NOTE: I need to have some photos scanned, and when I do I’ll add some to this post.
My mother was born in 1914 as Samantha Blanche White, third surviving child of William Hubert and Maude Mae White. She didn’t like her first name so she was known as Blanche and used to joke that her name was “White White.” (Because “blanche” is from the French for “white.”)
By the time she was in eighth grade she went blind from premature, or early-onset, cataracts and had to drop out of school. There weren’t a lot of options in 1929 in rural East Tennessee but in 1935, at the age of 21, she had surgery on both eyes at the University of Tennessee. At the time she was the youngest person in medical history to undergo the procedure and she spent weeks in the hospital with her head held immobile by sandbags.
Able to see once again, Blanche White did the “independent woman” thing until she was in her early forties, traveling a bit and working. For some reason she especially enjoyed running a knitting machine in a factory. No kids of her own, but she loved every baby she ever saw and doted on her nieces and nephews. She was a nurturer and a caregiver. She nursed her brother, George, back to health after he was shot in a bar fight.
I joke that Ma was waiting for Daddy to be available. She was thirteen years older and had known him since he was a little boy. He and his first wife, Mary, and their children, lived down the street from Grandma White and Mary was a friend of the family. At twenty-four, Daddy became a widower with four children. Five years later, I was born. Ma was forty-three. She named me Mary Jo after Mary and Daddy. She explained that Mary had been her friend and that she knew how much Daddy had loved her. How many women would name their child after their husband’s previous wife?
She was the best mom ever. I suppose she shouldn’t have spoiled me so much, but she loved me unconditionally. When I was small she held me on her lap and read to me, and sang to me: “Five foot two, eyes of blue, ain’t she sweet” and “Yes, sir, that’s my baby.” She let me know she was proud of me. She was protective, and yet gave me enough freedom to have a happy childhood. She did her best to shelter me from the effects of Daddy’s drinking. We lived with my grandmother until Daddy’s mother-in-law, Granny King died, and then we moved into the house with my youngest siblings. There was no hot water and the heat came from a coal burning stove. Joe says nobody could have kept that house cleaner than his Granny and my mother. Peggy says she taught her how to be a good stepmother. Ma loved all of Daddy’s kids.
I learned valuable lessons from my mother, some by what she said and others by what I observed. My four siblings were never “half” brothers and sisters; they were just my brothers and sisters. She taught me that “you can’t spoil a baby with love” and “any job worth doing is worth doing right.” She treated everyone with respect, and would strike up a conversation with anybody. Now you know where I got it!
She also had a quirky sense of humor. I can remember riding in the car with her and Daddy – she never learned to drive – and she said, “That Clarence sure is tall?” “What?” “Well, the sign says, ‘Clarence – 13 feet.'”
Ma loved being a grandmother. My oldest brother’s son, Brian, was the first grandchild. Robert and Betsy lived in Florida so we didn’t see him until he was a month old, but I remember her buying him a little baby blue layette set with a tiny baseball cap. When Sara, my first daughter, was born she filled the hospital closet with frilly little dresses. She told me Daddy was upset when he found out we were having a third child. “They can’t afford the ones they have!” “How many of yours could you afford?” she asked. That quieted him. She helped raise Patty’s daughters, Kellie and Dawn, and they returned the favor, helping to watch out for her when she was old and frail.
Ma died in 1985. I know she isn’t in that grave in Cypress, where her oldest granddaughter, Kellie, is buried beside her, but there’s a bronze plaque with her name on it. For that reason, I visit and take flowers, because when people see her name I want them to know that there are still people who remember and love her.
When I graduated from seminary in 2007 Daddy said, “Your mother would be proud of you.” I said, “I’m sure she is.” I’m a mother and a grandmother myself, and have been both for quite a while. I don’t think I’m quite as good at either job as she was, but I’m pretty sure she’s still proud of me. She was like that.