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Leona's lesson: Life's tough; that's no reason not to smile

I've spent quite a bit of time in the past year combing through my genealogical records and stitching together little biographies to coincide with my relatives' birthdays. I don't care whether lots of people read them — it's primarily an indulgent exercise that makes me feel closer to my family, most of which live hundreds of miles away — but I do care if they are accurate.

So when my Cousin Haley pointed out to me that I had omitted one of our favorite people from this week's birthday, report, I was ... ahem ... embarrassed.

Somehow, in compiling my massive database of relatives, I had recorded my dear grandmother’s birthday as Sept. 16, instead of Sept. 6. I have no excuse except that I’m terrible at remembering dates and the mistake just didn’t occur to me.

I explained this to Haley in a Facebook message and felt compelled to make amends. In fact, it occurred to me that if anyone in my family tree deserved her own separate birthday entry, it was my maternal grandmother, Leona Olive Williams Brooks Wilson.

So here goes.

She was born Sept. 6, 1916, in Rowan County, Ky., and died July 14, 2000, in the same county. She travelled a bit, lived in different places, but for the most part lived within 20 miles or so of the spot where she was born.

Granny was one of the sunniest people I've ever known. Yet, she was well-acquainted with loss. Her first husband, Otis Brooks, passed away before his 26th birthday, two years after suffering severe head trauma that forced him to learn to walk again. A year after his death, in 1945, the widowed mother of one married my papaw, Oliver Wilson. They never made a lot of money and endured some sorrow — like the unexpected death of Leona's father on Christmas Eve 1952. That memory made her a little blue around the holidays for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, Granny and Papaw had a happy life raising a family on the farm where Oliver grew up. They looked forward to his retirement, when they could fish and travel.

But those plans never came to pass — Papaw developed Alzheimer's and soon was unfit to travel. In one of my last memories of him, he stood next to me at the breakfast table and tried to show me how to tie a snell knot. Halfway through, he forgot what he was showing me. He looked at me, then the hook and line in his hand, then at me again. Then he dropped his hands, sighed and walked away.

His memory only got worse, and at times he was utterly incoherent.

Granny cared for Papaw as long as she could, then had to put him in a home. Papaw died in 1988. Within a few years, it was clear Leona needed some looking after, too, and that it was dangerous for her to live on a farm 30 minutes from anything resembling a town. So she and my Uncle Kenny, who lived just down the gravel road, sold the property that had been the family’s homeplace more than 60 years. A short time later, Leona's youngest child — daughter Vada, a lifelong sufferer of juvenile diabetes, not yet 40 — died of the disease's complications.

Vada Louise Wilson Caudill, Leona Olive Williams Wilson and Oliver Wilson.

This sounds like a life of pain and sorrow, and I'm sure Granny would probably concede she experienced her share of both. But only if you forced her to. In fact, I don't recall Granny being anything but grateful for the people and the time God gave her. She was a happy person because she was equipped with quiet resolve and a Christian faith that was neither preachy nor fatalistic.

Those are virtues in short supply today. I’m grateful to have experienced Granny’s example.

True, Leona Wilson was a worrier. But her fretting was borne of her deep concern for her family and friends. And when I think of her, my mind's eye does not conjure a knitted brow, but lips curled into a smile and eyes squinting with delight — when she talked to me, she reminded me of someone waiting on the punchline to a good joke. Granny loved to laugh, and she was well-stocked with a husband, children and grandchildren of quick wit. She was afraid of snakes and water, and she didn't care for cats or housework. She liked working outdoors with the men, and that came in handy on the farm, particularly since her spry mother-in-law could handle most of the laundry and cooking. Leona also liked to hunt and fish. Many Saturday mornings, she carried her single-shot 20-gauge into the woods, on the prowl for rabbits or squirrels. Some Saturday mornings, she carried her homemade donuts to sick neighbors. She adored her brothers and sisters. Around Memorial Day, she stuffed her living room with handmade, crepe-paper flowers to decorate graves.

And she always sent me $5 for my birthday.

Granny was a great old gal. I loved her every day she was alive, have missed her every day since she died and appreciate more with each passing day the precious example she was to all who knew her.

Even if I can’t remember her birthday, she will never be forgotten.

One of my favorite pictures of my grandmother, Leona Olive Williams Wilson, taken near the front porch of the home where she grew up, on Williams Branch in Elliottville, Ky.

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