The year was 1967. A tall lanky kid from Meriwether County, Georgia headed off to Auburn University for his freshman year. The world was in a mess. The drug culture captured the spirit of young teens who left home in VW buses by the droves. Love and peace, baby. Cars were being set on fire on college campuses in protest of the war in Vietnam. Waves of political corruption made parents fret about the future world their children would be facing.
About the only endearing moment in the American experience was when Carol Burnett walked out on stage at the end of her show and tugged on her ear. It was her way of telling her grandmother, “Love you. I’m doing fine.”
That’s all any parent wants to know. You send your child off into the world, to places unknown and to influences beyond your control. And all you care about is whether or not they’re okay. The phone doesn’t ring often enough. A mother worries. She prays that her boy is doing fine.
I came across a note the other day written by a mother to her son who was headed off to college. That’s what this story is about. But bear with me. It might take a minute to work my way into this.
Bo, the boy headed off to college, was part of a family with a long history of hard work and hard times. If you lived in rural Georgia in the 30s, 40s and 50s that was the norm. His grandmother was one of nine children. All girls. By the time her parents got to number 9 they ran out of girl names and decided to call her Charlie.
She married a farmer, like her dad, but that wasn’t always enough to support a family. “Poor” was their middle name. So, she started a small nursery down by the creek. She raised and sold plants to help make ends meet. As it turned out, she did well enough to help put her daughter through college.
When the daughter, Bo’s mother, got married, Charlie convinced her and her husband to go into the nursery business. He was working at the Chevrolet dealership at the time. She had grown up digging holes and raising nursery stock. It was a natural fit.
Bo says he remembers his dad coming home from work, eating supper, and then going back out to work his second job until dark-thirty. Building up a nursery in the back yard. It was weary and wet work. An old gasoline water pump down by the creek that never started up on the first pull. Some cussing was involved. But the business grew until he was able to leave his day job and run the nursery fulltime.
This was the world in which Bo grew up.
By the time he became a young man, he wanted nothing to do with nursery work. The long days. The muddy boots. The sore backs. He saw his Dad, during one lean stretch in the 60s, have to take a second job down at the hardware store. No sir. He was gonna find another path in life. Follow a different call.
It was a hot day in August when Bo stood in his bedroom packing his bags to leave for Auburn. His room was next to the kitchen. His parents were at the kitchen table talking about their kids and the direction of their lives. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but the walls were paper thin.
His mother commiserated, “I’m just so worried about what’s going to happen with them.” One wayward child had already left home in a whirlwind.
His dad tried to reassure her. “One thing for sure, we’ve got a son who will never let us down.”
Bo wasn’t supposed to hear that, but he couldn’t unhear it. A parent’s confidence in you is something you spend your whole life trying to live up to. Trying not to let things come unraveled in your own life.
His mother came to the door of the bedroom. “You got plenty of clean underwear?”
“Don’t forget the umbrella Miss Dovie gave you for graduation. You’ll need that.” She could see it sitting on the bed plain as the nose on her face. She was just trying to make conversation before he left.
She was fidgeting with a piece of paper in her hands. Bo could tell it was an old nursery tag. The kind they had used for years to label bundles of plants for shipping. Light tan in color. About the size of an index card. A hole punched in one end so you could tie it to the burlap with a piece of wire.
Bo grinned. “What’cha got there Mom?”
She stepped closer. “I wrote down something for you. Just a few lines for you to remember when you get to college.”
He read the note. It was a quote she liked. “I expect to pass this way but once, therefore any good I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now; for I shall not pass this way again.”
There’s a line drawn across the middle with a second quote underneath. “More things in life are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of.” She had underlined the word prayer.
He thanked her for the note, folded it and stuck it in his wallet. By lunchtime he pulled out of the driveway and headed to Auburn. That night, on the evening news, Walter Cronkite spoke of war and riots and corruption. She went to bed anxious about her boy miles away.
When I saw the note last week, it was on the cover of Bo’s newsletter from the nursery he owns and operates. Fate brought him back to the family business in 1979. He kept the note in his wallet for years. At some point it got shoved into a drawer in his office. And right before Mother’s Day, he dug it out to remind himself of her.
It’s worn. Discolored. Tattered around the edges. This note is 55 years old, for goodness’ sake. A permanent crease in the middle where it was folded inside a sweaty wallet. Bo tells me, “It was written in her unmistakable left-handed backwards slant.” Words of a mother’s hope for her son.
“I don’t always live up to it,” he says, “but I try every day.”
A man keeps his mother’s words close to his heart because they shape his soul and direct his life. That one note was so influential that, 38 years later, he passed on the very same words to his own daughter when she left for college. Parents will always worry about what this old world will do to their children.
Who knows what a young man will do with his life? Whom might he become?
That young college boy from 1967 is now 72. He still runs the family nursery. I am blown away that he kept that note from his mother all these years. I am inspired by his willingness to share that note with us.
“She was a southpaw,” Bo says, “but she was always right.”
We only pass this way once. Make it count.