How lucky I am to have been theirs

By AMANDA SEXTON FERGUSON,

Author A.A. Milne’s famous character Winnie the Pooh said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

2018 was the hardest year of my life.  Over a span of just seven months, I buried both my parents – tragically losing my father last January after contracting the flu and pneumonia and my mother after a decade-long fight with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although my sisters and I are all in our 40s, the loss of our parents made us feel like children again – orphaned without their strength and wisdom as we faced a life without them.  My parents were doting and over-protective, often overbearing and meddlesome in our daily lives, but we accepted their guidance and interference with a mixture of annoyance and humor and sometimes a secret relief that we weren’t facing the world alone. 

If there was a need, my parents would swoop in and take charge.  If we were sick, even after we were grown and living on our own, they rushed to fill prescriptions or deliver ginger ale.  If a car broke down or a hot water heater was on the fritz, they instructed us on whom could be trusted to make repairs and what retailer carried the best brands at the lowest price.  When all three of us purchased our first homes, Daddy was sitting beside us at the attorney’s office as we signed the closing papers.

My parents were our counselors, our biggest fans, and also our biggest critics.  They raised us to have a strong work ethic, understand the importance of responsibility to family and the community, and follow a moral compass of Southern propriety.  I think we all three have done our best to follow the standards they set, but we were and are not always successful.  To this day, the thought of disappointing my parents evokes a physical response in me.

Daddy grew up on his parents’ farm in the southwest corner of DeSoto County.  Farm life was hard work, and as an adult, he remembered picking cotton in the cold.  His upbringing of working hard followed him to his first job at age 14 as a gopher/boy-Friday for Reuben Kaplin at his south Memphis hardware store.  Mr. Kaplin became a second father and mentor to Daddy, and the hardware store evolved with the times and Kaplin Hardware eventually became Metal Supply Company, specializing in raw steel.  Daddy worked his way up to sales clerk – working hard and saving his money. Eventually, he bought half the business and became a partner with Mr. Kaplin. 

After Mr. Kaplin’s death, Billy Fletcher, former Memphis State football star who retired from the Denver Broncos, purchased Kaplin’s half of the business and became Daddy’s longtime business partner and faithful friend.  The two squabbled like siblings but successfully worked in tandem, with Daddy handling most of the company’s administrative duties while Billy handled sales.  The two worked together for decades until they sold the company in 2000, but the two remained partners and best of friends until Billy’s death in 2016.

In business, Daddy was shrewd with a low tolerance for stupidity and squeezed a quarter so tight you could probably make out George Washington’s profile on his thumb. 

Behind closed doors, Daddy was strong in his faith, rarely missing a Sunday in the Sexton pew, and freely giving of his time and money.  He served as an elder on the church session and took up the role as church clerk following my grandfather’s death.  Never squelching his duty as a Christian and as a productive member of the community, Daddy was the first to lend a hand, drive over food to a family in need, or offer assistance financially or otherwise. 

My sisters and I knew Daddy prided himself on always doing the right thing and never squelching his “responsibilities,” but we will never know the extent to which Daddy helped other people.  After his death, we were told many stories of his generosity and kindness to others.  Already a giant of a man in our eyes, my sisters and I learned that he was a giant of a man in the eyes of others as well, and that made us even more proud of the man we called Daddy.

Shortly after his death, my sister found a yellowed newspaper clipping in his desk drawer.  He had cut it from The Commercial Appeal and kept it for many years.  It was called “A Measure of a Man,” author unknown.

“Not ‘How did he die?’ but ‘How did he live?’

Not ‘What did he gain?’ but ‘What did he give?’

Not ‘What was his station? but ‘What was his heart?’

And ‘How did he play his God-given part?’

Not ‘What was his shrine’ nor ‘What was his creed?’

But ‘Had he befriended those really in need?’

Not ‘What did the piece in the newspaper say?’

But ‘How many were sorry he passed away?’

Was he ever ready with word or cheer,

To bring back a smile, or banish a tear?

