She was born Freda Jo Henager, on October 27, 1943, 80 years ago today. She was the first of five children for William Austin and Nova Dean Henager, and she was the first and last love of my father, William David Strother. She was only 17 when she married David. I was born barely more than nine months later, the first of just four people in the world privileged to call her “Mom.”
Mom died in January of this year (2023). Pardon me while I remember the one most responsible for shaping the better parts of me, and least responsible for the rest.
I still have Mom as a contact on my cell phone. The picture I put on her profile is of her understated smile behind a pink Cadillac birthday cake made for her by my incredible son-in-law, Edward “The Cake Guy” Frys. That was 10 years ago, on her 70th birthday. It does not feel that long to me.
I opened our text message history the other day just to look and reminisce about conversations between us, and to seek out and bask in every “I love you, son” in the history I am glad I never deleted.
They call it Sundowner’s syndrome. It is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Alzheimers.org gives the following explanation for it:
Sundowning is increased confusion that people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia may experience from dusk through night. Also called “sundowner’s syndrome,” it is not a disease but a set of symptoms or dementia-related behaviors that may include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, agitation, hallucinations, pacing and disorientation. Although the exact cause is unknown, sundowning may occur due to disease progression and changes in the brain.alzheimers.org
The last text I received from my mother was on Wednesday, November 22, 2022. Less than two months later, she would die. The text came through at 3:17 AM, in the far reaches of the night. Mom was always early to bed (seldom later than 10 PM) and early to rise (always before 7 AM).
I am haunted by the mental anguish that kept her awake at an hour so unfamiliar to her. In the last couple of years of her life, Mom lived in a convalescent center. At first, it was a perfect place for her. She met new friends. She taught some of them how to play 42, a game played with dominoes. She led them to join together on Sunday mornings for a worship service, and though she had suffered multiple strokes rendering her speech difficult to understand, she sang the words of the old hymns she had played on the piano and sang all of her life in perfect pitch and with good diction. It was a good place for her to be.
Then came the dementia and with it, confusion and irritability, and, for the final months of her life, Sundowners syndrome. Often, she would call one or the other of my sisters, who live in Mt Pleasant where Mom lived, and who looked in on her almost every day, spending time loving and caring for their mother. She would call them at all hours and babble on, clearly not in her right mind. Sometimes, she talked nonsense. Other times, she cried like a frightened child and begged them to come get her. She was scared, lonely, and confused.
Her wee-hour text to me read, “Can use jujitsu.”
I don’t know what she was trying to tell me or ask me. It felt like a cry for help. I tried to call her but it went to voicemail. When I talked to her the following morning, she was in good spirits, unaware of the previous night’s trauma. I didn’t mention it to her.
I don’t know what she meant but if my mother says she “can use jujitsu,” I am inclined to believe her. She was always the guardian and protector of her children. She was slow to anger unless you messed with one of her kids or grandkids. She was my advocate, even when I was wrong, even when I royally screwed up. She didn’t excuse bad behavior or poor decisions, but she stood by you, and I believe, worse comes to worse, even from her heavenly perch, mom “can use jujitsu.”
So, stay back.
In the Summer of 1972, I was 10, going on 11. We lived in an old wood-framed, white clapboard, two-story house in Strawn, Texas. (I used this time and place as the setting for my semi-autobiographical fiction novel, The Preacher’s Kid, in 2002. It was my first book.) I was under the influence of Mark Twain’s signature character, Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to experience the same adventures ol’ Huck had. I was nowhere near the mighty Mississippi, but the Brazos River was not more than 20 miles away. A friend and I plotted to run away from home, make our way to the Brazos, steal ourselves a flat-bottom boat, and launch our own grand adventure. To a 10-year-old’s way of thinking, it was a foolproof plan.
The first order of business was to get away from the house undetected. My parents went to bed at 10 PM every night and were generally sound asleep within 30 minutes of retiring. We made our plan, my friend (who lived directly across the street from me), and I to meet at 11 PM. We would each have a few necessaries with us and would set out on our bikes, riding them until morning, then abandon them for the woods and backroads until we reached the river. This would, we predicted, keep us from detection.
My bedroom was the front room of the second story. My window overlooked the porch roof. It was nothing for a boy with cat-like prowess to crawl through that window and drop soundlessly onto the porch roof, leap to the ground, and escape scot-free. Everything went according to plan. By 11:30, we were a mile or so outside the tiny town, pointed towards the distant hills to the north. The night was clear and starlit.
Another mile and my friend’s enthusiasm was waning. He stopped his bike.
“Man, I gotta get back home,” he said. “I don’t want to worry my parents and we got a trip to grandma’s planned for next week. Grampa has that catfish pond.”
Truth be told, I was glad he cracked because I also wanted to turn that bicycle around and get myself to bed before my parents woke. We abandoned our adventure and returned to our small-town lives and our own familiar families.
