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Extraordinary, Ordinary Women

             Isla Ruth Beights Casey

                              1933 - 2013

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The first extraordinary, ordinary woman profile has to be my mother, Isla Beights Casey. For much of my life, I took her for granted. But at the same time, I admired her for her consistency of character— what you saw at church was the same person every other day of the week. I loved her sense of humor; I loved hanging out with her, and I considered her one of my best friends. What a secure feeling it gave me to know she was my staunchest ally and her love was unconditional. 


Isla was born on a cotton farm in Mitchell County, Texas, during the Great Depression. Her father passed when she was fourteen years old. She remembered asking him for lunch money that morning, and he was still in bed, which she had never seen before. He told her to get the money out of his wallet, which was also a first. She and her two brothers were walking down the long drive to meet the school bus when she heard her momma screaming. Her father had died of a massive heart attack.

When Isla was a junior in high school, her mother married C.W. Valentine and moved her to South Texas on a small ranch outside Three Rivers in Live Oak County. High school was a tough time for her to be uprooted and have to leave everything and everyone she knew. She had to make new friends in a new high school, but she seemed to adjust well. 


Isla didn’t attend high school with her future husband Jimmy Casey because he was three years older out of school. She noticed him working at the hardware store downtown and said two other girls were chasing Jimmy at the same time, too, but that she just outran them. My parents married at the end of December 1951, when Dad was finishing his first year in the U.S. Navy. They always lived away from Three Rivers and family, so they learned quickly to depend on each other. They also had three babies in three years. Mom told us years later, “You have to be young and stupid to do that.”

“Three babies in three years-- you have to be young and stupid to do that.”


After Dad got out of the Navy, they tried farming cotton in Mitchell County during the worst three years of the century in the middle of the 50s drought. Mom said those were the hardest years of her life with three babies in diapers and only having a wringer washer and clothes line. The diapers stayed the color of the red sand. What kept her sane, she said, was Dad taking her to the drive-in movie on Friday nights. She’d spend all day getting the chores done, the babies bathed and in their pjs, and would make hotdogs and Kool-Aid for supper at the show. 

"The years on the farm were the hardest years of my life."


In 1957 they sold everything they had to get out of debt, and Dad changed careers by going to radio school in Lubbock. That eventually led to a career with the Federal Aviation Agency, and the family moved every three years, on average, for him to advance. Mom bloomed where she was planted, though, and my parents made life-long friends every where they lived. Mom had her fourth and last baby in 1961. In Fort Stockton (1961 to 1964), we moved four times. I don’t know how she coped moving that many times in the same town in three years. 


My mother was a stay-at-home mom for my three siblings and me until I was in the 8th grade. We moved to Cotulla in 1967, transferring there to get as close to Three Rivers where both grandmothers had been diagnosed with cancer. Both grandmothers survived their cancers and lived until the early 1990s. 


When my older sister was in 10th grade, my parents realized they needed to start saving for college. Mom applied for a job at our hometown’s only bank at that time, and she had no working experience, other than a short stint at the movie theater’s confectionary in Three Rivers as a teenager. Mom was a quick learner, though, and was willing to learn and help anyone else at the bank finish their work. By the time she retired, she could work in any department. And even though she worked full-time, she still made it to most every sporting or other extra-curricular event I and my siblings were involved in. I remember always looking for her in the stands to find her, and she would be there. My parents put all four kids through college without borrowing a dime, and one year they had three kids in college at the same time. My sister Joy was the first one from both sides of the family to earn a college degree.


After taking care of her parents until they passed, Mom and Dad volunteered for the Texas Baptist Men Campbuilders for eleven years. For eight months out of the year, they traveled around to Texas camps helping build new camp buildings or remodel existing ones. The women helped paint or sewed clothes for orphans and quilts for the homeless. Mom was the one pulling Dad out the door when it was time to hit the road. She loved the camaraderie and friendships they made through TBM. Dad did, too, but Mom was the instigator.


For many years I felt like I would be the sibling to take care of Mom and Dad. In 2008, my parents and I bought a house together in Taylor, Texas, that was closer to doctors and hospitals since they were in their seventies and Mom had a pacemaker. We combined two households into a beautifully refurbished 1920s cottage that was smaller than each of our houses, but it was perfect for us. We loved spending time visiting on the front and back porches and the oversized garage stored much of Dad’s “collection” of stuff. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they took care of me as much as I took care of them. 


