Life is generous with its lessons. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve all encountered many teachers. This is the story of one of mine to whom I’m deeply and enduringly grateful. Katherine Jones was born in 1896 in rural Pike County, Georgia. She was one of seven children and said to be the most beautiful of the five Jones girls.
She married John Clements when she was 19 and was widowed at 26 when John died from gunshot wounds received on 12th street in downtown Columbus, GA. Their only son was 2 at the time of his father’s death.
A news account from the time stated that Katherine was in critical condition from nervousness following the death of her husband, but by the time I knew her, she was the most carefree person I’d met so far. She was my Mama Kate and that 2 year old was my father. He remained her only child and I was his only child. She loved us both extravagantly, but we rarely saw her because she was always on the go. She was my lighthearted, world-traveling, exotic, glamorous grandmother.
But, oh, when she came to town, she brought laughter and sunshine. She thought I was beautiful and talented and could do anything I wanted, and, when she was around, I thought so too.
Mama Kate, widowed at age 26 in a time when there were few options for women’s employment, when women couldn’t own property or have a checking account, and had only recently gotten the right to vote, was a single mom and a liberated woman long before either became fashionable. She was the first person in our town to own an automobile. She played poker with the men, and won, and laughed out loud.
In our small town, grandmothers were people who went to church and cooked Sunday dinner and wore plain clothes. Mama Kate came to town once or maybe twice a year, wearing her elegant outfits, telling stories of distant places and interesting people, and then off she’d go again. When she was there, the world became a brighter, shinier place, a place with charm and laughter and excitement. A place of possibility, a place where a girl like me might find her future.
I wish I knew more of her story. Much of it must have been hard. I don’t know how she made her way up and out of the critical nervousness that followed her husband’s death or how she managed to care for her son. I don’t know what gave her the courage to become or where she found the strength to carry on. I don’t know how she had the wisdom to break the rules that needed breaking.
But I do know this. Because of Mama Kate, I always knew that the world was a big and fascinating place. Because of Mama Kate, this little small town Southern girl always knew that a woman could dream and dare, and sometimes laugh out loud.