Celeste and her mother

The author as a toddler enjoying the beach with her mother, Lanell King.

He emailed:

I enjoyed your piece in the Eagle about your grandmother. It was very touching. However, I’m not sending this message about your grandmother, but instead about your mother. Back in 1984, when I was in flight school at Fort Rucker, I was in her Sunday school class at First Baptist, and she took it upon herself to “adopt” me. I remember she had me over for a homemade breakfast as well as another time where I think she had a group of us over for dinner. She also came to my flight school graduation. I have such fond memories of Lanell. She was such a special person, although I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.

I responded:

Actually, I need to be told that Mama was a special person more than even I realize. She died when I was 35, but for the few years before her death, the tables had turned, and I had become the caretaker. It was awful, and I often forget who she was. I left for college in fall of 1984. She was lost without a husband or daughters. That Sunday school class saved her. It gave her purpose to look after young adults the same age as her girls. Thank you for reminding me.

She died Nov. 18, 2000, from complications of early onset dementia. She was 65. She was my responsibility because Granny lived with Starla’s family. I had a baby and two preschoolers when we moved in with her. The burden of her overwhelmed me. I didn’t miss her until the winter after her death. I was sick and wanted a day off. Like my friends, I wanted a mother to take the kids, so I could cough all by myself. I remember smiling, “I miss her! I miss her!” It was the first time I had cried for her and not for me.

I regret that I often allow her death to eclipse her life.

She hated the quiet of being an only child. She craved a full, loud home of her own, like she had at her grandparents’ house when cousins were there. She had a complicated relationship with her mother. She emulated and adored her maternal grandmother. I think she and her daddy were comrades. She didn’t talk about him much, but she looked after him. He wrote her speech, “Go South, Young Man,” that she gave for the oratorical society. I think she won state. I could put my hands on a copy, if I had a minute.

She was Miss Newton in 1952 and valedictorian of her graduating class the following spring. She married Phil a year later. He was her only love, but not her only boyfriend. She had a suitor named George. She had a watch with “Love, George” engraved on the back. I’ll find that, too, when I find that minute.

She baked pound cakes to say “happy birthday” or “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I love you.” She backed a trailer and used a fish cooker like a man. She and Daddy taught a generation of Dothan how to water ski. Our house was where friends hung out and had approximately 1 million spend-the-night parties. We frequently had a stray person stay for an extended time in a spare spot. She wished she played piano better than she did. She sang alto. Her laugh filled the room.

I remember how nervous and proud she was when she met with the first church decorating committee to try to carry on Daddy’s business after his death. As a kid, I had no idea what she had conquered.

She wore her feelings too lightly, but she didn’t let people down. The heartache of a beloved was her heartache. The load she had to carry was too heavy. I doubt she knew she was brave. Her weary mantra to my sisters and me was “I’m doing the best I can.” Her marked-up Bible and coffee cup moved together from place to place. I carried it in my daughter’s wedding. It was my bouquet.

I saw her at the wedding, when all of her great-grandbabies walked down the aisle to “Jesus Loves Me.” I see her in the group texts among her descendants, in different states, staying close. I see her when my son stops on his way home from working out of town for two weeks to rock the new baby of his cousin who rocked him. I see her in how much her people love each other, which is the only thing she ever wanted anyway.

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Celeste King Conner is grateful for good mamas. Email her at celestekconner@gmail.com to tell her about yours.

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