More Than: A Memoir for Carolyn Wheless
Memoir by Lewis Wheless & Michael Usey
Feb 3, 2012
Carolyn’s favorite bible verse was Roman’s 8:37, “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us.” It’s a great verse, one the apostle Paul writes to his friends in Rome. The whole passage is about how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, something that Carolyn knew, believed and lived out. I love that phrase, more than: more than conquerors. It’s a great phrase to describe this remarkable woman. She was more than a mother, a wife, a daughter. She was more than a nurse assistant, cook, housewife, friend, reader and Christian. She was all these things and so much more. The phrase more than is a great summary of her life. Carolyn was after all “more than.”
Carolyn Viola Thomas Wheless was born in 1921 to parents Archie and Carrie Belle Thomas the small town of St. George, SC. She was the youngest of 11 children who all loved and watched over one another during the Great Depression. Her father was a Public Cotton weigher, who always wore white suits. He died of cotton lung when she was 13. Like so many others that lived during that difficult time, they learned to make do with whatever they had to get by. They moved from SC to High Point in the back of a pickup truck. In fact, she met her husband at the HP Central HS library, where her children later attended. Carolyn often joked that she was in her 20s before she knew that a chicken had parts other than a neck or back. But this made her appreciative of anything she was given and she constantly shared with others because she keenly knew what it was like to be without. She was also taught in church that Jesus wanted each of us to share from our bounty.
Carolyn loved to cook for her family and friends. She would boil a pot of green beans with fat back for hours until all the nutritional value was wiped out. But she felt a dish was “good for you only if it made you feel “good” while you ate it.
She was a big believer in airing things out. It wasn’t uncommon for her to have all parts of the living room out on the front porch to air out—so much so that at least one person mistook for a yard sale.
She was a remarkable southern lady with a Charleston accent. Like many women of her day, she chose marriage over education, leaving high school a year before graduation to marry Paul. Together they raised six children. When the last child was in middle school, Carolyn returned to school herself to earn her G.E.D. and went on in her mid-50s to become a certified nursing assistant, a job that was a natural fit for her as she loved to care for people. She loved her patients, and in return, they loved her. She was also proud of helping her daughter, Bonnie secure a job alongside her and they worked as a care team at Evergreen’s for over five years.
Once when Carolyn was working an older resident was waiting for his family to arrive and got very anxious. She went to his side and held his hand to comfort him, patting him saying, “It won’t be long now.” The man got confused and thought she was talking, not about his family coming to visit, but about his approaching death, and watched Carolyn with widening eyes. It’s something the family laughed about often.
On Bonnie’s first day of school, she cried and wailed because Bonnie did not want to leave her mother. She taught her children to practice love and to try to find goodness in others.
Betty’s earliest memory is from age three of her mother and Granny Thomas bathing her in an old, enamel pan on the kitchen table. They were bathing her in some sort of miserable purple concoction to help relieve her measles sores. Another early memory of Betty’s is when she and her sister Paula had their tonsils removed at the same time. Betty and Paula were only thirteen months apart in age, so they were almost twins. They did everything together, including having our tonsils removed. Right after the tonsil surgery Carolyn gently tucked them into the bed with warm, soft quilts and stayed by their beds all night watching over us. She felt so warm, loved, and protected.
The same care-giving instinct she instilled in her children led her daughter Bonnie to become her mother’s primary care giver when Carolyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Family and friends marveled at the way Bonnie selflessly cared for her mother. Bonnie treated her mother like a queen, helping to make her later years full of love and comfort. All the other children joined in and assisted Bonnie without qualm, helping to feed and bathe their mother which allowed her to live at home until the last year of her long journey through Alzheimer’s. Her children loved to come over at lunch, eat with her and take a comforting nap on the couch that lay next to her comfy lift chair that she loved so well. She loved simple pleasures, like sitting on the front porch reading while waving and talking to neighbors and passers-by. She instilled in her children a love of reading and they constantly pass books around among one another. This love of reading and of words inspired her son, Lewis, to major in English at High Point University. She also had a keen and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Until recent years, she would stay up late cackling at the latest Saturday Night Live skit.
