My Mom: My Hero, My Superstar, My Rock of All Ages

(My mother, Elizabeth, and my sister, Iraline, got to go to Keeneland with me this April)

I get to celebrate Mother’s Day with my lovely mother today, on Monday. Truth be known, though, I try to celebrate her wonderful, magical, amazing life every single day — even if she doesn’t know it.

She is worth that. She is worth so much more.

Whenever someone asks me about my mom, who will turn 88 years young this coming October, I often recant the story that explains her better than any other to me, and for me.

It came, oh, about 46 years ago. Her wayward and only son, who is the only hell my mother has ever raised (to quote the late, great Merle Haggard), was tempting fate and making waves, it seems, in our little hometown of Midway, KY. One night, my mom — who only attended church services whenever the doors were open (and they are open for business nearly every day, mind you) — was asked a question at the weekly Women Missionary Union gathering.

“Betty,” one of the ladies in the group boldly asked my mother, who is as tough as hand-made nail, “what are we going to do with Gene?”

My mom, never missing a beat or a second to show her love for her baby, responded with this:

“We are going to love him and keep him. Any more questions.”

There were none. And, like her definitive answer, there has never been a question about my mother; about her commitment; about her steadfast love. Not once. Not ever.

My mom, you see, is an amazing woman whose life examples are worth noting; worth repeating; and worth emulating.

She is still very much married to my Dad, who we lost in February 2017. At the time of his passing, they lived each day together for over 70 years. Don’t let that fact slip past you. Every day for 70-plus years. Side-by-side. I never witnessed a single argument in all those years. Oh, I am sure they had them. Or a cross word or two. My Dad was a contrarian, from time to time. But I never saw or heard it.

My mom was going to love him and keep him.

My mom, you see, grew up in a broken home. That was not the norm some 80 years ago. It was quite the contrary. Some days she spent in Louisville. For fun, she rode her bicycle around the dirt oval that was known then, and now, as Churchill Downs. All by herself. Other days, she spent with her grandmother in rural Franklin County. Most days, I am sure she wondered what ever happened to her own father — a hopeless and pathetic drunk at that time.

Many years later, though, after my grandfather managed to quit drinking and managed to stay sober for nearly 30 years. One day, he also managed to muster the courage to call my mom. He asked her to come visit him in Richmond, IN. Without anger, without hesitation and with a forgiveness that only God could muster, my mom went. The next trip, she took me. Over the years, we took many trips. My mom found the father she missed. I found a grandfather I never knew. And, I found out what Amazing Grace truly is.

My mom was going to love him and keep him.

My mom, you see, still drives her own car. Not just in little Midway, a town with just one, single, stop light. The day after she found out that I had been hospitalized and was in the Intensive Care Unit, she went and picked up my sister and brother-in-law and drove them down to the hospital in Louisville to see me. She didn’t know where the hospital was located. In fact, I didn’t even knew what the name of the hospital was.

But when I woke, there she was. Like she always is. My mom was going to love me and keep me. Again.

My mom, you see, still cooks pies for nearly everyone in Midway. She makes the crust from hand, and normally gets fresh fruits to include in the filing. She goes to the Midway Nursing Home regularly to visit some of her friends there. She drives to Frankfort each week to take care of her sister, who suffers from severe memory loss, and her niece.

My mom, you see, loves and keeps a lot of people.

I will go see her today, and give her a huge hug, and sit down to her lunch table — made by my grandfather’s very own hands. My sister and her husband will join us. We will reach out and hold hands, while my sister prays. And, we will eat one of the greatest meals every prepared by human hands.

It is with those very hands that she has loved me and kept me from the day I was born.

Sixty-two years ago, I was born in the Woodford County Memorial Hospital. At that time, unfortunately, the hospital was still segregated. There was a delivery room for whites. And, there was a separate delivery room for African Americans.

As fate would have it, the day that I finally decided to enter this Earth, there was no availability in the white section of the Woodford Memorial Hospital. Dr. Ben Roach — who owned Parrish Hill Farm in Midway with his lovely wife Ruth — asked my mom what she wanted to do. He gave her two options:

She could deliver me in the hallway, or she could deliver me in the section segregated for those people “of color.”

My mom — being the woman that she is — told Dr. Roach to head off to the delivery room segregated for those people “of color.” It took me about 24 hours of labor to finally make my long-awaited appearance, as the story goes. But I became the first caucasian to be born in the African American section of the Woodford Memorial Hospital.

That might not sound like much, or mean much to you today. In 1956, though, it spoke volumes. About my mom.

She was there to love and keep.

I’m a lucky man. I still have my mother. But it’s more than that. From Day 1 of my life to this day, she has lived her life of love, sacrifice, acceptance by example. I didn’t have to learn how not to discriminate. My mother made sure of that from Day 1. I didn’t have to learn how to accept all others. My mother made sure of that from Day 1. I didn’t have to learn to love all. My mother made sure I knew that from Day 1.

Today, I get to go see her. And, like my great mom, I plan on loving her and keeping her.

This was a test of two turns and she passed it with an ‘A plus.’ I’m getting to know her more and more. I was a bit concerned warming up today. I thought she might be a little too keen early on but then she settled really nicely and she did everything better than I expected going into a two turn race. She’s getting better even faster than I thought she would.

“I didn’t really know what to expect today. I watched her first two races and she was so far back and then I rode her and I was much closer but I didn’t know what that race was going to look like. Of course, she ran honest, she ran very well that day. And then today, she was a bit aggressive warming up.

“I hoped she wasn’t going to be too aggressive and get hooked up early on into a head and head speed duel. She relaxed so well though going into that first turn and took everything so much better than expected. She won well within herself and I didn’t have to get after her at all. I just asked her with my hands at the top of the stretch to just inside the eighth pole but that was pretty much it.”

Mike Smith, the winning rider on Midnight Bisou in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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