May’s Extraordinary Woman: My Mom

I used to think my mother was weak. As a teenager, my mother would quietly choose second place. She would submit herself in faith and it drove me crazy. I have in the past equated strength to the ability to get what you want. I have had a bull in a china shop mentality. Know what you want, obtain it, no matter the casualties. As I have matured, I have come to realize there is no strength like the quiet strength my mother demonstrates. She stands with her hands held up, holding us who are squirming and kicking, demanding to be first, up. There is no strength in the world like that strength. And my mother has it in excess.

I recently was able to sit with her and ask her questions I always wanted to know. At the age of eight, my mother lost her own mother to colon cancer.  The day her mother died, her father walked into the house and said, “Well, you don’t have a mother anymore.” Carleen Neese McClanahan, a registered nurse was a mother of seven children, two boys born pre- World War II and five girls born between 1947-1952.  Mom was the second to youngest.  Carleen, gave up her career,  instead caring for her children full time. She purchased all the girls matching swinging felt skirts and took them to talent showcases where she knew they were the best singers there. She had them sing, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” Mom’s skirt was navy with a red and white sailboat. As she and her sister’s sung about the hanging of a man who murdered a woman, Carleen knew they would be famous.

The McClanahan’s were not of means, which meant there were stressful times. There were also marital disagreements where finances were passionately discussed.  Living in a drafty home, the girls would get a sponge bath from a galvanized tub in front of the fireplace in their room so they would not get cold. Carleen kept a close eye on her children and kept them on a very short leash. They were not allowed to play outside unless Carleen could be with them. Being so young when her mother died, she does not know why Carleen was so concerned for their safety. She remembers her own mother as generous in spirit and that was inherited by all of the McClanahan children.  Just after her mother’s death, Mom’s father made great efforts to show up for the girls. He became the President of the PTA and made sure the girls had everything they needed. “Ray said it best when he stated, ‘Dad did the best he could,” Mom shared. My grandfather was a good and kind man, but not the kind of man who should have had the responsibility of raising five daughters on his own. The years to come were full of hard times. Times difficult enough that Mom surmises that if they had lived in today’s world, they likely would have been taken into foster care.

Mom, as well as her sisters, did not let these trials dictate their outcomes. Mom was studious and earned great grades in school. She was well liked and successful in her high school career. A week after she graduated with honors from Shelbyville Central High School, she became Mrs. Carl V. “Pete” Kinser. She was seventeen.  During the Viet Nam War, she worked on the campus of MTSU while my dad was a ROTC student, while also working at State Farm Insurance.  They were able to move into marriage student housing and while there gave birth to my sister, Andee. Dad was stationed in Germany, leaving my Mom and Andee to live with my grandparents for a short time, before crossing the Atlantic to join him. While living abroad, my parents took advantage of Army planes coming and going and traveled all over Europe. That young, poor, girl from Shelbyville who thought she would never leave Bedford County, Tennessee was seeing the world. While in Germany, they had a second daughter who would eventually become a blogger.

Once their time in the military was complete, my Mom went back to school, getting a full scholarship and a 4.0. She received her Magna Cum Laude degree in Elementary Education, while raising two little girls and giving birth to a third little girl, Carli. With her degree complete, she began to teach and parent as my Dad went to Law School. She balanced it all. After she would tuck us into bed with a few verses of “Now the Day is Over”, she would finally sit down for the night to rest to the theme of MASH. My Dad completed Law School and a fourth daughter, Katie, joined the family. A move to Memphis and an eventual move to California, Mom gave up the classroom, for a two-year stint as a stay at home mom and then into the world of insurance claims, a career she mastered until her retirement.

A final move to Alabama, placed her in closer proximity to her girls and her ever growing collection of grandchildren. She now has a full set of sixteen, ranging in ages twenty to nine months old. Although retired, she has not quit, she is very active in the teaching of women in her church and is very involved in the planning and execution of a Woman’s Day event.

As I sit and contemplate the blessing and gift my mom is, I am overwhelmed. Her strength is so apparent, I am not sure how I failed to see it in my childhood.  I cannot escape the word GRACEFUL in my thoughts of her.

As she reads this, she may laugh, as she often uses the word graceful as an irony to her physical condition. I can hear her now saying with a bit of sarcasm, “Oh yeah, I’m so graceful!” My mother lives in constant vertigo. Diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease in her early forties, she has traversed almost three decades in a world that spins around her. Yet she remains stable. Rock solid in the ways that matter the most. Although there is an occasional stumble, she remains solid in character. Again, her strength apparent.

In the truest sense of the word, she is the most graceful person I know. Her life is a ballet of loss and triumph. There are movements of accomplishment and victory, and there are twists of conflict and trial. Yet, regardless the situation, she is consistent. She faces trial and triumph with the same faith, courage and gentleness. She carries herself with dignity and kindness, striving always to make the one she is with feel like they are the most important person in the world, even when they are grossly undeserving.

My mother’s physical body often fails her. It is the challenge of her days. She bears pain and discomfort consistently. Along with the dizziness of vertigo, she lives with the debilitating limitations of lymphatic complications and the pain of joint break down. Yet, she lives fully. She shows up in her own life in ways that blow me away. As if, with every physical challenge, her spirit becomes more fully strengthened. Her strength demonstrated with each difficult step. For where her body fails, her spirit perseveres.

It is my daily longing to be more like my mother, to walk with the same strength and courage she possesses. I long to inherit her kindness, just as I did her eyes; To love fully, to live with eyes always forward, with words of encouragement on my lips, fingers ready to write a strongly worded letter when necessary. I long to be graceful, as she is graceful.

My Mom deserves great honor for putting up with my shenanigans. I am so grateful for her telling me I could be anything I wanted to be and then supporting me when I made those decisions, even if she was unsure of them. She has held my hand and told me she loved me even when she disagreed with me. She tolerates with my off-color humor and some of my word choices. But mostly she demonstrates to her girls the unbreakable strength of service and submission. Today I am so grateful that my Mom is not only an Everyday Extraordinary Woman, but that she is an Extraordinary Woman, every day.

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