Having five daughters and one son is not an easy task, but Carolyn made sure all of their needs were met. For example, she took Cathy to Brownie meetings, ballet lessons, and was a grade mother throughout her early school years, and she was always a member of the PTA. All of this just for Cathy, yet she was able to juggle five other kids, maintain household chores plus do all the cooking. She was indeed a Super Mom.
Things were not always easy. Her husband was an alcoholic who later sobered up after their divorce, but the years with him while he drank were not easy. She overcame her own drinking, and overcame her husband’s verbal abuse too. There was other adversity that she fought to win over too, such as when Paula fell out of a window as a young child. Her life was not easy.
Bonnie remembers that Carolyn always had them dress in their best Sunday clothes for church. She would start Sunday lunch before church and they’d come home to a delicious roast, potatoes, carrots, and all the fixings.
When Cindy suddenly became a single mother of two children, Carolyn made a daily trip to her house to clean, wash clothes, and cook for her family.
Most of all, she loved her children and grandchildren and always greeted them with a big smile and a kiss. She would never let anyone leave her house without taking some food and a touch of lipstick on the side of their face. And, oddly enough, if you sat down to eat with her; she would be insulted if you didn’t try some of the food from her plate. This was a tradition instilled in her by her mother, Carrie Belle, who everyone called “Granny.” The survived the Great Depression and learned to make use of every part of the chicken or cow on the rare occasions they could afford meat.
Carolyn was also not afraid to step out and tackle new things in her life. She was forty years old when she obtained her first driver’s license. On her very first day as a licensed driver, she forgot to release the hand brake and the car caught on fire. No one was harmed – only the car – and all of her kids got a good laugh out of that incident.
Cindy remembers that Carolyn appreciated the beauty of nature that God bestowed upon the earth. Every spring, she planted the most beautiful array of snapdragons, geraniums, irises, and petunias in addition to her perpetual rose garden. Every Saturday morning during the summer months, she had her kids pitch in and clean so they could spend the afternoon in our back yard “resort” consisting of a kiddie pool and lounge chairs. There they shared many laughs and memories during those times among family, friends, and neighbors. Every summer she packed up the whole family for trips to Myrtle Beach. She so loved the sand, beach, and sun. She developed her love of the beach during many wonderful hours spent at Folly Beach near Charleston, SC
Carolyn also loved nature and all of God’s creatures, and frequently fed stray cats and made friends with the many birds and squirrels that wandered into her yard. She was devoted to clotheslines; she loved to hang clothes on the line surrounded by nature and the plants she tended so lovingly. She adoped squirrels and possums. Hummingbirds loved her yard, darting this way and that, and butterflies loved her, landing on her to her delight.
When Carolyn’s Alzheimer’s progressed to the point she could do little for herself, her daughters would rotate days to assist her with lunch and seeing to her needs while Bonnie was at work. Cathy says that she looked forward to her days with mother. After lunch, she would be in her chair and Cathy would lie down on the comfy couch and they’d watch TV, listen to CDs, and just talk about earlier years in South Carolina. Although she had short-term memory loss, she could recall her past in amazing ways.
In the past few years as her memory faded, she could still remember the words of hymns the family had sung in church. She had such a beautiful voice and enjoyed playing a laptop keyboard, leading the whole family to become her own personal choir.
Most of all, Carolyn believed in God’s unconditional love, and she loved people unconditionally, having friends of all races and economic standing. When her son, Lewis, came out to her she said, “I love you just as you are. All I ask is that you bring home a man who is tall, dark, and handsome. There are too many blond-headed children in this house already”. This advice she also gave to her daughters.
Cindy gave this great summary of her mother’s long life:
My mother was a woman of love, giving, sharing anything and everything with anyone who was in need. She a woman of forgiveness, not holding a grudge or stewing over wrongs done to her. Carolyn was a woman of virtue, committed to integrity and honesty, and she was a woman of grace, giving favor whether deserved or not. Clearly she was a woman of self-sacrifice, always looking to fulfill the needs of others. She was a woman of humor, finding a way to make us laugh even through our tears. My mother was a woman of comfort and hospitality, making us never wanting to leave her presence.
My we all be so blessed to lived such a life as Carolyn Wheless, who was more than many things, including more than a conqueror over death in Christ Jesus her Lord. Amen.