Mabel
Blackwell
Atkinson

1909 - 1979


In my first year of medical school, we were still given two weeks off for Christmas holidays. So I found myself back home in Greenwood, helping Mama wrap presents and decorate. It was difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. The year was 1967, and my father had passed away three months earlier. I had spent as much time as possible with Mama. She and Daddy had been married over thirty years, and they had done everything together.

Mother had not driven an automobile in my memory. The only car she possessed was the delivery car for the dry cleaners. My uncle owned the cleaners, and the car, and Daddy used it for personal as well as business purposes. Uncle Arliss was very generous to let Mama use the car for as long as it took until she found one for herself. The problem was re-learning to drive it. I had taken my earnings from my summer job and bought a little Ford Mustang, and it was manual transmission. Mama found the automatic transmission on Arliss's Chevrolet more to her liking, and over the holiday she gained confidence. Before I returned to school, we had taken her to the Highway Patrol office, where she passed her driving test and was awarded a new drivers license at age 58.

The Mississippi Delta gets very cold in the winter, and we sat at the kitchen table sipping hot apple cider. I had not yet learned to appreciate coffee (that came four years later, during my internship). Mama was trying to quit smoking. She put out her cigarette after just a couple of puffs, reached out across the table and took my hand. Smiling, she told me, "It's time I told you some of the things that happened years ago - the way your father and I got together."

"I was married once before," she began. I only spewed a little bit of my cider before catching myself and saying "Oh - I never knew." She definitely had my attention.

"I wouldn't talk about it while Errol was alive," she told me. Now, she was free to talk, and for hours I listened as she told me of her early life.

Mama was the youngest child of seven born to Eva Mae Blackwell and Morris Glen Blackwell, in a comfortable two story rural home far from the Delta in south Mississippi. They named their daughter Mabel Irene Blackwell, and from her earliest days she was called "Mamie." Mamie and her sister Grace, the next youngest, were the closest of companions.

The Blackwell farm in Pearl River County was located outside the little town of McNeill. New Orleans was just a few miles across the border, but Highway 90 had not been built in 1909, and the ferry ride across Lake Borgne made for a very long trip. Most of the family outings were to Biloxi and Gulfport on the Mississippi coast. One of Mama's uncles was a lighthouse keeper in Biloxi in the late 1800s. Grandpa Blackwell grew tung trees. The tung oil crops in south Mississippi were very profitable at the turn of the century. In the first years of the Great Depression, however, the demand for tung oil dropped and the farm failed, with the mortgage foreclosed by business interests of south Mississippi's Senator Theodore Bilbo. Mama and her family always spoke of Bilbo with disdain, and now I knew why.

Mama proved to be the best student in her family. I always knew she was brilliant. She would listen one time to a story or a set of instructions, and recite it back word for word. Her outstanding grades won her a scholarship to the New Orleans Baptist Hospital School of Nursing. Already it was her dream to be a nurse, and she was the first in her family to attend college. She was as successful in nursing school as she had been in high school, and was awarded the R.N. diploma in three years with honors.

None of this was a surprise to me, but what followed was all new. Mamie remained at Baptist Hospital post graduation, and by the early 1930s she was very popular in New Orleans society. She caught the attention of a man named Milton (last name omitted), from a very wealthy old New Orleans family, and soon was engaged to be married. Life seemed to be working out so beautifully!

Once the couple were wed, however, Mamie found that Milton was not the person he had presented himself to be. He drank heavily and was physically abusive. His family would never believe Milton was capable of doing anything wrong, and would not believe Mamie when she told them of his actions. Before a year was gone, Mamie had had enough of the beatings and was ready to do anything to leave.

But where to go? The farm had been sold. Grandpa was seriously ill and passed away the same year. Mamie was granted a divorce, and she went to the home of her older sister, Mae Winkler, in Baton Rouge; but she wanted to get much farther away from New Orleans. She found the answer in a most unlikely place, a place she had never visited - the Mississippi Delta.