Those are the units to measure the worth

Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.”

That was my father.  Always working hard.  Always worried about others.  Always trying to be better.  He expected much from others and was often disappointed, but that did not sway his efforts to be a better man – although he failed at allowing that disappointment to plague his heart and his head.

When I was younger, Daddy and I often butted heads.  Then I was sure it was because we were so different, but as I grew older, I realized it was because we were so much the same.  I believe I got a healthy dose of his worst traits – fretting, impatience, overbearingness, perfectionism, work-aholism, and yes, high expectations in other people.  I also got his low tolerance for what I determine is stupidity.

Traits of his I wish I had?  His business sense, his never-ending energy, his discipline in all things, and his sheer determination to succeed at whatever he faces whatever the cost.

As an adult, Daddy and I became friends.  We enjoyed the same hobbies – collecting antiques and entertaining, and I often leaned on him for advice in my career.  I learned to appreciate that he was much wiser than I was – something he had tried to tell me for many years – and that I would do well to accept his sound advice.

I have so many memories of Daddy, I could write a book – something he pressed me to do for many years.  He taught me to drive, taught me the names of every annual flower hearty in our climate, planned my wedding, oversaw the renovations of my home, loved by husband and son as much as I did, and was the standard of success I set for myself.

Over the past year, I have tried to remember everything about growing up with Daddy – the little encouragements, a compliment, a few moments spent together.

Two memories – simple moments over my 43 years – have probably had the most profound impact on whom I am today.

On a summer day in my early childhood, I found Daddy on our back patio scraping a thick coat of black paint off an antique piano stool.  The stool had a round seat that swiveled to adjust the height and featured wrought iron claw feet clasping crystal balls.  I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was refinishing the stool, which he got for a few dollars.

Why? I asked.

He told me that it was an antique and that after all that ugly paint was scraped off and it was sanded down and stained, it would be beautiful.  He also reminded me of how little he paid for it.

I asked if I could help, and he handed me a scraper.  The two of us worked on it in silence until it was nearly void of black paint.  Then we sanded it and put a dark stain on it and a clear varnish over the stain.  That stool is still at my parent’s house.

A few years ago, when Daddy was talking about who got what when he died, something that he knew my sisters and I found morbid, he said, “The piano stool goes to Amanda.”

Of all of the collected, antique “treasures” he and Momma filled their house with, he remembered that afternoon on the patio – the afternoon where I, too, gained an appreciation and eventually a love for antiques.

The other memory comes from my sixth or seventh grade year.  I was assigned at school to write a short story about anything I wanted.  I decided to write about a Sexton ancestor who fought bravely in the Civil War and was wounded at Shiloh.  After the war, he held a deep grudge against the Union army, and he forbade his daughters to ever wear the color navy blue (if you only knew how strong those Sexton genes are.)

Daddy asked to proofread the story after I finished, and I sat on my parents’ bed as Daddy read the story.

“Did you copy this?” he asked.

“No, why would you think that,” I asked, offended.

“This is good.  Really good.”

Daddy encouraged me to make a career writing.  Okay, he pushed – a lot.  I can even thank him for my first newspaper job – a job he applied for on my behalf by sending my resume to the publisher.

As strong and stoic as my father was, my mother was as nurturing and coddling. Momma was the one who wiped away the tears, doctored your scraped knee, and was there to fight any injustice or battle that lay before you.

Momma grew up in the Mississippi Delta with a cast of colorful relatives she adored.  Her family was an eccentric and close brood that I remember best laughing at some tall tale over cups of coffee at the kitchen table.  As the first grandchild, Momma was raised with her mischievous and often-trouble-finding uncles from both her mother’s and father’s side of the family.  She was a crack shot, completely and utterly fearless, and would never back down from a fight.

Very much a tomboy, Momma was quite the dichotomy.  She could catch the fish, clean it, prepare a beautiful meal, and serve it in dressed and coiffed to the nines in an evening gown.

