In Memoriam: Opal Robertson Cottrell

Opal Robertson Cottrell was born in the dog days of summer in the year Eighteen Hundred and Ninety Eight. She was a married woman and a mother by the time the United States entered the First World War. Her husband, Clay Rex Cottrell, saw active duty in that conflict; her sons and grandsons would continue the tradition of military service. She lost her first child at birth, lost a young son to polio, raised five sons and five daughters to adulthood and was a grandmother before she gave birth to the last of her own children. Somewhere along the line, her husband picked up the nickname "Daddy Clay," and she became forever to all generations "Mama Clay." She was just 65 when she became a great-grandmother for the first time; today there are 100+ members of her family.

She wasn't an educated woman, but she knew more than most people ever will. She could hoe a garden, comfort a child, keep an erstwhile drinker on the straight and narrow, pick up a son who was inches taller and pounds heavier and throw him to the ground for using foul language, keep dozens of grandkids quiet in the mornings while their parents slept late, take the lead in family sing-alongs by the fire out under the trees. She could name every wildflower that ever bloomed, every bird that ever flew the skies. She knew exactly what day was best for taking the salt shaker down into the garden and eating tomatos fresh off the vine, and she'd bribe grandkids to visit by promising peach cobblers.

She didn't have a lot of amenities in her life, and she preferred it that way. Her 100+-year-old farmhouse in Virginia didn't have a telephone until the 1960s; it sported a wellhouse and outhouses until she was in her 80s; to this day, the only source of heat is potbellied wood-burning stoves.

She wasn't much for religion; she kind of figured that her job was to take care of those in this life and leave the hereafter to what came then. When her husband died 25 years ago, she refused to wear black at the funeral, opting instead to send a granddaughter to a nearby town for a white dress. When she rose to follow the casket out of the country church, she looked around at the packed room and smiled: "Look at all the beautiful people Daddy is responsible for." And no-one cried after that.

She wasn't always right; she gave one son the middle name Lastone -- that's l-a-s-t o-n-e, and he wasn't; her last child's middle name was Ensign because she thought her oldest was about to accept a commission in the Navy (he didn't, he took a warrant officer slot instead).

Kids, cats, dogs, books, hummingbirds, beautiful paperweights, bright spring days and the deep abiding love of her large and ever-growing family were the things she treasured most in this world. She was never too busy for someone in need; she raised grandchildren and great-grandchildren at times in her life when she shouldn't have had a care in the world.

She didn't get to see a fifth generation and she didn't quite make it to the 100 year milestone. Tired and worn, she gave up her fight about noon today with a daughter, a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter all standing by. She will be laid to rest on Saturday in a country churchyard in rural Virginia next to her husband and her mother.

And we will find something white to wear on Saturday and we will look at all the beautiful people that our Mama Clay is responsible for and we will try very hard to find the smiles she would have wanted to see and we will miss her very much.

-- Granddaughter Judy
March 15, 1995

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