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Manners, biscuits and a gourd named Hissy

Obituaries are the last story most of us ever tell, but there’s so much that they don’t cover.

There are dates, a few milestones like a spouse and children. Some contain information about the subject’s interests. Many contain references to their faith and family. Others briefly describe the decedent’s work, military service, hobbies, causes and sometimes pets. There is so much history recorded in obits (as we call them in my trade), but there’s so much that’s lacking. Take, for example, the one for Lois Covert Weaver.

My mother was born in October 1929. She was 74 when she died. She was the widow of Tom Weaver (my father) and a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. She was a member of the First Baptist Church of Clinton, and sang in the choir for many years. She was an active supporter of the arts, having served as president of the Arts Council and Sampson Community Theater. She was instrumental in the preservation of the Dr. Small Arts Center, and was a member of the Garden Club, Woman’s Club, and Friends of the Library. Funeral services were held on Tuesday night, Sept. 17, and a graveside service took place the next day at 11 a.m.

At the time she was survived by three sons, two daughters, a stepson and stepdaughter, several siblings, 12 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. There’s so much in those simple sentences, but there was a lot more, too. Lois was called “Chigger” when she was a little girl on the hardscrabble farm in Northern Virginia where she was born. She earned the nickname after getting covered in red bugs. Her parents, James and Myrtle, grew crops and raised much of their own food. James did other jobs in season, ranging from commercial hunting and fishing to trading in horses. The girls wore flour sack shirts and dresses, and the boys wore overalls. One of the girls died at a young age. All the family helped when a wildfire rolled through the woods and over the fields, nearly reaching the house. Lois was five or six at the time.

When the Depression took the farm, Lois and her family moved to Washington, D.C., where James drove trucks and eventually went into business for himself.

Lois learned to babysit, then later went to work in a doughnut shop a few blocks from the U.S. Capital. She was a very attractive girl with dark eyes and curly hair, and learned to walk fast to avoid some of the less-than-polite men on the streets of Washington City. She married and later was divorced from a soldier, and was living with her mother and four kids in Colonial Beach when she pestered the publisher of a newspaper into giving her a job. In her own words, she worked “with one of the meanest editors” she ever had – the man who would be my father. Miss Lois had stories, songs and skills for every occasion.

From the time I can remember, Mother loved music. She had a lovely alto voice, leaning toward soprano in some songs, and she loved to sign. When my brothers and sisters were at school and Papa at work, it was just Miss Lois and I in the little house in the cornfield. She would sing at the top of her lungs, either a cappella or with whatever happened to be on the record player. She was never embarrassed on the rare times people pulled up and accidentally discovered her in the middle of an impromptu concert.

The sound of my mother singing is still strong in my mind, whether it was in that little house in the corn or her last home, the one she loved the most, where I walked in to find her singing as she mopped and painted and got the house ready for moving day. She had skills, some of which have long since been forgotten in this day and age.

Miss Lois knew how to do stuff: how to insulate boots when it was snowy and cold, how to use a few native plants under a piece of a bedsheet to heal a wound, how to iron a shirt or press a pair of trousers. She knew how to use a worn out towel to make washcloths, which became dishtowels, which in turn became pieces of a rag rug. As a child of the Depression, she taught us not to waste a doggone thing. She made sure each of us could at least cook enough to feed ourselves and the family if called upon to do so. We all learned to repair clothing, and if we wanted, she taught us to sew as well. By example we learned to grow things, although some of us had better luck with that than others. She taught us to paint, to dance, to fight (after all, she had numerous brothers) and most importantly, she taught us to read. She taught us to love and nurture books, as well as the written word.

Miss Lois loved the arts, even stuff she admitted she didn’t understand. Almost any kind of music, paintings both conventional and abstract, sculpture, architecture – even if she didn’t think something was pretty, she recognized the heart that went into it. She loved the process of creating art of any kind even more than the finished product, I think, whether it was a handmade quilt, a wall-sized canvas, a stage production, or a long gourd on which she painted eyes and smiling lips, and named Hissy. She could tell a story that made you scratch your head at first, but then you’d realize how it applied to whatever situation you were facing at that moment.

She would pour her heart and soul into every orphaned animal we brought home, whether it was a sick kitten or a fledgling bird. She celebrated when they were healed, cried when they went free or were adopted, and mourned when they died, but she kept on. There was always another one that would show up in need of help. She had the ability to quiet and comfort almost any child, and I got to see her do so on a number of occasions. It didn’t matter the skin color, language or location; Miss Lois could make most any little kid feel better.

Once when she was covering a murder trial, Mother happened to sit near an obviously stressed Latino lady in the hallway. The woman had three or four kids with her, as well as an almost hysterical little boy of about a year — and she couldn’t speak a word of English.

Miss Lois didn’t speak Spanish, either, but it didn’t take long before she had the little fellow asleep in her arms, was telling one of the other children a story about owls, and had drafted a deputy to find a translator to help the harried mother. Miss Lois taught us to love, the way Jesus Christ instructed. I’m not proud of the fact that as a haughty 13-year-old, I sent a fellow on his way when he stopped by our house, asking for something to eat. Miss Lois made me run him down, ask him to come back, and give him the last piece of pound cake.

Miss Lois taught us loyalty as well as love. She never complained about having to learn new skills as my father’s health deteriorated, working hard to keep his spirits up even as he weakened and his body died. She loved my father with an all- consuming passion, as he loved her. Indeed, she discovered he had passed in his hospital bed when she reached out to hold his hand, as they often did. I think that love kept her own health problems at bay until she no longer had to take care of him.

Lois C. Weaver was a child of the Depression, a reporter, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, patron of the arts, singer, and artist.

Her obituary doesn’t mention the weeks we spent watching her mental health fall apart, her frustration at no longer being able to do the things she loved, her anger as she lost the ability to walk and talk, or the happiness in her eyes when she reached a certain place and no longer knew what was happening.

It doesn’t mention how in the very last days, she fought as Chigger had fought the wildfire beside her mama and daddy, as she had fought her brothers, as she had fought to save the old house that would become the arts center, after she fought to save the theater building.

It doesn’t mention her biscuits, the cake she made as a tradition each Christmas, the way she stressed over making sure holiday meals were both pretty and delicious, or how she made darn sure her sons didn’t run around with their shirttails out. It doesn’t mention the silly little ways she told her children she loved them. It doesn’t tell how her home, the one she finally got and that she loved so much, was just a shell when we told her goodbye the last time.

Mother and the Old Man always did something special on Valentine’s Day, even if it was just getting a cup of coffee in a restaurant. I like to think that’s why she left us on that freezing cold Feb. 14. She and Papa had plans in Heaven, and she didn’t want to keep him waiting any longer.

The children of Lois – and that includes their spouses and grandchildren – learned a lot from her. She taught us more lessons than we could ever record. But she never taught us how not to miss her, even after all these years.

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