Part One – Interview with a Strong Southern Lady

Now don’t tell anyone, but I sometimes hate summer. I know, I know, I live in the South and you’d think I’d be used to it. Nope. I just thank God every day for air conditioning. Unfortunately, the heat has never been my friend. It not only drains me of any energy I have, but changes my appearance. Yes, what begins in my reflection in a mirror as “not too bad” becomes red-faced, sweaty with stringy flat-to-my-head hair. Although I’m a southern girl and proud of it, I confess, the heat here is unbearable. June is bad. July is worse. August – I can’t go into it right now.

Switching topics. As I mentioned before, I attended the Southeastern Writers Conference a few weeks ago, and had a wonderful time. During that period, I was fortunate enough to interview two women whom I admire a great deal and whom I believe exemplify strong southern women.

Jan Kelleher kickingToday, I am excited to share with you, the first part of an interview I had with author and new friend, Janet Sheppard Kelleher.

“Janet Sheppard Kelleher is a creative nonfiction writer, memoirist, speaker, and author of Big C, little ta-ta: Kicking Breast Cancer’s Butt in 7 Humorous Stories. Her upcoming book, But What If I Can? is an inspirational and humorous, yet poignant, look at where we find our coping skills. Her next book Big C, Belly Boobs, about her last breast cancer experience, demonstrates how “finding the funny” in scary situations helped her remain optimistic during the process.”

Me:  Jan, I believe you personify Strong Southern Women. Strong in the sense that you don’t let circumstances or life get in your way. You fight for what you want in any way you can. You have faith on your side and something inside of you that helps you rise above the negative. With that said, and with your permission, I would like to ask you a few questions.

1. Do you consider yourself to be strong? Why or why not?

Yes. I consider myself to be strong. I came from a background of strong women—both grandmothers. I probably had one of the few grandmothers who worked outside the home. My maternal grandmother owned a grocery store, and she worked seven days a week, twelve-fifteen hour days, until she found the Lord and took off on Sundays. When I went to work for her at age seven, I was so small that I stood on a Coca Cola crate to ask customers if they needed help finding things. You know the little country stores where you didn’t pick up your own can of beans, where someone else got it for you. As I worked from seven a.m. until eight at night, my grandmother taught me how to work and the value of a dollar.

My mother also worked outside the home. She was a great salesperson—selling insurance, selling Stanley home products, selling institutional foods. She was brilliant at it, and so, I also had that influence growing up.

Jan's bookNow, the other grandmother was a sharecropper on a plantation. Her husband died when he was forty-nine years old and left her with eight children. As I understand it, there was no such thing as social security back then. All the children worked in the fields picking cotton. So when my book comes out “Having My Cotton Pickin’ Say,” you can understand that I’m not joking! My dad had to work the plantation for a long time. At twenty-three, he was the first person in our family to obtain a high school diploma. But my grandmother held together the family. She made dresses for the children from flour sacks, and created mattresses out of Spanish moss. I came from that kind of resourceful woman. She did what it took to survive. You talk about strong southern women–both of my grandmothers were brilliant in the way they handled life. Nobody had it easy. They all scraped by.

Yes, I consider myself to be strong because of those women’s examples. I will say that my book, which is coming out next, “But What If I Can,” is about the influences in my life, personal characteristics I have that create a survivor mentality, and the stories behind the people who gave those characteristics to me—one little story about each person, each story about the attribute that came from that person.

A brief example: My Dad whom I told you graduated at twenty-three because he had to work in the fields for years went with me to the first and only PTA meeting in our lives. Since I had working parents, they usually didn’t have the time for things like that. I’m not sure but maybe my brother talked him into going to the ninth grade teacher conference. By that time, Dad was a successful insurance salesman who always wore a suit and tie to work, a Stetson hat and wingtips. He was dressed fit to kill that night. We were nervous since the experience was new for both of us. Fishing and hunting, now that would have been easy. That’s what we did together. So it’s time to meet the teachers and we hit the Geometry classroom first. We’re standing in line—sweating.

When it’s our time to walk up to the teacher, Mrs. Byrd says, “Mr. Sheppard, I’m really proud of Janet. She’s doing well in Geometry.”

I wasn’t sure whether he was being proud or humble, but he looked down at his shoes then glanced up a bit and said, “Well, you know, Mrs. Byrd, she ought to be good in Geometry, I took it three damn times.” You have to think I got my tenacity from that guy.

Those are the kind of people I come from.

I feel like when you have obstacles to overcome, you have to look at people in your life, whether or not they’re kin to you, and say “That example right there—I can glean something from that!” Then use it, grow in it, whether or not it’s actually in your blood.

2. From where do you draw your inner strength?

There’s no doubt in my mind that God exists. The first story I ever had accepted at Chicken Soup for the Soul was about how and where my serious faith came from. “A Child’s Faith” is about my sharecropper granny. When she received a diagnosis of cancer, they gave her six months then sent her home to die. No one told her she had cancer. I don’t know whose decision that was, one of her children or all of them. I think they did it because one of her daughter’s had died of breast cancer and she was afraid of it. The fear of cancer—most people still fear it. As I said, I worshipped that grandmother. I was fourteen years old at the time, and I remember distinctly falling across my bed all morning, all night, and praying to God to please give me the pain that she might have to endure. I couldn’t bear to watch her go through it, the kind of pain they used to have to endure with cancer. I thought, I’m young and I can take that kind of pain. I pleaded and bargained with Him with words like “whatever you can do, whatever you give me, for allowing her to live and for minimizing her pain.” Well, my granny lived the six months and everybody kept expecting her to die. But she lived a year, then two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight years. She never took so much as an aspirin. That’s the truth. There came a time when she had a situation and was rushed to the hospital. At that moment, I was 250 miles away in a hotel room when I saw an arm reach out and pull a sheet over her head. I’ve never had a vision before or since, but that’s all I saw. I didn’t see anything else; didn’t see a person–just Granny’s head, an arm, and a white sheet.

The next morning, I called my mother and asked, “What’s wrong with Granny.”

She said, “How did you know?”

I said, “Never mind, you won’t believe me anyway.

I told Mom to call George, call Jim, call the family. Tell them to get there because my grandmother wasn’t going to live. I made it there. I was holding her hand when she died. She was eighty-five years old. At that moment in time, I had all the faith that a child can have and I trusted God beyond the shadow of a doubt. And he answered. I’m still so grateful. When I have pain, when I developed cancer myself, I was not surprised, nor did I ask why, nor was I angry. I frankly said, “My time has arrived.” I am so grateful still that she had those eight years. That is where my inner strength comes from.

Thank you, Jan for your honest answers and sharing endearing excerpts from your own family history. In July, I will continue this dialogue with a few more questions for this lovely lady.

You can find Jan at the following places:

See y’all at the end of the month when my guest blogger will be author, Amy Rivers.

Bye for now,

Jody

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