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Happy 100th Birthday, Mama

My mother was born on June 27, 1918. Her name was Mary Grace Evans Ratledge, better known as Grace, Mama or Grandmama. At Mama’s funeral, several people mentioned that they had never known her name until that day. Well, she was just Mama.

Marlene Ratledge Buchanen

An amazing woman who never said, “I can’t.” She said she could, and she did. She never backed down from a job that needed to be done. Born to well-to-do farmers in South Georgia, Mama saw the depression take everything they had. She learned early how to care for the sick and dying. She helped plant, plow, and harvest. Coming to Atlanta at 19, she lived with a relative, worked at the old Atlanta Municipal Market, then at White Provision Company (slaughterhouse/meat processing company).

She was 93 and a half when she died. Remember that half!!! She said she worked hard for every one of those days and she wanted them all counted. She used to lie about her age and add ten years. When she turned 90, she decided she would tell the truth. She didn’t think anyone would believe she was a hundred.

Mama had a unique way of dealing with things. She had a look that would cause Medusa’s snaky curls to wither and die. I never got spanked. I got “the look.” Mama had a category for anyone who displeased her: SOB—Sweet Old Boy or Sweet Old Biddy. Either way, you didn’t want to be known that way to Mama. She could and would filet you if you did something she thought was hurtful or hateful. She didn’t take any stuff off anybody.

Eight weeks before she died, Mama was trimming shrubbery and decided she would cut down a small tree that had died in the front flower bed. When her lopping shears wouldn’t do the job, she got her hand saw. When the saw wouldn’t do the trick, she went back to the little white barn and sharpened her hatchet. That did it. She took care of the job, whatever it was.

Grace Evans RatledgeGrace Evans RatledgeShe met Daddy on a blind date while at White’s in June 1938. She said it was love at first sight. She said he was the most handsome thing she had ever seen. He was over 6 feet 4 inches, had beautiful blue-black hair. He was wearing a white suit with a black shirt and a black sling supporting his injured arm. Theirs was a true and long lasting love. Daddy sent 746 letters home while he served in the European Theater during World War II. She was his fantasy, his love, and his life.

Mama was a women’s libber before there was such a thing. In 1920, the suffragettes had won the right for women to vote, but women still struggled to be accepted into the workforce. Mama worked in jobs mostly held by men. She learned negotiating techniques on farm goods sales. She helped every member of her family as best she could. She made $9.00 a week, paid $5.00 for rent, sent $1.00 to her parents and saved $1.00. The rest was for the streetcar and food. She never felt that she couldn’t do the job that was needed. And she did everything so very well.

She set national records in the 1950’s and 60’s with Durham and Independent Insurance companies. She was one of a very few women agents. This had always been a man’s job. She was asked to oversee the entire Durham, Virginia district for Durham Life. But that would have meant moving, and Daddy was well established as a detective with the Atlanta Board of Education and Police Department and I was starting high school. She declined, and accepted a job as a secretary for Sylvan High School and eventually was given the responsibility of handling discipline, a job that previously had been delegated to one of the Assistant Principals. She had an old church pew that her ‘young’uns’ had to sit on until they were called before her. She called it the Mourner’s Bench.

Her grandson, James was the light of her life. She said he reminded her of Daddy with his black hair and olive skin. James stayed with Mama and Daddy before he started school and it was the most wonderful thing that could have happened to the three of them. He learned so much about flowers, animals, and birds. They maintained a bird sanctuary in the backyard. He said, “Grandmama spoiled me, and I liked it!” And she did. She was so proud of his every accomplishment and was his greatest cheerleader.

Snell became a son to her. She adored him, gave him a hard time and told him “I don’t know what I would do without you, and I don’t know what to do with you.” And then she would tell him she loved him.

If you tried to do something for her, she would push you out the door and sing “Good Night, Irene. I will see you in my dreams.” and laugh. She was never a dependent person.

Mama loved to dress-up. She looked like she stepped out of a magazine when she went to work. After retiring, she still dressed. Going to the doctor or the grocery store meant pulling out all stops. She loved her jewelry. She always wore a necklace or a broach on her blouse and always her rings. Her nails were rarely painted, but always long and beautiful. And yet she worked in her flowers and yard every day without gloves. She put on make-up and perfume to work in the yard.

Mama grew up knowing how difficult life could be and how much work was needed to survive the hard times. They didn’t live lavishly, and both Mama and Daddy worked hard for what they had. And we lived well.

She often told me how important Snell had become to her. She said “IF I go, I know you will be in good hands. I am glad you got him.” She said she wasn’t planning on going, but if she had to (die) she was going kicking and screaming. The night before Mama died, Snell sat up with her the entire night holding her hand. He frequently held her hand and sat with her. There was a mix-up, and we couldn’t get a hospital bed for a couple of days. I slept with Mama to be sure she was OK during the night. How many sons-in-law would crawl in the bed and sleep with their mother-in-law because his wife was so tired from cancer treatment that she fell asleep on the couch? Snell did, and Mama and I both were grateful for him, once again.

She and Daddy loved color and flowers. They enjoyed working in the flower beds, and their yards looked like Calloway Gardens. Hundreds of azaleas and camellias were planted in detailed little gardens with statuary and features. One of her favorite sayings was “The Earth Laughs in Flowers.”

She knew no other way to handle anything except full forwarding force. She helped her family as much as she could, and she loved Daddy and me. I promise you; she has not entered into eternal rest. Mama is planning a flower garden, sharpening her hatchet and laughing with Daddy.

Another of her favorite expressions was “time changes all things.” And it is true. We learn, we experience things, we age. Time changes our world.

Time changes all things, but the earth will always laugh in flowers. And Mama will live on in the hearts of those she touched. Wish you were here, Mama.