Goodbye to My Mom the Fighter

I’ve always been in awe of my mom, Judith Ann Holden Hook Dixon. She was so strong and firm in her convictions. If something needed to be done, she did it. If there was an unpleasant truth, she faced it. If there was injustice, she confronted it. She raced through life, always determined to get where she needed to go efficiently. One of my fond memories is waiting for her to pick me up at my grandparent’s house. As we heard the squeal of the tires as she turned into the driveway, Papa casually said, “Judy’s here!”

Judy was born in 1942 in Joplin, Missouri, three years before World War II ended. Her mother, Norma, raised her (and later her brother, Bob) alone while her father, Russell, was off at war. This had to be difficult for Norma since she also was making ends meet by playing piano for organizations, even her own television show. But there was family around to help care for the kids. Judy was lucky enough to be nurtured by a stable, loving extended family filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were lots of constants in her life: music was one; family was another. And dogs. There’ve always been dogs.

Mom loved school and was very musical. She sang, played the flute and the piano. She had a happy childhood despite an accident in which she stabbed herself in the eye with scissors. (She’d want me to put in a Public Service Announcement here to tell everyone about scissor safety and how you should never, ever, run with them.) The accident left her with an astigmatism and forced her to wear glasses until much later in her life when ophthalmology finally was able to solve her problem. But Judy never let that stop her. She continued being a bossy but protective older sister, excellent student, and an avid reader.

Her family attended church regularly and Judy developed a strong faith. Many of the musical compositions she transposed or wrote lyrics for were religious in nature and she started believing her calling was the ministry. The only problem was that she was a woman. It was the 1950s, a repressive era, especially for women and people of color. For white women, it was filled with dresses, circle pins (which side you wore it on announced the status of your virginity), domestic training, and endlessly being told what you couldn’t do. For a highly intelligent, talented, and ambitious girl like Judy, these things grated but she forged ahead with getting her degree in teaching, something women could do.

College was where she met my father, Denny. They were an unlikely match – different in temperament, background, and style of living – but were attracted to each other’s intellect, values, and goals. Dad wanted to be a minister and, since she couldn’t, Mom thought being a minister’s wife was the next best thing. Their early years together were fun as Judy joined Denny on his circuit ministry while in seminary. Following ordination, Denny joined the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference and they worked together in churches across the state. Judy was teaching but she took some time off to have my older sister, Julie, and me. But the marriage was rocky.

Although divorce is incredibly common now, it wasn’t back then, especially for middle class white people. Judy and Denny tried to heal their marriage. They went to counseling, joined a religious commune (a story for another time), and had endless discussions. Nothing worked. Judy faced the truth of this and bravely ended the marriage. I can’t imagine how difficult that had to have been. She endured the wrath of her previously warm church community. She lost friends. And then she had to give up her dream of a happy family and start over. Despite the pain though, Judy managed to make the divorce amicable. Denny was always welcome in her home, she included him in difficult parenting decisions, didn’t fight him over money, and in general made being a divorced family a much smoother process than many people get.

This woman who’d never lived alone before packed up two small children and moved back to Joplin into a house she’d bought (with the help of family members), throwing herself into the community. She played piano for productions like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Joplin Little Theatre, joined a square-dancing group, and started dating. Still hoping for a life in the ministry, she became the Religious Education Director at her old church. But the church let her down again. The minister sexually harassed her and, when she complained to the Pastor Parrish Committee, they said she had to deal with it or leave. Once again, she faced a hard truth and moved forward. Several years later, she joined another church but was quickly disillusioned. That last experience ended her interest in organized religion.

After she left the church job, she resumed her teaching career in earnest. I’m glad she did because teaching was her true vocation. Judy was incredibly organized and hard-working and nowhere were these qualities more appreciated than in her teaching. She spent so many nights grading papers and making lesson plans. She pushed her students to excel but pushed herself even harder. In addition to her full-time teaching job and mothering two daughters, she earned her master’s degree in reading and served as union representative for the National Education Association. She taught a wide range of ages and subjects, from elementary and middle school to gifted students and eventually college.

