On May 4, my mom turned 98 years young. Incredible, isn't it? And she has just about as much life and fight in her as she did when she was 50.
My mother, Wilma Norris Knight, was born in 1921 in rural Wilson, Oklahoma, where I grew up, too. I think its population peaked back then with a whopping 1,800 people.
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My mom had a very difficult first half of her life. She was raised in abject poverty, and she was given away as a ward of the state when she was only eight years old so that she could get the medical care she needed. She was treated for two years for a rare disease, living away the entire time from her family in a children's hospital two hours away by car (and they had no car).
When she returned home healthy a few years later, she lived through the Great Depression, when her entire family used to pick cotton in fields just to survive.
Mom married my father at 16, but he was a cruel man, and he abandoned her to raise my two brothers and me alone. I was the eldest, and often had to assume the roles of my absent father. We were as poor as church mice, but that's what also prepared me to overcome the obstacles of this life.
My mom has been an example of love, perseverance and faith her whole life. She's endured the deaths of all her 11-member biological family, her two husbands, a stepson, two grandchildren and my brother Wieland, who was killed in the Vietnam War. She's had cancer repeatedly, and gone through roughly 30 different surgeries for a host of ailments, and yet she's still here to tell about it. (Her inspirational autobiography, "Acts of Kindness: My Story,") is available through my website or Amazon.)
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She of course gives credit and thanks to God for overcoming so much in her life. But she's also indebted to a woman who set the stage for all of us: her mother and the one I came to know affectionately as granny Scarberry.
Let me turn back the clocks and tell you of a time when the Old West included the plains of Oklahoma. When there was no Internet, no malls, no television, no running water and barely a pot to pee in, as they say. It was a time when neighbor helped neighbor, and the excitement on Sunday afternoons was just sitting on the porch relaxing with family and friends, if you were lucky in a rocking chair.
Here's what my mom wrote about her hometown and mom in her autobiography:
Living in downtown Wilson felt like being at the hub of all the action. Many stores came and went, but I will never forget those like W.B. Hudgins Grocery Store, Pratt Grocery Store, the Brimer Bros. Store, Hartnett's Hamburger stand, Wilson beauty shop, and of course Ballew Drug store with its great soda fountain.
Grocery stores didn't have the super size and variety that they do today. Back then, they were the size of common living rooms today.
Every Saturday, the grocery store had fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, along with milk, cream and butter. We didn't have all the treated and processed foods. Our produce had virtually no pesticides and no genetic tampering. It didn't have to say "organic" on it, because it all pretty much was.
When I tell young people today that we had worms in many apples that we bought at the store, they hardly believe me. Papa and Mama tried to grow as many fruits and vegetables as they could. With a family our size, that was quite a savings on groceries.
We didn't have boxed cereals then either, but we did have packages of oatmeal, rice, etc. We loved rice with sugar and cream on it – still do.
Of course, we had no frozen foods, because they didn't make them and we didn't have freezers anyway – only ice-boxes for refrigerators. But that didn't stop my parents from making some of the best homemade ice cream this side of the Mississippi.
Mama's house was always clean, had nice quilts lying around that she made to cuddle up in, and always smelled of something good cooking. Beyond that, the outside of the house was very colorful with flowers and vegetables in the garden – all lined up in neat rows.
Mama had a great big garden, which included cabbage, beans, peas, lettuce, turnips, corn, peppers, tomatoes, etc. We children were responsible to haul buckets of water for the garden's plants.
I can still see in my mind's eye Mama cooking on the big wood cooking stove. That was not the same as the big pot-belly stove, from which we stayed warm and which was my favorite part of our home.
I loved when Mama made a big pot of beans, corn bread, sliced tomatoes and green onions. And she always cooked homemade bread. She also cooked ham, bacon, gravy and eggs. I'm not crazy about grits. But I love catfish. And I love fried okra too.
In the afternoon, when we came home from school, Mama would be there to greet us with her loving smile. The house would be clean, and the aroma of something like homemade bread would be floating from the kitchen.
At suppertime, we never ate separate from one another, like it seems so many families do today. We all gathered around the table, held hands and said grace, and then we would pass down our plates to Papa and he would fill them. That was the time we came together and shared stories about the day; it was a way for our family to stay connected.
Even when we were older in Wilson, with families of our own, the whole family would get together once a month. I miss that the most. Families don't seem to do that anymore, but they should.
Then there were all those baths Mama had to orchestrate – the things we take for granted today. Something as simple as taking a shower or bath was a major undertaking in those days.
Mama would heat up the water on our big old wood-burning stove and then place the water in a big galvanized tub in the kitchen. Because our kitchen was so small, the tub hung outside the door on the side of the house and had to be carried in each time someone needed a bath. It was nice to get in the bath first (before the other kids), because the water was not only warm but clean. You can imagine how it looked when giving multiple kids baths.
Mama also made our clothing on one of those old pedal sewing machines, including down the road for my own three boys. She made dresses out of printed flour sacks; she even dyed white ones to red. It would take two flour sacks to create a dress. She also used them to make pillow cases and dish towels. Mama also made time to make quilts, plant a garden, clean others' houses, do some wash and ironing for extra money, and even cut others' hair.
Mama ran a tight ship at home; she had to with all of us young-uns running around. Most women with seven children (at the time I was growing up in the home) wouldn't be expected to do anything more than parent those children. But Mama wore multiple roles, in and outside the home.
She was available to be called on as a midwife; doctors always referred to her in town when someone was expecting. (Papa used to say that she delivered half the kids in town.)
Mama was also a natural-born caregiver. So many times we awoke in the morning and Papa would tell us that Mama had been with someone sick in the community all night long. On those mornings, we would get ourselves ready for school, while Papa would cook our breakfast. The older girls always helped Papa if Mama was out helping someone or sleeping because of doing so all night long.
And no matter who was receiving Mama's attention, including me, she'd always make you feel special, as if you were the only person in the world. To me, Mama was the true definition of a Proverbs 31 woman.
Besides teaching it to us, Mama also taught Bible study to adults on Sunday mornings and really enjoyed it. We attended the First Baptist Church of Wilson, which is still a few blocks off of Main Street. And because we lived in downtown Wilson, we all walked together to church as a family each Sunday.
In short, Granny was an all-American woman – the epitome of what America produced back then.
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My wife, Gena, is cut from this exact same cloth as my mom and granny when it comes to toughness, perseverance, faith and love. They've all modeled for me the way to live.
Truth is, without these three women in my life – mom, granny and Gena, I wouldn't be the man I am today or have the success I do.
There's a Spanish Proverb I'm reminded of each year about this time: "An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy." That's maybe true for most of our mothers, but might be even truer for me since these three mothers in my life are also all saints, too.
Happy birthday, mom! And Happy Mother's Day, ladies! Forgive my bias, but you are literally the best God created, and I thank Him everyday that you've been a ginormous part of my life.