The Rebel Ribbon Maker

The Rebel Ribbon Maker

Ethel Lee. She’s gone now, but she left behind a story you need to hear.

Some knew her as Goose, but I knew her as Memaw. Being the lone “Yankee-child” that I am in my very Southern family, I mispronounced Mamaw as “Mee mah” (grandma) when I was little and she never corrected it.

She was the youngest of eleven children born to sharecroppers. She married young, had 3 children and lost 2, all pretty typical for the times. But in many ways she was a silent revolutionary.

In the 1940s, she ended her marriage, in a decade where she needed permission from her banker, father and pastor to do so.

Divorce was risky both financially and socially. She lived in a culture where divorce meant agreeing to public shaming, even at church.

One day she told me, in her slow, thick Southern drawl, about a lady in matching hat and gloves walking up to her and her friends at church one Sunday morning. The woman informed her that divorcees weren't welcome in the sanctuary and that she needed to leave.

Meemaw said she looked the lady straight in the eyes and said, “ain’t no one goin’ to keep me from my God.” Then she marched down to the front pew, crossed her arms and sat there for everyone to see. That was just like her.

She also had a career as a ribbon maker in a culture where it’s wasn't  totally acceptable for women to work. But she didn’t come from money, so working wasn’t ever a question. She never called it a career, but I will.

On one of my last trips to see her, I found her old wooden ribbon pulling tools in a drawer. She gave them to me and said she had kept them as a reminder of the freedom they allowed her.

Right before Memaw died, I opened an envelope from her. Now remember that she was a factory girl in a manufacturing mill. She earned pennies an hour in a hot warehouse in a rural South Alabama rail-town.

She was a single parent for the bulk of her child rearing years and she only had a 3rd or 4th-grade education.

Inside the envelope was a check. I stood in the post office stunned. It wasn’t a fortune by any means, but I keep thinking how did a poor mill worker save enough money to give anything at 92 years old?

She put a note in with my check that read, “I told you, nothing is impossible. Don’t let people tell you what you can or can’t do. Love, Memaw.”

You’ve probably never heard of her or of her ordinary/extraordinary life, and yet she made a huge impact on the world around her.

She set an example for me of how to stand up for yourself and do things against all odds. That is to me, legendary. But I bet if I could talk to her today, she would deny that she did anything but the dishes and the yard work. She just lived her life her way. She taught through example.

The more honest and stubborn you can be about who you are and what you really want, the bigger impact you can have in your career and in your life. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy to make a difference.

Think back to who has influenced you.

What was their truth?

What is yours?

How will you stand up for who you really are today?

Updated April 18, 2023

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