As modern women, we often feel the need to invent new strategies for dealing with life’s struggles and setbacks. This Mother’s Day, I want to share the surprising story of the matriarch of our family, my Nana. (June Petty, to the rest of the world.) I’d heard hints of these stories all of my life, but only recently did we sit down to really explore them.
As I learn more, I’m stunned by her courage, tenacity, and resilience, and I think you will be too.
In 1942, while in college in Commerce, Texas, her sister Hazel Parsons (who was 16 years older) had a nervous breakdown. On her own, Nana decided to go to the Oklahoma Tax Commission and talk to the Director. He agreed that she could work in her sister’s place, preserving her job. “I never felt inferior. My Dad always told me how smart I was, and there wasn’t anything I didn’t think I could do,” she says.
Hazel was in hospital a while, so Nana worked there for about a year. Eventually, Hazel was able to come back to work and went on to have a very successful career. When Hazel retired, she was the highest paid civilian on Tinker Air Force Base, serving the base commander as a statistical analyst.
With that experience, Nana decided that she was as able to work as anyone else. Instead of returning to college, she got a job with Ma Bell in Oklahoma City. After working there about six months, she transferred to Dallas. She was soon promoted to the position of Commercial Observer – essentially quality control for customer service. In addition, they filled in for vacationing agents in offices across the state. This meant Nana would fly to all of the major cities in the Texas and work for one to two weeks at a time. She’d rarely see other businesswomen on the plane.
Nana married Papa (C.L. Petty) in 1944 and took a break from work to have my uncle Jeff and my mom, Cassy. When they were younger, she went back to work to help meet the family’s needs. By now, she had transferred to Commercial Sales, coordinating radio and television loops and rates. Still wanting to be there when her children got home, she requested to be able to leave work at 3pm each day. She remembers lots of teasing comments from her co-workers, but her supervisors easily agreed. When I asked if that was ever an issue with her boss, Nana thought for a moment and said “Well, no, it was the only way I would have worked there.”
In 1959, she found a lump. It was breast cancer. Her doctor in Greenville told her to “Go home and get your affairs in order. If you have a radical surgery, you might live a year.” “Shall we schedule you for next week?,” he asked. With Hazel squeezing her shoulders, Nana firmly replied, “No, we shall not.”
Confident that another doctor would be found, they called everyone they knew to gather information. Weeks passed. One doctor in Dallas was highly recommended. And Aunt Jack in Oklahoma City had an friend that was an anesthesiologist that knew of another very special doctor. Nana’s mother, Mimi, made choice for Nana to go to Oklahoma City where Hazel and Aunt Jack could support her. Mimi moved in with Papa to take care of the kids.
During her first interview, Dr. Austin Bell reassured her. “If you place yourself in my hands, with the help of God, everything is going to be all right.” He asked if she already had children, telling her that her ovaries would need to be removed as well (in a decision that would prove to be decades ahead of its time).
When she woke up after a radical mastectomy, her skin was so thin she could see her lung. Dr. Bell walked in the recovery room just as she tried to comb her hair with her left hand and commented, “I knew redheads were tough, but redheads from Texas have to be the toughest.”
An intern asked whether she would need radiation. Dr. Bell replied, “No, I got it all.” On Christmas Day 1959, the report came in. Dr. Bell visited her in person to tell her that she was cancer free. After being in the hospital two weeks, Nana went to Hazel’s to recover for a few months. Because of the extent of her surgery, Nana had to learn to use right arm all over again. She would walk her fingers up the wall to increase their mobility.
Less than a year later, Dr. Bell developed arthritis and could no longer operate. He went on to establish innovative hospitals in India. (If anyone knows of a way to find more information on Dr. Austin Bell, I’d love your assistance in learning more about this incredible man.)
Today, Nana is a healthy, active 86 year old, serving on the team that prepares brunch every Sunday for her church. She’s also on the leadership team for their community food pantry and helps prepare backpacks for schoolchildren to take home over the weekend. I’m tremendously grateful for her unending love and leadership. Our family is truly blessed.