Sometimes, the old saying “it’s a small world” really is true, and in such a lovely way.
This past spring, I received a message from a reader named Valta, via my Facebook Author page:
Just finished The Widows and loved it!! Told my friend and she is going to use it for her book club… Also I knew your aunt Opal Mann as she helped me as I was getting into Extension Work for the University of KY in 1964. Couldn’t believe it when I read her name. Like they say, “small world”!!
In my author’s note for THE WIDOWS, I wrote: “The other strong women characters in this novel—Nana, Mama, Ada—are from my imagination as well but also inspired by the women I consider the strongest from my family of origin: my paternal grandmother, Lorrainey (Engle) Hurley; her sister, my great-aunt Cassie (Engle) Lewis; and my father’s sisters, my aunt Opal (Hurley) Mann and aunt Mary Alice (Hurley) Lee. All have passed on now, but I think, for example, of how my grandmother made gorgeous quilts and mouth-watering dried-apple stack cake and yet was steely-eyed strong in the face of difficulties, of how my aunt Opal was a strong proponent of education, particularly for females in an era and region that made pursuing education extra difficult for them. All of these women quietly put forth an attitude that mixed encouragement and a no-tolerance view of giving up in such a way that around them I always thought, Well, I guess I’ll just do what I’ve set out to do, then.”
As it turned out, Valta’s friend Barbara did indeed select THE WIDOWS for her book club, and both Valta and Barbara live near Cincinnati, sufficiently close to my home that when they asked if I’d come to the book club gathering, I happily replied “yes.”
The book club met yesterday, and as always, it was a delight to chat with readers. It was an extra special treat to meet Valta in person! Valta admitted that she read and re-read several times my author’s note, thinking “Opal Mann? From Kentucky? How many can there be? This must be the same Opal Mann who mentored me years ago…” So Valta decided to take a chance and reach out to me. I’m so glad she did!
We shared stories about Opal–my aunt and Valta’s mentor. I talked about how Aunt Opal, the oldest of her siblings, was so determined to get an education beyond the eighth-grade education that was readily available in her time and location. Aunt Opal went on to high school, to college at the University of Kentucky, and ultimately received her PhD in Home Economics from Ohio State University. (Aunt Opal was posthumously inducted into U.K.’s College of Agriculture, Food and Enviornment’s Hall of Fame–read more about her here.)
I recollected how, on her drive between Columbus, Ohio and her home in Lexington, Kentucky, she’d stop off to see her little brother–my dad–and his family. Aunt Opal was always pleased by my love of reading and writing even when I was a very little girl, and I remember her sitting across from me at our kitchen table and emphatically reminding me that it was good that I loved school, and that I should keep studying, reading, learning and writing.
Later, when I was an adult and starting out in my writing career, I attended a conference in Washington D.C. and stayed with Aunt Opal, who by then had long lived near D.C. (By the time Aunt Opal retired, she was a deputy administrator in the U.S.D.A.) I admitted that I was feeling a bit discouraged about my writing, and my Aunt Opal told me to never give up on my goals. She offered her advice in a pragmatic, of-course-you-won’t-give-up, way.
Valta remembered that Opal had been assigned to her as a mentor, as Valta started out in her career as an Extension agent, working in counties with home economic groups and 4-H groups to offer leadership training on child development and other topics. Valta told me that Aunt Opal was kind and practical. When Valta, who had grown up in Lexington, was assigned to a very rural area in Kentucky, Aunt Opal advised her to not gossip about anyone, because in a sparsely populated area, everyone knows everyone. She also advised to keep her automobile as clean and neat as possible, because her car would be her office on the road, and how you present yourself sways people’s view of you. To this day, Valta said, she can’t help but keep her car neat.
Come to think of it, Aunt Opal’s cars were always neat and clean!
Maya Angelou is often quoted as saying, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Valta and I agree that how Aunt Opal made us feel was encouraged, strong and determined to work to achieve our goals.
I’m so delighted that through THE WIDOWS I got to meet Valta, just one of many, many people Aunt Opal mentored throughout her life and career. I like to think that somewhere, Aunt Opal is smiling at her niece and student meeting so many years later after she first touched our lives.