I heard recently on television a request for essays on “the person who made the biggest difference in your life.” Immediately, I knew who that person was for me. I passed over both my parents, though they certainly influenced my life profoundly. My father, in particular, in both negative and positive ways helped to make me who I am. My Grandmother Junkins formed my conscience. She set an example of one who lived by the scriptures and wanted me to do the same. While I don’t always live up to her standards, they are indelibly stamped into my conscience and form the example by which I judge myself.
My Aunt Hilde, a war bride from Germany planted the idea that if I became educated, I could rise above what my mother expected of her children. Mama thought that a good job in the Dalton, Georgia mills was the most any of us could aim for. That was especially her expectation for her two daughters, and she frequently reminded us that we didn’t need a high school diploma for that. But as powerful as Hilde’s influence was, there was still another who was more powerful. I won’t use her real name, though, if she reads this, she will certainly recognize herself. I will call her “Cora Lee Humphrey.”
“Old Lady Humphrey,” as my mother resentfully called her, chose me as one of those girls who might be capable of making something of themselves, but lacked encouragement from their families. She wanted more than good grades from me. She wanted a well rounded educational record. So I had to take geometry, even though math was the one area where I consistently made low grades. I had to take home economics class, because a well rounded woman needed to know how to plan meals, set a table, and operate a sewing machine. I had to join clubs, because I needed to participate in worthy organizations, and I needed to accept leadership roles, because I had to learn responsibility. I had to do the devotion for student assembly because I needed to learn poise in front of an audience. She pushed me into writing an essay about “The Home: The Cradle of Democracy” sponsored by the American Legion. I had to rewrite that thing five times before she called it adequate. To my amazement, I won first prize at the school, county, and district levels.
Then Mrs. Humphrey decided I needed to work as her helper on Saturdays for pay. This gave her a chance to teach me even more about meal planning, cooking, mending, and how to operate a vacuum cleaner and how to use a food mixer. It gave her more opportunities to talk about college, too, and how an education could give me a better life. She found a loan fund where I could borrow to supplement what I could earn at a work-study school in Rome, Georgia. She pushed me into taking a college aptitude test and I was accepted at Berry College. After my high school graduation, she presented me with a check that she and others teachers contributed to help me begin college in May, 1957.
I learned something else on those Saturdays during my senior year of high school. I learned that not every marriage had to be based on the model I had grown up with–a relationship in which the man had all the authority in the family and the wife simply did what she was told. My mother could not control her envy. When I would mention that Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey were planning together which car to buy, or what to plant in the garden, or where to go on vacation, Mama would always say, “Well, I guess he’s scared not to do what she says. I wouldn’t have a man I could boss around.” Eventually, I figured out that the Humphrey marriage was the only model I would be able to live with–a relationship where both partners had a say in decisions. Thanks to that close-up example, I recognized when I met my husband-to-be that he was the kind of man who also wanted that kind of marriage.
Mrs. Humphrey gave me a new pattern for my life. In doing that, she provided a vision to my younger siblings of how they, too, could have a better life. I’m sure I was only one of many mountain young people whose future she shaped.
Thank you, Mrs. Humphrey.