The Delta was another world compared to the relaxed, Catholic oriented life of south Louisiana. In the Delta, one was either Baptist or Methodist, and the two didn't entirely trust each other. (Some things don't change.) Most Delta towns, however, had a small Jewish community of merchants who were well accepted by the locals. Through a "friend of a friend," Mamie's sister Grace had met a young man named Leonard Cohn, who lived in the tiny Delta town of Belzoni. Grace and Leonard fell in love and married. Leonard loved his wife so much that he actually converted to her Baptist faith, and for years they lived two blocks from the First Baptist Church of Belzoni, where Leonard served as the (no jokes please) church treasurer.

Leonard worked for his good friends, Joe and Alvin Goldberg, at Goldberg's Department Store, which still survives today. It was good work and paid well enough, along with Grace's job as a clerk at the courthouse, for a small but comfortable home. They had a spare bedroom.

Mamie must have had quite a culture shock adapting to small town Delta life. Of course there was work to be found at the Belzoni hospital, but what to do after work? There was one movie house, a few cafés, and bingo at the church on Wednesday nights. In the midst of the Depression, the bingo prizes weren't much to wish for. But it was an opportunity to meet people. The tall young man with black hair slicked straight back was very attractive, and smiled at her as they were leaving the church. "Who is that, Grace?" Mamie asked on the way home.

"That is Errol Atkinson," Grace replied. "His family lives down the road at Straight Bayou. He has several brothers and sisters here in town. You've met his sister Mabel." Mamie remembered the dark haired woman with the same name as hers.

"Errol," Mamie thought to herself. "What a lovely name."


It was not a brief courtship. Mamie was still healing wounds from her marriage, emotionally if not physically. It was hard to learn to trust a man again. But as time went by, she saw that Errol Ward Atkinson was someone she could trust fully.

Errol didn't have a college education. In fact, he didn't even have a high school diploma, because his entire school was wiped out in the Mississippi Delta flood of 1927, his senior year. But he was well read and so well mannered. He never, before or after marriage, raised his voice or his hand against Mamie. Both the young lovers considered themselves the luckiest couple in Mississippi. They were married in 1936, and moved into a rental apartment of their own, big enough to house some of Errol's younger brothers from time to time. They wanted to start a family, but sadly Mamie lost two pregnancies in the first trimester. Between Mamie's decent income as a registered nurse, and Errol's steady work as a truck driver, they lived a stable - if not affluent - life through the last years of the Depression.

Errol was 32 years old in 1941 when war was declared. He was too old for the infantry (his brothers Ray and Morris filled that role) but he was able to enlist as a truck driver, and was stationed in Tampa, Florida, for nearly three years. Mamie was able to travel with him to Tampa and live in military housing. I remember their old black and white photos of the semitropical lakes and ponds of the Florida Gulf Coast. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, despite the mosquitoes.

It was a strangely pleasant life for a time of war, but it ended when Errol received his orders to ship out to Washington State in 1944. Mamie moved back to Belzoni and worried constantly that her husband would be entering the combat zone in the Pacific. That is what was planned for him; his unit was going to be part of the force which would invade the Japanese mainland. We can only imagine the poor chance of survival he would have had. Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons was profound in many ways, but I probably wouldn't have been born if the war had not come to such an end.

Errol returned home in late 1945 and, to Mamie's surprise, told her he didn't plan to seek work in Belzoni. Several of his friends from the Army owned land near Donaldsonville, Louisiana, where sugar cane was being grown and sold profitably. They wanted Errol to help manage the operation. The pay would be better than he made driving a truck. Mamie was uncomfortable with moving back so close to New Orleans, but over a decade had passed since she fled from her abusive first husband, and she was able to accept the move away from her beloved sister.

Errol was right: the money was good on the sugar cane plantation. For over six months they lived in Donaldsonville, in the heart of Cajun country. Then in the summer of 1946 Mamie realized she was pregnant once again. She was determined to make this pregnancy succeed, and consulted the best obstetricians in Baton Rouge to help her. With the aid of the medicines they prescribed, she was able to complete the hazardous first trimester, and felt that she would finally become a mother as she had so long wished for.

