It was a sad Christmas. My mom died two days before, with the funeral the day after. A hectic and heartbreaking holiday.
For me, like so many others, there is nothing like the loss of your mother. No doubt that’s because there is simply nothing like a mother. Or a mother’s love.
While I was blessed to have that, it was only the beginning. She was also a huge influence on my working life, through her example of determination and hard work. Mom was born in 1929, a Depression baby in a rural family that was poor even before the crash. What she would accomplish would change that situation in one generation, ultimately lifting myself and my siblings to middle-class comforts, college educations and varied opportunities that she herself could never have imagined as a child.
Though she only went to school up to the ninth grade, she was the smartest person I knew. Nor did she let the lack of formal education hold her back, parlaying her natural intelligence, personality and beauty — along with endless effort — into a 40-year career with the Spainhour Company, the premier department store in my hometown of Hickory, N.C.
For 75 years, Spainhour’s was to Hickory much like what Tapp’s was to Columbia for those in the Midlands. And Spainhour’s, like Tapp’s, would pass into history in the 1990s.
My mother spent three decades as the head buyer for the company, traveling to New York City regularly to select the women’s clothing to be sold in the big, beautiful Main Street store. Area ladies, young and old, relied on her sense of fashion and budget to dress their best.
But she was always so humble about her job and her achievements. When my high school held a career day, a teacher of mine suggested I ask Mom to come and talk about fashion and retail. When I told her about it she said, “But honey, I didn’t even graduate from high school.”
I assured her that didn’t matter. She did it, and her presentations were wildly popular. (By the way, after she was well into both her 40s and her highly successful career, my mother went to the local community college to get her GED. She believed deeply in education, and wanted to be a high school graduate.)
While holding down a demanding job, she also raised four children over 40 years. Mom had babies at 17, 24, 27 and 37. Looking back, I can’t imagine how she did it all.
And there were the challenges those children presented, including yours truly. Having won the position of editor of the student newspaper at North Carolina State University, I promptly got into big trouble with the April Fool’s edition of 1976. While the parody issue was a tradition, you might say we took it to another level that year.
The longtime chancellor (president) of N.C. State had announced his retirement, with the search underway for his successor. Our April 1 paper announced that Jesse Helms was resigning from the U.S. Senate to become the new chancellor, and in doing so was abandoning his social conservatism and endorsing a philosophy of “drugs, sex and rock and roll” at the Raleigh campus. Topping it off, we did a full-page centerfold of Helms (a la Burt Reynolds), his face grafted onto the body of a sportswriter, naked except for a strategically placed straw hat.
The parody paper exploded as a news story in both Raleigh and Washington, D.C., and Helms didn’t like the joke. He told the media, “I wonder what that little boy’s mother thinks of his journalistic efforts.”
Within 24 hours, there were doubts about whether I would continue as editor of the newspaper, or even as a student at N.C. State. As the centerfold spread, I was summoned to the chancellor’s office. Once again, it was Mom to the rescue.
I entered nervously to find Chancellor John Caldwell unexpectedly smiling. He said, “I just spoke with your mother. She said you’re a good boy and a good son, and that she is indeed proud of your journalistic efforts.” He laughed and added, “Though not so much this one in particular.”
He then said, “Now I’m going to issue a statement saying I’ve had a frank discussion with you, that we’re moving on from this and that you will remain the editor of the paper. Now go call your mother and thank her.”
I did. But I could never thank her enough, for that and so much more. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. As we begin the New Year, I propose a simple toast: Here’s to mothers, yours and mine.
Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.