When I was a kid, our extended family always went over to Mama Esther’s house on Christmas Eve. She was my great-grandmother, the matriarch of the Flippo side of my family, which has always been quite definitive for me and how I think about family. It was a huge crowd, with eight fully formed branches. There’s a big family cookbook that was made sometime in the 90’s, and my copy of it is something like a manual for southern cooking. It’s great food with a lot of soul, but if you only eat food out of it, you’re health insurance rates are going to go up. It’ll probably kill you, but you’ll die happy. It’s old school and kind of awesome, like most of my family is.
In the front of the book, before the recipes, there are pages and pages of family stories. I love reading these, and really can’t help but get a little choked up reading them sometimes. Alternatively, some of them really crack me up, like the story of my uncles burying a mule. (Seriously, I’m going to have to post that one sometime. It needs to be on the internet.)
The parts about Mama Esther are some of the parts that really choke me up sometimes. By the time I knew her, she was the ancient, respected matriarch—I remember her as an almost otherworldly presence, due to be treated with the utmost reverence. I remember that well, the sense of her aura, the respect that she was so freely given by everyone in the family when we were around her. When I read these old stories, all of that makes so much sense.
Mama Esther was born in December 1911, and she married young (16), which meant she only had a ninth grade education. In October of 1944, she gave birth to her eighth child. Two months later her Father died, and then in February 1945, her husband died in an industrial accident. She was 33 years old.
That’s right. At 33 years old (my age), she became a widow with eight children. By all accounts, she dug in with an unbelievable amount of grit and determination. She eventually became a nurse, but that doesn’t even start to describe how hard she worked to make it. In our family there is a long and deep current of persistence/stubbornness that I think is all traced to that part of Mama Esther. The woman just didn’t give up, and that ethic is worked down deep into the bones of her descendants. One of her daughters wrote later, “We are named Flippos, but whatever standards and values we may have in the way of courage, strength, or work ethic —as well as some of our faults—are all Mama Esther.”
Reading these stories is incredibly challenging to me. (Seriously, I have trouble when Kelly leaves me with the girls for a couple of days, and she pulled off the single mom role with EIGHT kids at home?) I can’t help but be proud of that heritage. It brings out the best in me, and challenges me to become more than I am. She was an incredible woman.
Near the end of her life she was in the hospital, having had a series of strokes. Her family got a call early in the morning, and were told that she had fallen out of bed. when they got to the hospital and asked her what happened, she is said to have replied, “See, you can do anything when you put your mind into it. It nearly took me all night to get out of that bed.”
Yeah, that’s the kind of spirit I want to have. Never give up.