JOHN L. PITTS: Farewell, Tennessee: A life well lived ends quietly at age 95

John L PittsTUPELO – It was “show your colors day” at the Alabama newspaper where I was working a few football seasons ago, and that meant most people were going to show up wearing Alabama or Auburn gear.

Not me. I turned up for work in a Tennessee sweatshirt.

The big boss was beside himself: “John, how can you come in here wearing that?”

“C’mon, Tom,” I said. “Can you blame a guy for wearing his mother’s name on his chest?”

Oh, the look on his face.

It’s true – my mom was named Tennessee, after her mother.

The woman who gave me life – and a love for reading and writing, among so many other gifts – lived 95 full years.

A few weeks ago, 10 years after a stroke that slowed but could not stop her, she told one of her nurses: “I’m tired. I’m ready to go.”

She left us, quietly, on Aug. 6.

Seven years ago, my mother’s longtime family doctor took me aside while she was struggling with apparent kidney failure. “It might be a good idea to make some funeral plans, as long as you’re in town,” he said.

She had other plans.

In the two decades between my father’s untimely death – he was just three years older than I am now – and her own stroke, my mother reinvented herself.

After a career in geriatric nursing, she tackled retirement with gusto. She traveled widely in tour groups and was unafraid to seek out her own kinds of adventures. Part of that journey was spent carefully listening in a series of churches on Sunday mornings.

And, as the old folks liked to say, she never met a stranger.

In the fall of 1995, my mother boarded a flight in Nashville to Washington, D.C, to visit her only child.

I was running a little late to National Airport, which was packed with visitors for the Million Man March.

There, in a sea of black faces, was my little mommy, standing between two men in Kente cloth garb, each about seven feet tall.

“We were talking about their clothes,” she said. “Very interesting.”

My mom always worried about me and my career and was happy when I moved closer to home in the late 1990s. She was delighted when I landed in Tupelo in 2001, although she never had a chance to visit.

Seems like it was just a few weeks ago when I walked in her room at the nursing home and her face lit up: “There’s my son!”

I did just about all the talking on one of our final visits, but at some point she opened her eyes and looked right at me.

“I love you,” she said.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.