One rainy afternoon, Wibby was feeling a bit blue, so Margaret had our twelve-year-old son Joe take her a milkshake. When Joe returned from her house next door, she asked him if Wibby liked it. “Liked it?” said Joe, “she loved it! She actually squealed when she saw it.” And then he said, “It’s nice to do stuff for people who squeal when they’re happy.”
For me, her son-in-law, that was Olivia in a nutshell: one of happiest people I knew in this world and someone absolutely unafraid to show it.
Many of you know Olivia’s story—how she was born unexpectedly on July 23, 1931, in her own grandparents’ bed in Bertha, Alabama, because her mother, Mimi, not quite eight months pregnant, had decided to go home for a night to help her mother, Mother Ollie, with some canning. That night Mimi woke up with what she thought was a peach-induced stomachache. The ache turned out to be Olivia, but never again would she be mistaken for anything other than herself.
The Olivia I know, from pictures and stories, was Olivia the farm girl, who learned how to grow anything; Olivia the college girl, who never met a stranger and made lifelong friends; Olivia the young professional, who learned how to dance just to catch the eye of the dashing Bill Renkl; Olivia the mother, who raised smart and creative children; and finally Olivia the vibrant grandmother, who would raise a white eyebrow at anyone who called her a grandma. The Doughtons—Sarah, Mary Ann, and John, whom Olivia loved like her own grandchildren—saved her from the dreaded G-word and made “Wibby” her favorite nickname. No other grandmother in the world has that name. I know because I looked it up on the Internet. Wibby truly was one of a kind.
Three years ago, when Wib was making plans to move to Nashville, an acquaintance asked me if I was ready for my wife’s “elderly mother” to move in next door. I didn’t say anything, but I had to smile. It was as if someone had asked if I were prepared for a little moisture, knowing that a tidal wave was about to make land. Wibby was loving and sweet, but little old lady never entered the equation.
Olivia was infamous and even beloved for keeping a wildly cluttered house, but she was mostly unself-conscious about the wreckage. Lori remembers a beat-up old magnet hanging on the family fridge that was printed with the following verse:
When I die, if God should say,
“Did you clean your house today?”
I will say, “No, I did not.
I played with my children and I forgot.”
Wibby placed little priority on inconsequential things like tidiness. Instead she made sure that every kid, teenager, or young adult in a thirty-mile radius felt comfortable hanging out at her house. Visitors felt welcome because of Bill and Olivia’s genuine interest in them. There was always a hot supper and heated conversations waiting for us, and in the mornings always a big breakfast, highlighted by Wibby’s special waffle batter, which she mixed with Sprite. On Sunday nights after the six o’clock mass, when most parents are settling in for a new work week, Bill and Olivia invited dozens of teenagers—literally dozens—over to their house for burgers and beans and potato chips. Eventually Father Muller asked the Renkls to move the party up to the CYO house, where they opened the doors to all the youth of the parish. They must have grilled thousands and thousands of burgers during those years. Olivia and Bill were enthusiastic hosts, but most of all they were unflagging encouragers of young people’s dreams.
They were simply a team—they parented together, served the church and served the poor together, entertained together. Both of them were fully committed to being partners, and they were equally committed to being parents. As Billy says, “Maybe the greatest gift a parent can give kids is to make them feel valuable. I don’t recall ever being aware that she wanted anything (like a new car or a bigger house, or better clothes or appliances) other than us. She always made me feel like she was so proud to be my mother.”
Any account of Olivia’s life would be incomplete without remembering her garden. Wibby wasn’t interested in hot-house flowers or tea roses that had to be coddled—she wanted plants that could be easily divided and shared. There’s a cutting from a Dr. Van Fleet rose, for example, that has made its way from Mother Ollie’s farmhouse in Bertha to Clopton, Andalusia, Birmingham, Nashville, and Clarksville. There are now phlox and bearded iris and daylilies living in Middle Tennessee that began their lives in Lower Alabama more than a hundred years ago. To Wibby, flowers were about sharing the beauty of the world.
Olivia wasn’t much impressed by the digital age, but if you Google her nickname, you will find that she’s on the web in a blog called “The World According to Wibby.” Margaret started it so Olivia’s Birmingham friends would have an easy way to stay in touch with her in Nashville, but it became a place to record Wibby’s absolutely joyful approach to life, as well. Now this journal of her witticisms will remain online as a remembrance.
In her memory and honor, I hope everyone will try a recent tactic of Wibby’s that her sudden death gave Margaret no time to post on the blog: next time you place an order in restaurant, say, “I’ll have the chicken salad, but for my side, instead of the fruit cup, I’d like the chocolate cake.”
We should all do it to get a sense—for just a moment in our routine-driven lives—of what it’s like to be Olivia.
One post on the blog is titled “Wibby, Role Model.” Our son Joe had again had gone next door to deliver something to Olivia, and upon returning he said, “Wibby gets so unbelievably happy about little things like flowers and ice cream. I think we should all be more like Wibby.”
Like Olivia’s unexpected birth eighty years ago in her grandmother’s bed, her sudden death this week has been a shock. But of everyone I know in this life, Olivia was the most ready for the next one. She even mentioned to an emergency-room nurse that she wasn’t afraid to die, that every night she told God she was ready to see Bill again. And I suppose that’s the reason why my favorite words of wisdom from Olivia are the ones she spoke one Easter morning: “I’m so happy. Jesus is risen, and I can wear my white pants.”
Godspeed, Wibby. We’ll miss and love you always.