Let me tell you a little story about a big life.
On October 25, 1925, Helen Elizabeth Willis entered the world. To her mother, she was Elizabeth. To her siblings, she was ‘Snooks.’ To her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, she was (and forever will be) Meme.
This little girl was the youngest of eight children, with a whopping twenty-four-year age difference between her and her eldest sibling. She was born in Century, Florida, where her family ran a store. One day when she was very young, Al Capone stopped at the store. The day was particularly hot and humid, being a summer day in Florida, and Meme’s father took great pride in keeping his Coca-Cola bottles very cold. Well, Al Capone (THE Al Capone) came in and bought a Coke. He drank it and found it so cold and refreshing that he handed Meme’s father a hundred-dollar bill for a tip. This was big money, folks, big money.
Meme almost didn’t make it out of childhood. When she was six or seven, one of her elder brothers did not see her and accidentally ran over with the car. Her brother was sure she was dead but amazingly, she ‘lived to tell the tale,’ as she would say.
By the age of seventeen, Meme had married, waved good-bye to her husband as he went off to World War II, and given birth to a baby girl.
During the war, Meme was a true ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ working in a factory building airplanes. Her daughter would stay with Meme’s mother while she worked long hours, supporting the war effort. She wrote letters to her husband, sending him pictures of the daughter he had yet to meet. While her husband traveled Europe, fighting in various theaters, including Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, Meme worked tirelessly at the airplane factory.
It is incredible to think of her life in that time. A young newlywed, separated from her love year after year, raising a child and working hard physical labor while the country was at war. It would have been amazingly hard and certainly required a great deal of strength and determination – two qualities that Meme would have in spades for the rest of her life.
When the war ended, her husband returned and fought to get his job back working for the the railroad. He succeeded and they traveled together from town to town to repair lines of track. Meme gave birth to two more children, both boys. Eventually, the family settled in Mobile, Alabama. Meme began working at a department store in downtown Mobile, not because she had too but simply because she wanted to provide her children with the best. She sold dresses and shoes and ‘nylons’ and all manner of things, and was very good at it. Free time was spent cheering on her sons at baseball games. It was also spent building a houseboat, the site of many weekend excursions for fishing and card-playing.
She was very social and enjoyed living in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other. A neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other’s kids – where her children played outside all day and could lay out in the grass, staring up at the stars, at night.
Meme and her husband became very involved in Mardi Gras, which is a huge part of the culture of Mobile. While most people associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, the first organized celebration of Mardi Gras in the US was actually in Mobile. It has been integral to the city’s culture ever since. They were active members of mystic organizations (the groups involved in organizing the actual celebration), even acting as ‘president couple.’ She loved the social festivity of it and always had a fondness for Moon Pies (a popular treat thrown during the parades). She also loved attending Mardi Gras balls, wearing elaborate costumes and masks. She loved the sense of community and the chance to spend time with her friends as well as make new ones.
This period of her life was filled with happiness and laughter – they were good, good years, the years you look back on and say, those were truly the days.
Meme faced heartbreak all too soon as she became a widow, once and then twice. How agonizing to bear that hardship more than once, to be the one left behind, the one left to mourn, the one left to face life alone.
But ever strong and determined, she took on a new role of independence. She got a little dog and together, they embraced life with a determined energy. She always welcomed family into her home and loved entertaining her grandchildren with all manner of board games and card-playing. She had a particular fondness for Yachtzee and Uno. She was the ultimate master of Chinese Checkers (and generously shared her strategy with me. To this day, Andrew can’t beat me at this game.) She loved to keep her mind sharp by doing crossword puzzles. That woman knew EVERYTHING that could ever be asked in a crossword puzzle, even the most obscure clues that were clearly put in to ensure nobody could finish the whole puzzle … but she did.
