I have written about my father and grandfathers, but I’ve never told you much about my mother. Since it’s Mother’s Day, it seems fitting that I remedy that fact today.
Born toward the end of the Great Depression in Greensboro, NC to Ronald and Della Steele, my mother’s early years were spent in the mill village surrounding Cone Mills; my grandfather worked at the Revolution plant. When she was around 5, my grandparents had saved up enough money to buy some land in the country and build a house. Money was tight and things were tough by today’s standard. They hauled water hauled from the spring, had outdoor “plumbing’, and did their laundry outside. I’ve heard about laundry day more than once. For years, my grandmother insisted that was the only way to get clothes truly clean was to boil them. So, on wash day, Mama and Grandma would dip water from the spring to fill the wash pot, boil the clothes, scrub them and hang them out to dry. While they waited on them to dry, Mama would get on her bicycle and ride down to the store and get two Pepsis in those big glass bottles, along with a pack of peanuts or a couple of those cream-filled oatmeal cookies. Eventually, the laundry would be dry and that meant ironing time. In the days before permanent press fabric, almost everything had to be ironed. If you think all this sounds like a lot of work, imagine doing it during the height of a North Carolina summer, with heat and humidity both hovering around 95. It’s just as much fun as it sounds.
In 1956, she married her high school sweetheart and, like her namesake in the Bible (her middle name is Ruth), wherever he went, she went. Even if that meant moving across the country to San Fransisco or the flatlands of Oklahoma. In the 1980’s, they finally made it back to North Carolina and settled in Raleigh, where they stayed until Dad retired. When my father had finally had enough of the workplace, they fulfilled a dream of my mother’s: to live in the mountains. They bought a house and some land in southwest Virginia and spent the next decade turning it into a paradise.
In those years, she nursed both my father and me through surgery, cancer and chemotherapy, was the best grandmother any child could ask for and made wherever she happened to be feel like home. She is a woman of many talents, but I think that’s her greatest one.
Dad passed away last April after a final dance with lymphoma and the ordeal that is chemotherapy. Mom was there right up to the end and after. In the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor”, the Doctor says “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.” Lately, she’s helping a friend who’s undergoing chemo now, sharing her experience and nursing someone else through that hell. It’s her way of adding to someone’s pile of good things. For the record, Mom’s a Whovian
Honestly, a few words on Mother’s Day are nowhere near enough compensation for all the things my mother has done for me, my family, her community and the world. But, putting words on paper (or its electronic equivalent) is what I do these days. I just wish I could do more.