As with all husbands and wives, my parents did have occasional spats, but I never saw my mother as angry with my father as she was one day in the fall of 1975.
I walked into the room just as the argument reached its peak. My father was speaking softly and calmly, but my mother was shaking with anger, and reaching for a cigarette. She was fumbling with a pack of Salem’s and several spilled out onto the green shag carpet in the den.
“Now, Louise,” dad was saying. “Calm down and listen to me. I think this is the right thing to do, and that it’s God’s will. You have to trust me.”
I had never heard her voice so angry. It was like shards of broken glass. She threw the half-empty pack of cigarettes onto the floor, got up and slapped my father hard across the face.
“Damn you!” she said again as she left the room, looking at me with surprise as she passed by me and went into the hall. The bedroom door slammed a few seconds later.
My father saw me at the same time and looked embarrassed. He lowered his head and sighed. I had not heard enough of the argument to know what it was about, but I knew it had something to do with money. It was much later when I found out what had made my mother so mad.
She had gown up very poor in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The family lived in a house that was only slightly better than a shack, and in the winter, snow would sometimes filter through the cracks in the wall behind my mother’s bed, which she shared with her older sister. Another sister and a brother slept in the same room. Her father mined coal to support his family, but spent most of his wages on alcohol. And when he was drinking, he was abusive. I’ve heard stories of my grandmother hiding the children from their father when he’d come in drunk and then enduring his painful slaps as the kids stayed out of sight, afraid to make the tiniest sound. It was not a happy life.
My mother was the second of six. She had an older sister, a younger sister and three little brothers. When my Aunt Virginia graduated from high school, she left home right away and went to Ohio to find work. She found a job in Dayton and stayed there until she died 57 years later. That left my mother as the oldest child at home. She was an excellent student and was even encouraged to apply for a college scholarship, but when she graduated from Hindman High School in the spring of 1954, she made the decision to stay home and find work locally. She felt that it was her responsibility to help look after her younger brothers and sister. She also persuaded her mother to get a divorce. My grandparents married again in the early 1960s but divorced a second time a few years later.
My mother believed that a college education was the only road leading out of the poverty-stricken coal-towns of Kentucky and she tried hard to inspire her young siblings to be good students and to appreciate the value of higher education. And, in time, they did get college degrees and had very successful careers. Only one them stayed in Kentucky.
It wasn’t until she was 24 years old, that my mother felt her sister and younger brothers were old enough to make it on their own, so she allowed herself to fall in love with a young man studying to be a preacher. They were married in March of 1960 and made their home in rural Johnson County, in the northeast corner of Tennessee. I came along three years later, and my mother was determined that I would have the kind of education that she had missed. A small-town preacher’s salary in the 1960s was barely enough to keep food on the table, so my mother went to work and managed to save a bit of her paycheck every week, putting it aside as a college fund for me. Over the next ten years or so, She worked as a secretary, a clerk at a clothing store and even spent some time as a bank teller.
By 1975, that college fund was still in the bank and although it didn’t amount to very much, my mother guarded it fiercely. My father had just started a campaign to raise money for a much-needed addition to the church where he was pastor. The church membership had expanded and there was not enough room to accommodate all the people who were attending Sunday School. But constructing a new wing of classroom space was expensive. Everyone was going to have to work hard in order to raise enough money to pay for it, and dad had decided to give my college fund to the church. He didn’t ask my mother’s permission. He simply said he was doing it. Mother was furious!
My father was a devoted and dedicated pastor who believed strongly that a church needed to expand and grow. He also believed that God blesses those who make sacrifices for His work. My mother always tried to be a supportive pastor’s wife and after the anger passed, she acquiesced and the money was given to the building fund. But I know she was very disappointed and I’m not sure she ever forgave him entirely. She had learned to appreciate my father’s selfless nature when it came to his flock – I remember coming home from school one day and finding out that he had given our den sofa and a twin bed to a struggling family — but endangering my college education was a bitter pill to swallow.
My mother became ill in 1976 and died in the spring of 1977, after a seven-month battle with leukemia. A few years later, when my high school graduation was approaching and my friends were applying to colleges and universities, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to college. I was an average student with no hope of a scholarship, and we certainly were not rich. I spoke to my father about it one evening after dinner when we were alone.
“You are going to college, Jeffrey,” he said emphatically. “There was nothing more important to your mother than your education. She wanted to pay for it herself and even though she is not here, you can still go to college because of her.”
Being a minor child of 14 when my mother died, I was eligible to receive her social security payments. I knew nothing about it, but those checks had been arriving every month for more than four years and dad had deposited every one of them into a bank account. By the time I was 18, there was enough money to fully pay for two years of college, and because I would continue to receive checks until my 22nd birthday, there might even be enough to get me through to the end. As it turned out, I only had to get a student loan to pay for the final semester of my senior year.
My mother’s dream for me came true. I attended two years at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee and then transferred to Northern Michigan University, where I graduated with a degree in English. On graduation day in May of 1985, I walked across the stage, picked up my diploma and whispered “Thank you, my dear mother. I love you!”
I hope she was watching… and smiling.