The weeks passed, and Mamie's health was good. She and Errol began to talk: "We were going to become parents, and here we were living in the middle of nowhere in the Louisiana swamps. Our baby needed a little more stable environment." Belzoni was always a fall-back possibility, but the little town of four thousand didn't have much to offer either. However, there was a good alternative just up the road from Belzoni. Errol's older brother Arliss had settled in Greenwood, a regional market town of about twenty thousand, with lovely residential areas and excellent opportunities for children. Arliss had started a dry cleaning business which was doing very well. He needed someone to do home pickup and delivery. In the fall of 1946, Mamie and Errol moved one more time, to Greenwood, Mississippi. It was in the well equipped Greenwood-Leflore Hospital that Mamie gave birth in December 1946 to a healthy baby they named Bruce Errol Atkinson. They were both 37 years old.


Much of the rest of the story I already knew. Mamie did not return to nursing for five more years. She stayed home to care for me, not wanting to trust her only child to a sitter or nanny. My cousins, Grace and Leonard's boys, were a decade older than me, and they would visit us and play with me in the backyard. They tried to teach me sports, but I was never athletic enough. Mamie was a good teacher herself. My cousins tell me I was reading the Sunday comics aloud by the time I was four years old. Finally Mamie was ready to return to work when it was time for me to enter school. Her mother, Eva Blackwell, came to live with us during the last ten years of her life. I remember when Grandma broke her hip and was hospitalized around Christmas 1956; after several days in the hospital she passed away. I know now she probably had a pulmonary embolus. In those days, octogenarians with broken hips did not have surgery; they were just put to bed and many never made it out of the hospital. It was a bleak holiday for us all.

Mamie did so well in her nursing work that she was rapidly promoted. By the time I was in fourth grade, she was the RN in charge of the busy Emergency Room. Her shift was from 3 PM until 11 PM. I remember having dinner with Daddy each night, and staying up late until we could drive the short distance to the hospital to pick up Mamie. In the mornings she was still up early, having our breakfast ready well before school time.

On Saturdays, Daddy would only work until noon, and I would often ride in the delivery car with him as he made his rounds. I learned where each of our regular customers lived, and I would often run to the back door where the soiled clothes were left for us. Daddy would tie them together, often using trouser legs, and put a ticket in each bundle listing its contents. Back at the cleaners I would carry them in to the intake bin. I remember the smell of dry cleaning fluid, the joking and banter of the men and women doing the cleaning and pressing, and the Coke machine which still sold six and a half ounce bottles of cola for a nickel, with a large matchbox taped on the front to take the extra penny when the price went to six cents.

Saturday nights were relaxed and lazy. Mamie seldom had to work weekends, and she would prepare a delicious supper. I still use many of her recipes. Sometimes she would fry fresh-caught fish from Daddy's trips to nearby Six Mile Lake - bream, catfish, or crappie (which we called "white perch"). After supper there would be daylight still, and sometimes the mosquito control truck would drive by with its cloud of DDT trailing, and some of the children in the neighborhood running along behind. I never saw the attraction of that smelly cloud.

Sundays we had the same routine most weeks. After morning services at First Baptist Church we would have lunch at the Crystal Grill, a very popular restaurant in downtown Greenwood run by two Greek families. I can still taste the sweet olive oil dressing on their salads and see the lemon pie with four inches of meringue on top. Then we would come home and I would follow Mamie's instructions to rest after lunch while reading the Sunday comics (never got out of that habit) in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Later Sundays I was on my own for a few hours before we had to be back at church for the educational hour that was called "Training Union" in those days. Mamie and Errol did not take leadership roles in the church, but encouraged me to attend, probably feeling it kept me out of trouble. I didn't mind. The Bible study and music were easier for me than trying to keep up with the neighborhood kids in sports or soldier/cowboy/cops and robbers games.

