Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Beautiful Soul

The year was 1926. To the world, she was just one more child born in the heart of the poorest of Appalachia. So what, you may ask, was special about the third of eleven children born to a mountain family who could barely feed them? This child just happened to be my mother. And like the beautiful stone for which she is named, my mom, Opal Virginia Lee France, has proven to be stronger than the circumstances from which she came, with a fire and beauty that is unique to her.

From the time that she was a small child, all she wanted to do was attend school. When she was three years old, she "slipped off" from her grandfather, Hiram Martin, to follow her two older sisters across a mountain to the school. Grandpa Hiram or "Harm" as he was called, brought her back and told her she would have to wait for her turn to go to school, but her love of learning had already been ignited. Sadly, however, education was not easy to come by in the mountains and time in which she grew up. Even when it was finally "her turn" she was only allowed to go to the eighth grade before she was required to stay home and care for her younger siblings (who later themselves went on to high school and some to college). But the dream of an education would not die and years later she returned to the mountain "David" school to finish her high school education and to watch her children go on to college and lucrative careers. By example, she taught that education was the one thing people can not take from you. And because education was so prized by our mother and father, we children came to know and understand its value.

But even when she was going to school, things were not easy. She only had two dresses. One to wear, while the other was being washed. She also had very little food to take in her "dinner bucket". At recess and lunch she would stand and watch the other little girls eat their fried apple pies with the delicate crispy curst and sweetened apple filling. Once, she even ventured to ask them for a bite, only to be turned down and laughed at. Most days, her bucket held only cornbread and beans and that was only when her mother had enough to spare for lunch.

As a young woman, she desparately wanted to join the women's Air Corp but her father strictly forbid it, and so she had to content herself with watching after her older sister's children. It was while she was at her sister's house that she met a hard-working, self-made, handsome, dark-skinned man of the community and married him after three months of "courtship". She was 23 years old and 87 pounds of pure determination and spunk, tempered by sweetness of spirit.

Two children later, her husband, a hard-working Applachian coal miner, became disabled through no fault of his own and would never be able to work again. She would go on to be the strong woman that she is and for the next forty years, she cared for him and their four chidlren until the day he died. She lead by example in her quiet, dignified way. She was stubborn but she had to be. She was steadfast and resolved. Yet, the unjust situation to which she had been born and the unfortunate circumstances in which life had placed her and her family never touched her heart nor made her the least bit bitter. Her countenance remained as sweet and as beautiful as the flowers that still grow on the mountainsides of her childhood home.

Now, 84 years young, Opal Virginia Lee France has raised four children, each a success in their own right, loved one man for 45 years 'til the day he died and has went on loving him since. She remains true to her God and her community and still works a four-day week at the local community center.

Gone is the smooth skin that once housed her smile. Faded is the rich chestnut hair that once framed the face of a hopeful young girl. But replacing that superficial and fleeting beauty is a beauty of another kind...a lasting beauty with the hallmarks of a heart having been through the fire of life and having remained ever young. To my mother on this mother's day...May I be half the woman that you are. How very blessed all have been who have known you. All my love, your daughter-- Geneva. P.S. I think I know where we can get some homemade fried apple pies and coffee...and this can have all you want. I love you, Mom. Thank you for your influence in making me the woman I am today.

Opal Virginia Lee France at 85 years young in 2011.

Note: Photograph above is copyright GenColeman2010 and may not be used without permission.


  1. What a wonderful tribute. I especially enjoy seeing old photos, and this one is lovely. I certainly can see the resemblance.

  2. A beautiful tribute to your mother. Thank you for sharing her story. Joyce

  3. You are so wise to tell your mother how much you treasure her while she is still with you. Beautiful.

  4. Thank you all...she is a treasure, my mom. : )

  5. Post Script... Mommy went to be with the Lord on October 19, 2012. Our hearts were broken and we miss her every day, but we will carry the lessons that she taught us, the memories that she made with us, and the love that she gave us.... with us always.

  6. Beautifully written and heartfelt. I had tears as I pictured her wants and needs only to have them denied, What a strong spirit she had and she instilled the same strength in her own children. If only the world had a few more like Opal Virgina Lee France.It would make for a perfect world.
    Thanks for sharing, Gen. Your story touched me deeply. Some day you and all her loved her will be sharing apple pies and coffee in the sweet by and by. I hope you invite to to visit your cloud. I'd love to share an apple pie with Miss Opal, her husband and her children.

  7. Thank you so much, Joy. I miss her every day. She was a treasure. Now she belongs to the ages. Again, thank you for the sweet, sweet words.

  8. You're welcome. I'd love to hear more stories about Miss Opal.

  9. I've thought of writing a series of little books for children...called "Little Opal".... I wrote one about her for my nephews last year for Christmas. Thank you for the means a lot coming from you.