Tink and I stopped by to see my niece, Nicole, and somehow the conversation got around to the adventure I had, on my own, followed when I was barely old enough to vote.
At 19, as a sports reporter, I covered the Cotton Bowl in Dallas when mighty Texas fell to the spunky Georgia Bulldogs. For a week, dressed in a parade of new suits and dresses Mama made for me, I attended daily press conferences and practices. Previously, I had not been west of the Mississippi. By 24, I was on loan to the sports staff at USA Today in Washington — then turned down a full-time job offer to hop on over to live in Indianapolis and work full-time on the NASCAR circuit as a publicist for sponsors.
"Now that I look back, it’s amazing how brave you were," Nicole said. "You just took off and went wherever. Nothing ever scared you."
That was also in the days when there were no cell phones or no GPS devices so it was much bolder than it would be today. And, too, I had to carry my luggage in those first few years. I was in Indianapolis when I bought my first suitcase with wheels. It was incredibly innovative but nothing like the state-of-the-art luggage of today. It had a strap snapped to the side which I pulled along like a dog on a leash.
Nicole continued. "And Mawmaw. It never fazed her that you just took off on your own like that. Now, as a Mama myself, I can’t even imagine. I don’t think I could let one of my kids go off like that. I’d be worried to death. But she never was. It’s all so incredible."
And there is the answer. My Mama saw it as a matter of important course that I take off and chase life. In fact, I was a bit behind her at my age.
In 1937, at the age of 18, she did something much bolder than I’ve ever done: she left the little tin-roofed house nestled deep in the Appalachian foothills and traveled 49 miles to Gainesville, Georgia, to get a job in a hosiery mill for 18 cents an hour and make a better future.
Think how brave that was. She was cloistered in the piney woods where people still spoke the King’s English. What little they knew of the outside world came from the weekly edition of the Dahlonega Nugget and through a battery-operated radio. Those mountains were still several years away from having electricity. What a scary feeling it must have been. But she was brave and determined. She never looked back.
So, it was no big deal to my Mama what her little girl was doing. She never thought twice. And only once was she scared for me. It was August 16, 1987. We had run a NASCAR cup race at Michigan International Speedway. When the race ended, I sped to the airport to catch the last flight to Indy. Daddy never missed the 11 o’clock news. That Sunday night as the news came on, Mama said to my Daddy, "I’m goin’ to bed." At that moment, the news anchor announced that a plane had just exploded on take-off in Detroit and all aboard were believed killed.
Mama sank back in her chair, her strength leaving her momentarily. "Oh, Ralph, Ronda’s there."
Daddy said nothing but fell into prayer. He opened his eyes shortly and said, "Everything’s okay. The Lord told me she’s fine." My plane had left 30 minutes earlier.
When I moved to D.C., Mama said, "I have only one piece of advice and it’s the same advice my Daddy gave me when I left home." She looked me squarely in the eyes. "Forget not to assemble thyself in the House of the Lord."
So there you have it. With advice like that, a Mama is not going to do much worrying.
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