The next morning, I was sleeping hard, exhausted from the previous night’s doings. As she often did, my mom came to my room to wake me. My mother might be described by some as stoic, not given to great outbursts of emotion or dramatic expressions of love.
That morning, when she woke me, I felt like she could see right through me…like she knew what I had done. She didn’t, I later learned, but it felt like she did.
Before she left the room, she paused in the doorway and looked me over. I felt seen. Understood. Unjudged.
“I love you, son,” she said.
She closed the door behind her. She always seemed to know best when to say I love you.
I contacted Mom’s siblings, children, and grandchildren, and asked them to share a favorite memory or moment with Mom. I was blown away by the things they wrote. I want to share them here. Since I can’t think of a better way, I will share them in the order they rolled in. They are all beautiful to me.
Freda and I loved to laugh together, even after her stroke she was trying to tell me something and I couldn’t understand her and she was getting frustrated and was making faces and I made the same face she was making and we both started laughing so hard. It was good to still be able to laugh with her. Loved our special times together.Nelda Johnson, sister
Remember the big glass jars she always bought us iced tea in ?? Always made our day & made us feel special!!! No one mentions her cooking much but we all knew it would be great if Freda Jo was cooking. Her famous Banana Pudding And her slaw is still best hands down!!Troy Henager, brother
The summwr I stayed with her. She gave me my first job and taught me what it was to be a hard worker. She even gave me my first driving lessons, and although I nearly killed us the first time out she never gave up on me. I spent so many weekends with her after Ty was born they were all special momentsAshley Blevins, granddaughter
My favorite time was getting to take care of her. I would get up in the morning then get her dressed and out of bed. I would take her to her to her chair and fix her breakfast before going to school, then after school I would go to work, then when I got home from work, I would spend some time with her watching TV before I had to put her to bed again. We would whisper secrets to each other and I got to cook with her.Madison Strother, granddaughter
My favorite memory of her is a recent memory when she got to meet Junior, Axle, and James for the first time. She had already had her strokes, well the majority of them, and was in the nursing home; nonetheless, she treated those babies as if she had knew and loved them their whole lives. It was special to me because even when her memory was fleeing quicker than she liked she would always “pretend” to remember them when we talked on the phone. I loved that about her.Lacey Bender, granddaughter
I loved Christmas with grandma, she always made sure everyone received something – even though she had very little. Her generous spirit always moved me. I also loved watching her bake those biscuits in the same pan my whole life. No one could beat those biscuits. And even just one person requested them, she was up and making it happen immediately. But my all-time favorite memory of Grandma is when we visited her and Dee right after her stroke. Ed walked in with a Bob Ross wig on and she laughed so hard! He danced for her too and made her chicken soup from scratch. She wasn’t eating much at all, but she ate that entire bowl. After such a dark time with the stroke, it was the flicker of hope we all needed.Holly Frys, granddaughter
OMG….I have so many. I am going to tell you one that you may not even know. After Dad died, I spent alot of time with Mom. I remember one time we traveled somewhere together (that part I can’t remember specifically where it was but it was a family visit and we were staying at someone’s house). Mom and I had to share a bed together. Now, you know this about me but no one else does…when I go to bed my feet are always so cold. I always tuck my feet under Gene or touch his feet or something to try and warm mine up…plus it’s just a comfort to me. I HAVE to touch my feet to him. Well, here I was in bed with Mom….I slowly kept nudging my feet closer to her wanting so bad to make contact for comfort and warmth but being nervous that she would think I was a fruitcake or silly or that I would make her uncomfortable. I think she just sensed what was happening and she said to me “it’s ok baby, you can put your feet over here by me”. I laughed and said I was sorry…it’s just a comfort habit I have with Gene. She said she didn’t mind and was happy to take his place. It meant so much to me that the mother of my husband wanted to “mother” me too in his absence… I was there on that trip to try and minister and be there for her…yet here she was ministering and comforting me instead. I loved her so much. I did not realize her greatness in the early years but grew to love her so deeply as time went on. She was the BEST and I am SO thankful she was mine and the grandmother to my children. What a blessing to so many!!! She loved fiercely and faithfully always. And her humor and laughter was infectious.Donya Strother, daughter-in-law
First of all thanks to all of you for making me ugly cry…. I can’t really pick just one but I choose to remember the good days. The days before her stroke and subsequent stints in rehab and then the nursing home. Even before all that she had gotten to the point where she couldn’t drive so I’d take her for drives. I loved anytime we went on adventures together. We would drive around and look at Christmas lights or lake houses… just whatever we wanted to do that day. She was the best mom and gave the best advice. I’ll never forget those precious times with her.Tammie Jo Hunter, daughter
