Remembering Willene

Gary and I had been dating for several months that autumn of 1978 when he invited me to join his family for their annual Thanksgiving gathering.  Everyone piled in to Jay and Teetle’s house in Winston-Salem, North Carolina……….dozens of them!  It seemed that there were people everywhere, in every nook and cranny of that house on Carter Circle.  I walked in to the talking and laughter, overwhelmed with the introductions and the people that I was meeting for the first time – people that I knew in my heart would someday be a part of my life.  It was a warm, inviting atmosphere because Gary’s family is some of the warmest, kindest people I have ever known.  Yet on that day I didn’t know anybody, really, except for Gary – who tried to stay close but somehow wasn’t close enough as I tried to remember names and to connect whom belonged to whom in the confusion of names and relations. 
The person that I was most nervous about meeting finally stood before me……….a rather tall woman, with those long Edmonds arms and with a rather inquisitive look in her eyes.  I’m sure she was as curious about me as I was about her.  We were introduced, and then I reached over and hugged her.  I realized instantly that this was a surprise to her, and I felt embarrassed as she rather stiffly returned the unexpected hug.  As the day went on, we had more time to casually talk and I’m sure to watch each other at a distance.  I don’t remember much more about that busy, full day of new people and so many names and faces to assimilate.  But I had finally met my future mother-in-law, Willene Crawford.  That was the beginning of building a relationship with this amazing woman.



Willene and her mother, Rachel
Willene and her dad, Edgar

Willene had endured a very rough childhood, full of hurts over the early, tragic loss of her father, Edgar Edmonds, and the subsequent remarriage of her mother to a man who turned out to be an abusive liar.  She had a hard life for many years, but when I met her she was married to Homer Crawford, and she was settled and happy.  After Gary and I were married, she became Mom to me.  I soon learned that she was a woman with a very giving nature, and to whom family was her world. 

Willene Edmonds
 

Our first little house was full of items that she gave us to help us get started…….from bedspreads to curtains to canned goods and pumpkins.  Yes, pumpkins!  I’ll never forget the fall weekend that she came to our little house in Winston-Salem from her home in Tennessee with a car full of pumpkins.  We scooped out pumpkins, cut up pumpkins, boiled pumpkins, mashed pumpkins, and froze the end product in dozens of freezer bags.  Gary and I enjoyed pumpkin anything and everything for months……….pumpkin muffins, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin cake………….and the memories of that weekend were woven in to every bite. 

I loved Willene’s cooking and once asked her how she came to be such a great southern cook.  Her answer was simple – “Practice, practice, practice!” she said in her usual rather brusque tone.  Yet with all these years of practice, I’ve never accomplished her simply delicious art of mountain, southern cooking.  The last time she came to visit us here in Kansas,  she made biscuits – a treat we always looked forward to with watering mouths.  Her biscuits were perfect!  Of course, she had no recipe……….so as she dumped her ingredients into the bowl, I would stop her and then I would measure each item and write it down.  Still, though I seldom make biscuits, the times I have made them never do justice to the flaky, delicious biscuits that she produced.  Maybe it was her touch more than anything………..and the fact that I’m not practicing the art of biscuit making enough!

Homer died when Gary and I had been married for five years, and I was pregnant with Aaron.  That was such a sad time, another blow in Willene’s life of disappointments.  She moved back to Bryson City, living in Mama Rachel’s old house with Sandra and Mama Rachel right beside her in Sandra’s new home.  It was a good arrangement.  She was able to come see us after Aaron and Andrea were both born.  We were living in Colorado Springs where Gary was stationed at Fort Carson.  We had a small house in town, with not a lot of room for two babies and three adults…………but it was so much fun to have her come.  I never worried about things being perfect when she was with us because Willene was so laid back.  A perfect house didn’t matter one bit to her.  Time with family was what was valuable to her, and the times that she was with us were so special.

She came to Colorado in January of 1987 to spend several months with me.  Gary had been assigned to training that previous October en route to our new duty station in Germany.  There I was, with 2 year old Aaron and 4 month old Andrea……….and a house for sale in the middle of a Colorado winter.  My parents came out for awhile to help, and then after Christmas Willene came to stay indefinitely.  What a blessing and a lifesaver she was to me!  It was so wonderful to have her companionship and her assistance during that long, snowy winter.  By this time we were very comfortable with each other.  We talked and talked; we shopped; we ate out when we could; we cooked a lot; and she and I loved on her grandchildren.  She dearly loved those babies and she enjoyed every minute with them.  She even tolerated my new mother ways of doing things, and never tried to undo any of my decisions.  I did smile, though, when I’d see her sneak Aaron a little sip of forbidden soda or a little bite of candy. 

