Mom was born and bred a southern belle and she had it wrapped around her finger as evidenced by the one time she played basketball. (The picture that I don’t show has her primping before the game). She believed it was her responsibility to look good and speak with a proper southern accent when the opportunity arose.
As for us kids, she wanted us to call her Mother. Sort of like we called blush, rouge. Or how Mom called everybody “honey” or “sweetheart” or “darling”. These were standards, only, we didn’t like the Mother thing. Even after Mom asked us, “Why don’t you call me mother?” I remember curling up my nose and saying, “Ewe. You’re not a mother; you’re my mom.” Or maybe I didn’t say it so eloquently, but that was the gist of where I was coming from. There’ll be more about this later, trust me…
Meanwhile, this week I went to the Carolina’s both physically and mentally. We had a family wedding in South Carolina, which was good timing, as I had been stuck in North Carolina ever since last week’s blog post when I mentioned that I went to UNC-Chapel Hill. And since Mom is the quintessential southerner from Greensboro, what better way to keep Carolina alive than to talk about Mom.
“If God isn’t a Tarheel, why’s the sky Carolina blue?” We grew up hearing about how great Carolina was. I was allowed to pick any college “east of the Mississippi,” Mom said, “but when you go to Carolina you’re going to love it.”
Carolina’s my other half and it was a glorious place to be for four years. I thought I’d love it, both my parents went there. I thought I’d meet the guy I was going to marry there because that’s where my parents met. I had heard so many stories about it, it seemed to be a magical place. Only, I had to go to a frat party once. I towered over all the guys, except the athletes. I never thought of myself as tall before I went to UNC.
It’s not like I had a thing against height, but there was the added fact I was from the north and would throw on a baseball cap and run to my 8am class. if need be, sleep always won out over beauty. I was no southern belle (just think of mom primping for her game); I was a transplanted northerner like my Dad.
Mom knew way more than how to look good; she could work a room with her innate charm.
She’d tell us stories about how she really could have had her pick with the boys, “but there was something about your father.” For me, there was never a time when she wasn’t with him. It’s like they grew up in their parallel universes just waiting until that fated day they were to meet at Carolina.
Everybody she spoke of had a first and last name, so I got to know them, too. She had her beach trips, bible study and her friends in the neighborhood and her cousins in Asheville that meant everything to her because she was an only child and hated going it alone. Even when we went to Italy last year, we’d leave her in a coffee bar because she couldn’t walk on the cobblestone and when we returned she had stories of all the people she talked to.
She wasn’t one to suffer from low self-esteem and sometimes I’d marvel at how she could entertain us and tell us just what we needed to hear at the time we needed to hear it. And her southern accent would come alive whenever she’d be pulled over by a cop or needed to remind someone that she was just a southern girl. Her sayings would come alive particularly when she went home or talked to her Mother, too, or she’d have a desire for black-eyed peas the way her Daddy always made them.
When I ran for student council in High School, she encouraged me to come up with a strong campaign the way she did when she ran for secretary. Did she have the magic touch or what?
So when I found an article about Mom in her high school newspaper from September 18, 1959, it was so much fun to read, “DAR Chooses Childress for Best Citizen Award” and see why Mom was chosen for the award.
“1. Dependability which includes truthfulness, loyalty and punctuality.
2. Service, which includes vo-operation, courtesy and consideration of others.
3. Leadership, which includes personality, self-control and ability to assume responsibility.
4. Patriotism, which includes unselfish interest in family, school and nation.”
Mom was all of these things and more. No wonder she won the award. These strengths exemplify Mom. She was always involved in everything. She volunteered with so many organizations if I listed them she’d only say, “You forgot Wheels or Junior League, oh, and…” She was involved with Public Relations long before she got her PR agency and she was forever the 2nd Grade teacher of the gifted boys and girls that she adored. I was looking through her college yearbook and on the Alpha Delta Pi page there were two candid pictures of a few women getting dressed that could have been Mom so when I asked her she said, “That’s also me in the top photo getting dressed for a Hawaiian themed Rush Party! Remember I was Rush chairman.” But I’m jumping ahead, before she went to Carolina, she went to Sullins College for women.
