The Gift of Years

A farewell to Mother Fields

By Bill Fields

When I saw that a voicemail from one of my sisters had landed in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to call her back to know what had happened.

Our mother’s long, largely happy and healthy life had come to an end less than two months from her 96th birthday. The day we laid Juanita Henderson Fields to rest was sunny and warm, much different from our father’s burial on a chilly spring forenoon nearly 40 years ago, when it was hard to tell the tears from the rain.

Different weather seemed appropriate, because a life that is over at 95 is not the same as a life cut short at 59. That gift of years also was our present.

How lucky I was to be able to go home for so long — much longer than most folks can — to East New Jersey Avenue and those familiar rooms and all those memories, of cookouts and penny poker games, giddy Christmas mornings and sunny Easter afternoons, looking for dyed eggs in the yard, one inevitably hidden in a hydrangea.

My sisters always called her “Mother,” and she was “Mom” to me. After becoming a grandmother, in the early 1970s, she also was “Mother Fields.” That sounded like a gospel singer on tour through the South, but it fit. By any name, she was a good wife, mother, daughter, sibling, aunt and friend. She was good, in the broadest definition of that short word. Someone who came by the funeral home called her classy. Mom was that too, along with being well-dressed, sneaky-funny, generous and, especially in her last decade, stubborn as a tight jar lid.

I’m convinced part of Mom’s stubbornness to leave her home, to stay a couple of innings too long there, was rooted in her desire for us to have that home to return to as long as possible because it was something she could do for us. Once we had finally gotten her into assisted living, we had to tackle cleaning out the house. By the end of that week, our backs were sore but our souls were full, having gotten to explore Mom’s life as we dealt with the many possessions.

We found out our mother really, really liked clothes. We discovered she was Most Improved in the Tar Heel Bowlerettes in the 1964-65 season, wearing the white and green shirt of Citizens Bank. We found autograph books and a West End High School diploma, in the days when she was a raven-haired beauty, and a steno pad of tender notes Dad wrote to her as he recovered from an operation that temporarily stilled his voice.

She let us learn from our mistakes when we were kids, and she respected our decisions when we were adults — even those she didn’t agree with. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve appreciated that aspect of her parenting because not all mothers are that way.

Women had just gotten the right to vote a few years before Mom was born in Jackson Springs. She lived through the Great Depression, a world war, profound technological and societal change. About half of her life was lived in a segregated South. But in 2008, when she was recuperating from a back injury and was allowed to vote curbside from a car I was driving, I got to see her vote for our country’s first African-American president. Eight years later, she voted for a woman for the same office.

I got Mom an iPad for Christmas when she was 90, and teaching her the basics wasn’t easy. Despite the steep learning curve, she got the hang of it well enough to check email and check The Pilot’s website, although she still bought a print edition downtown on Sundays as long as she was able. Smartphones amazed her the most, all the things those tiny devices can do.

As private as she was, I think Mom might be happy I used mine to slyly record a voice memo of a conversation with her in December of 2016. According to the wizard inside the phone, it’s 10 minutes and 33 seconds long. One day, I’ll listen to it.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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