We’d scurry around to clean the house when the realtor would call to tell us that he was headed over with a potential buyer.  Then we’d pack the kids in the car and head out to the mall or to Target to kill time until it was safe to go back to our house.  She’d watch the kids while I shoveled yet another deep snow off the driveway and sidewalk, or when I had a military event to attend.  And when our packers came in April of that year, she was right there keeping the kids occupied and helping in whatever way she could.  She rejoiced with us when our realtor called to tell us our house had sold on the night before we were leaving Colorado!  She adjusted along with us as our trip out was delayed for several hours while we rushed through a hurried house closing, and never minded one bit when Gary took me to buy a new dress with some of the money we received at our closing.  It was a sweet, happy, but yet exhausting time.  I can only imagine how tired she must have been, but she never complained. 

We drove two cars across country as soon as our business was done in Colorado, heading out late in the day.  Gary drove our little S-10 pickup with Aaron happily chattering or sleeping beside him.  I followed in our Ford Tempo, with Willene sitting in the back watching over Andrea in her car seat.  Willene helped so much as she took care of Andrea’s every need, and as she helped keep me awake as I drove.  We were in awe together of the enormous, full moon that was in the sky as we drove across Texas that night.  We spent the night in Fort Smith, Arkansas before making our way to Bryson City, North Carolina that next day…….worn out but so happy to be home again.  Gary and I had time there, and time in West Virginia before he left alone for Germany in May.  The kids and I stayed behind until August, splitting time between NC and WV.

Willene adored her grandchildren, and in 1990 was thrilled to meet Andrew for the first time when we came home from Germany for 6 months before returning for another three years.  She came to Germany to spend some time with us, too, and what fun we had traveling over the country and showing her sights she never dreamed she would see.  She was able to come to each place that we lived – Alabama, Colorado, Germany, Kansas, and Arizona.  She loved our visits to Bryson City.  Days there were full of family, love, and many good times. 

Willene and family with Mama Rachel
 
Willene taught me how to do lots of crafts.  She loved to make things and she was very gifted in that area.  Before leaving for Germany, she taught me how to make rag baskets.  After we were settled in Germany, she would send boxes of fabric rolls that she got at the outlet where she worked.  I made and sold those baskets in craft stores there in Germany, as well as rugs and other crafts………….all because she cared enough to take the time and make the effort to see that I had what I needed.  She loved sending us all sorts of things from the outlet where she worked………bedding, towels, blankets, and so much more.  And there were boxes for the kids that would come, full of clothes or toys or goodies.  She was an awesome Granny, even though she was far away.

 
As her health declined and she was on dialysis, she never let it get her down.  She forged ahead with her life, even coming to visit us here in Wichita several times, dialysis or not.  She would continue her treatments here.  One day in February of 2007, she drove herself to her dialysis treatment, but she became sick there and had to be transported to the hospital in Asheville.  She had surgery and then she continued to decline.  Gary and I went to see her several times, and in April of that year we brought her for a day visit to Sandra’s for the last time.  Gary and I brought Andrea and Andrew to see her that summer as her condition continued to grow worse.  We received the call to come home in October of that year.  Gary and I drove all night to get there, going straight to the hospital in Asheville. 

I was shocked at the sight of her laying there in that hospital bed, unconscious and struggling to breathe.  This strong, independent woman was finally nearing the end.  She had accepted Christ and was ready to go, but none of us were ready to let her go.  We stayed at the hospital all day, and before leaving that night I leaned down close to her ear.  I told her that I loved her, and I told her that she was the most wonderful mother-in-law that a girl could ever ask for.  I hope she heard me………..I hope she knew my heart.  For though we always said “I love you” after every phone call or visit, I wanted her to know that she truly was an amazing woman and a precious part of my life. 

She passed away that next morning.  It’s been five years, and she is missed as much now as ever.  We laugh and smile when we talk about her, and the kids have many special memories of times with Granny.  I’m so thankful for that!  “Practice, practice, practice,” she told me.  But you can’t practice to be what she was.  She was the real deal, honest and straight-forward, blunt to a fault……….and with a heart as big as all outdoors. 

We miss you, Willene.  We miss you, Granny.  I miss you, Mom.

 

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