It was on Valentine’s Day in 1961 that she brought me into this world. I liked to tease her when my birthday rolled around each year, saying I must have been her sweetest Valentine’s gift ever, but she said the birthing part wasn’t all that pleasant.
Her name was Aletha Gay (Hopkins) Gilliland, and she departed this life on Jan. 2, 2022, after a long battle with a multitude of illnesses.
I know most people like to say their mother was the best, but if yours was better to you than mine was to me, well, you were extraordinarily blessed.
My parents did not have a lot of money, especially in my early years. But if there was something my three siblings or I really wanted, within reason, they found a way to provide it.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how I feel about my mother, but to know that you are loved beyond measure is a priceless gift. And I will carry that gift from her with me as long as I live.
I probably cost her a few years off her life during my late high school and college days — sowing my wild oats and doing things like destroying every single piece of a large collection of family heirloom glassware when I helped knocked over a hutch while she was on vacation (and a brother and I thought we were too old for such family excursions). But she was always there for me, any day, anytime, anywhere.
There was a day when I was young and my dad was taking me to a Little League baseball game. I had done something to upset my mom, and on the way to game Dad looked me squarely in the eyes. “You better straighten up,” he said, “because your mother would give you the shirt off her back.”
I didn’t completely understand what he was saying at the time. But I do now.
My mother was sharp dresser, and when I had a dance or some other formal occasion coming up in high school, Mom took me wherever I wanted to shop. That usually meant a trip to J. Riggings in the Dayton Mall. I always left with what I wanted, knowing I would be dressed as sharp as anyone else, right down to a gangster-like hat, complete with feathers one one side, I wanted to match a suit she bought me for a high school dance.
Looking back at pictures of me wearing the hat, I’m not so sure I looked all that great, but I sure felt cool at the time.
When track season rolled around my senior year, I was determined to have the best and latest track shoes available. I don’t remember how many stores in how many cities Mom and I traveled to, but it was a bunch. Eventually, I found what I wanted. They were royal blue with big neon green stripes, and let me tell you, they looked really sweet with my red and white uniform.
Earlier during my senior year I got my first pair of Nike shoes for basketball. During a game early in the season I planted my right foot to make a cut left, and the right side of one of the Nikes ripped out from front to back. There I was, with a high top shoe tied around my ankle, and a sock-covered foot on the floor. I finished the game wearing one Nike and one Converse I borrowed from a guy on the reserve team.
Anyway, that same week a girlfriend and I attempted to return the Nikes at the store where Mom purchased them. We were treated rudely, and told they would not let me exchange the shoes.
That did not sit well with Mom. A few days later she made the long trip to the store, and I had a brand new pair of Nikes.
My mother did lots of things like that, probably many things we never even knew.
This week I received an email from my freshman basketball coach, Ric Allwood. “You only have one set of parents and you were very fortunate to have yours’. I can’t think of one of them without the other. They attended every event that you guys participated in. They were always together….” he wrote.
He was, of course, correct. They attended everything we were involved in, even when I did not deserve their presence — unless it interfered with church.
I could go on, tell you about how around Christmas Mom made loads of cookies and candies that we all delivered to church members and friends; how she took time for her grandchildren, nieces and nephews, visited often with her brothers, sisters and other family members; fixed three meals for her family every single day, whether she had a job or not (and you how we were expected to be on a time and seated with the rest of the family around a table); or how she and my father treated us to pizza and pop after every Sunday evening church service, even though in those early years they sometimes had to dig for coins to have enough money.
She liked to have fun, too. From time to time, just before we went to bed, she’d sneak in our room, hide under a bed, wait until dad finished his bedtime story with us, then as we were snuggling in, she’d start shaking the the bottom of the bed and roaring with laughter. On April Fools Day she seemed to get my dad every year. Sometimes really good, including one time when had dad picked up from track practice and we drove to Lynchburg looking for her’s supposedly broken down car. After our third our fourth stop to ask relatives if they knew where she might be, it finally dawned on us that we’d been had again.
We may not have had a lot of material things, but I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world.
Life was not kind to my mother in her latter years. She was ill for a very long time, including the last couple years when she was confined to a bed, able to do pretty much nothing for herself. It did not seem fair for a person who had done so much for so many.
She probably should have been in some type of care facility, but my father chose to care for her on his own, and she passed peacefully in her home.
If you can somehow hear these words, mom, please know that you are still with us in our hearts. You always will be. You left us with that priceless gift of knowing that we were loved beyond measure.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.