You know how you look at something online or buy something online and then every time you open your browser, there it is, staring back at you? Lately it’s been a pair of red Crocs. Not the reptiles, but those plastic shoes people either love or hate.
Two years ago my mother had a stroke, which meant she needed skilled nursing care near me, almost 200 miles from her home in West Texas. You’re probably thinking, “Is this story going somewhere?” Yes, there is a Croc connection.
I soon learned that even in the best health care establishments, personal items sometimes get misplaced. For example, my mother’s eyeglasses—the kind with the huge frames—the kind identical to those of almost every other little old lady over 80. She’d take them off and leave them in out-of-the-way places only to have them appear a few hours or days later. Once when I visited, my mother’s roommate was wearing my mother’s glasses. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
Thanks to an online company that sells inexpensive eyewear, I solved the dilemma by getting my mother a pair of glasses with trendy, bright red frames. That way, if they got misplaced, everyone would know they were hers.
Then, a few weeks ago when her shoes disappeared (I later learned they were being cleaned), I realized she needed shoes easy to put on, easy to clean, and recognizable as hers. So I ordered a pair of red Crocs. Afterwards, I thought about Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” wishing Mama could click her heels together and find herself back home and healthy once more.
The Crocs arrived in two days, but my mother never got to wear them. She died in the hospital a week later, three days after her 90th birthday.
Now, when the red Crocs pop up on the browser, I imagine my mother laughing and clicking her heels together. And then I see her on the front porch of her house with her beloved black Lab, B.J., beside her. He’s wagging his tail and licking her hand, so excited to see her that he’s like a young pup again.
She didn’t know he’d been waiting for her since summer on Rainbow Bridge.
Ava Mae Powell Howard, 90, a colorful, boisterous presence throughout West Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico for nearly a century who epitomized the rugged spirit of her forebears, died Monday, April 2, 2012, in Waco, Texas, after a brief illness. Strong-willed, outspoken, yet compassionate with those who took the time to know her, she was noted for her broad sense of humor and keen perseverance during a lifetime that saw her do everything from work in a once-famous hamburger hangout, to charming hotel guests such as fellow Oklahoman Ben Johnson, the famous stunt rider and Academy Award-winning actor.
Born March 30, 1922, in Snyder, Oklahoma, the daughter of Herbert Joseph Powell and Bertha Francis Van Buskirk, she moved to Abilene, Texas, in 1959, where she spent most of her life. Even so, she never failed to acknowledge her Sooner roots. A relative once remarked that Ava was typical of the resolute, enduring Okies who stayed and toughed out dust storms, drought, and economic devastation in the Great Depression when John Steinbeck’s famous Joad family instead loaded up and abandoned the region for California. Often vocal, opinionated, and hard-headed, Ava once claimed she sat quietly in the proverbial corner till she was age 21, listening to others opine and argue and spin tales, then resolved to make up for lost time herself. She was quick to make friends and had no qualms about striking up conversations with strangers. She could also strike faster than a rattlesnake if she thought she, a friend, or family member had been wronged.
Her curiosity knew few limits. Her obvious aptitude in school and early success in college only hinted at her real scholastic potential. After a year at Kiowa County Junior College, she spent a semester at the University of Oklahoma but quit to marry James Lowell Howard in January 1943 in the midst of World War II. After his return from war (including involvement in the Battle of the Bulge), the small family—by now including a daughter—followed his checkered career as an unusually talented, much sought-after, but wildly erratic baker across much of the American Southwest. Even as they moved frequently from one town to another, Ava Mae voraciously read library books and instilled in her daughter an early respect for education.
In Abilene, Ava worked at Lion Hardware, Thornton’s department store, and Baum’s Broiled Burgers during its late 1950s and early ’60s heyday. Later in life, Ava often recalled how her years as night desk clerk at LaQuinta Inn along windswept Interstate 20 in Abilene were among the happiest of her life, even though she was once robbed at gunpoint and often locked horns with management. Customers came from a wide range of backgrounds and included occasional celebrities such as country-western crooner Eddy Raven, who alternated between staying there and a fancier, high-dollar motel in town, dependent (she claimed) on how his career was faring. Through it all, she made a strong, lasting impression on both customers and co-workers. “She always listened and then always gave me her two cents’ worth,” a former colleague recalled. “I can still see her squinting up her sweet face and then saying, ‘Well, that SOB.’ She was a good friend through thick and thin. Everyone needs a friend like her. Her customers dearly loved her.”
Even during most of her retirement and decline in later years, she remained full of energy and curiosity, long after most her age had dismissed any new marvels of technology for the rocking chair. At one point, she acquired a fascination with anything electrical: VCRs, DVD players, TVs, tape players, CD players, and a camcorder she couldn’t afford (and tried to return to Montgomery Ward after six months on the grounds she’d charged it on their charge card). One family member concluded Ava was the reason many stores now have entire departments devoted to exchanges and returns. Her concept of credit reflected her Depression-era past. She once dismissed any concern about paying off her credit card bills because, she believed, “it all goes away after you die.”
Even in her final years in a retirement home in Waco, far from her beloved West Texas, she maintained a certain vigor and hearty sense of humor. “She wanted her newspaper every morning so she could read (her son-in-law’s) article,” one nurse recalled. “She would sit behind the desk with me while I got my morning stuff together, drinking Dr Pepper and eating honey buns. What a ham she was, always wanting us to take her picture. She posed for every one of them. She is one of the ones who remind me of why I love working with the elderly.”
Ava was preceded in death by her husband, James Lowell Howard, in 1981.
Survivors include daughter Ann Whitaker and husband Bill of Waco; brother Joe Powell and wife Irma of Snyder, Oklahoma; and grandson Michael Davis of Abilene.
The family deeply appreciates the staff at Ridgecrest Retirement and Health Care in Waco for their care of Ava during her last two years of life and for their ability to see past her speech difficulties-the result of a stroke in 2010-and their appreciation of her sense of humor and unique personality. The family also thanks the staff of Providence Health Center and Providence Hospice who tended to Ava during the last week of her life, working to ensure she was as comfortable as possible and poised to be just as vital in the next stage of her long existence.
In lieu of a New Orleans jazz funeral procession led by Al Hirt, as she once requested, Ava will be put to rest quietly at the Fairlawn Cemetery in Snyder, Oklahoma, near other kin.