Happy Birthday Mama

28 February  2012–I’ve spent most of this day trying not to write about my mama, but it didn’t work. Today was her birthday, would have been her 82nd. I’m not sure she would have liked being 82 unless she could still look and act like she was, say 62.

Portrait of Ruth Clark, by Robert Bruce Williams
In my New York apartment hangs this portrait of Mama by Robert Bruce Williams, above her fabulous Hepplewhite sideboard, now mine.

I think I was 37 before I realized she wasn’t “36.” She was “36” for about 20 years. She did not want to be old and probably would not have been good at it. She was really good at a lot of things, though; and loving my sister and me was right there at the top. Man oh man were we lucky.

I finally found a home for most of the pretty things I inherited from her, despite the fact that 1960s New York co-ops don’t exactly lend themselves to Hepplewhite sideboards and life-size oil portraits and such. Much of it went to Bee Cottage, my house in East Hampton. Last spring I even wrote an article called “Decorating With Mama’s Things,” for The Wall Street Journal. I ended it with the story of this portrait (stop here if you’ve heard it): She told the artist in no uncertain terms, “I don’t care if it looks like me. I just want it to be young and thin.” Like all good steel magnolias, she often spoke in italics. Six feet tall in her stocking feet, she was at the time in her 50s and every bit a size 12. But in that portrait, honey, she is 36 and a size 4, max. She was a knockout.


  1. I miss my mama, too, Frances. Ruth was magnificent, so beautiful, smart, and funny.
    Today is my son Jack’s 20th birthday.
    I have decided that the more we miss folks, the bigger the void they leave, and we do not want to forget them.
    Love, love, love,

    1. Thank you all so much. Peggy you are lucky, and so is your mom with you and your fantastic brother and family in her life. and oh, MA, I miss your mama, too. Happy Birthday, Jack! And yes, you are right about that big void. We can only hope our hearts expand to fill it.

  2. She was a great Mother. I remember her pulling up in front of Smedes Hall in the longest car I had ever seen. It was full of the likes of stuff I had never seen; dresses, home made goodies from Tarrrrboro & lessons on how to be a true lady. You were lucky to have a quintessential Southern Mama with all the charm & etiquette that will carry you through a life time of memories & heritage. Well done Frances!

  3. Frances, A lovely tribute to your mama! It seems as though she was indeed a steel magnolia in the best sense of the term, and I would venture to say that you got a lot of her best attributes.

  4. Oh,I loved this piece (maybe my favorite of them all), and the WSJ article was terrific. Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary, and I am so thankful (even more so now) to have them both. You’re so good to remind us of the things that matter.

  5. What a beautiful and moving testimony to your mother Ruth, who was and continues to be a legend! She has left behind a legacy in the form of you, and your sister Duvall, who are the most elegant ladies; two apples who fell directly under her deeply rooted tree.

    She would be so proud of who you are as a person, and for all the remarkable things which you have achieved in your life, as well as the considerable good you have done for others less fortunate.

    God bless her, and God bless you and Duvall.

  6. Hey, Frances! I loved this on your momma! I wish I had known her better. She reminds me of my Aunt John in looks (portrait) and her six-foot height…also the young-and-thin-quote attitude! John was my dad’s sister…an entrepreneurial modern-day woman combined with a heavy dose of Scarlet O’Hara…quite the character, to say the least! Anyway, your advice on dividing up and using loved ones’ things was super…I especially liked your statement that inherited pieces have soul and carry the energy of our affection. That’s really where the value is!

  7. Oh Frances, I loved the photo of your mother’s portrait! Robert painted me in my 20’s and I told him the same thing, “Make me look thin.” It hangs in my mother’s living room in Birmingham. I tried to have my daughter’s portrait painted by him, but he had quit painting by the time she was old enough.

  8. Dearest Frannie, you know how much I love your mother. I have lots of Ruth stories, which I love to share. When asked the ubiquitous question, “who would you have at your dinner table, if you could have anyone?” My answer is and will remain, Jacques Cousteau, Ruth Clark, Mick Jagger and Colin Firth. She would have flirted with all three and charmed us all…

  9. Hi sis, just wanted to to say this was also one of my favorite blogs.what a beautiful picture of Mamma. So many of my friends have told me how much they love your blog! I am so proud of you and love you and yes m’am, we were and are extremely lucky to have had her and each other.

  10. Whenever, I think about Ruth & Mary Lee, & that is often, it makes me smile. They make me smile. Two friends who “took the town” wherever they went. Lovely memories! Thanks for the reminder…

  11. Just thinking about Ruth & Mary Lee makes me smile! I remember after ML had died, I was at her house & noticed there was a message on the answering machine. I was expecting a solicitor, but instead it was Ruth. She simply said, ” My dear, sweet friend. I sure am gonna miss you.” I miss Ruth, too. Thanks for the post.

  12. I always enjoyed being around your mother. She was a very special lady. I think about you and your family every time I go to my mother’s and look across the street at your old house. It brings back great memories.

  13. I had such strong memories of your mother. She was bigger than life in so many ways. I can hear her voice whenever I call her to mind but even stronger in my mind is the sound of her laughter. She had an accent that was uniquely hers and while you and Duvall had that touch of Tarboro your mother had her own touch. As a young adult the thing that marveled me about your mother was how she so fully got the nuances of being young, unlike some parents who tried to be hip your mother simply got it and she got it better than most of us. I have such good memories of going to Atlantic beach especially one trip when your mother had particular turns of phrase to apply to the miscreant behavior of one Zekey. Who wouldn’t have wanted a loving force to be reckoned for a mother like Ruth.

