On the Occasion of my Mother’s 90th Birthday

Evelyn, Steven and Susan

My mother, my sister Susan and me (the one in the highchair), discussing Proust’s influence on literature, circa 1966.

Yesterday was my mother’s 90th birthday. I had intended to dust off a biography I’d written of her about eight years ago, and share parts of that. It was written for our local newspaper in Yancey County, NC, and it celebrated the 20th Anniversary of a scholarship she and my father had established. That scholarship encouraged County high school graduates to study what we now call the STEM fields.

As I tried to re-work it, that article just seemed too dry and cold to describe my mother. She’s a pretty amazing person, and a list of career accomplishments doesn’t really sum her up. So I decided to start from scratch, which brings me in a day after her 90th birthday. But, hey, a 90th birthday should be celebrated for more than a day anyway, shouldn’t it?

My mother was born Elizabeth Evelyn Briggs on December 7th, 1926. Back then, it wasn’t Pearl Harbor Day. That attack happened on her 15th birthday. Her family called her Evelyn. Most of her aunts, uncles and cousins actually didn’t realize her first name was “Elizabeth.”

She was an only child, which gave my grandmother no end of worry. She didn’t want her daughter to be spoiled. But my grandmother was one of eleven children, and several of her brothers and sisters were much closer to her daughter’s age than her own. My mother never felt like an only child.

Mother was born before telephones and electricity came to most places in Yancey County, though she remembers her Grandfather, Plato Banks, being one of the first in the community to have a telephone on his kitchen wall—one of the old crank models. Television was technically invented the year she was born, but Mother grew up listening to the radio. She fondly remembers Lux Radio Theater, The Grand Ole Opry and (apologies to the squeamish Boomers and later generations amongst my readers) Amos ‘n Andy. She tells me that she and her best friend, Doris Penland, never missed Your Hit Parade, and sang every song. She recently confessed that she couldn’t name a single song that played in those days.

Both of her parents were teachers. My grandfather, General Dawson Briggs, graduated Mars Hill College, and later took a certification course to become a principal. (General was his name, not his rank. He had no military service. Like my mother, he didn’t ever use his first name. He was Dawson.) My grandmother, Clara Elizabeth Banks, graduated the Yancey Collegiate Institute, a pre-collegiate academy, and then attended an abbreviated certificate program at a teachers’ college.

The Briggs family also sometimes ran a country store, and my mother and her mother worked day in and day out to keep their house. They had no washing machine or dryer. They hand-washed clothes and linens, hung them to dry, and ironed them. “We ironed everything,” my Mother has told me often. “We ironed napkins! I hated ironing.” What she loved, though, was taking turns at the ironing with her mother. When she wasn’t ironing, Mother read books. The Elsie Dinsmore series was a particular favorite. “Doris and I would spend hours, reading ‘Elsie’ and crying,” she said.

She went to high school with my father, who was already known to her father as something of a troublemaker. My dad hated sitting in the classroom when there were mountains to explore and machines to be taken apart to see how they worked. Consequently, he was held back four times—twice by his future father-in-law, who was his principal—and graduated school with my mother and others four years younger.

She spent two summers far from home, in Washington, DC, where she and her parents all worked for the War Department. Mother was too young for government employment, but somehow managed to take the Civil Service exam anyway, and wound up working as a typist. I believe I’ve related elsewhere her surprise at discovering racism on the city buses.

My grandmother died at the age of 43, while my mother was in college. She and my grandmother argued over whether my mother should take a year off college to help him cope with being a widower. I believe my mother won. No one would call my mother bossy, but she has a habit of winning arguments. My grandmother had a brother, Esby, who was close to her age. Esby also died while my mother was in college. The Banks family, not wanting to lose in-laws, encouraged the widow and widower to get married. So, by the time my mother had graduated from Mars Hill College and Greensboro Women’s College, she had a stepmother whom she’d known all her life. Joe Tate Coffey (yes, “Joe,” not “Jo”—and it wasn’t short for anything) was the only maternal grandmother I knew. That we weren’t blood-related never showed.

