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At 71, my mother has reached the difficult stage of living among the dying.

When Mama went for her 70th birthday check-up, the doctor told her she had the body of a 50-year-old and could reasonably expect to live another 30 years.

When she told me this, she was grateful and excited on the one hand, and a little sad on the other.

In recent years, her tiny Methodist church has gradually been depleted of members, mostly women who outlived their husbands. Mamie, the soprano in the choir, lived to be 90, owing her strong constitution to a stiff swig of aloe vera juice every day. Mama's neighbor Gladys, also a church regular, died a couple years back, shrunken, near transparent and as frail as a dried leaf following a long and vigorous life.

Now the backbone of the church, Louise, who heads the prayer group, coordinates visitation, bakes for everyone in the congregation and has headed every significant committee for the past 25 years, is dying of cancer. When my mother sent Louise flowers a few months back, she couldn't have them in her room because of the risk of infection.

When Mama tells me these stories, I grieve for her, and I grieve for myself -- lost in work, kids, busyness and constant pursuit of God knows what -- missing out on this robust generation of women and their tradition of caring.

This week, my mother's lifelong mentor, Ernestine, aged 85, is undergoing surgery to repair the leaky valves in her big old heart. My mother called me in a panic when she heard the news, afraid Ernestine would die of the anesthetic or the brutal operation. Her valve problem had placed her in a chronic condition of heart failure -- shortness of breath, fatigue, excess fluid -- and it didn't suit her lifestyle. So when her doctor told her there was nothing to be done, she went up to Nashville and found a surgeon who thought otherwise.

The week before her surgery, Mama called one day to check on Tine and found she was out with a neighbor woman picking collards. The following weekend, she traveled by car to Chicago to see her great-niece graduate from high school. Then she went up to Vanderbilt to check in for her heart surgery.

When my mother was a little girl, raised out in the country alongside a huge pack of brothers and sisters with no mother, Ernestine, her first cousin, brought her closer to town to live with her. Barely 21, Tine knew Mama needed to be near school and the farm was no place for her.

Ernestine kept livestock and drove a tractor like a man. She worked in town as a bookkeeper, was a landlord, did factory work up north during World War II, and raised my mother. From that time until now, she has had the same lifelong mate though she never married him, Mr. Vaden, now well into his 90s in good health.

When I was a girl, I spent time at Tine's during the summers. In the early '60s, she ran a hamburger stand, Tootsie's Dip, on the highway up from her house, where she fixed delicious sloppy Joes, foot-long chili dogs, milkshakes and fountain drinks. She didn't need the money; I believe she did it because she loved to feed people. My cousins and I were allowed to work the fountain for part of the day, then we'd go home and play out back while Tine fixed us a huge dinner of meat, fresh vegetables from the garden and homemade biscuits. There was always a freshly baked pie or homemade ice cream for dessert.

All my life I have marveled at her energy. Since she turned 70, she has taken care of the children and grandchildren of her deceased brother and sister. When the company in town where she kept books for almost 50 years tried to retire her, she refused to quit working. Now her heart has tried to stop beating, but she won't let it.

My mother comes at the end of a line of Southern women who have spent their lives unselfishly taking care of business, taking care of others, taking care of each other. I wonder what my generation of women will be like when we reach the ends of our lives.

Next week Mama will travel to Tennessee to take care of Ernestine while she recovers from her surgery. Neighbors will bring peas and beans from the garden. Mr. Vaden will mow the grass on his riding mower. I will wish I were there to see the tradition of caring passed down once again, to carry that lesson home.

This column was first published in the spring of 1999. My mother is still healthy at nearly 74, and Ernestine still goes to work when she can though her surgery left her with persistent shortness of breath. Lucille died of cancer and the ladies of the church say they'll never be able to replace her.

  • At 71, my mother has reached the difficult stage of living among the dying.

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