By Crystal Smith
July 26, 2012. Our family lost its matriarch today. Mama Esther was 92 years old. She might tell you she was 95 or 91, but I know that she was 92. I’ll never forget that she was born in 1919. It impressed me so much when I asked her as a child. I remember thinking it was such a long time ago. She was my great-grandmother and she certainly lived up to the name.
My family is from the South, but there aren’t really any Southern Belles in my bloodline. The women in my family are tough, but they are tender and maternal at the same time. Mama Esther and Daddy Wade had a farm. Mama Esther worked right alongside the men in the fields, at least until dinnertime* when she went back home to prepare food for everyone.
*Dinner = What we call the bigger, better, slower version of lunch that is eaten in small towns in the South.
I was her first great-grandchild and my mother says that she was very proud to have found out about my birth before anyone else. Mama Esther got the call and quickly made a pig-pickin’ cake as that was my mother’s favorite. Mama Esther could always be counted on to bring something delicious to a family celebrating the birth of a baby or even mourning the death of a relative.
This week I heard a great story about just that. I’ve heard two versions with some slight variations in the details, but the gist is the same, I’ll condense the two here.
Several years ago my grandfather thought he heard the name of one of Mama Esther’s friends on the radio in the obituaries; we will call her Mary here to protect the innocent. He mentioned this to my grandmother who then called Mama Esther to say, “Have you heard that Mary died?”
Well, Mama Esther had not heard the news, but she set out to prepare some food for Mary’s family. She also called my aunt and asked her to come over so that they could visit the family together and leave the food, like the kind Southern women they are.
When they pulled into Mary’s driveway, they didn’t see many cars. This was odd as it is common for people to bring food to a family that has just experienced a loss. They assumed they were the first to arrive and got the food out of the car. They knocked on the door and no one came, so they let themselves in. When they got inside, they saw that there was no food on the table. They thought this was strange, but they decided to go ahead and put out the food that they’d brought.
Right about this time, Mary walked out of her bedroom in a nightgown! When she asked what they were doing, Mama Esther replied, “Ask Susan!” After they attempted to explain to the very un-dead Mary that they were there to leave food because they thought she had died, Mary just laughed and laughed. I’m sure Mary was glad to know that she would have such good friends when the time came. My aunt felt terrible for several days after the ordeal and of course we have all learned a lesson.
It’s a funny story and I think it captures something about Mama Esther. She was thoughtful, kind, and always up for a good laugh, even if that meant laughing at herself. She showed how thoughtful she was every day, not just on special occasions. I remember telling her that I really liked Italian sausage when I was about six years old. For the next twenty years, if she knew that I was coming to eat at her house; Italian sausage was part of the meal. She didn’t just do it for me either, she knew everyone’s favorites. I believe this may be part of the reason that Sunday dinners consisted of three different meats and about ten sides followed by a choice (or combination) of two or three desserts. The beverage, however, was non-negotiable. Everyone happily drank sweet tea.
There are so many other sweet memories that I have of her. Like the “baby biscuits” she used to make me with the left over biscuit dough and the day she gave me a flour sifter that was given to her as a wedding present over seventy years ago. I still have and use that sifter.
Before I left for Argentina I had what would be my last conversation with her. She knew I was going for a long time and as I was leaving she said, “I love you and I love all my family so much.” I felt then that she was saying goodbye. I know I’m blessed to have known Mama Esther for twenty seven years and today I’m trying to focus on that blessing. We’re all better people for having known her. I just hope she understood what she means to all of us.