Rena Mary Charles Pride “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” These words, said by Truvy in the play and movie Steel Magnolias, could have been said by my mother. But she was destined to play the role of Clairee and proclaim, “I’m just too colorful for words.” Being in a production of Steel Magnolias was one of the highlights of her life, and she was perfect. But this is not a stage review. It is, instead, the glowing review of an unforgettable woman my sister and I called “Mom.”
Rena Mary Charles Pride died August 2, 2023, in Oak Ridge, TN. She threatened to haunt me if I published her age, so I will instead remark that she was younger than Cher, a fact she was pleased to learn. She was not pleased that I willingly shared my own age. She was afraid someone might do the math.
She was a kind, loving, generous soul who gave everything she had to living and loving life. She lived to laugh. Mom had a sense of humour (she preferred British spellings) that was infectious, self-deprecating, and undeniably therapeutic. She suffered ailments both common and puzzling, but she made sure they suffered her too. A heart attack never stood a chance against her wit and one-liners as she defiantly stared it in the face and dared “Try me.” I often referred to her as “the four-foot eleven force of nature.”
One of her great enjoyments was, ironically, reading obituaries. If she read nothing else in the paper, she would read the obituaries, often with commentary. She was particularly bothered by what she considered unnecessary euphemisms for “died.” There were definitely a few she disliked more than others, such as checking into the heavenly Hilton, stepping onto the great escalator to the sky, or anything to do with the deceased having flown off anywhere, but the worst offender was “expired.” She once told me “We do not expire. We are not milk. We die. I see anything like “she went off to the great shopping mall in the sky” in my obituary I will haunt you.” She particularly enjoyed obituaries with a sense of humor and often shared them. Reading one that gave her a chuckle or a smile, I think, left her feeling like she knew them, and that it would be ok.
Mom loved reading, particularly mysteries, biblical novels, historical fiction, and People magazine. She was an avid collector of overdue fines from the library. She loved NCIS, Jeopardy, and Perry Mason and never missed a royal wedding or the Academy Awards. Oscar night and the Miss USA pageant were when we were encouraged to stay up past our bedtime. She was a beautiful singer, and a terrific actress. It was a dream come true when she got to be a part of the movie October Sky, and I am comforted and grateful knowing she will live on forever in that movie.
She was endlessly fascinated with genealogy and history. Her family tree phone calls with Cousin Greg often tested the limits of her phone battery but brought her immense joy, and she loved every second of it. She found cousins around every corner, which, as an only child, was exciting. This later proved to be rather inconvenient for her grandsons, Dustin, and James, as when they started dating, she insisted upon being consulted, lest they unknowingly bring home a close cousin.
Mom was at her happiest being social. She loved nothing more than sharing stories with friends, relatives, and complete strangers. Introducing her to anyone, she never failed to ask the same two questions – “Where are you from and who are your people?” It took no time at all for her to find something in common, and within seconds even the most determined wallflower would find themselves chatting away. She believed wholeheartedly in the power of conversation. As children she taught us that you don’t have to know it all, but to be able to talk to anyone you need to know a little something about everything. She believed this was important for success, “in case you happened to one day find yourself having dinner with the Queen.” We never got that dinner, but we were certainly prepared.
She was good at many things, but cooking was something at which she was great. I don’t believe she ever found a recipe she couldn’t make or improve. She loved baking more than anything else. She effortlessly produced spectacular cakes, cookies, brownies, but perhaps her greatest success was Christmas Divinity. It was her mother’s recipe, and to me, it was the highlight of the holidays. When she discovered that Florida weather isn’t divinity-friendly she did it anyway. It was flat, but delicious.
My sister and I both had favorite dishes we longed for when we were sad or sick, usually casseroles. They could make anything better. My sister’s was a Mexican casserole. Mine was a chicken. I am fortunate and thankful to have her handwritten recipe for the chicken one, but I can never get it quite right, which is as it should be.
This is, of course, an obituary. As much as I feel she would enjoy these musings on her life, she would also expect a little tradition, so I will do my best. She was born on January 18, and we’ve already established that I am forbidden to disclose the year. Her threats of haunting are still quite vivid. Her parents were Hazel Worthington Pride, and Charles Howard Pride, but no one called him that. He was “Rusty.” They preceded her in death, along with her cherished Uncle Dud and Aunt Ellen, her son in law Drew Hajduk, and her grandson James Hajduk.
Our mother didn’t believe family was determined only by blood, but by choice. She often said “you can’t choose who you are related to, but you can choose your family.” Family came from many places, but always had a home with her. My sister and I have more of chosen cousins and siblings than I can count, and we’re ok with that. It quit being confusing years ago and is a magnificent legacy.
That legacy lives on in her remaining grandchildren, Dustin and wife Sarah, Isaiah, and Ivy Hajduk, daughter in law Kristan, her daughter Mary Hajduk, and her son Charles Hosea Byrd, and his husband Kim Byrd. Melinda Feliciano she considered another daughter, along with her husband Linn in Montana and their daughter Elise in New York. Cousin Greg Pride and wife Angie, their daughters, and all the west coast Prides held a special place in her heart. Cousin Kathy Byrge and Audrey Collins were there with her to the very end, and I am forever grateful for their love and devotion to her. There are many people I’m sure I have missed but know that you are loved. A service for her will be announced later.
I hope Mom would have enjoyed coming across this obituary, and I hope everyone knows how much they meant to her. She ended every conversation with “I love you” because it was important to her that you know. We will miss her. She was an uncommon person with an unforgettable and colorful story. She exemplified love, she greeted each day with enthusiasm, and was the strongest person I’ve ever known. The world is different without her, but it is a better and more colorful place for her being a part of it. “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” - Abraham Lincoln