STATESVILLE, N.C. — Less than a decade after the Woolworth sit-ins, my mother drove across North Carolina to deliver a birthday cake to my older brother’s dorm room at Duke University, left it and turned back around. It was still waiting for him the next morning and 40 years later at a reunion, he was remembered as the student whose mother brought him a birthday cake.
When the Black Students Union took over a building and she couldn’t reach him, she dispatched a delegation of five Presbyterian ministers to the campus to find him.
My brother and sisters were sharing why we considered her a virtuous woman as we sat in her hospice room in our hometown Saturday. Although she never opened her eyes, the doctor and attendants assured us she could hear every word we said. Because her faith was one of the most important legacies, it was part of a worship service.
Order was another important legacy. We ate dinner at five o’clock every day in assigned seats throughout our entire childhood.
Documentation was extremely important, recalled my younger sister. She kept a record of everything and insisted that we participate in any worthwhile activity. Would we leave for some place and not arrive, her extensive network would alert her.
Even to this day, we are defined by her example as a high school valedictorian in the 1940s. When my older sister ran for the leadership of the regional real estate organization, a childhood friend described her as “one of those smart Templetons from Statesville.”
My brother said, “I always knew I could go anywhere, do anything and compete with anybody.” She had a way of inspiring big goals. At age five, I calmly sat in a porch seat with my grandfather and explained in 1960 how I would get elected president in 1992 after first becoming governor of North Carolina and senator. For the rest of his life, he callled me “Senator.”
Evoking a combination of respect and fear despite never cursing or even raising her voice, she taught us that nothing was more important than character. Because she relied on the facts, she was relentless and unyielding in a fight, most especially for our late younger brother during a 40-year battle with the mental health establishment. He was autistic and did not use language in a conventional way. But she knew his inmost thoughts and devoted her life to caring for him.
Rather than respecting that connection, the research establishment made him the victim of a number of misguided experiments and he tragically lost his life when police responded to an ambulance call and took him to a jail instead of a hospital. As soon as it became known that it was her son, the entire community rallied behind her. A Superior Court judge became an advocate to create a new law requiring all law enforcement personnel be trained in how to respond to the autistic and the N.C. Autism Foundation create an award in my younger brother’s name.
An awestruck local NAACP branch president watched events unfold and every time he saw me over several days, said, “I shore like the way you all handle your business.”
So we turned to Proverbs 31:10-31 and I Timothy 2:9-10 so that we could let her know what we had learned from her. The physician explained that our society has lost touch with the natural dying process, which occurs for 80 per cent of all deaths and can take one to two years. Less technological societies have rituals to incorporate that natural process, but we have been misled by soap operas and movies to expect that modern medicine can stop death in all cases.
However the physical body which had seemed ageless into her eighth decade had been on a steady decline since three strokes in 2008. I was told to bring a black suit back then, but had the joy of sitting in her hospital room on Election Night 2008 and reminding her to vote absentee again in 2012 for America’s first black president.
After the benediction, the assistant told us she didn’t expect any changes so we left for the day. About six hours later, we received a call to return to hospice, driving back from Charlotte in the rain. We made it just in time to embrace her for her last breaths. Rev. Tim Bates of our home church, Calvary Presbyterian, came out to comfort us as we waited for the funeral home to pick her up.
He officiates at her memorial on Wednesday, Jan. 8, which would have been her 89th birthday, at 2 p.m. at Calvary 500 S. Green St. in Statesville.