Wibby’s 4-H Project, 1946

When Wibby had just turned 15, she entered the Alabama State 4-H contest with a dress she had made herself. These are the pages of the booklet she put together to accompany her entry form. Its one-of-a-kind creativity is pure Wibby.

[To read all pages in order, click on the cover image (“Clothing Record Dale Co. 1946”) to bring up a larger version of the page; to turn to the next page, click the arrow that appears to the right of each image.]



Haywood’s eulogy for Wibby

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.

Olivia Weems Renkl, 1931-2012

Olivia Weems Renkl, 80, was a native of Clopton, Alabama; a longtime resident of Homewood, Alabama; and a recent transplant to Nashville, Tennessee. She was born unexpectedly on July 23, 1931, in Bertha, Alabama, in her maternal grandparents’ bed—her mother, Mildred Mims Weems, had been canning fruit and mistook the early labor pains for having eaten too many peaches. The physician who delivered Olivia was her paternal grandfather, Dr. William Moses Weems.

Olivia was a graduate of Auburn University (then Alabama Polytechnic Institute) and its school of home economics. After college she loved her work as a home-demonstration agent with the County Extension Service in several rural communities in lower Alabama, including Andalusia. In 1960 she married William Bishop Renkl, whom she loved until his death in 2003 and every day afterward until she joined him again on June 11, 2012.

She was preceded in death by her grandparents, Bryant and Olivia Brannon Mims and William and Alice Hawley Weems; by her parents, Max and Mildred Weems; and by her brother and sister-in-law, Max and Nina Blalock Weems. She leaves behind three bereft children and their spouses, and her eight grandchildren: Margaret Renkl and Haywood Moxley, and Sam, Henry, and Joe Moxley; Billy Renkl and Susan Bryant, and Emily Hyams, Ian Bryant, and Will Renkl; Lori Renkl and Michael Breeden, and Max and George Breeden; one great-grandchild, Lily Hyams; and the grandchildren of her heart: Sarah Doughton, Mary Ann Doughton Wilson, and John Doughton. Olivia’s home church was the United Methodist  Church of Clopton, Alabama. For more than 40 years she was a member of the Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Homewood, Alabama. Most recently she belonged to Christ the King Catholic Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

All services will be held at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Homewood, Alabama. Visitation with the family will be Friday, June 15th, at 5 p.m., followed by a rosary service at 6 p.m. The funeral mass will take place on Saturday, June 16th, at 11 a.m.

The family requests that any memorial donations be made to the Clopton United Methodist Church in Dale County, Alabama; to the scholarship fund at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Homewood, Alabama; or to the scholarship fund at Christ the King School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rest in Peace, Sweet Wibby

The last picture of Wibby, taken June 9, 2012

Dear friends of Wibby,

Yesterday morning, Wibby suffered a sudden and catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage; we lost her at 3:30 yesterday afternoon. She was at home with my family when it happened, and we called an ambulance immediately, but the doctors at the hospital told us that nothing could be done for her except to keep her comfortable. Apart from the initial headache, she was not in pain, and she was not afraid. All three of her children were holding her when she died; her last words before she lost consciousness were “Thank you.”

All my life, people have told me that I am my father’s child, and in many ways that’s true. But since his death, it has been my great good luck to have the chance to recognize how much I am my mother’s child, as well, though I still have so much growing to do to become the kind of person she was. I hope I can also learn to be for my own children the mother she has always been to me: deeply loyal (Wibby never forgot the name of a little girl in third grade who did not invite me to her birthday party), never critical, always proud, and full to overflowing with unending love. Wibby’s mother lived to be 97, and her grandmother lived to be 96, and I have always assumed I would be deep into old age myself before I lost her. She had so many more stories I wanted to capture in this blog, so many things to say that I hoped to record here as a source of solace for when, finally, she was gone. I can’t bear to think that already her funny voice and curious mind and fierce opinions are gone from this world.

Here in Wibby’s family, we are all in terrible shock right now, but we also know that this is exactly the way Wibby wanted to go– perhaps not quite so soon, but quickly, and surrounded by great love– and we are so grateful that she was her own inimitable self right up until the very last day. But those of you who read this blog will understand how much I miss my sweet, funny mama.

With a broken heart, Margaret

In Which Wibby Extols the Side Effects of Cuervo Gold

Margaret: I can’t believe Tricia let you drink two margaritas.

Wibby: Well, why in the world not?

Margaret: Because the last thing you need is a bad fall on your way down the steps.

Wibby: I’ll have you know that I have been drinking margaritas since long, long before you were born, and I’m here to tell you that tequila does not make a person falling-down drunk. Tequila just makes a person sleep real good.

