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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: What it takes to make a mother

by Debra Hale-Shelton | June 14, 2020 at 1:51 a.m.

June 6 was my first time to dine inside a restaurant since the coronavirus hit this country so hard.

I remember the date because it was Mama's 90th birthday, and our small family had gathered to celebrate, to eat, talk and laugh. We sat almost totally alone in a large room, held sanitized menus, wore masks until our drinks arrived, and had to request salt and pepper shakers, which had been removed because of covid-19 concerns.

And the six of us at the table remembered the person who wasn't there, Daddy, who died Sept. 4 at age 91 after 70 years of marriage to my mother, Dorothy Lee Smith Hale.

But mostly we laughed, gawked at the huge platter of food Mama ordered--enough for two nights of leftovers--and shared cards and small gifts: bags of candy, a Hobby Lobby gift card, fresh flowers and more.

We also admired the woman who went to college when my sister and I were little, who helped send us to college by teaching school for so many years, who stood by us when we won honors and, yep, even when we raised eyebrows. Sure, she threatened to call the police a few times when I was little and misbehaving and still young enough to believe her. But she was Mama, the woman who also helped care for her grandchildren: two young men and my daughter.

Mama worked outside the home--less common in the late 1950s and '60s--but was about as traditional as a woman could get. I have a photo where she's wearing heels, a Sunday dress and makeup while she's with me at a school playground in Marked Tree. I didn't look too bad either.

Since she retired, she's stayed busy creating, whether with yarn, fabric or paint. She can carry on a conversation while crocheting an afghan, a large doll, even a porcupine in which her crochet needles serve as the critter's sharp quills. She quilts by hand and embroiders.

She's always been smart. When she was young, she had the looks of a movie star, and she's the best-looking 90-year-old woman I know. She taught herself to use a computer at age 67, a Kindle Fire in her 80s, and a cell phone as she approached 90. She's still working on texting but is a big fan of Pinterest, where she gets many craft ideas.

Mama's next big challenge is to teach me to crochet, a daunting plan that makes my sister Terri laugh out loud. Mama and I talked about having our first session last Sunday before we participated in an online church service but decided her patience and my nerves might wear thin by church time and require a public confession. So we delayed the one-on-one class.

As a young woman, Mama worked plenty inside the home, too: cooking, vacuuming, polishing, ironing, volunteering with my Girl Scout troop.

When I was in the 10th grade and became sick, she even spent her lunchtime taking me home to eat so that I would have a healthier lunch than the ones in the school cafeteria. So, when other kids were eating burgers, I was enjoying a lean lamb chop or such.

I did not inherit my mother's love of domestic chores or needlework. I can sew on a button; I cannot hem a dress or quickly thread a needle without a meltdown. I can't even draw a respectable stick man. I can of course vacuum, but would prefer to haul potting soil and dig weeds out of an herb garden.

I grew up in an era when girls took home economics, like it or not. I did not like it. When I wore an A-line dress I made to school per my teacher's requirement, the hemline plunged from the breast line to the bottom of the skirt. Somehow, the dress was still modest. Nowadays, we might call it a wayward high-low design.

I also didn't inherit my mother's temperament, as she is well aware. Unlike her, I don't shy away from controversy, even when I perhaps should.

In an email when I was in China to adopt my daughter, Mama instructed me, "Don't forget .... don't get into an argument with anyone over there!"

Mama also is a poet. She'd never admit it or share one publicly, but she is. She wrote one for my uncle Slick when he was a Marine in World War II and she was just a kid. She wrote one about her mama, my Nana; and she wrote one for my daughter Annie when she was a toddler. I'd be proud to share her poem about Annie if someone could find it in the moving boxes that I've not finished unpacking.

Mama is also modest, too much so. She asked me what my column this week would concern. I told her it would focus on her and maybe Donald Trump. She scoffed at both--her because she underestimates her worth and Trump because she fears I'll alienate some readers. She's probably right on the latter.

And as for Trump, I've decided to honor my mother's birthday wish and avoid dwelling on him, his tweets or his wives (three) and girlfriends (beats me how many) this week. But I assure you: the columnist who loves a good argument will be back.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.


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