One of my favorite memories with my Sister was right after she got married and I would go and stay with her. We watched Days of Our Lives every day and she taught me to cook. My favorite thing she taught me to make was meatloaf. Love me some Freda Meatloaf. I always loved going to the movies with her. She always laughed so hard I would laugh at her even if I didn’t know why we were laughing!Dollie Goen, sister
My favorite memory of me and mawmaw…it’s hard to just pick one honestly! When I was little, I would sleep with her just about every night. We would get in bed and she would get the Vicks out and proceed to put it everywhere on both of us. Then she’d tell me stories about ole Bobby socks. We never got tired of those stories either. Then as I got older I only felt closer to her. I could tell her anything and she would always know what to say. She was the kindest and wisest person! I’ll never forget her love!Kenzi Rolf, granddaughter
Piney, Texas will always hold such a special place in my heart. Around every corner I see traces of my Mawmaw. I remember her leading my to Jesus on that green carpet. I remember her stories of simpler times. She made me feel as though I knew my grandpa. I remember watching the 2006 rose bowl on a box tv sitting on a file cabinet in her bedroom because no one else wanted to watch football. I remember learning to drive a Lincoln Mercury all across the backroads of our little community. Most of all I remember her laugh.Zac Rolf, grandson
Two teenagers get all dressed up on Saturday night. Dad doesn’t have a dollar for us to get gas in the family station wagon but there is a case of oil in the back. We drive out to the edge of the pasture and fill up the tank with drip gas that is there for the tractors. Freda and I drive the 15 miles from Noodle to Merkel and cruise up and down Main Street, stop at the gathering place by the railroad track, and if we can find .50 between us, stop at the local cafe, have one order of French fries and share a coke.Linda Henager, sister
I was in here playing the piano this morning and thinking of Freda. She taught me all the basics, I wouldn’t be able to play if she hadn’t took the time to teach me because by the time I was born piano lessons was too expensive. I will never forget. Every night dad would tell us to sing, Freda would play and we would sing, she taught me how to harmonize. Great memories!!Nelda Johnson (round two), sister
Trying to narrow down any one occasion as my favorite with Mom has been very taxing on my brain. Thanks a lot Gene! I will share this moment because it shows her true loving & giving spirit. There was this one time in the early aughts that I was working in East Texas doing some high value appraisals on homes for insurance purposes. This appraisal just happened to be on the home for Brian Urlacher who was a linebacker for the Chicago Bears at the time but, I digress. I was living in Fate Tx at the time & I had driven out there to work without my wallet. All I had on me was my keys, my mobile flip phone & a can of snuff. I had planned on meeting mom for lunch at Pittsburg Hot Links & had to call her to let her know of my current situation. She said, that’s ok son, you just still plan on meeting me for our lunch date because regardless if you have your wallet or not, I still want to spend time with you. I did meet her for our lunch date & we had great conversation & a great time just talking & spending time with each other. She ended up paying for our lunch, obviously! She also gave me a $20 bill so I could make it home without worrying about wether I’d run out of gas or not. I thanked her, hugged her neck & told that I love her. Her response to that was & has always been I LOVE YOU TOO, SON!Don Strother, son
Dee is telling me that she didn’t get to write one of these. She was trying to decide on what memory to share. Then she couldn’t think of how to say it. She says what she misses most is sitting in the living room with mom watching their shows and talking about life. Well she didn’t get it out quite like that because of the speech issues she is experiencing but this is what she was trying to say… I thinkD’Anna Strother, daughter and the one who spent more time with Mom than any of us, as told to sister Tammie after D’Anna suffered a series of strokes.
You don’t have to look far to see the positive, lasting impression and impact my mother made on those who knew her best. But if you wandered outside our circle, you would find parents of daycare kids who loved the way she loved on their children. You would find teenage Burger King employees calling her “Mom” and learning life lessons they still talk about a quarter century or so later. You would find church-goers remembering her powerful Alto voice from behind the piano lifting hearts to Christ in song. You would find abandoned elderly people playing dominoes and worshiping because of her.
My mother lived a simple, understated life. She never sought a spotlight and she never shirked a responsibility. She was my rock when Dad died before I could tell him anything, really, before I could get to know him as a man. She lost her everything and was my rock.
Chance Hunter, her son-in-law, told me a story from a long time ago, when he was just her neighbor and not her son-in-law. The dog he loved was hit by a car. Its back was broken and it was howling and wailing in pain. Mom ran out to see what was going on. Chance was there with his pistol, knowing he needed to euthanize the poor dog, to end its misery but he was bawling. He couldn’t do it.
“Give me the pistol, son,” Mom said. “This dog is suffering.”
She did for him what he could not bring himself to do and Chance told me, “Right there, I saw both sides of your mother. She was tough and willing to do the hard things. And she was tender towards me. She did what I couldn’t. I have never forgotten that act of kindness and show of strength.”
Do you see? Do you see what she means to us?