Mimmie and me. 1998-ish. Thanks to Cousin Cindy for finding this and passing it along.

Mimmie and me. 1998-ish. Thanks to Cousin Cindy for finding this and passing it along.

This week, we lost our Mimmie. That’s how us grandkids knew her, anyway.

To others, she was Francine. Or Mother. Or Ms. Haney. But to me and my cousins, she was Mimmie.

And she was my favorite person. As I think back on it now, she was the closest that I’ve been to any person. I was blessed beyond measure to have that time with her, to share those experiences with her.

Geez, she loved to tell this story: She and my grandfather surprised me, when I was about 8 years old, to see THE Bob Barker and The Price is Right during a traveling stop for the game show in Chattanooga. I freaking loved TPIR as a little kid.

But as we were getting ready to drive to the arena, I had like a full-blown panic attack.

Mimmie asked me what the problem was. I said I couldn't go - because I was terrified that I'd be asked to "COME ON DOWN!" I guess I wanted to watch, but I was not ready to play PLINKO or any of my favorite games. They had a good laugh about that one. They talked me down from the ledge, and we had a great time at the show.

Years later, after my grandfather had passed away, I took her to the same arena to see Wynonna Judd and Clint Black on the timeless "Black and Wy Tour" (get it??). My cousin Cindy and I loved that one Wynonna single that I don't remember at all now, and I wanted to take Mimmie to see the show. We went to a lot of country shows during those days, seemed like. It was a blast.

We'd sometimes take trips to Nashville, where I live now, to see our family in Hendersonville. For two consecutive summers, we trekked over to see The Vinny celebrity golf tournament in Kingston Springs. I think I was about 12 years old at that time. My cousins and I would run around the golf course trying to meet and talk with famous people, and she'd park her chair under a tree and enjoy the day. The most lasting memory there was Brett Favre denying me an autograph, telling me that if he signed my program that he'd miss his flight. (We later learned that he missed his flight.)

Fun and trips with Mimmie became synonymous. But it also instilled in me a sense of adventure. Whether we were road-tripping in the customized van (it had a TV that worked sometimes! a miracle in the 1980s/90s!) ... or just riding to the farm in the little Ford Ranger ... Mimmie made your days brighter. She made your life better. I'm not sure exactly what it was - maybe because I was a massive dork - but I didn't have a ton of friends growing up. My cousins were my good friends. And Mimmie was my best friend.

Really, I guess it says a lot about a person if you cannot easily identify their best quality.

More than anything, she loved. Without reservation or hesitation, she loved. She loved life. She loved experiencing new things. She loved experiencing her favorite things. She loved Jesus. She loved her family. She loved strangers. She modeled love in a way that I had never seen.

No one has ever believed in me like Mimmie. No one has ever made me feel like I could literally do anything. Maybe it’s Grandparenting 101 to make your grandkids feel loved and capable, but she could absolutely make me feel it. It resonated in my heart. It gave me confidence. It gave me hope. And that belief has echoed inside me for years. Any success I’ve ever been fortunate enough to enjoy, her support allowed me to get there. I truly believe that.

While I was in college, I started covering UT sports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press - one of her local newspapers. She saved every single one of my stories, even though I wrote probably hundreds that year. Every time we talked, she wanted to know how Pat Summitt was doing. I remember telling Coach Summitt about my grandmother. As I was around the Lady Vols more and more, I could see certain parallels between Mimmie and Coach Summitt: tough, no-nonsense farm girls from rural Tennessee. Could kill you with a stare, but they'd rather kill you with kindness. I'd like to think they're getting a chance to hang out today.

I remember visiting Mimmie one time, and she dragged out this enormous trunk of newspapers that had my stories in them. I couldn't believe she'd saved them all. I hadn't saved very many at all. It didn't matter what they said; to her, just the fact that I wrote them made them keepsakes. She had such immense pride in what I was doing in college and then as a professional. She had such pride that I was hers. As someone learning and growing, it's hard to explain what that meant (and still means) to me. When you doubt yourself and you're unsure of your direction, to have someone so securely in your corner who believes in you with such passion ... it means everything.

I remember about 10 years ago, as she was beginning to struggle mentally while in assisted living, she would have me walk around the facility with her. She would introduce me to literally every person we would pass and say, “This is my grandson. He went to the University of Tennessee, and now he’s in sports broadcast and journalism.” I remember thinking, “Well, I’m just a newspaper writer, so it’s technically not broadcasting, Mimmie.” But then, a few years later, I wound up doing a whole lot of radio and TV, even nationally. Turns out, she knew more than I did. That isn’t all that surprising, I guess. She believed in me more than I believed in me at times, and that's still such an incredible thing to me.