Her students loved her. Many kept in contact with her for decades after she was no longer their teacher, probably because she helped so many of them win History Day awards and go on to good schools and futures. They also appreciated how much she cared. But that didn’t mean she was a pushover, far from it! Like she did at home, she brooked no nonsense in the classroom. She knew how to use her “Teacher Voice” to good effect and take command of a class even if it wasn’t her own. Her grandson Zachary loves to tell the story of how she substituted at his middle school and his friends were all talking about how she immediately took their phones and got the class in order.

Even though she was a hard worker, she also knew how to have fun. She married my stepfather Bob two years after her divorce and the two of them were avid square-dancers (which is how they met). She always had friends probably because my mom loved people and was truly interested in their lives. One of my favorite memories is taking her with me to a Thanksgiving party with colleagues I didn’t much care for. I just got out of the way and watched her work the room. The best part was that even though I didn’t interact much, I still got credit for bringing (and having) such a wonderful mother!

And she was a wonderful mother. Although I have some complaints (we ate out all the time because she hated cooking), she was always there for Julie and me. I treasure the memory of the three of us reading The Hobbit and Dune out loud. She had high expectations for us in terms of values, chores, grades, and behavior – which I didn’t appreciate then but certainly do now – and we always knew we were loved. She insisted upon our independence, thereby helping us develop our own strength, but she had our backs. If there was someone not treating us right or something we wanted (like when I wanted to take college classes while still in high school), she would fight for us.

Judy was always a fighter. One mugger found this out the hard way when she bit his hand and he ran off bleeding and without what he tried to steal. Another time she bit the finger of a man who was wagging it in her face, lecturing her on not being submissive enough. She fought for others too. She was always writing op-eds for the newspaper, speaking up at meetings, leaving notes on people’s cars if they weren’t behaving correctly (way before that was a thing), and donating to good causes. We once spent part of a family vacation working for change in Pace, Mississippi. That was when I understood the true meaning of “dirt poor” and I’ve never forgotten it. Judy was a red-hot feminist and participated in politics. She blockwalked, phone banked, and wrote postcards for candidates.

After 25 years of teaching, she retired. Some might just lounge around but that wasn’t Judy. She spent her time singing with several Sweet Adelines groups (an international female barbershop organization), doing genealogy (she wrote four family histories), and traveling. She and Bob went all over the United States, to Costa Rica and Ireland, enjoyed several cruises, and even took a train across Canada. She also successfully battled breast cancer and helped take care of her parents, Uncle Jack, and her husband Bob.

Once she moved to McKinney to be closer to Julie and me, she gave the grandkids piano lessons, substituted, and played the piano for friends. She also kept up with politics, watching Rachel Maddow religiously, holding a meet and greet for Julie when she ran for office, and giving monthly to candidates and liberal organizations. Elizabeth Warren was her favorite and she put her bumper sticker on her walker so all her friends would know.

The last months of her life were difficult. Mom suffered from Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, a neurological condition that affects memory and walking. It tends to be difficult to diagnose (it mimics dementia), especially for someone like her. Because she was so smart, her deficits weren’t as easy to detect for doctors who didn’t know her well. But she did what she always did: pushed forward the best she could. Even towards the end when it was a challenge for her to communicate, her love of people still came through with her caregivers mentioning her expressive face and sweet smile.

It’s been hard to lose her, especially during a pandemic in which there can be no communal grieving. I’ve missed hearing the stories from those who loved her that can make the story of her life complete. But I’ll do what she would’ve done and move ahead. There were so many things to love about my mom but the thing I’m going to miss the most is her laughter. She loved to laugh, so much so that I’d always try to make her laugh at least once per conversation. As someone with such a clear-eyed view of what needed to happen, she knew that laughter is the best kind of medicine. I’m going to take that to heart.

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