Three years ago, when looking for locals who could share favorite Christmas memories, a friend's mother seemed a natural choice for an interview.
Then nearly 80, Mindy Jeffers' mom had been around a while, seen a few things, and could tell great stories about her experiences -- all the ingredients of a good interview. She was also a kind, sweet lady, caring and comforting to others in spite of her own infirmities, and she had a heartwarming Christmas memory to share.
Like Christmas, Mother's Day is supposed to be a joyful time, too. But for those who have lost their mother, Mother's Day can be awfully hard. My friend and former Evans neighbor Bob Lillis lost his mom last week, and having lost my mom four Mother's Days ago, I have an inkling of the pain he's going through.
The Jeffers are now feeling it, too. Jean Honeycutt McCormick passed away quietly in her sleep Wednesday night, bringing an end to years of health problems that had mostly confined her to their Martinez home.
It is her gifts from most of her life that are best remembered, though, and not the rough parts at the end. And having gone and looked up her story from 2001, I just thought it would be appropriate to let her retell the tale of her favorite Christmas.
Jean Honeycutt McCormick was just a little girl, perhaps 10 years old, when she discovered the gift that she calls "her blessing." It was a talent for sewing that made possible the most special Christmas she remembers, some 70 years ago. And it was giving, not receiving, that made it memorable.
A Martinez resident since 1954 on McCormick Road -- named for her late husband's last name -- Jean came to Columbia County to pursue John's post-World War II dream of running a dairy farm.
After five struggling years of drought and another of flood, the disillusioned McCormicks sold off the cows and milking equipment, and eventually sold much of their farmland. South Columbia Elementary School sits in a former pasture, across the street from the home the McCormicks built, now shared by Mrs. McCormick and her youngest daughter's family.
Extended families under one roof were the norm when McCormick was growing up. Times were hard on the road they descriptively called "Rut 'n' Ridge," a barely-passable dirt track on the outskirts of Charlotte, N.C. It was just far enough away that the school bus didn't stop near the modest homes, so McCormick had to walk to school.
The Depression left little time for nonsense, and school often meant practical education -- especially for girls. "We had had a wonderful teacher, and she was teaching us girls of 10 or 11 to sew, to do things we ordinarily wouldn't do until we got into high school," McCormick says.
Thanks to those sewing lessons, it didn't take long to discover the "blessing." McCormick decided to use her newly developed talent to make Christmas presents for her mother and grandmother.
Her idea for a homespun gift seemed frivolous in a time of financial hardship, when neighbors often came to their North Carolina farmhouse for meals, when jobless vagabonds would show up at dinnertime. She wanted to make something "entirely inappropriate," something her frugal, utilitarian mother and grandmother would never dream of getting for themselves.
She wanted to make nightgowns. Not the practical, plain cotton nightgowns of summer or the warm flannels of winter, but frilly, pretty nightgowns to privately dress up the ladies she saw inside the hardworking matriarchs.
The task first meant an hour-and-a-half round-trip -- on foot -- to Belk's bargain basement in Charlotte to search for the right cloth. McCormick found just what she was looking for: peach-colored, "heavy, satiny, shiny, satin," 25 cents a yard. It had a flaw on one side, but to McCormick it was the perfect raw material for a dream. "There was no money. I guess I must have saved up my quarters and dimes and pennies for months to get enough for all that material," McCormick says. "I splurged my last few pennies and bought some blue ribbon, too."
To keep the project secret, McCormick had to sneak the material home and into the "front room" where her grandmother's White's treadle sewing machine sat. "Every afternoon when I got home from school, I did my homework first, and then my night chores -- what my mama called my 'night work' -- and then I bundled up in a warm old sweater and locked myself in the front room," McCormick says. "There was no heat in that front room, so I couldn't sew for very long. My hands would get to freezing and I couldn't handle the materials. So I'd just stay as long as I could and sew as much as I could.
"Eventually, in time for Christmas, they were both finished, pressed and wrapped up," McCormick says. "Christmas morning was all I hoped for. This was my first experience of the joy that comes from what I like to think of as my 'special blessing.'"
The reaction from the recipients?
"My mama was never a person who would gush or giggle or carry on about something. She was very sweet and kind to everybody, especially when you gave her something that meant as much as that did to me," McCormick says. "But my grandmama was just the kind to make you feel like you conquered the world. She oohed and ahhed and held it up and looked at it and bragged on it.
"She was a beautiful seamstress," McCormick says. "I know she must have seen many flaws in that old gown. But they were everything I hoped for."
Those who believe what I believe are confident that Mrs. McCormick is now finding the afterlife to be everything she could hope for -- a place without pain or infirmities, perhaps with a heavenly gown waiting on her, or some pretty cloth if she'd like to make her own.
Her real blessing was a life lived in kindness, and those she knew and loved were the happy recipients. That's a story of a lot of mothers -- Mindy's, Bob's, mine, perhaps yours -- whether they're here or in the hereafter.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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