A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Fond memories of mom bring a mixture of joy and sadness to the holiday season

The holiday season is, for me, a mixture of joy and sadness.

It’s been a little over five years since Mom, a victim of cancer, passed. Many of you know personally the sense of loss that time only partly diminishes. It abides, and that’s where I am now; doing fine…but there are those difficult moments that come, especially at this time of the year.

Looking back at our relationship, it honestly wasn’t a “momma’s boy” thing for me, but a comfort level with my mother never lagged; our bond grew stronger in the last few years as the disease raged and we were together more. To describe it better, Mom didn’t brag on me much. In fact, she gently chided me when I tended to get too full of myself. But I learned from others that she praised me in conversations, and hearing that, I soared.

Alma Faye Fryer Flairty

I knew she cared deeply, and I felt an instant connection each time we were in contact—whether if it were on successive days or after a three-week “hiatus,” and even the times when my mind selfishly focused elsewhere.

Mom lived in Butler (Pendleton County), me in Lexington, a few hours away. I still miss the sharing times on the phone with Alma Faye Fryer Flairty, like when something funny happened in my classroom, or when she ran into someone who knew me as a child and asked for a status update. Or me asking how her yard and flowers were doing…or her asking: What are you going to have for supper tonight? Little things like that.

And that gets me to another point. Let’s just say that I’m a blessed man today when my thoughts rest on three other women powerfully connected to Mom’s life; their presences then and now act as a sort of balm when the tender becomes a bit painful.

Wanda Slone met my mother at a book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, in Lexington, that I had in 2010, shortly after the cancer diagnosis. Mom traveled almost two hours to attend. The two senior-aged women must have hit it off well on that night because it started an old-fashioned letter correspondence between them that became so important to Mom’s spirits as her health deteriorated. The letters continued until Mom’s death.

Wanda had authored a sweet little book called Love, Grandma: The Memoirs of Wanda L. Stone, where she expressed eloquently her adoration for her grandchildren. Mom was moved by the book and she was moved by the notes of encouragement sent her by Wanda, who wrote them even as she dealt with her own struggles with declining vision. As I reflect, what Wanda did was both a “feel good” endeavor and one of active and deep substance, acting angelically. Wanda was, and is, a warrior for a good cause—just like my mother. I’m indebted.

I won’t forget a simple conversation with Rita Setness one day at Brookside Elementary, in Nicholasville. Rita was doing her internship in the classroom while I was filling in as a regular sub. The conversation, naturally, turned to me sharing about Mom. After listening carefully to my expressed sentiments, Rita looked at me squarely and said something approaching these words:

“My husband’s mother attends a church in Henderson, Nevada, and is active in a group that makes quilts to inspire those battling cancer,” she explained. “They sew encouraging Bible verses on the quilts and group members pray for the person…so would you like me to give your mother’s name to them? They send the quilts all over the country to minister comfort to individuals like your mother.”

“Aunt Mae”

That was an easy “yes,” and a few weeks later on one of my frequent visits to Butler, I met Mom sitting at her usual spot on the darkish-red couch in the living room. In almost Linus-like fashion, she held close to her body a beautiful, multi-colored quilt with short Bible verses. I know Mom, and she was enamored of the on-going gift that was set sail by the kindness of my friend Rita. My dear mother glowed.

I never saw Mom without the quilt close by for all the remaining days of her life on this good earth. Accordingly, my brother and I decided to bury the compassionate gift with Mom. It was the right thing to do, we agreed, and it comforted us then and still today. Rita made a difference by her proactive stance, and I salute her.

Not long afterward, Rita saw the unexpected passing of an adult son, Jonathon. Not surprisingly, she used her own suffering as impetus to write and publish a book, Surviving Child Loss. Always, Rita reaches out to comfort others.

Then there is Mom’s living twin sister, Alta Mae Fryer Johnston, or “Aunt Mae.” I possess something that likely most don’t enjoy in similar situations; and that is the opportunity to share in a person’s life who looks like my mother, talks and has mannerisms like my mother, and most importantly, has an intimate shared history with my mother.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Now 86, Aunt Mae is a jewel of a person with whom I can sit and chat about her dear sister, the very one who gave me birth and sustenance. For both Aunt Mae and I, you can be assured that the phrase “I “miss her” comes up quite often in our conversations.

Ironically, Aunt Mae continually thanks ME for visiting her, when I consider the pleasure of her company to be mine. I often share pictures of my dear aunt on Facebook, and though she doesn’t get on social media (doesn’t do computers!), she’ll often playfully ask: “How many ‘likes’ did I get?” When I tell her “a lot,” she giggles…just like Mom used to giggle.

They say some people are born lucky, and I have to agree, at least by looking at my life. To have such spirits as Wanda, Rita, and Aunt Mae being part of this guy’s existence, it’s probably better to be lucky than good. I hit the jackpot.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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