Today would have been Mama’s 99th birthday. She died in April of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic–not from Covid but from a natural end-of-life after years of decline from dementia. Our family was lucky that the disease did not impact her personality as it does with many; she remained a gentle and kind spirit. The staff at Parkview, where she lived the last eight years of her life, gave her the nickname, “Miss Sunshine.” It wasn’t uncommon to have someone stop by her room “just to see her smile.”
One day when I walked in a black custodian was singing to her, sitting up close and belting out the song with lots of emotion. Mama watched her closely and had a pleased expression on her face. When I thanked the custodian for giving attention to Mama, she responded, “Oh, I sing to her a lot. Mrs Rosser likes me.” As time went on, I learned that the custodian would also bring Mama biscuits from Bojangle’s and other special treats.
Even when Mama couldn’t speak, she would watch the staff and other residents talking, catching their eye with a nod or smile; her smile came easily. Passing by other residents when I pushed her down the hallway in the wheelchair, she’d reach out to touch their arm–wanting to connect as she always had. As long as I can remember, Mama made it clear to others that she liked and cared about them. That’s one of the things I miss most.
Growing up, I’d hear comments, stereotypes about women being gossipy, or catty–backstabbing toward other women. I was surprised by those characterizations because I never heard my mother speaking in a negative way about anyone. As I grew older, I’d hear gossip from people in the community, but never from Mama. Sometimes, I wished she would tell me more of what was going on; maybe I wouldn’t have seen through such rose-tinted-glasses. But that wasn’t her way. She lived by the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” Sometimes I wondered what she was really thinking.
Over the years, I’d talk to Mama about the different challenges of growing older. When I graduated from college and was working in my first staff nursing position at UNC hospital, I was overwhelmed by the responsibility. In those days, they’d have you rotating three shifts in a ten-day schedule. I watched the evening supervisor come by our unit to check in with us before moving on to the other units. She looked much older than her years, tired, worn-out from being a nurse. I saw myself becoming like her and it scared me.
One day, I talked with Mama on the phone and told her about how exhausted I felt. I described my supervisor and said, “I just don’t know how long I can do this.”
Mama listened and then she said, “Just do it when you go into work tonight. You don’t have to do anything beyond that.”
Her words helped; I didn’t have to look too far into the future. I was worrying about tomorrow before it arrived. Come to think of it, I don’t remember Mama being anxious about the future; she seemed to either be focused on the present or recalling a good memory from the past.
When I was in my forties, I was seeing time pass, realizing my young years were behind me. Like anticipating what I faced in my career, I was wondering what was up ahead. Mama was thirty-one when I was born, just as I was thirty-one when my second child was born. From her vantage point of being in her seventies, she could look back from those three decades of experience and help me.
I asked her, “Mama, what’s been your favorite age?”
She’d told us so many stories of her good times in her twenties, working as a Civil Servant at Pope Air Base during WWII, that I thought she’d say that time; but she didn’t.
“Every age has good things,” she said. Mama didn’t elaborate. I guess she thought life spoke for itself.
Like Mama’s pattern of only saying good things about people, I sometimes thought it would have also helped for her to mention that each age has its challenges; but she didn’t.
Now that I’m sixty-seven, I’m most appreciative of how Mama faced getting older. I never heard her refer to herself as an old woman. She didn’t talk about things she couldn’t do because of her age. She was in good health and always had a lot of energy.
Mama traveled more in her sixties and early seventies than at any other point in her life. Our conversations never revolved around the medicines she was taking or upcoming doctors’ appointments; she focused on her painting classes, Bible studies, and Senior Citizens trips with Shallow Well Church. Most of all, she focused on her family– her remaining siblings, her children, and her beloved grandchildren.
Mama had a full and rich life. While her capacity to understand and communicate, and her ability to walk, changed drastically from dementia–she still had purpose in her life at Parkview. She made a difference in lives.
Today, I celebrate her and give thanks for all that God did through her in her ninety-six years. The spirit of Mary Smith Rosser lives on in all that were touched by her kindness and sweet smile, her gentle spirit and love of life.