  14. Your mom was once quoted in The Daily Southerner saying “Frances goes to Paris like most people go to Food Lion”. I would like to say a BIG Thank you for that! I look so forward to your blog in my email box to see where you’ve been, what you saw and what you thought about it. It gives those of us in Tarboro and little outside view when we can’t leave town quite as much as we would like to. Your mom would have loved it and it would have been so fun to chat with her on your latest blog. A BIG THANK YOU FROM YOUR HOME TEAM!!

  15. What a beautiful picture of your mother!!! I need to find the one of her that my Granny had… I need to have mom look for it (hint, hint). I’m sure you would love it as well; she was young and oh so beautiful!! I wish I would have had the chance to know her!!! Much love to you sweet Frances.

  16. I see this portrait everyday and NEVER tire of looking at Mama, so elegant, in all of her sophisticated beauty. (I feel like she is looking after me when you are traveling.) I never realized how much she looks like Sophia Loren! Or vice-versa! I wish I would have had the opportunity to know her. Something tells me she had MORE than a few pearls of wisdom to share… [Note from Frances: The fabulous Gina is my assistant in New York. She isn’t Mama, but she takes mighty good care of me and I sure am lucky to have her in my life. Thank you, Gina.]

    1. OH MY GOODNESS I can’t tell you all how touched I am by your remarks, and that you took the time to write them, both those who knew Ruth and those who did not. I’ve had a little cry this morning in gratitude for your good humor and your good hearts. Thank you.

  17. Frances, she is still very much missed in Tarboro. I was always cheered up when I would see her and hear “Hey, Sal!” and get a big hug. She was so much fun. Like mother like daughter!

  18. What a beautiful tribute to your mother…to cherish all the memories. My mother turns 95 years young on March 19th…her memory is unbelievable…and I am so blessed.

  19. I still miss my mama every day and she died in 1975 when I was only 29. But I have always felt so lucky to have had this amazing woman as my mother. Your tribute caused tears to slide down my cheeks, but I was smiling all the while!

  20. Oh Frances, Can you imagine how many times Ruth must have wished she could have stayed “put” just one more day and been born on the 29th! She would have been younger than you when she left this world. Precious memories…lucky girls.

  21. Oh Frances, Ruth is my idol. She will live in my heart forever. I remembered there was one summer we spent with Ruth and Mimi Underwood in Myrtle beach. They were like mothers to me. I miss them.
    Your tribute touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes… You are lucky to have a mother like Ruth.

  22. Frances, I met you 20 something years ago. You were in Columbus Georgia with a friend that played in a golf tournament with my husband. Over the years I have read your books and watched your shows. Now I love the blog.
    All the Ruths I know I love. My daughter and late Mama.

  23. Frances, dear…
    Your tribute to your dear mama strikes a universal and heartfelt note in all of us who dearly love our mothers. My dear Margot just turned 82 a few months ago…looks like a movie star and is a Yankee version of Ruth. You and Duvall are your mama’s incredible legacy…beautiful, talented, witty and women of heart…Ruth is smiling down from Heaven with great joy.

    With love and xxx, Susie Quinn

    Susie Quinn

  24. I just wanted to let you know that your words, funny as hell but with a very reverent undertone, speak volumes. It made me laugh and cry at the same time. You do have a way with your words!

    Your mother’s things fit so comfortably into Bee Cottage that I wouldn’t have noticed them, save the NYT’s article. I’m glad that you and your sister found a new home for them in your homes; as you get older, they will become more and more invaluable to you, on so many levels. I think it’s part of our Southern roots; having a connection to the past, even if it’s in the items our mothers, grandmothers, even our ancestors found value in, however modest. I brush my hair every day with my grandmother’s brush; it gives me great comfort. I eat at my other grandmother’s dining room table, and I dust off the desk that my grandmother revered, complete with cat scratches (it was her cat, who I later took in, that left them). All of these things have great meaning and hold wonderful memories for me. Imperfect? Yes, but what in a real life is perfect?

    Bless you, Frances, for reminding us what really counts. Material items are little more than possessions, unless they have the family stories and the love that accompanies the pieces. Although my grandmothers and my father are no longer here, I have a little piece of them every day, with every drawer I open or every piece I dust. And I am thankful for that.

  25. Dear Frances,

    Mother just called me and said a friend told her about your tribute to Ruth. I just found it and I want you to know how much our family misses her and loves her. She was marvelous and so are you and Duvall.
    love you all,


  26. Your mama reminds me of mine. She was a single. Southern woman who raised two little girls mostly on her own by working in a bank. She was tall, elegant, and very beautiful. I don’t have a formal portrait of her, but I do have many photographs of my sister and I standing on either side of her, all drssed up in our Sunday best. My sister always said that we were not children: we were accessories! She did grow old and didn’t do it well, but at her funeral, my sister sat a photo on a table of Mom striking a pose in a chic, black bathing suit. She would have loved it! Your article reminded me of how much I miss her. Thanks, Frances

  27. Robert painted me in 1973 when I was 27…it is my favorite possession! I was wearing a long white angora dress, barefoot…and after that I never wore the dress again. I decided nothing could touch that painting! He was magnificent!

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