By 1950, my dad had served in the Army Air Force and graduated from NC State with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Before seeking his fortune outside of their small town, he took a job teaching math at Burnsville High School, from which he had graduated. My mother was already there, teaching English and French. They started a very low profile relationship, and planned to get married in the Summer of 1952. In March, two things changed their plans: my dad got called back to active duty as a training officer in Texas, and scarlet fever broke out in Burnsville, closing the school. With a week off, they eloped to Greenville, SC, coincidentally (there’s some doubt as to the coincidence of it) meeting a pair of witnesses on the way: Doris Penland and her new husband, Edgar Hunter. Ed Hunter would later be superintendent of Yancey County Schools, and is the man my parents’ scholarship is named for.

My father’s mother told me long ago that, after the wedding, they didn’t tell anyone they were married. My mother’s class apparently knew something was up, and locked her in a supply closet until she confessed. (My mother was a very popular teacher, and was nominated an honorary senior by her students in the 1949 yearbook. The idea that she’d married and not let her students know was probably a huge controversy.)

At the end of the 1952 school year, my mother joined my dad in Texas, and later in Mississippi. She taught school while he taught new recruits and draftees. Before his tour of duty ended, he was offered a half-year teaching job in Micaville, NC. They accepted the job together, my mother teaching for the first two months, and my dad finishing out the semester. In 1953, finally able to begin his engineering career he took a job with Sperry in Bristol, TN. My sister Susan was born there. My dad was a job-hopper when it wasn’t fashionable, being recruited by tech firms around the Country. He took the family to Rochester, NY, where my brother Charles was born, to King of Prussia, PA, to Long Island NY, Norristown, PA and Fairfax, VA, where I was born.

When we finally settled in Clarksville, MD, in a house my dad designed and never finished, my mother longed to return to work. At the age of 42, she started a master’s program at UM College Park. Although she felt out of her element, surrounded by kids two decades younger, and she got tired of being called a “retread,” she completed a Masters in Library Science and was accredited to teach in Maryland. She was a media specialist briefly at Howard High and for 13 years at Guilford Elementary. She retired in 1983, but returned for a year to teach at Oakland Mills High.

She was on-campus during the height of the Viet Nam War, and saw many protests. She refused to participate, since her husband had again been recalled to active duty, and spent weeks in Thailand, managing a tech project for the Air Force over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She did stay to watch one protest, however, when a group of students attempted to hang someone, probably Nixon, in effigy. Whatever they’d stuff their dummy with, it attracted a dog, which leapt on the fake corpse and weakened the emotional punch of the demonstration.

My mother was a devout Southern Baptist. She served as treasurer of our church for decades, and taught Sunday School. Like President Jimmy Carter, however, she didn’t embrace the extreme views of the Southern Baptist Convention. My mother taught me that no Christian was better than a non-believer, that no white person was better than a black person, and, by example, that no man was better than a woman.

My mother taught me to love reading, although she hated to read long books to me. That just encouraged me to learn to read myself.

She taught me that it wasn’t a good idea to make a spectacle of myself. It didn’t stop me doing so, but I knew it wasn’t often a good idea.

She taught me not to be high-maintenance. I should be able to take care of myself. If I need help, I should ask for it, but not make a production of doing so. There are a lot of other people in the world. I didn’t deserve to be noticed more than they did. Most people who stand out in a crowd do so because they’re annoying everyone.

My mother hates conflict. I don’t. That caused some friction between us when I was child and a teen. As an adult, I realized that conflict has to happen, but, day to day, it’s nice for the house to be quiet and for everyone to speak gently to each other.

She never tried to make me feel guilty about anything but my grades (and let’s face it, they were awful!) I never heard her utter any phrase resembling “The telephone works both ways.” She never complained if I had to miss a holiday celebration. She has six grandsons (and lost a granddaughter 30 years ago next month). She has two great grandchildren. She understands they can’t all be with her, but she talks to all of them regularly. She doesn’t like smart phones, but she’s very happy there’s Skype.

My mother can’t believe she’s “so old.” I guess life has kept her too busy to notice the passing years. But there’s been a lot of life in those 90 years. Along the way, without making a spectacle of herself, and rarely raising her voice at anyone other than a certain child of hers who was born a redhead–and whose ginger temperament never changed when his hair did–she’s taught a lot to an awful lot of people. I never had to watch Steel Magnolias to know how stylish, or how tough, a real Southern Lady could be.

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