Thursday, May 10, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom

Today is my mom's birthday. She's 85. That alone is a pretty amazing feat, but this woman has had quite a life. (She's the one in the middle.)

She was born in 1922 in a small cotton mill town in Georgia. Her father left them when she was quite small. Her mother was not well. Most of the time her uncles made sure they had enough to eat and clothes to wear. She started working at the age of eight when she and her brother (who was four) got a paper route.

All through high school she worked an eight-hour shift at the cotton mill every day and still maintained grades high enough that she was admitted to the Honor Society. After graduating from RE Lee Institute in 1939, she wanted to go to college. The only way she could afford that was with scholarships and jobs. She earned a position taking care of an elderly lady in Americus so that she could attend Georgia Southwestern. Jimmy Carter was a classmate there. When she left home for college, the entire block threw a party for her. They had never known anyone who went to college.

At the height of World War II she married my dad. If the Depression had been difficult, the war years were desperate. Not only did they struggle for money, they lost many of their friends. Even many of the ones who survived to come home had horrible stories to tell. They were a tight-knit group of young people who loved each other and stayed in touch for decades after.

As the war ended and life began to return to normal in small-town America, Mom and Dad began to do pretty well. She was a teacher, and he worked on the huge IBM computer at the cotton mill. But they knew that if they were to truly succeed, they had to get out of that little town. So they moved us to Florida.

They were hardworking, ambitious and driven. The University of South Florida was founded the year after we moved to Tampa. When they announced a Master's program in education, my mom signed up. She was in the first Master's class to graduate from USF. Again her hard work and ambition paid off as she was appointed dean of girls at a junior high school. Then she was promoted to principal of an elementary school. Finally she worked in the education department at USF supervising interns.

But no matter how many advancements she earned, her true joy was in teaching small children. She always said, "Give me a child with at least average intelligence, and I can teach him to read."
She loved reading and loved teaching it, giving a child the gift of adventure between the pages of a book.

When I think back to my childhood, to lazy summer afternoons, I always see all of us with a book in our hands. She gave me The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins. I remember her driving us to the closest library, a huge brick building on the other side of town with polished wooden floors and shelves all the way to the high ceiling. Once a week, we'd visit and come home with an armload of books.

It was from Mom that I learned the joy and passion that I have for reading now. And from that grew the desire to write.

Mom still loves reading. She goes through about a book a day. Her favorite genre is mainstream mystery and suspense, but she enjoys a good romance. She gets a little antsy if her stack of books gets too low, so we try to keep a good supply on hand. Like me, she doesn't care for the used stores. She wants her books pristine, fresh with clean pages and that new-book smell. You know what I mean.

Tonight we're taking her to a cushy steak house for dinner because she does love a fine steak and a slug of Maker's Mark on the rocks. If she can, she'll sneak outside for a cigarette. I wouldn't even consider stopping her. She's eight-five years old, dammit! She can have anything she wants.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.

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