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My mother has inspired my life, encouraging me to speak up for social justice even when it is difficult to stand up to injustice.
Carol Jones Hay, born Carol Eloise Jones on October 17, 1932, grew up mostly in Florida during the Depression, one of three children of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. “We didn’t know we were poor,” she has said, “because everybody was.” She remembers having suppers consisting only of grits and sliced tomatoes.
Part of her childhood was spent in Ocala, where she and her brother and sister learned about reptiles and amphibians from the expert who wrestled alligators in the Tarzan movies, filmed in the Silver Springs. She enthusiastically taught us, her daughters, as well as friends, neighbors and anyone else who would listen, never to kill a harmless snake, and how to identify the poisonous ones.
When we were children our mother taught kindergarten in underprivileged neighborhoods and was active in our local school’s PTA. During these years, the early 1960s, she (together with our father) was one of few whites who worked to convince local school officials to complete the racial integration of our schools. Her deep feelings inspired us to befriend the “token” black children in our school, who represented the district’s effort to pay lip service to the imperative set forth by Brown v. Board of Education. In 1963 she and our father took us to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, in spite of the threat of violence against him.
For 13 years our mother taught special education, resource room, and social studies classes in public middle school. While there she advocated for special-needs students and worked in local and state politics to improve conditions for public school teachers. She established a new resource room for special-needs students at a local residential school serving children of families in crisis. She served on the South Carolina Governor’s Educator Improvement Task Force to help establish performance standards for teachers in our state.
As a teacher, she worked hard to cross social boundaries and bring people together. Our father tells with delight of a day when he visited her classroom, where most of her students at the time were African-American. As he left the room, he heard a student say, “Mrs. Hay’s married to a white man.”
After our mother left teaching she returned to art, which she had studied in college. Her watercolors of still life and landscape were popular locally, and we family members especially treasure her portraits of family and pets. In more recent years she discovered odorless synthetic oils and a new passion for abstract painting. “The Gift,” a Nativity scene in gold and blue, is featured yearly by the retirement community where our parents live, and the Christmas card made from it was chosen by their church to raise funds for a local charity.
In August 2009 our mother was admitted to a nursing facility with symptoms of dementia which could not be controlled in our parents’ home. Our mother had been diagnosed with “pre-senile dementia” several years earlier, but had managed at home with our father until a sudden and severe decline in her mental capacity. Her speech had been “scrambled” for months, but quickly became very difficult to understand. She could not make her needs or thoughts known. She was in an unfamiliar environment, with no way to talk to the strangers who were providing care for her. Being an assertive woman who had always advocated for the rights for others and for herself, she used the only means available to her – her nonverbal behavior. She protested what she did not like or understand by physical resistance, which staff in turn treated as “agitation” and “noncompliance.” Her daily existence was an unpleasant experience for her and for her caregivers, the staff of the nursing home. Ultimately, she was treated by a medical doctor specializing in gerontological psychiatry, who balanced the production of brain chemicals through the use of medications. After several months of difficult experiences, our mother stabilized. Her daily life at the nursing facility continued to be a struggle. Our mother was used to having activities and experiences which were not a part of the facility’s routine. She wanted to do things that were not the way staff had always done things. Working with the staff to make changes that would accommodate our mother was challenging; it meant that the things they had “always done,” they were being expected to do in a different way. It was a continuing process which was at times difficult for all. And meantime, every day, our mother was not having the kind of experience we wanted her to have.
One day, while the family was discussing the difficulties we were having in getting the changes to happen, my sister mentioned that our mother had been a lifelong activist for social justice for those without a voice. If someone had asked her, years ago, if she would endure these difficulties for the outcome of a better quality of life for all people in nursing homes, she would have said Yes. She was just that kind of person.
A few days later, on March 19, 2010, our mother was letting me know of another concern she had. She was able to get out the words “I’m sorry.” She was telling me she was sorry she couldn’t do for herself; sorry that she was creating difficulty for her family. I replied that she had nothing to be sorry for, and that I was sorry it was taking us so long to work for things to get better for her. I assured her that we were working hard to fix what we could fix, and that she and other people would have a better experience when we succeeded. I told her she was being a strong advocate for the people who live in her facility, just as she had advocated for civil rights in the 1960s. I reminded her of her advocacy work, and told her that her two daughters were making sure she was still advocating. We were being her voice.
Mama cried. She understood.
In that instant, we realized we had a mandate from our mother. She didn’t ask us, or task us to be her voice; we simply knew that we had been called to be Our Mother’s Voice. We had to take up our mother’s role as activist, and speak out for the group she now found herself a part of. We had to do what we could to make sure the voice of people in nursing homes who can’t speak out was heard. Our Mother’s VoiceTM was born.
Whether defending harmless snakes, teaching disadvantaged children, or working for political and social change, our mother has spent her life speaking out for those who could not speak for themselves or simply were not being heard. Now, silenced by the disabilities of dementia, she needs others to speak for her. We as a family have learned much on our journey of advocacy, and we began the nonprofit organization Our Mother’s VoiceTM as away of continuing her work of speaking up for others, to enable other familiesto help their loved ones in nursing homes to live fulfilling lives of the greatest possible health, friendship, and joy. The paintings you see on the Our Mother’s VoiceTM website (www.ourmothersvoice.org) are all hers, and the site’s designer is her granddaughter, of whose talent she is immensely proud.
For her lifelong activism for social justice, which still continues as she communicates with us non verbally to advocate for quality of life for nursing home residents, we nominate Carol J. Hay for recognition as a leader in our community on International Women’s Day.
This story was submitted as part of Oxam America's International Women's Day initiative to honor women working to right the wrongs of poverty and hunger. Honorees are selected independently by Oxfam supporters. Selection does not imply endorsement or other support from Oxfam America.
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