Other than very frequent trips to Belzoni to visit Grace and Leonard, or to see Daddy's sisters Mabel and Doris, we didn't travel very much. I remember one trip to New Orleans when i was about eight. We stayed with Mama's brother Charles. Uncle Charlie took us to the amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain where they had the kiddie rides and fun-house mirrors. There was a grate in the sidewalk with a powerful fan beneath it, blowing women's skirts up around their head as they walked past. It caught Mama by surprise. Somehow I thought that was the funniest sight I had seen on the entire trip, and I kept laughing until Mama finally lost her embarrassment and joined me in the humor. It was a really pleasant trip and I wished we had made more of them.

Mamie always found time to support my activities - as a Cub Scout den mother, a Band Booster, a chaperone on church trips. At the time I didn't appreciate the effort it took for her to balance these activities with her busy work schedule. Sometimes I would go to the hospital on the weekends and observe her workplace. The Emergency Room was a fascinating place until they got the news that a major trauma case was on its way. Mama would then shoo me out of the E.R. so I wouldn't see the gruesome sights. A number of Greenwood teens were injured or killed in traffic accidents during my early years. I remember Mama telling me she would never want to see me on a motorcycle.

When I began high school, Mama was in her first year as Director of Nursing Service for the entire hospital. Her clinical work was greatly reduced as she became more of an administrator. I was sorry to lose the chance to spend time at the hospital with her. All my life, I have felt a sense of comfort, a sense of being "at home" when walking down the corridors of a hospital. It began in Greenwood-Leflore and it continued in Jackson, Dallas, Amory, and now in Arizona. I wouldn't know what to do if I had to work anyplace else.

I began to look at colleges and fields of study. Some of my teachers had suggested engineering because of my math grades. I thought about it, but it just didn't feel right to me. Architecture was one possibility, but we didn't have a school of architecture in Mississippi at that time, and I would have had to go to Auburn - so far away for a homebody! As I wondered aloud with my parents about such decisions, Mama stated the obvious answer: "I can't see you doing anything but practicing medicine." It was one of those hit-yourself-on-the-head moments. Duh! I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Ole Miss, with an excellent premedical curriculum.

During my years in college, I saw my parents at least two weekends a month. The continued close contact kept me from seeing how they were beginning to age. Daddy had always been thin as a rail, but he lost even more weight and became positively gaunt. We found out why later, when he entered Greenwood-Leflore Hospital around the first of June 1967 and never came back home. Even with the wasting produced by the lung cancer, Daddy kept his full head of black hair to the end. He also kept his gentle, loving spirit. Mama would drop in to his room many times during her work day, and I would visit after I got home from work. The strain of Daddy's worsening took its physical toll on Mama also, as her hair began to turn gray and she developed a mild diabetes.

Daddy passed away in late September, and I stayed another week at home helping Mama get business matters straightened out. She was so very brave and resourceful, and she never broke down in front of me or anyone else. I know she must have cried in the privacy of her own room. She was a brilliant student, as always, and learned to do all the tasks Daddy had done: keeping the checkbook, filing taxes, even driving an automatic transmission. She and I had been close before, but we became so much closer.

Mamie listened to my stories of medical school and, with her medical background, understood them all. In early 1969 I had big news for her. I called her from Sandra's house across town to be sure it was all right for Sandra and me to come over. I didn't get to tell her our news right away, because I heard the distress in her voice. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"I am fine," she said, "but a drunk driver just ran up into our yard and hit the front of our house." We rushed over, to find a tow truck removing a thoroughly undriveable car from our front yard. Only a few bricks were disturbed, but the noise and trauma of the collision had been very upsetting for Mama. Sandra and I stayed and talked with her for a long time before we decided it was safe to show her Sandra's new engagement ring.

Mamie was such a proud mother of the groom. She planned and gave a wonderful rehearsal dinner. Afterward, she was so pleased to get her postcard from our honeymoon in (where else?) New Orleans.