Young Women Today Could Use a Dose of Wibby’s Self-Confidence

Wibby: Your husband’s gone wild with the hedge clippers again, I see.

Margaret: Please don’t fuss at Haywood about that spirea bush, Mom. Haywood is your staunchest defender. You wouldn’t believe how many other men say to him, “You let your mother-in-law move in NEXT DOOR?!”

Wibby: That’s only because those other men haven’t met me yet.

In Which Wibby Reveals How a Poor Memory is the Secret to Happiness

Wibby: Dammit, I can’t ever remember how to turn off this cell phone.

Margaret: On your phone it’s easier just to turn the ringer way down. See this little silver toggle on the side? Click the top of it to make the ringer louder and the bottom of it to make the ringer quieter.

Wibby: Oh, I can do that– that’s easy to remember!

Margaret: You said the same thing the last twelve times I taught you how to do it.

Wibby: Fortunately, I won’t remember that mean thing you just said to me, either.

Big Girl Confidential

Wibby: You know that book you got me, Death Comes to Pemberley?

Margaret: Sure.

Wibby: Well, the author’s already written another one.

Margaret: What’s this one called?

Wibby: A Million Shades of Grey, or something like that.

Margaret: Fifty Shades of Grey?

Wibby: Yes!

Margaret: Mom, that book wasn’t written by P.D. James.

Wibby: But it’s by a woman with two initials for her first name and James for her last name.

Margaret: But I promise you it’s not P.D. James.

Wibby: Oh. Well, anyway, if you get happen to get a copy for free, I’d like to take a look.

Margaret: You know it’s basically porn, right?

Wibby: And you know I’m a big girl, right?

In Which Wibby Holds Forth At the Art Gallery

Wibby: This is my son’s art show. He’s been a great artist ever since he was a little boy.

Photographer: Really?

Wibby: I wish you’d take a picture and send it to my daughter. I want her to put it on my blog so people can see these great drawings or paintings or whatever they are.

Photographer: Yes, ma’am.

[Photo by Dane Carder. Find out more about the gallery exhibit here. Find out more about the work of Billy Renkl here.]

So Glad We Cleared That Up

Wibby: There’s no ice cream in this freezer!

Margaret: I know, but Haywood got you a milkshake at the drive-through not even an hour ago.

Wibby: Oh, that’s right. But, really, I don’t consider a milkshake ice cream.

Margaret: Mom, a milkshake is made of ice cream.

Wibby: I don’t care if it’s made of ice cream or not. A milkshake is a drink. Ice cream is a dessert.

The Reason Why, In Childhood, Wibby’s Daughters Would Refuse to Come Out of the Dressing Room

Wibby, to a stranger standing in front of the department-store mirror: I love it! Buy it quick.

Stranger, turning to the left and right, considering her reflection: You really think so? What about the shoes?

Wibby: Well, now, you didn’t do too good with the shoes.

Stranger: But the skirt is alright?

Wibby: Turn all the way around and and let me see your butt.

Stranger, twirling: So?

Wibby: No doubt about it – the skirt is perfect.

Stranger: But not the shoes.

Wibby. Honey, they’re the right color, but that is all in the world I can say for those ugly shoes.

In Which Wibby Throws Her Bucket Hat into the Ring

Wibby: I want you to make me an appointment to speak to the city council.

Margaret: Mom, I don’t think they’ll convene for the sake of hearing the opinion of one regular citizen.

Wibby: Well, I’m not officially a citizen of Nashville yet, and I think they ought to hear a few things from a Birmingham citizen’s perspective.

Margaret: Like what?

Wibby: Like they’re starting to make the Birmingham politicians look good, and that is really saying something.

In Which Wibby Serves as a Microcosm of the American People

Margaret: Did you watch the Republican debate last night?

Wibby: I did.

Margaret: Anybody say anything you could vote for?

Wibby: Of course not. They’re all a bunch of crooks and liars who don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

Megaret: So maybe our president is starting to look a little better to you these days.

Wibby: Don’t get your hopes up.  An idiot running against idiots is still an idiot.

Redefining the Four Food Groups

“Don’t count me in for supper tonight. I bought four different kinds of cookies at the grocery store, and when I got home I decided to taste some from every box, and they were all so good I ate three or four each. And then I was thirsty so I drank a big glass of milk. So that’s my supper. Unless you’re fixing something really good, in which case I’ll eat that, too, and skip breakfast instead.”

Octegenarian Confidential

Wibby: Where are you going?

Henry: To the football game.

Wibby: I thought you didn’t like football.

Henry: I like hanging out with my friends, even if I don’t really get the point of football.

Wibby: Well, I’ll tell you a secret, Henry: Contrary to what you may have heard, you can get along just fine in this world without understanding one damned thing about football.