I knew immediately what the news would be when the telephone rang shortly before 6 a.m. on the first truly cold Sunday morning of the fall.
My wife told me it was Parkway Village calling.
My mom, who had been going downhill since a fall earlier this year resulted in her hip being broken in three places, had died at age 90.
I drove quickly to the facility off Chenal Parkway, called my sister and then sat with Mom while waiting on the funeral home to arrive from Arkadelphia.
It’s Thanksgiving week, and all I could think while I waited with my mother’s body is how thankful I am.
I’m thankful to have grown up in a beautiful state, surrounded by good people.
I’m thankful to have had my father until he died in March 2011 at age 86.
I’m thankful for my wife and two sons.
I’m thankful for my sister and her family.
And I’m thankful to have had Carolyn Caskey Nelson for a mother.
I inherited my love of Arkansas from her. She was born Aug. 21, 1925, to Bess Rex Caskey (yes, my name comes from my maternal grandmother’s last name) and W.J. Caskey in the old White River town of Des Arc, a place filled with colorful characters.
Her father owned the funeral home and hardware store on Main Street (the two businesses went from the name Caskey to Eddins to Garth through the years but still occupy the building my grandfather built almost a century ago), and she was raised in a big house a couple of blocks away on Erwin Street. My grandfather was also a county elected official, and Mom told of trips with him to places across the county, places with names like Tollville, Ulm and Beulah.
The Caskeys were staunch Baptists, and Mom would laugh decades later at the memory of the elderly Catholic lady at Slovak who pointed to my mother and asked in her thick European accent: “Would the child like some wine?”
Mom was a proud daughter of the Grand Prairie, soaking up the traditions and culture of the lower White River region.
The First Baptist Church of Des Arc was just across the street from the Caskey home, and she would spend hours there. In fact, she was at the church practicing with the youth choir for an upcoming Christmas concert when word came on that fateful Sunday afternoon in December 1941 that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Soon, her three older brothers — Bill, Mike and Joe — were out of the country, fighting in the war.
There were three blue stars in the front window of the Caskey home on Erwin Street. It was just my grandparents, my mother and her older sister Ellen Bess, listening to the radio each evening for war news and saying a nightly prayer for those who were far from home.
Her brothers were still gone on May 27, 1943, when my mother spoke at her high school graduation. One of my most treasured possessions is a typed copy of her address that my sister found while cleaning out our family home.
“Most of us have grown up in a period of world-sweeping events,” Mom said that day. “Most of us are being impressed each day with the fact that we are coming out of school in the most critical period of American history. The far-reaching effects of the present great struggle for renewal of the rights of men is an inspiration for anyone. Deep in the heart of every boy or girl lives an ambition to become great. To study the noble deeds and great advancements of others is to long to do something equally as grand ourselves, and we are inspired with a burning desire for some opportunity for the display of heroism or strength of character. We see how far short we are of what seems necessary to do those things.”
She closed by saying: “There was a time long ago when a lonely band of Pilgrims faced fear and cold and hunger on the shore of a new and strange continent. Their inspiration was the cause of justice and freedom. There was a time when a nation struggling to be born almost perished at Valley Forge. There was a time when brother fought brother in America in civil strife. Those times passed, and so will the one in which we now graduate from school. America will again know a day when it will be not only the land we know and love, but a land of richer promise than man today has ever dreamed. In this there is an inspiration for today.”
Her three older brothers (all of whom would return safely from the war and live to ripe, old ages) graduated from Arkansas Tech. But W.J. Caskey — the staunch Baptist — wanted his girls to go to the Baptist school in Arkadelphia. Mom’s older sister had gone there. And my mom followed in the fall of 1943. She excelled in school at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University and after the war met Robert L. “Red” Nelson of Benton, who was returning to Ouachita following service in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a bombardier on a B-17.
Red was a sports star at Ouachita, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. He set what was then a school basketball record for most points in a game at Ouachita, scoring 38 points at a time when high-scoring games were rare. He earned 11 varsity letters — four in football, four in basketball and three in baseball. That was the maximum since Ouachita did not field a baseball team his freshman year.
Mom, meanwhile, was named the Ouachitonian Beauty.
The quarterback and the beauty queen were married on Aug. 11, 1946, at the Caskey home in Des Arc by the Rev. Homer Bradley, pastor of the First Baptist Church.
Mom graduated from college in the spring of 1947 and worked for two local businessmen — Cecil Cupp Sr. and John Malcolm Moore — while my dad finished his senior year at Ouachita. Following Dad’s graduation from college, he was offered the job of head football coach at Newport High School. He accepted the offer, and the young couple headed off to Jackson County, where my mom taught elementary school while Dad coached the Greyhounds.
Their first child — a daughter named Lynda — was born on Oct. 16, 1950.
After three years at Newport, my father joined his older brother, Lowell, in business at Arkadelphia. Dad had become known as one of the state’s up-and-coming young coaches but decided he could better provide for his family as a businessmen. The Nelson brothers built Southwest Sporting Goods Co. into one of the region’s largest providers of athletic supplies to high school and college teams, and my mom served for many years as the company’s business manager.
My dad would spend days at a time on the road calling on high school and college coaches. Mom stayed behind in Arkadelphia to help raise her family.
A son named Bob was born in 1954.
A second son named Rex was born in 1959.
The ultimate test of my mother’s faith and strength came on Feb. 29, 1964, and in the days, months and years that followed.
My parents and Bob were not people who missed Ouachita football and basketball games often. They loved the Tigers, and they had gone to Pine Bluff to watch Coach Bill Vining’s Ouachita basketball team play in the old NAIA District 17 Tournament. They were visiting the home of dear friends from college when a grocery delivery truck backed over my brother, who was playing in front of the house.
My mother held him as they rushed to the hospital, where he died at the age of 9.
As the father of two sons, I cannot imagine how one could go on after watching a 9-year-old child die. But Mom had my father, my sister and me to care for so she persevered, leaning on her strong Christian faith.
If the doors to the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia were open, we were usually there. Mom could be found each Sunday morning with my father in their usual seats in the balcony. He would look at his watch if the sermon were running long and the Dallas Cowboys had a noon kickoff. Mom would tap him on the leg, her way of asking him not to make a scene just because the preacher — Sam Reeves, Dan Blake or Nathan Porter — was going a bit long.
Mom and Dad celebrated their 64th anniversary on Aug. 11, 2010. They were a couple in the truest sense of the word. She was never quite the same after my father died on March 3, 2011.
Mom would be embarrassed by all these words I’ve written tonight. She was never one to draw attention to herself.
As we told stories at home on Sunday, my wife noted that Mom was considerate of others even in death. Though she longed to be reunited with Bob and my dad, it was if she had waited until my football broadcasting duties were over for the season (I did my final high school radio scoreboard show of the year on Friday night and Ouachita broadcasts had ended a week earlier) and everyone was headed home. Both of our sons already were scheduled to come home from college on Tuesday, so Wednesday’s memorial service won’t require a special trip.
Mom was one of those people who would be up offering another cup of coffee or another glass of tea during meals, leading me to often cry out: “Mom, please sit down and eat your meal.”
In her honor Thursday, I think I’ll stand around pouring tea during the Thanksgiving meal.
Our family’s faith teaches us that it’s not “farewell forever.”
It’s simply “farewell for now.” So farewell for now, Mom.
We’ll celebrate the life of Carolyn Caskey Nelson this Thanksgiving.
My hope is that your Thanksgiving is as filled with gratitude as the one we plan to celebrate at our home.
You see, I won the lottery when it came to having great parents. I will think of them daily for as long as I live.
Thanks for everything, Mom. I love you.