gone.
Although I was aware her life was over, I was not prepared for the gut-wrenching days ahead. The three days off from work became a week, and even that was not enough. On a cold, February day my sister and I stood in a drizzling rain under a dirty cotton sky and watched her casket disappear into the ground. Her body is no longer alive. Her memory, her laughter, her lessons, live on in us and in our children.
Her name was Sylvia. She was my mother. This is her story. 78