At Sullins, she joined a group called The Cotton Pickers and she played the spoons. I loved to watch her get out the tablespoons from the kitchen drawer and wow us with her instrumental ability.
The Cotton Pickers played a set of instruments that made them look like “refugees from a hardware store.” The band consisted of “a washboard, a drum, a set of spoons, a pair of ‘clickers’, shakers, a tambourine, and a washtub with a broom attached–better known as a ‘gut-bucket’…and a number of ukeleles.”
Mom had a life beyond her stories before coming to Carolina her Junior Year. Back then women weren’t allowed to go to Carolina for four years unless they majored in nursing or journalism. But she came in with gusto and made the most of her two-year stint. She found Dad and that is where the story always took on a new life for me.
She’s been a staunch supporter of him ever since and she has applied herself to so many organizations and fundraisers, she never stopped giving of her personality, dedication, leadership, and charm.
But the best of all had to be when I was reading this article posted in The Sunday Bulletin on November 20, 1977. It was called “Topsy-Turvy World For This Sporting Wife”. Dad had just been named coach of the 76ers several weeks prior.
“It’s a typical afternoon at the Billy Cunningham residence, and havoc is breaking loose. Four-year-old Heather, having just fallen off the kitchen counter, is bawling her eyes out and rubbing a lump on her forehead. The family’s bumbling yellow Labrador puppy, sauntering through, has overturned a soda glass on the coffee table and is watching the liquid ooze into the carpet. Older daughter, Stephanie should be home from school but isn’t…And meanwhile, the telephone is ringing…and ringing…and ringing.”
I’m glad the phone rang for that reporter because it always rang for us. No matter where we were or what we were doing, we had to jump up and answer it.
Another important responsibility was to make Dad a poster or a sign when he needed a pick-me-up. Mom always seemed to know when that was. Maybe it was the second-grade school teacher that would come out in her (which also came out around the holidays–no one decorated like Mom) but we loved this job more than any. It was always fun coming up with what to say next.
At the time of this interview, we had taped to the sliding glass door a crayoned sign that read, “We love you, Coach Cunningham.”
Mom was always loyal and protective of Dad, but she always cared just as much about us, too. I got teary-eyed to think my parents had asked me what I thought about Dad’s decision to start coaching.
“If I ever find myself getting selfish and feeling sorry for myself, I’ll just have to remember what Stephanie told me…(when) I asked her what she thought of her daddy’s being coach since he might not be at home as much as he used to.”
I couldn’t imagine what I might have said when I was only eight years old…
“And she just looked up at me and said, ‘Oh Mother! That’s just part of the game.'”
And I had to laugh. Mom had worked her magic with that reporter and put her southern twist on my words. Kind of like the lemon Grandma would put in her homemade southern tea. If you recall, I never called her Mother.
It couldn’t have hurt me to call her Mother, especially since it meant so much to her, I now know how hard it was for me when the kids stopped calling me Mommy. In case you missed it, here was that post: https://stephanieortiz.com/2019/12/05/goodbye-mommyhood/
Only I probably didn’t explain it to her that love is not formal like that. We had too close of a relationship for her to be anything other than Mom.
So she didn’t get to be called Mother, but she got her second wish, I did go to Carolina. It wasn’t a bad compromise. In fact, we all won in the end.
And she got her family, the one that she always felt was too small when she was little. She has grandchildren now and all her nieces and their children. We were at my cousin’s wedding and someone yelled out, “We’re together and it’s not a funeral.” And what a glorious recognition that was. It was like finding a pocket filled with joy.
Mom taught me to find those pockets of joy. Be kind to everyone and gather a story or two from those you’ve met along the way. And she taught that no matter where you live, she’s lived in the north the majority of her life now, the cliche really is true: home is where the heart is.
And when your homesick, just put on Mom’s favorite song by James Taylor “Carolina in my Mind”. I’m listening to it today in honor of Mom. I want to be reminded of Carolina (and the greatest of southern belles) today of all days because today is Mom’s birthday.
And after James Taylor has spoken, I have one last gift for you. Know that I’m saying this only because I love you from the bottom of my heart, and I know how much it means to you. Ok, here it goes…Happy birthday dear Mother!