A Tribute to Mama Lee in her 103rd Year

-by LeEllen Fox Smith-


mama lee as babyMama Lee sits on her father’s lap in this Tate family photo.

IMG_0399     “Mama Lee” recently celebrated her 103rd birthday with her family at the Ethridge House.

Ethel-Fox-Headshot-2 Ethel Lee Fox today.   Photo taken by Susan Harris.

Do you ever wonder about what life was like 100 years ago? I don’t usually. If I have a question, though, I just ask my grandmother, Ethel Lee Fox. She celebrated her 103rd birthday on November 9, 2015. Let me tell you a little about her life.

She was born Ethel Lee Tate in 1912 in Cuba Landing, Perry County, Tennessee, one of five children. They moved to Obion County when she was about a year old. When she was six, her mother died. She and her older sister assumed the role of caregivers to their younger brother when they were just children themselves. In 1932, Jackson Fox was lucky enough to marry her. My father, James “Sonny” Fox, was born in 1936. Both my father and grandfather are gone now. My brother, Tim Fox, and I are her closest living relatives.

Not long ago, I interviewed Mama Lee (the moniker she claimed when my brother came along). I had just never thought to ask about some things, one of which was how far she had gone in school. She said she completed the 7th grade and started the 8th. When I asked her why she quit, she said, “Because the teacher got mad one day and whipped Bo Beard so hard the dust flew out of his britches.” Even though she ended her formal education at a young age, she was a good student. I have her report card to prove it.

I asked if it was true that she could pick 200 pounds of cotton in a day. She said, “Yes— if it was good cotton!” My grandfather paid her the same as other workers. One year she saved her money and bought two calves. She said she started picking when she was 16 and was still picking “when Griffin died.” Griffin Tate was that baby brother she helped raise. He died in Belgium during WWII. After all this time, tears well up in her eyes when she talks about him.

Then, I asked a question that stopped her in her tracks. I asked her at what age she got a driver’s license. She gulped a little. Then she admitted that a person, whom I won’t name, even though he’s probably been dead for thirty years, actually “got” her license for her. So, this, I think, is a cautionary tale for most of us. We might think you have buried a little secret for 75 years or so, but our deeds will usually find us out. That’s because we all have at least one nosey relative. By the way, the farthest she ever drove on that bogus license was to Union City.

Ethel Lee Fox has voted for 13 presidents. I won’t tell you who the last one was, but you’d probably be surprised. This lady has never owned a blow dryer, cell phone, dishwasher, MP3, IRA, or DVD. She has however, owned CD’s, certificates of deposit, not compact disks. To her, Apple is a fruit, Drake is a male duck, and a mouse is a small rodent.

One thing I find fascinating is that she has kept a journal since 1968. Here she recorded camping trips, hog killings, earthquakes, surgeries, the purchases of cars, appliance purchases, home repairs, rainfall, and frosts. One of my favorites is the entry the day my brother and I were baptized, July 14, 1971. Also included were assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the abduction of Patty Hearst, and the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. According to my calculations, she recorded approximately 1,000 deaths, including John F. Kennedy (added even though he was already deceased when she started the journal). Others were Jacquelyn Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. It’s really an amazing book. Unfortunately, she ran out of pages around 1999, so she started just filling in any blank space she could find, and actually erased some entries. For her 100th birthday, I gave her a new journal with the inscription, “My Second Hundred Years.”

Mama Lee has had an amazing, if not remarkable life. She now resides at The Etheridge House, where she dominates the weekly bingo games. For many years she has struggled with a hearing impairment. Since her vision has deteriorated some as well, I thought she had lost touch with current events a little. When she asked me to elaborate on my thoughts about Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I realized I was wrong. About this time every year, she starts to get excited about college basketball. By March, well you know, the “madness” will definitely set in. Once, I admitted that I didn’t understand the shot clock, and she just rolled her eyes at me.

Her blood runs through my veins, and her name is a part of mine. God has blessed her with over a century of life. And she has lived it well.