She was an accomplished equestrian, riding Tennessee Walkers for family friends in DeSoto County.  She also was a state-title-holding barrel racer.  She met my father at a horse show, and on the second date, he proposed, and she accepted.

The two were wed at the Eudora Baptist Church and moved into a studio apartment in south Memphis where they lived for a year or so before building a house on family land in Eudora.  She was the mother of three girls before she turned 30, and her life revolved around my sisters and me.

A stay-at-home mom, Momma was the PTO president, always the class mother, a regular chaperone on field trips or at school dances, a member of every committee at the school and church, and eventually became an active member of the Southaven Design Review Board, a part of the zoning commission, a job she took very seriously.

Momma was a lifetime member of the garden club, a blue-ribbon winner at various garden shows, a volunteer wedding planner for the children of her closest friends and relatives, and the official interior designer for just about everyone she knew. 

Momma had a sharp wit, an infectious laugh, and a sharp tongue that could back down a motorcycle gang.  She was sassy and classy and utterly original. 

After her death, a cousin of mine called her “the Yelverton movie star,” and I think that is a perfect description of my mother.  Regardless of the situation, she was perfectly groomed, immaculately dressed, and ready for whatever the day held – whether that was hacking the head off a snake in the flowerbed or fixing a broken toilet or planning a cocktail party for 100.

Where Daddy was tough, Momma was soft-hearted, although she claimed fiercely not to be.  She was the first to pick up a stray – animal or human, listen and attempt to solve everyone’s problems, and give in to her three daughters.  “Don’t tell your father” was one of Momma’s favorite phrases, and it always felt like the Sexton women were in cahoots at all times.

After Daddy put her on a budget, Momma would get thrifty at the grocery store, and what she would save, she spent buying Barbie dolls and new books and Happy Meals for my sisters and me.  I remember shopping for my first homecoming formal with Momma.  It was a day-long affair with me falling in love with the very first, and the most expensive, gown I tried on.  Momma ended up splitting the purchase on two credit cards and saying “Don’t tell your father.”

When I was in my 20s, Momma went with me to the veterinary oncologist after my beloved Scottish terrier was diagnosed with cancer.  Chemo treatments for Duncan were beyond my meager paycheck as the editor for my hometown newspaper, but Momma vowed we would do everything to save Duncan.  She ended up footing the bill for half the cost of the treatment, with a hefty “Don’t tell your father” thrown in.

What is so heartbreaking about my mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s is how the disease chips away at a person’s dignity.  My mother did her very best to live a life of dignity and strength, and the disease took all of that away.  When she died, she was just a shell of herself, and with every phase of the disease, we said goodbye once again to the extraordinary woman who raised us.

She forgot our names – all but my father’s – but there was still recognition in her eyes, even in her final days, that we belonged to her.

There is something beautiful that horrible illness showed my sisters and me.  It showed us the depth of love between my parents.  Married 50 years the June before Daddy’s death, my mother never forgot my father.  She looked for him when he stepped out of the room.  She called him by name up until the final months, and when he passed away, although we never told her, she knew.  She grieved in her own way.

The last years of my parents’ lives were spent as the caregiver and cared for, and honestly, I think God took Daddy from us first because he never could have watched my mother linger for days before she finally passed away.

It is now a new year – the last spent walking around in a fog of grief and uncertainty. 

With my own five-year-old son at home, I promised he would have a normal and happy Christmas.  I didn’t want him to dread holidays with his mother and aunts turning into weeping messes as we faced another celebration without our parents.  And with the combined strength of the three of us, along with the unwavering support of my sweet husband, we had one of the best Christmases I can remember.

There were a few tears – mostly happy – and a lot of laughter.  It is hard to be sad when Momma and Daddy left us so many happy and hilarious memories to cherish.

So there you have it.  I’m heartbroken living without my parents, but I am so very grateful for their love and sacrifices and guidance and even the meddling.  Like Pooh said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Obituaries

Willie B. Carter, 84, passed away at her residence in Pearl on July 3, 2019.