Dellani Oakes

Happy Birthday to My Mom! by Dellani

mom-1-croppedI often credit my father for my editing skills, but my mother was also a strong influence in my early writing career. A consummate story teller, she used to regale us with The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Magic Fish, Chicken Little and many more wonderful folk tales. She was always reading to us, starting us on the classics very young. I remember hearing Little Women, Little Men, Winnie the Pooh (the real one, not Disney) and many more too numerous to list.

She encouraged story telling, singing, poetry, reading and writing. In fact, Mom fostered creativity in any form. Along with these other skills, she taught my sister and me to sew, crochet and knit. We took to the sewing and crocheting pretty well, but sadly neither of us took to knitting. Mom made handknit finger puppets and Christmas stockings for many years, until her vision failed. She had the directions memorized and could turn out a finger puppet mouse in about twenty minutes. Her fingers flew and the small creature appeared as if by magic.

The mouse was only the beginning. From there, she expanded to humans, cats, dogs, snakes, dragons, hippies, trolls, goats and unicorns, to name only a few. She and I would tell stories using the puppets and small sets drawn by yours truly.

Mom telling Three Billy Goats Gruff with her finger puppets

When I first decided to write a novel, she smiled and said, “I always knew you would one day.” She was very proud of me, and so thrilled when Indian Summer was published, she bought copies for everyone in the family. She quietly encouraged me to keep creating, even asking me about the plot of my latest book—whatever it happened to be. I’m not sure she could keep track of my rapid fire plot summaries, but she tried.

Whenever I visit, she introduces me as “The one who writes books.” I find that touching and endearing. She can’t see my face very well anymore, due to macular degeneration, but she recognizes my voice and remembers I’m the one who writes.

Today is her 97th birthday. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s reached this age. I know she won’t see this post, but I wanted to share a little bit about my amazing mother.

She was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in 1919. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when she was a baby, and she grew up there. When she was less than two years old, she developed an inner ear infection that had to be surgically treated. She had a double mastoid operation, which, by some miracle, did not damage her hearing. She has a scar behind each ear, the mute testimony to her operation.

College was at Western Reserve in Cleveland (now Case Western Reserve). She got her teaching certification and worked several years as an elementary school teacher. During that time, she became interested in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and had her students write fan letters to the author. She also wrote a letter and a few weeks later, she got a reply from Laura herself. She was delighted that my mother and her students liked the books. For years, we treasured that letter. Eventually, Mom donated it to one of the Wilder museums.

Dauntless and enterprising, my mother and her sister, Margaret, decided to take some classes in weaving at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. While there, they found out about a small, rural boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains outside Harlan, Kentucky. On a whim, they applied for, and got, jobs as secretary and bookkeeper at Pine Mountain Settlement School. It was here she learned the art of story telling from author and historian, Richard Chase. My sister and I have volumes of his work, signed by him.

While working at the school, Mom eventually got the job of fundraising. Back in those days, it meant a lot of travel on bad roads, to get to the people who would give them money. Armed with her slides of the school, her a map and indomitable will, she struck out on her own. Traveling from New York state to Florida, she spoke to many organizations about the school. Quite the undertaking before interstates, cellphones and GPS!

Eventually, my mother met my father in the bus station in Harlan, Kentucky. They were both there seeing off friends, and started talking. My dad was astounded by her intelligence and wit. She was amazed by his charm, as well as his intellect. They were married at Pine Mountain in the chapel November 5, 1955.

There is so much to tell about my mother, I don’t even know where to go from here. I could spend the next ten years documenting the highlights of her long, fascinating life. I hope when I’m 97, my children will look at my life and say, “Wow, Mom sure did a lot!” I don’t think that even in my entire lifetime, I could equal the things my mother did in the first 40 of hers.kennedy-space-center-1990-dellani-oakes

Instead of groping for a direction, I’ll simply take a moment to say


You encouraged me to be creative and have inspired me to succeed. Thank you. I love you.

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