I can remember my mother telling people that I only said what I really wanted people to know. That was her way of saying that despite being a true extrovert who could strike up a conversation with anyone she met, she had raised a very quiet, private daughter.
One thing Mom never knew was that at various times in my adult years I’ve sought the guidance of professional counselors to help make sense of life. She would have been the first to tell me to seek help if needed, but I never wanted her to see me as needing it. With World Mental Health Day having just passed on October 10th and today being the eve of the day Mom took her final breath last year, I’m acting upon the suggestion of my counselor to write a letter to my mother.
Grief has emerged in various forms over the last couple of weeks leading up to this first anniversary of Mom’s death. I’m not at a place of writing a new letter today, but there are two that I pulled out of scrapbooks last night. Both were written as nomination letters for recognitions I learned about for parents who had been role models for their children. I don’t recall if I ever told Mom that I had submitted either of them, one in early 1990 and other in November, 1998.
Since I can’t write a new letter tonight, I’m sharing the letter from 1998. Much could be added to highlight the additional 21 years of Mom’s life especially as I think about the example she set for me and my brother – no, more like the amazing gifts she gave us – as she cared for all of her end-of-life plans, made her own decisions to move from her home of 60+ years to a senior apartment and later called us to say she was going to stop driving and give the car away. So back in 1998, I wrote….
In 1925, Elijah and Mattie Helton were supporting their family by working as tenant farmers on a piece of land in Russell County, Virginia. My mother, Trula Annette, was born that December 1st, the youngest of the nine Helton children. Like her brothers and sisters, she grew up helping tend the tobacco and other crops on the land. Mom, from what I’ve heard, was also a pretty good athlete while in school, possibly the result of developing her strength and endurance from working the crops. Basketball was her sport of choice.
Most of my uncles and aunts left Russell County to seek their fortunes in other localities. My mother watched as they moved away from rural southwest Virginia. The oldest child settled in Ohio, the second remained in Russell County, and the third moved to Kentucky. The youngest brother (and the child next to my mother in age) was killed in action in World War II. The other brothers and sisters settled in a small Virginia village called Fieldale. Jobs were plentiful in the new towel mill built by Marshall Field so many people, including my relatives, moved into the town to manufacture soon to be famous Fieldcrest linens. As my uncles and aunts began work in the mill, they also began their families. Even then, in the early 1940s, good child care was hard to find, so they called upon my mother. She came to Fieldale to care for her nieces and nephews, and it was there that she met and married my father, Eugene (Gene) Ensley.
If there is a woman that exemplifies the qualities not only of a great mother but a true role model, it has to be my mom. My mother has accepted numerous challenges, exhibiting a very strong character, loving personality, and courage along each step of her journey. She has raised two children during two very different eras. My brother was born in 1946, a part of the baby boom when soldiers returned home from World War II. He attended the segregated schools of Henry County and graduated only to enter the Marines and the Vietnam War. It was fifteen years later, in 1961, when I entered the family. My mother jokingly compares herself to Elizabeth in the Bible, for her first reaction after finding out she was pregnant with me had to be, “God, what am I going to do with this child at this point in my life?” Thirty-five seems fairly young by standards these days for having a baby but in 1961, it was not the norm! As I grew, the world was changing drastically. Schools in Henry County were integrated when I entered the second grade. It was the Iran Hostage Crisis that was changing the international landscape when I entered college. My mother made sure that both her children, despite the difficulties of the times in which we were growing up, maintained a sense of pride in ourselves, our spiritual foundations, and a love for all our neighbors. In reality, she raised two children in two very different times.
As long as I can remember, my mother talked about wanting to be a nurse. Because she chose to come to Fieldale to help her sisters with their newborns then married my father, she did not have the opportunity to follow her dream. Instead, she went to work to help support our family. She spent several years working in a hosiery factory and then worked for 25 years at E.I. DuPont in Martinsville, Virginia. She truly was one of the first working mothers to skillfully handle all of her responsibilities. My mother and father both worked in order to provide for our family. The longest lasting possessions they provided, however, were not bought with the money they earned, for what they provided the most of was love, courage against all obstacles, and compassion for all humanity.
I was 14 when my father died in 1975. My mother was 49 years old but was still acting 30 in order to keep up with her teenage daughter. In order to spend more time with me following my father’s death, my mom retired from her textile job. Mom had never learned to drive, but soon she climbed behind the wheel of a driver’s education car. She used her “expertise” to teach me to drive a few years later. Once she could drive, she became active in all of my high school’s parent groups and was almost more well known among my peers in my small school than I was. She also volunteered in the local hospital’s emergency room where she consoled family members waiting on word of their loved ones’ conditions. She was finally getting to work in a medical setting.
It didn’t take long for her to accept the challenge of returning to school to fulfil her dream. She enrolled in a nursing assistance program at the local community college. The emergency room volunteer job gave way to a full time, paid position in the physical rehabilitation department of the hospital. Talking to and helping others has always been easy for my mother. This job was perfect for her. My mother was a respected member of the hospital staff, recognized for her work and love for people by being chosen by her fellow workers as the hospital’s employee of the year in 1988. Not only did she achieve her life-long goal of caring for people during times of illness, but she received the highest honor given by the hospital employees to a colleague. Following her retirement, she continued to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the hospital by “modeling” in their advertising campaigns and volunteering with the hospital auxiliary.
My mom has taught me by example how to be a true woman of substance. In the past few months more than ever before, she has exemplified the height of grace and true compassion. Her male friend and companion of about 15 years was diagnosed with heart problems and cancer in May. Jim was like a second father to me as well as grandfather to my niece. Mom cared for him daily at his home, then later at a skilled health care center until his death in October. During the same period of time, she lost her oldest and last surviving brother, the husband of her last surviving sister, and her best girlfriend. Just a few weeks ago, she was the first to arrive on the scene when a neighbor was inside his burning house. Mom was there to comfort everyone else as his body was pulled from the flames. Through all of this loss, mom has been a rock — showing the rest of us how to give with all our hearts and souls for no earthly reward but out of the kindness of our deepest selves. Would you believe that as all this was happening, mom decided to — of all the difficult jobs to take on — enter a hospice volunteer training program?
Throughout her life, the rearing of her children, and her work in and for the community, Trula Helton Ensley — my mom — has shown us all that respect and genuine compassion for all individuals can lead to better lives for everyone. People I don’t even know tell me all the time what a special mother I have and often call her “Momma Trula.” She continues to be a role model for her children, other family members, the people with whom she works, and the community by always being willing to share her time, concern, and happiness. She has led, I am sure, to changes in people’s lives whether outwardly by making their hurts and injuries feel better or more importantly, inwardly through a kind word or compassionate hug. She has been there whenever a call for assistance has come and usually before the call was ever uttered.
I wanted you to know how much I value my mother and all the lessons of life and faith I have learned from her. I only hope that I can exemplify in my life the qualities she has shown me. My deepest regret at this point in my life is that I have no children of my own to pass on all of the lessons I’ve learned from my mom. I told her recently that if I could only be half the woman she is, I’d feel I’d done well with my life!
And if I can be half the woman she was for whatever remaining time I have on this earth, I will have done well with my life.