Anna Lee Woodruff
A week and a half ago, on Sunday, Jan. 20 at 8:10 p.m., in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Augusta, Ga., my 89-year-old mother passed away. My sister and I stood on either side of the bed as she took her last breaths through an oxygen mask, the final moments of a four day struggle with pneumonia. She had been healthy for almost her entire life so I was not prepared to watch her lose this battle, certainly not to lose it so quickly. The hurt has been huge.
It’s hard for me to write this. But I want to pay tribute to Anna Lee Woodruff, an extraordinary, selfless woman and beautiful grandmother who in her quiet determined way was a role model for her two daughters, and who left a lasting impression on so many who knew her.
She grew up in Tulsa, Okla., during the Depression and when her father died young, chose to quit high school so she could take care of her sisters and brothers while their mother held three jobs. She worked at Douglas Aircraft during World War II, then as an elevator operator in Tulsa, before marrying an Army Warrant Officer. Her first attempts to learn to drive a car were less than successful; after she drove one through the back of a garage, she became permanently dependent on her husband and others for transportation.
In 1951, she and their four-year-old daughter followed him to an assignment in Germany. From there, they moved to Army bases in Missouri, New Jersey and Taiwan, adding a second daughter along the way. Eventually he was transferred to Fort Gordon, Ga., near Augusta, where they settled. She devoted herself to her home and her two daughters, and, as if to send a message that her path did not have to be theirs, made the expression “diapers and dishes can wait” a constant refrain.
As they grew older, she started babysitting for a few families, putting money aside not for herself, but for her children. When her older daughter insisted she had to have a certain blouse or pair of shoes for school, or else she would “die of embarrassment,” my mother made sure the essential item was bought, usually on lay-away.
But the most important thing she did was to set money aside for college. When sights were set on a school in North Carolina, it was mother who came up with the check to cover what a small scholarship did not. She never wavered in her plan to see her daughters get the education she never had.
As her daughters grew up and moved out of the home, the babysitting became a full time job, along with the oversight of a church nursery for babies and toddlers. She loved children and when she couldn’t be with her three grandchildren, who were growing up 550 miles away in Washington, D.C., she poured her care and attention into little ones close at hand.
My younger sister retired a few years ago after a 30-year career teaching history and social studies at an inner-city high school. She can hardly go anywhere in Augusta without a former student coming up to thank her for the doors she opened for that young man or woman. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a long career in journalism that has given me a front-row seat to some of the most important moments in modern American political life. Both of us know we wouldn’t have had the opportunities we’ve had without the constant guidance of our Mom, who had no such opportunities herself.
My mother was adored by her family and by the scores of children she took care of and their parents, all of whom called her “Miss Woody.” And as for me, I would give anything to have had one more chance to tell her thank you from the bottom of my heart.