In 1971, we moved to Dallas for my internship. Mamie made one trip from Mississippi with Sandra's parents to visit us, but the journey was a long one and she couldn't drive it by herself. Our decision to return to Mississippi for my further medical training was due in large part to our desire to be closer to our parents. Despite the attraction of a city like Dallas, I've never regretted returning home. Soon after we were settled back in Jackson, we were able to give Mamie more good news: she would be a grandmother. Early in the morning of March 30, 1973, I called her to say, "It's time." She rode down to Jackson with Sandy's parents, arriving in plenty of time to be present when I opened the door to the waiting room and announced, "You have a grandson."

Mamie was such a proud grandma, and did her best to properly spoil her only grandchild. One day when Mike was about three years old, she was babysitting him when one of her friends came for a visit. Of course, the subject of conversation between two grandmothers was easy to guess. Mamie's friend even had great-grandchildren. She didn't know the families of Sandy's parents, so she asked Mamie, "Does Mike have any great-grandparents?"

When Mamie replied, "No," Mike corrected her. "I do too - Mamie is GREAT!" That brought Mama so much humor and joy as she retold it over again.


The year 1975 brought two changes in Mamie's life. She had just turned sixty-five years old in November 1974, and began to make plans for retirement from the position of Director of Nursing Service she had held for nearly fifteen years. 1975 was also the year I finished my residency training in Internal Medicine and decided to move to Amory, in northeast Mississippi, where I would be the first internist ever to practice in Monroe County. We had long discussions with Mamie over her plans, and it was my wish that she move to Amory to be closer to us and to her only grandchild. She was not difficult to convince. About four months after we had settled in Amory, we found a duplex apartment only a mile or so from our home, and helped Mamie move in.

She settled in to life in the new environment without any difficulty. It was difficult being so far from Grace, whose health was beginning to fail; but we did make frequent trips back to the Delta to see our two families. In Amory Mamie found dear friends in the Baptist church and in the ladies' clubs. For two years and a little more, her life as a retired grandmother was very pleasant and uncomplicated.


March of 1978 brought an end to the happy interlude. Sandra and I had taken a vacation to Hawaii with friends, and Mike had stayed in Greenwood with Sandra's family. When we returned to Amory, she drove over to Greenwood to pick him up. I made my way over to Mamie's apartment to check in with her. I noticed she was coughing quite a bit and seemed uncomfortable. "Are you all right?" I asked her.

"I haven't been feeling well for several days," she replied. "I don't think I am running a fever, but I can't stop this dry cough."

"Why don't you come to the office first thing tomorrow, and we will make a chest x-ray."

I made the error in judgement of pulling the x-ray as soon as it came out of the developer. It was one of the single worst moments of my life as I looked at the large mass in the hilum of the right lung. God, no, please let me wake up and this be a dream. But it was no dream. What would I tell her?

"There is a place on the lung we need to check out. I'm not sure what it is." That last statement was not quite true. She, of course, knew it just as well as I did. Mamie and Errol, members of the 'Greatest Generation" of World War II, had smoked cigarettes for years just like everyone else they knew. The cigarettes had already killed Errol, and now it was Mamie's turn. I immediately arranged for a consult with Dr. John Bowlin, a thoracic surgeon in nearby Tupelo. Then I had to tell Sandra and Mike the news when they returned from Greenwood that evening. It was an awful day.

We saw Dr. Bowlin that same week, and he admitted Mamie to the North Mississippi Medical Center for a bronchoscopy and biopsy. The results were indeed positive for squamous cell carcinoma of the lung. This was a tumor which would not respond to chemotherapy, but it could be treated with radiation and brought under control for many months. Mamie chose to have the radiation.

The treatments were done in Tupelo several days a week; Sandra and I took turns driving the thirty miles with Mamie. She was a brave patient, especially for someone who had seen so many people experience this same disease over the years. The radiotherapy did indeed shrink the tumor, although it never became invisible on the chest x-rays. The worst side effect was a terrible esophagitis, which made her unable to swallow solid foods for weeks at a time. She lost a great deal of weight and became weak, but once the course of radiation was completed she actually felt well during the summer of 1978. It was a blessed interlude. We all knew it would not last, but during that summer so many of Mamie's friends and relatives came to visit and were able to give her positive affirmations and prayers.

