My Mother was born prematurely during a record blizzard on December 1, 1932, in Memphis, Tennessee (a night, we learned later, on which her Grandmother was babysitting her future husband, one-year-old Dickie Killion!). She lived in an incubator the first few weeks of her life before her parents, Opal and Ronnie, were allowed to take her home to Hayti, Missouri, a rural farming town in the Southeastern part of the state. As a young child, she contracted rheumatic fever and the doctor said there was nothing he could do – he advised her parents to buy a coffin for Rhetta. So they did. Fortunately, they did not need it. And even more fortunately, this impish child who cheated death early in life continued to thrive and grow into a beautiful young woman who would marry and bear 7 children, the youngest of whom is me.
Growing up in the post-Depression South, there were certain expectations of young ladies that Rhetta continuously defied.
For instance, one of her very best friends, Carliss, was African American. They enjoyed playing outdoors together for hours. To Rhetta, the color of her friend’s skin was of no particular consideration at all.
Rhetta was strong-willed and did not want to go to school. She recently confessed that she was, in fact, expelled from kindergarten for refusing to stop pulling the little girl’s pigtails who sat in the desk in front of her! Rhetta did not mind the unconventional. To her Mother’s horror, while performing in a piano recital, Rhetta suddenly forgot the music so she stood and sang the words instead! When she was instructed to trim the rosebush – a chore she despised – Rhetta simply cut off all the lovely heads to hasten her task. When cautioned that young ladies did not get muddy, she rode her bike through every single mud puddle she could find.
Spanking never worked because Rhetta refused to cry! She liked visiting an Uncle who purportedly had taken up the company of a “woman of ill repute” because the woman was so friendly! She had a daily habit of stopping along the way from school to home at the courthouse to enjoy a cigarette in the ladies’ restroom. Rhetta was, indeed, incorrigible!
Mom recalls there was an internment camp for German Prisoners of War (for some reason in Hayti, Missouri!) when she was a child. Fearful of what unknown harm could become of the adorable blue-eyed blonde little girl, Rhetta was absolutely forbidden from ever riding her bike to “that part of town.” Well she did. And Mom remembers talking through the fence to the Germans, they speaking German and she speaking in her inimitable Southern drawl – and relishing the smiles on their faces and laughter on the other side of the fence. “I’m sure they thought my accent was as strange as I found theirs’ – but we were fascinated with one another,” Mom remembers.
Her Dad, Ronnie Greenwell, was a proud member of the Missouri Cotton Producers Association and Lions Club. He somehow gained access to President Harry Truman and took his precocious daughter along with him to meet the Great Democrat from Missouri. Mom only recalls President Truman asking her how she liked school – and that she was fairly bored throughout the encounter!
In spite of all her youthful spiritedness, Mom managed to easily slip into the “ladylike patterns” of the day and married my Dad, whom she adored, at the tender age of 20 in 1953. They began a life together in Southeast Missouri in a small farming community where Mom bore 7 children and participated fully in the spiritual life of the Catholic parish to which our family belonged.
But there was always a restlessness about Mom – she loved life and learning and wanted to participate in the world as more than a caregiver. She convinced Dad to move to St. Louis, where she began a wallpaper business and eventually became a tax preparer for H & R Block. She brought energy and life into our family with her diverse group of interests and friends. Mom volunteered for hospice and a program for teenage runaway girls. She helped the local United Way with its annual “100 Neediest Cases” Christmas program. She became enthralled by the study of Jungian Psychology which led her to the work of Elisabeth Kubler Ross, whom Mom personally escorted from the airport to a workshop she attended! And she handmade beautiful quilts that are treasured by many.
Now in her eighties, Mom is confined to her bed. She still enjoys a lively imagination and interest in many people and things, especially the St. Louis Cardinals! Here she is meeting one of her great-grandchildren, a beautiful gift she treasures.
She never fails at giving me the perfect advice. Ever. When I was in my twenties, Mom often sent me “Affirmations,” her own compositions in her own handwriting, to help me navigate the difficult adult world. She once wrote to me, “I love you. Don’t give your personal power or your $ away.”
For these reasons and so many more, my beautiful Mom is and always will be MY FAVORITE BADASS! I thank God every day for the blessing of a life with Mary Henrietta Greenwell Killion as my Mother.