Mama was stubborn. “Set in her ways” is what country folks call it and, boy, was she. When she made up her mind, nothing stopped her. Especially when she set her jaw and punctuated her declaration with a firm nod of her head. If she also threw that crooked forefinger in your direction, you knew that it was set in stone. Destined to be.
So it was that Mama decided that I would go to college and that she would pay for it. Now, Mama was a hard worker. There’s no two ways about that. Except for a brief three-year spell when times turned bad in our household so Mama took a job in a sewing plant to help see us through, she had never worked outside the home. Besides her remarkable talent at fixing things with masking tape and duct tape, she was most skilled at sewing.
With the wily ingenuity of her people, the Scotch-Irish, Mama “figured it out,” a term she used quite often. In the spare bedroom of our little house, she set up her old tan and brown Singer sewing machine that Daddy had bought her 25 years earlier and went to work. In retrospect, she was amazing though I couldn’t fully appreciate it then. She took in sewing and alterations, charging $25 a dress.
Mama had an eighth-grade education because that’s as far as her one-room schoolhouse in Nimblewill Valley went. But, eager to learn and knowing early that education was important, she started school at 4 and stayed until she was 17. The sweet teacher did her best to find ways to keep teaching her because Mama was the only student she ever had who went to school seven years longer than required.
She knew the basics of economics: She could add, subtract and spend less than she earned. In time, she expanded her little home business by buying fabric cheap, selling for a profit and sewing up “spec” dresses that yielded a tidy profit. Mama was diligent in her business and her bookkeeping, always recording what was earned, what was spent and what was owed because Mama had “house” accounts for her best customers. She kept spiral-bound notebooks that she called her “sewing books” and listed every customer’s detailed measurements and the orders they placed.
It paid off. For both Mama and me. She managed to pay for two bachelor degrees — journalism and broadcasting — at an expensive college. When time came to pay the quarterly tuition, Daddy would always say, “Do you need any money?” Not that he had a lot, but he always had a bit tucked away.
Inevitably, Mama would say, “No, I’ve got it. The good Lord has provided and sent enough business to pay for another quarter.” It meant everything to her to do it on her own.
Now, I could have gone to a less-expensive college and that would have been fine with me. But Mama had a dream for me to go to a place called Brenau. As a young wife, whose husband was away for two years fighting in the South Pacific in World War II, she had rented an apartment in an old, antebellum home near the Brenau campus. She would sit on the steps and watch the pretty girls on campus and think to herself, “One day, I’m gonna have a little girl who goes to that school.” It was a grand and lofty dream for a woman who had grown up in a four-room, tin-roofed house with no indoor plumbing.
The other day, that college inducted me into its Hall of Fame. I felt a bit embarrassed and fraudulent accepting an honor that isn’t mine. It belongs completely to Mama. Since she’s with Jesus now, I went to the ceremony and accepted in her honor.
I’m so proud of her.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.