In 1965 when I was a freshman in college my parents bought their first home ever in Rosenberg, Texas, after almost twenty years of marriage. My dad was the assistant superintendent of the local school district and my mother taught second grade in one of the elementary schools in the district. Since I wasn’t living with them, I’m not sure how the decision was made to hire someone to help with cleaning the bigger new house, but when I was home for spring break, my mom introduced me to Viola who was hired for that purpose. When I returned to stay the summer with my folks, Viola was gone.
I wasn’t sure what happened to Viola but was so self- absorbed I didn’t really care. Early in the summer Mom informed me we would have a new woman who was coming to work for us and encouraged me to keep the stereo at a lower volume level on the lady’s first visit. I was in a Diana Ross and the Supremes phase and preferred the speakers to vibrate as I sang along with Diana but I obligingly lowered the level for our new help.
I needn’t have bothered. Willie Meta Flora stepped into our house and lives and rocked all of us for more than forty-five years. She became my mother’s truest friend and supported her through the deaths of her mother, brother and two husbands. She nursed my grandmother and my dad and uncle during their respective battles with mental illness, colon cancer and cerebral palsy. She watched over and protected and loved and cared for my family as she did her own. In many ways, we became her second family and she chose to keep us.
Willie and my mom shared a compulsion for honesty and directness that somehow worked to keep them close through the good times and the hard times in both of their lives. They were stubborn strong women and butted heads occasionally, but most of all, they laughed together. Willie’s sense of humor and quick wit kept Mom on her toes and at the top of her own game in their talks. They also shared a deep love for the same man, my dad. In her own way, Willie loved my dad as much as Mom did, and my father loved her and loved being with her right back. His death broke both their hearts.
Although Willie kept her own apartment, she and Mom basically lived together in the years following the death of Mom’s second husband. Mom planned her days around the time near dusk when Willie would be there to spend the night with her. Willie became her lifeline to maintaining her independence, and the two of them grew older and crankier as time passed. Willie and I talked on the phone frequently and she began to tell me she was worried about Mom’s safety and getting lost when she drove around town. I dismissed her fears and ignored the signs of dementia until Mom’s 80th birthday when it became apparent she had major problems in everyday living.
Not long afterwards, I was forced to make a choice about my mother’s long term care needs and opted to move her to a Memory Care Unit in a facility in Houston which was a thousand miles from my home in South Carolina. Why not move her closer to me? A good question with a complicated answer that included my trying to keep her available to Willie and her family who could drive Willie to see Mom. If my mother could choose between visiting with me or seeing Willie, there was no contest. I would always come in second.
Mom will be 85 next month and struggles with the ongoing physical and mental battles associated with Alzheimer’s in her ultimate race towards death. This past fall I moved her again to a different residence that is still in Texas but much closer to my second home which is also now in Texas. Alas, she’s two hours farther from Willie and Willie has only been able to visit her once since her move.
Willie will be 81 next month. She and Mom have the same birthday month, and now they have the same disease. We don’t talk on the phone any more because she can’t form words I can understand. When I visited her yesterday, she didn’t recognize me and was uncomfortable with getting up out of her bed, just as Mom is sometimes when I go to see her. Willie’s five daughters and three granddaughters are coping with the same problems I’ve faced with Mom – trying to keep her comfortable in a safe environment. They have the additional complications of differences of opinion about Willie’s care and what the environment should be . I decided being an only child has a few advantages.
When I think of the strength of these two women and their determination to rise above their inauspicious beginnings in an era when women weren’t valued for their strong wills, I feel a sense of admiration and respect and gratitude for the examples they’ve been for me as they both loved me in different ways. And I am struck by the similarity of their conditions in their last days. Leora, one of Willie’s daughters, told me she thought Mom and Willie just might end their race toward death in a tie. I’m thinking it will be a photo finish.
P.S. Willie Meta Flora died April 14, 2012 and Selma Louise Meadows died April 25, 2012.