Everyone was praying for healing for Mamie, and of course I was also. I wanted her to be healed more than any other desires I had. But I was a physician, and I knew from many past experiences that prayers for physical healing were not always answered.

In September 1978 the x-rays showed the tumor began to enlarge again, and she developed some skin metastases in the scalp area. At that time we moved Mamie into a downstairs room in our home which we converted to a hospital bedroom. Sandra was very attentive to Mamie's needs, and we had assistance from numerous nurses and friends stopping in daily. We stopped going to Tupelo, and one of my friends and colleagues, Dr. Andy Myrick, assumed Mamie's terminal care responsibilities. In those days before hospice, there were still some wonderful caring physicians who devoted so much time for care of the dying patients.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays were bittersweet, knowing as we did that they would be our last together. That year, Sandra's family came to Amory rather than our going to Greenwood. Mamie was able to be up and out of bed much of the time.

It was difficult for me to maintain my medical practice and devote so much time to my mother's care. I even had one family request to change to another doctor because of it. I had already made arrangements for someone else to be on-call at the Amory Emergency Room for Thanksgiving 1978, and had signed my patients out to him. Our phone was not plugged in for those few hours, as we gathered with many of Sandra's relatives as well as my cousins, Grace's sons, and their wives. Literally just as we were sitting down to eat, there was a knock on the door. It was a sheriff's deputy.

"Dr. Atkinson, we realize you are not on duty today, but one of your patients is in the emergency room and is asking for no one but you." This presented me with an ethical dilemma. I knew I had not abandoned my patient, because the on-call doctor was at the hospital and available and was quite capable of managing the emergency. Still, under any other circumstance, I would have excused myself and followed the deputy in to the hospital. That's just what you do. But not this time.

"I understand," I told the deputy. "But Dr. Moore is on call and can see the patient. This is my last family meal with my mother, and I am going to remain here. I hope you understand."

"Yes, Doctor, I do. God bless you and your mother."

The patient and his family were not so understanding. It was not a situation of malpractice or wrongdoing, and so no action was taken, but they let me know they would not be returning to my care. I regretted their decision, but I made the decision appropriate for my circumstances.

Soon after New Year's Day, Mamie grew too weak to take food or liquids, and we brought her to the hospital for the last time. She was a woman of strong faith. She knew her time was near, and she had made her peace with God. As I had done twelve years earlier in Greenwood, I spent my free time by the bedside of my parent. The morphine was a blessing as she drifted in and out of consciousness, but was not in pain. On January 19, 1979, Mamie was awake enough for me to tell her once more how much I loved her, to thank her for giving me life. She smiled, kissed my cheek, and closed her eyes. That was that.

Our nurses ushered me into a quiet room, and they took over preparing her for the funeral home. It was very surreal to be in the role of family member, not physician, in my own hospital. Some time elapsed before Sandra and our pastor arrived, and I spent it alone in tears, giving thanks for the blessing of having an adult friendship with my mother. From her I learned the meaning of completely selfless love, a goal I may never attain as well as she did.

Mamie's body was laid to rest in the cemetery in Greenwood, next to the grave of the man she loved so much. I still visit the site whenever I am in town, but I don't spend a lot of time there. I know that Mamie and Errol are not there. When my time comes, I don't plan to have a gravesite; I intend to have cremation. I know it will not be "me" - Becky, Bruce, whoever - that goes to ashes. I will be far from there in another dimension, another existence, and the joy I will then know as my spirit encounters theirs, I cannot even imagine in this world.

If Mamie were here today, she would indeed "officially" be a great grandmother. I am sure that her great granddaughter would have the same joy from knowing her as did her grandson, and as did I always.

Love you, Mama. Forever.


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