Even as a bona fide senior citizen, Meme maintained a vigor and spirit that most would envy. She walked around her neighborhood every single day, taking time to visit with her neighbors – many of whom she had known for decades. She especially wanted to check in with those older than her and make sure they were doing okay, see if there was anything she could do for them.
She watched with pride as her children married and blessed her with grandchildren, and eventually great-grandchildren.
When her granddaughters visited, she made sure to create fun memories . She would let them pick out one of her many silk nightgowns and robes to dress up in. She would open her dresser drawers which contained an impressive collection of jewelry and let them look through it all, telling stories about where each piece came from – and they all had a story. She especially had tons of fantastic costume jewelry, owing to her Mardi Gras days.
Meme was a fantastic grandmother but she was anything but typical. She had a gun (to keep the “boogie men” away) and a propensity for gambling. And the woman had unbelievable luck. She could cough on a slot machine and it would just spit money out at her. (If only she had passed on that good-luck gene to the rest of her family).
She had an irresistible sense of humor. She knew every kind of joke – jokes for little kids, jokes for seniors and jokes to make you blush. And she told all of them with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
When she put her mind to something, nothing could stop her. A smoker all her life, she decided to quit – and so she did, no fanfare involved.
She traveled far and wide with family, visiting many states and even conquered her fear of flying long enough to head to Hawaii…. anything for family.
Meme celebrated graduations, weddings, births, anniversaries and birthdays.
She endured the deepest and hardest pain in the world of burying one of her children when her daughter passed away – another light extinguished far too soon.
She publicly accepted Jesus and was baptized for she knew that you are never too old to declare to the world that you are a child of God.
She saw the world change in a thousand ways – as life grew ever more digital, as progress marched on, bringing both new joys and new problems.
She was not a saint. She could argue and yes, cuss, and sometimes be selfish. She was human, with all the imperfection that comes with the territory.
But she had an incredible capacity for love and always knew how to lighten a dark time. She understood the importance of humor and laughter and sharing both with others. She was proud of her kids and their families and wasted no opportunity to praise their accomplishments.
This fiercely independent woman built a remarkable life – one filled with love and laughter and family and friendship. She endured loss and the kind of good-bye’s that no one ever wants to say. And she did all of this for decades.
As time marched on, her body started to lag behind and sometimes her mind retreated to the years when things didn’t hurt so much.
As she neared the end of her eighth decade in this world, her mind surrendered more and more to the medication limiting her pain. She knew herself and those around her less and less. Those who loved her knew they were losing her. Brief windows of clarity would grant her special moments of recognition but the window was always hard to keep open.
Ever the survivor, Meme valiantly carried on into her 90th year until her body could no longer keep up with the demands of living. She closed her eyes, fell asleep and did not wake up. She left the world on the morning of Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras and passed into Heaven to rejoice in her new body and share in God’s glory with her daughter and all those who had gone before her.
And she left behind a legacy of descendants – three children, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren, with possibly more to come. 30 human beings. 30 lives that all trace back to Meme.
All this from one little girl who arrived as a bit of a surprise in 1925.
When you look over someone’s life, or at least the slivers that you can piece together, you realize what a phenomenal gift we have … this whole span of time to love and to laugh and to give. All the countless things that we see and feel and know. You see what a miracle it is to breathe and walk and laugh year after year. To live well is to experience all of it – joy and pain, loss and renewal, laughter and sadness.
The incredible thing about a life well lived is that when our bodies leave this world, the memories of how we loved others do not. Meme’s memory will be carried forward in the hearts of her family and it will become vividly real over games of Chinese Checkers or when someone finds herself saying, “I’ll dance at your wedding.” It will float to the surface when they hear an old lady yell at the referees of an Alabama football game.
Her memory will be colorful because she was colorful. And she will be loved, always, because she loved us.
Meme, I would tell you to rest in peace but I know you’re already dancing up a storm in Heaven. And quite possibly you have Saint Peter asking for the best two out of three at Uno.
We love you. So much. For always.