She valued me in a way that I’d never before felt. She was that way about all her kids and grandkids. Ephesians 3 talks about the limitless height and the depth of God’s love. Mimmie’s love is the closest I’ve ever seen and felt that from a human. What a gift, to love like that. What a use of that gift. What an example.

And she was tough as hell. She liked finer things, sure, but deep down she was a farm girl. She’d throw on some rubber boots and walk through a pasture any day. If something needed to get done at her house or the farm, she was going to get it done. Didn't even matter if she knew how to do it half the time; she'd try anyway. 

And if any of us forgot how tough she was, we have the past 15 years as a reminder. I’m not sure how long any of us thought she had once she slipped deeper into dementia and Alzheimer’s. But she just kept fighting, just kept holding on. Even this week, even with time growing short, she just kept pushing and fighting.

Of all the diseases, Alzheimer’s is so unrelentingly cruel: to both have and lose someone simultaneously. And to slowly lose someone. For a few years, it wasn’t so bad. For the next few years, it was challenging. For the past few years, it’s been heartbreaking. There are no words to express the gratitude that I have for my aunts and my dad caring for her the way that they did. Mary and Marsha, in particular, being the children in town, sacrificed so much. They gave up so much for their mother. The echoed her own level of love and service. Mimmie did that for her mother, who had the same awful disease - and then they did it for her. I am amazed at their spirit and who they are, but then I recall that they're products of her and it makes perfect sense.

If she had a way to say it, she'd probably both appreciate and hate their sacrifice. She certainly would have hated all the fuss and attention over her. She was at her best serving others. She was that matriarch who wouldn’t sit to eat at Thanksgiving; she could not exit selflessness long enough to focus on her own holiday meal. One year, I remember Aunt Brenda almost forcing her to stop running around and eat.

She made no apologies for who she was. I remember going to church with her sometimes, and, being honest, she had the absolute worst singing voice in human history. Rather than sing, she would just sort of “coo” along to the music. As a typical teenager, I remember once calling her out on it. She just kind of shooed me away with her hand and went right back to cooing to the church hymn. I always admired that. She was singing to the Lord; it was a beautiful noise to Him and that’s all that mattered. She was unflinchingly her.

I know her life wasn’t always easy. I know being a widow for decades of her later life had to have been particularly difficult. But seeing how she responded to adversity was so instructive for me. She still had a smile on her face. She still sought first to serve God and then to serve others. She broadened her horizons by making new friends. Heck, she used that time as an opportunity to literally see the world. She would not let trials hold her back from enjoying her life and the gifts in it. That model of perseverance has served me well.

Oh, and that house. I think often of her house. I’ve even dreamed about it many times over the years, especially the room where the grandkids played and stayed. I can see all the children's books lined up on the shelves. I can see the little wooden box filled with Matchbox cars. I can feel the fraying shaggy rug under my feet and fingers. I can sense the uncomfortable bounce on the tiny twin-bed mattress.

It’s where my cousins became some of my best friends. We’d play basketball on the pea-gravel drive, skinning up our knees. We'd play football in the front yard - until someone wound up arguing. (Usually me and my cousin Michael.) We'd ride the giant red 4-wheeler, some days from dawn to dusk; on snowy days, we’d figure out a way to tie a sled to the back of it.

It’s where my parents and I went to stay the one night our heat went out in the middle of winter.

It’s where, at least she would claim, that I read encyclopedias cover to cover when I was a toddler and my parents went on vacation to The Bahamas.

It’s where, as a fifth-grader, I found my cousin David’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik cassette and wondered what sort of Devil-worshipping music he’d fallen into. (I was a little young and a lot sheltered? ... I have come to enjoy that RHCP album quite a bit over the years.)

It’s where we’d spend hours in the basement after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, putting together a delicately choreographed play. (They had to have been awful, but the adults dutifully took their seats and applauded, anyway. Mimmie always got the VIP box, naturally.)

It’s where the thermostat would be set to something absurd like 63 degrees, because Mimmie would be sweating up a storm as she buzzed from room to room doing 12 different things at once.

The house is where Mimmie lived, so it’s where I wanted to be. She was someone I was drawn to, someone I always wanted to be near. And her arms always opened to receive me. She made me feel the warmth of the sun with her love. Her lessons, her support and her love have been foundation on which my entire life has been built.

I cannot thank her enough for everything she did for me and our family. I cannot thank her enough for who she was. I cannot thank her enough for her selfless life and unconditional love.

Everyone in the world deserves a Mimmie. Everyone. I’m so grateful that we had one, so grateful that I had one. I've missed her everyday since she got sick. I’ll continue to miss her everyday. But I’m glad she’s restored and helping prepare a new home for us.

Thermostat’s probably set to 63, knowing her.