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Women bend, don't break in the South

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The text that my sister sent was simple yet so powerful: "He is gone to be with God."

For 36 hours, we had expected the inevitable, but it is also inevitable that tears will come in times like that. Richard, whom I had known since childhood, and who was much beloved by our family had succumbed to the curse of his bloodline -- a heart disorder that has methodically, relentlessly claimed members of his family. His 36-year-old niece had died from it just a few weeks earlier. He fell from his tractor, called out for help, but 15 minutes without oxygen had rendered him completely brain dead. We prayed fervently, but sometimes God's will is just not our will. His life support was removed, then he went to meet his maker.

He was only 52.

Behind in this world, he left a younger widow and two boys ages 10 and 12. His wife, I, too, have known since childhood. We grew up together.

"How's Laverne?" I asked everyone who saw and talked to her over the course of those 36 hours. The answer was always the same, "She is amazing. She is so strong."

Now, her heart was indeed broken. Don't mistake strength for a lack of sorrow. The pain was great. After all, in her 40s, she was widowed and now had two sons to raise without a father. I thought not just of that but of all the things where a void would now reside in her life. Who would bush hog the pasture? Who would fix whatever broke at the house? Who would change the oil in her car? Who would trim the hedges? Who would watch the NASCAR races with her boys?

I thought of how she would miss him on Sunday mornings, sitting beside her in the church pew with his arm around her or the comfort of hearing him breathe softly beside her in bed. There was so much yet to come that she would miss.

During the loss of Richard and the subsequent funeral home vigil and emotional funeral, I pondered the characteristics of Southern womanhood and manhood. Our men, though often rugged and tough, are often unashamed of emotion and sensitive. A couple of the manliest men I know sat down and cried like babies over the loss of a lifelong friend. As Mama would say: They were pitiful. Their grief was unabashed, proven by their red and swollen eyes.

Southern women are a fascinating, sometimes paradoxical blend of strength and sensitivity. We know there is a time to cry and a time to draw from our inner strength, a time to refuse to be bullied by life's heartaches.

"People like to call y'all 'steel magnolias,'" once said my friend, Norman. "But you're really weeping willows. You bend but you never break."

"It's okay," Laverne would whisper repeatedly and kindly to those who offered sympathy. "We knew this would happen one day. It's just happened a lot sooner than we had hoped."

She was gracefully strong and filled with faith during such a trying time. I like and admire women like Laverne who turn away from self-pity, who do not whine or complain but who stoically take life's hardest blows and grow stronger from them rather than weaker.

So, she stood strong and comforted those who had sought to comfort her. She is more than just an ordinary Southern woman, though any woman of Southern upbringing is taught the necessity of strength. She is a woman of the rural South and they are the strongest of the strong.

Though I hated the circumstances of this performance of life, I liked what I saw: Men unafraid to be sensitive, a woman determined to be strong.

I couldn't help but think what a good example they both were setting for two young boys, now orphaned of a father.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.