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Frankie Cunningham learns something new every day. And most of the time, it surrounds her mother, the late Mae “Miss Mae” Wright.
Wright died June 5, 2002, but the foundation of life she left behind for her two daughters, six grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren is a solid legacy.
“She had this way of understanding what you were going through before you ever told her about it,” Cunningham said. “When she passed I didn’t know so many people knew her like we did. I thought we were the only ones. When I go different places around town, people will come up to me and start talking about my mother.
“It’s pretty special ” Cunningham said. “They start talking about my mother and I can’t hardly get away.”
When Cunningham was growing up in the Southside community, she didn’t have to look any further than the dinner table for a role model.
“Mom was always my hero,” Cunningham said. “She had this way of understanding what you were going through before you ever told her.”
Reminders of Wright’s influence still permeate every facet of her daughter’s life, including the kitchen table of Cunningham’s home in Arrowood.
The tablecloth and napkins are spun from shinny gold cloth and there is one glass turned down and a single flower that serve as constant reminders that Wright won’t be there today for a Mother’s Day dinner with her daughter.
“She was always color blind; everybody looked the same to her,” Cunningham said. “Anything she touched turned to gold. She was a very lovable person and always had a smile.”
There is centerpiece basket on the table filled with fresh bananas and apples. It’s a reminder of how Wright worked two jobs when Cunningham and her sister, Mary Bilial were young. After working in the Lancaster High School cafeteria and at Bi-Lo all day, Wright came home to fix a three-course supper for her girls, but only after hungry neighborhood children were fed.
Frankie said one insurance salesman even made the Wright home his final stop when he was collecting premiums to enjoy “Miss Mae’s cooking.”
“The kids always waited around the corner for Mom to show up,” Cunningham said. “She would make me and my sister wait to eat because that might be the only meal those kids get. She always put them first because she knew we were going to get something. At the time, I couldn’t understand it, but as I got older, I saw what she was doing and I understood it. That’s the way it was back then.
“If you met her, you wouldn’t ever forget her,” Cunningham said. “Her arms stretched around the world and her heart was a big as the world.”
From her own family to neighborhood youngsters to complete strangers, Cunningham said her mother never strayed away from any chance to be an encourager, which happened more often than anyone in the family realized.
A woman of strong faith, Wright was quick with a Bible verse and would often pray with people while she was working at Bi-lo and years later, at Duracell. Wright, Cunningham said, had a sixth sense when it came to hurting people.
“Mom never mumbled a word about any of that,” Cunningham said. “It stayed between her, them and God. She would always say ‘take your troubles to the Lord; take it to him.’ ”
But it was evident that her mother was a woman of strong faith. After Wright prayed with a brother, who was on his death bed, Cunningham said her uncle got up and pulled IV tubes from his arms. Cunningham said no one really knew what prompted her uncle to do that, but it was the right thing to do. He had been given the wrong type of blood, she said. Cunningham said when she asked her what she prayed, her answer was a simple, “prayer changes things.”
“When he got out of the hospital, he lived for 20 more years,” Cunningham said. “I’ve seen my Mom get down on her knees beside her bed and pray with such intensity that you feel the furniture move.
“I’m not joking about that, either,” Cunningham said. “That’s how powerful my Mom’s prayers were. Somebody said after she died, ‘Frankie, if your mother’s not going to make it to heaven, there’s no use in the rest of us even trying.’ ”
Since her Mom’s death, Cunningham said she lives each day like it could be the last.
“If people live life to the fullest like that, like Mom did, I know in my heart, everything’s going to be alright,” she said. “You’re going to pull to the left a lot of times and you’re going to pull to the right a lot of times, too. But when you have the foundation Mom gave me, you have a line that’s going to steer you back to the middle of the road you’re supposed to be on.”
Cunningham’s son, Del, who lives in Atlanta, came home this weekend to spend time with her.
While Cunningham said she isn’t sure what kind of Mother’s Day her only child has in mind, but she plans on going to church with him and possibly visiting her mom’s sister, 90-year-old Ruth Patterson, in Rockingham, N.C.
No matter where they go, Cunningham’s said her thoughts won’t be too far from the turn-downed water glass that’s on her kitchen table and what it signifies. If they eat lunch there today, no one will sit in the chair at that end of the table. That’s done in memory of “Miss Mae.”
“I’d give the world if she was still here with me,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been blessed.”