After I was brought on a pillow to my mother, she began the formidable task of teaching me to eat. This endeavor continued to be a battleground for many years. Every day before school, Mom insisted that I eat breakfast because she knew I would refuse lunch at school — except when there was chili, of course. Our school lunchroom made the best chili, and it was always a relief to her on the days it was served.
Mom encouraged me to take part in many activities, and if she could help, she made it a priority to do so. I learned the joys of working hard and winning, and it made an indelible impression on me. Each fall our school had a Harvest Festival around Halloween. It was a child’s delight, an evening filled with bobbing for apples, a spook house, games to play at different booths, and a cakewalk. Students sold tickets to the cakewalk, and the boy and girl who sold the most tickets were crowned king and queen of the carnival. My irrepressible energy went into action, and in the fourth grade, I was crowned queen of the festival. Oh my, what a memory! I had a formal dress (made by Mom) and a crown that evening. Pretty heady stuff for a fourth grader!
Though I spent many hours playing sports with the boys, my mom saw to it that I learned just as much about “girl things.” Ever since she could remember, Mom had dreamed of being a homemaker. Her artistic talents combined with her myriad interests to make our home an artisan’s Mecca. It wasn’t that my mother had time on her hands — she spent much of her time doing everyday chores. She helped Dad out in the store while keeping up with the laundry, cleaning, cooking, and gardening. She even painted the house and refinished cabinets when she needed them.
But Mom’s real love was the creative aspect of homemaking. She amazed me with her many talents. Her flower garden was huge and colorful. She skillfully crafted quilts and hooked rugs. Her wallpapering abilities transformed the barest room into a cozy retreat. She even refinished a battered old piano, coaxing it into a thing of beauty.
As early as I can remember, I was drawn into the magic of her circle. Between playing cowboys, pitching softball, and helping out in the store, I found myself stenciling furniture, caning chairs, and sewing beautiful outfits. As the years went by, Mom nurtured me, got me involved, and patiently taught me creativity and self-reliance.
Part of my involvement in grade school and high school was centered around 4-H activities. My interest and Mom’s support were rewarded each year as I continued to win numerous 4-H honors. I made beautiful formals and tailored outfits, fashioned lampshades, and among other things, collected and mated insects. While other mothers were a bit squeamish at collecting these creatures, my mom was excited to learn new things about the insect world. If I wanted to do it, she was right there supporting me. One day, Mom and I found a praying mantis sac and decided to put it on the windowsill in my bedroom. (These sacs are woven by the female and filled with about 500 tiny eggs.) It wasn’t long before we realized that we’d made a major mistake. Upon returning from church on Sunday, we discovered that all the eggs had hatched! These little crawlies were everywhere — on the bed, the walls, the floor — and each was about one-quarter inch to one-half inch long. What a learning experience!
Another time we found two Polyphemus moths, and we began to wonder if they might be male and female. We had a screened-in back porch, so we put them out there to roam free and mate. Sure enough, they were the right combination, and soon we gathered their eggs. Carefully, we put the eggs out on a tree branch and waited for them to hatch. Because the larvae are voracious eaters, we were forced to move them from branch to branch and tree to tree as they gained nourishment from eating the leaves. We even covered them with cheesecloth to protect them from the birds. What a wonder, as they hatched, spun cocoons, and finally launched into the blue summer skies.
Mom’s support didn’t end at home. She tuned in to my dreams and saw to it that I developed my budding interest in the music field. Early on, I took piano lessons — that was what girls did in those days. When I’d try to get out of practicing, Mom would always say, “It’s time to do the dishes.” She knew how I hated doing dishes, and she had found the key. Off I went to the piano bench, protesting that I really did need to practice the piano. She surely had me figured out.
I enjoyed the piano, but I fell in love with the saxophone, and we spent many hours driving to and from music lessons. As busy as she was with her own duties, she never complained about her taxi chores. By the time I was in the tenth grade, I was already the student band director.
Mom’s creativity was always at its peak when Christmas approached. Dad and I would go out to the snowy country to cut down a tree and bring it home, and Mom would decorate it. In fact, it seemed like Mom decorated everything! The whole house reflected her holiday touch, and it truly was a magical time for the three of us. It’s funny. Today I remember more about that wonderful atmosphere than I do about any of the presents I received.
Whether it was decorating for Christmas, encouraging me with 4-H projects, driving me to piano lessons and band practice, or showing me creativity in everyday chores, Mom was determined to make mine a rich and full childhood. She certainly succeeded in her wishes. One of my proudest moments came in my senior year of high school when my peers elected me “Most Versatile.” Mom was my constant ally. Of course, she was the disciplinarian when I needed it, and for that I’m eternally grateful. But she was also my mentor, friend, counselor, example, and head cheerleader in my life. Smiley McMillin didn’t have a lot of luxuries in life, but she gave me the greatest gifts a mother could offer: her time, her interest, and her heart.
“Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
—Psalm 16: 5-6 (NIV)