About five months after we moved in, I noticed Mom started slurring her words in the evenings. After fifteen months of testing, some of which were excruciating for her, and several misdiagnoses, the doctors gave her the fatal news that she had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and bulbar ALS, which affected her tongue first. I clearly remember her walking into the kitchen and telling me the diagnosis, and we hugged and cried together.

ALS felt like an unwelcome guest in our house. ~dvc


Mom lost her ability to speak about 18 months in, but her mind was still the sharpest one in the house up until two and a half days before she passed. She could gesture and write notes right up until she suddenly declined, which we believe was due to a pulmonary embolism. Mom lived 52 months after the symptoms first appeared.


Everyone loved my parents, but Dad was most often revered publicly. After living with them, I realized that Mom was the rock of our family and the disciplined one in their relationship, but she was content to let Dad shine. She also spoiled him, carrying on the tradition of his upbringing by a very lenient aunt who let him get away with some bad habits. Mom took pride in the fact that she took good care of him, though. She wrote a note to me one day that she was worried about Dad after she was gone, and I assured her that we would take care of him, but we wouldn’t spoil him like she did. : )

Mom was the bravest person I've ever known. ~dvc


She never felt sorry for herself or showed any fear facing the gradual paralyzation of her body with an intact mind, which was terrifying even for me to think about. In the beginning, the disease twice made her lose control in the form of wailing. The first time she wailed occurred during a Bible study I was facilitating, and I had never heard my mother cry like that. I just put my arm around her until she stopped. The only other time that happened was when I picked her up from the beauty shop, and she started wailing on the way home. I just drove us around town while we both wailed together over the sadness of it all. Her ALS doctor prescribed a medicine that stopped that behavior, but Mom was embarrassed about that for some time and would be sure to say that the ALS made her do that. I asked her what in the heck was my excuse since I had wailed just as loudly and as long as she did that day in the car. 


After her diagnosis, I had over three years to prepare emotionally for Mom’s death. As a release, I would often cry either the fifteen minutes on the way to work in an adjacent town or on the way home. I rarely cried in front of Mom, because that would make her feel bad about making us sad. That’s how she thought— always thinking of others. But on the day she passed here at the house, and after the funeral home folks had taken her away, and Dad and I watched the last sibling drive off, I didn’t want to go back into the house because I knew Momma wasn’t there. It felt like the lights had gone out of our home. I’d somehow managed to go through over half a century assuming my mother would always be with us. What a shock to realize that wasn’t true.


"I know... mothers aren't supposed to die."

We had her funeral in Cotulla, where she is buried in the local cemetery. But we also had a memorial service in Taylor for the friends she’d made here. Her hairdresser, Donna Farr, who was so sweet to come to the house to fix Momma’s hair during her last year, hugged me and whispered, “I know… mothers aren’t supposed to die.” She had lost her precious mother earlier that year. 


Four months later I finally wrote in my journal, “I didn’t cry today,” for the first time since she passed. And after almost seven years as I write this, I have a good cry every so often because I still miss her like crazy. 


During the last year of Momma’s life, I began asking her questions about her upbringing and getting her perspective on all the different places she lived. She would write her answers down, and I learned things about her I never knew before. Two years after she passed, I put her and my dad’s words and many more in a book titled, Nothing Fancy, Always Faithful, Forever Loved, which fit my parents to a ’t’. I could’ve included “usually frugal” and “laughter-filled,” but that would’ve been too long of a title. 


Sitting in the orthodontist’s office last year, I was taken aback looking at an X-ray silhouette of me on a screen because at first glance, I saw my mother. People often tell me that I’m looking more and more like her, which I take as a compliment. But more than that, I would love for people to say that I act like her, too. 

Donna Van Cleve

May 2020

Archived - "Extraordinary, Ordinary Women" & "Profiles of Women"

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Isla's school picture at age nine in  Colorado City, Texas, in 1943

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1951 graduation picture at her country home near Simmons, Texas, in Live Oak Co.

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Isla visiting her fiancé in Florida while he was in Naval training

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Isla & Jimmy married in December 1951

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On the farm in Mitchell County during the 50s drought. 

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When we lived in Salt Flat, Texas, Mom spent countless hours on the 20-mile road to Dell City where we attended church & school.


Mom with us four kids in Fort Stockton, where we moved 4 times in 3 years

My mother, my grandson Finn and I watching the 2007 parade in Cotulla


Mom in our backyard in Taylor, Texas, 2009

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