Today is my Mom’s Birthday – we joke that she is only 35 with 20+ years of experience. I wish I could be with her today to celebrate her amazing life!
Charlene Bingham grew up the middle child in a family of 7. “We didn’t know we were poor, but we were happy!” She always says. Her dad, Charles Duvall Bingham, farmed tobacco and Black Angus Cattle. Her Mom, Jo-Ann, cooked and cleaned and raised their 5 children. Charlene still has the callouses on her hands from harvesting tobacco in the fall. A Cheerleader in High School, she was named Miss Sweetwater High because everyone loved her. She worked hard to put herself through college at UT, life-guarding at the Aquatic Center until graduation. Then she left her home, her family and everything she knew in Knoxville, Tennessee, and took a Greyhound Bus all the way to the tiny town of St. Augustine, Florida. Charlene began to work at the School for the Deaf and the Blind, teaching multi-handicapped students how to communicate through sign language.
In St. Augustine, she became a Christian and began attending a Bible Study, where she first saw my Dad, Jeff. He was walking down the stairs, carrying a Bible, and she thought to herself “Wow, a cute Christian.” Their Bible Study group planned to see Footloose in the theaters one evening, but her and Jeff were the only two who showed up. After the film, they went to Dunkin Donuts on King Street and talked.
“Jeff prayed if it was God’s will for us to date.” Charlene said. “No one had ever prayed that about me before.” They talked about having a family and how they felt called to home-school their children one day. Jeff was an Officer in the Navy stationed at Mayport in Jacksonville. During his deployments, they rang up a big phone bill and wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Dad told me he knew they would get married, he bought a ring and waited for the right time to propose. “I can’t explain it,” He’s told me before. “I just knew!”
The right time was apparently soon after he mowed a friends lawn. Charlene was upstairs in the nursery with Marg and their son, Jason. Dad came in with grass clippings on his legs, holding a small box with a lollipop taped on top. “YES!” My mom screamed, jumping up and down. Jeff smiled and waited, saying “Well, I haven’t asked you yet.”
That was March of 1984. That December, they were married in Knoxville, Tennessee, and celebrated with a red velvet cake. Whenever they would go out of town, I would keep their wedding photo album under my pillow so I could look at pictures when I missed them.
Jeff stayed in the Navy, he was deployed for 9 months in their first year of marriage. But if you’ve met Charlene, you know her winning smile and happy spirit wouldn’t let that keep her down. She flew to Europe to meet Jeff when the ship came to port. Together, they saw Germany, Amsterdam, and dozens of other places.
Charlene continued to teach Deaf Education, they settled in the two-story green house my Dad bought on San Jose. When my Dad was a Lieutenant Commander, he decided to leave the Navy so he could be a full-time Dad. He began working for a company that specialized in financial planning and In January of 1988, my oldest sister, Amber came along, followed by Becca, who was born in October of 1989. There’s a photo of my mom a few months pregnant with her, attacking a backyard cactus with a shovel. Charlene was born to be a Mom, there is no way she would let a plant hurt her babies.
On January 18th, 1991, Charles Duvall passed away in Knoxville, Tennessee. Charlene could not attend the funeral, because she was almost 8 months pregnant with me. I was born on March 7th, and given the name Caroline Duvall in memory of Charles.
My mom read me a letter she wrote on Christmas Day – if anyone thinks I’m the writer in the family, they haven’t read anything from her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house:
“Though my heart was heavy after my dad went to heaven, it didn’t take long for that sorrow to be turned to joy when we laid eyes on you! Your playful attitude brought much joy to our home..And now, after Sadie has laid Jack to rest and James’ spirit is gone too – God continues to turn mourning into joy. That seems to be how God is using your gifts to point others to the real source of your gladness – a relationship with our eternal Savior whose birth we celebrate today. Thank you for using your gift of writing to write all over my heart. With words of love and happiness, you really are a Sweet Caroline.”
I will keep those words with me forever,. It was a very special Christmas.
Growing up in the little green two-story house, with a cactus stump in the backyard, was a whirlwind of sunny days. There are photos of us washing Dad’s car and reading Little House on the Prairie, and me with the neighbors dog – Garth. When my mom found out she was pregnant with my little brother, her and Dad decided it was time to move. The green house couldn’t hold us all. And one night, it is rumored that my older sister asked Mom for some orange coke, Mom slipped down the stairs granting her wish and broke her big toe. A one-story house was on the list, with a “big backyard” so we had room to play.
My Mom packed all of us girls in the car and met the realtor in a neighborhood called The Woods. My Dad, on his lunch break at work, looked up a few listings and drove down Atlantic Boulevard. They drove up the driveway at 2403 within minutes of each other. “Now remember,” my Dad would tell us, “This was before cellphones. We didn’t know we would both be there.”
The house was 1-story, 5 bedroom and 3 bathroom with a huge backyard. Like my Dad said, “When you know, you know.” There are photos of my parents signing for the house in the front room, me and my sisters are crawling all over the coffee table, excited to be a part of something we couldn’t quite understand the significance of.
We moved in, my little brother was born at the end of July, and we grew up on The Woods Drive East. There was a park, a huge pool, and miles of trails we could bike down. We played football and baseball in the backyard, and my mother began her career of interior design among all the construction paper, puzzles and library books.
Mom learned how to make homemade bread, she took us to the park and the library and taught us to shop at Publix. When Dad finally caved and let us have a cat, of course she had kittens. When a neighbor was giving away rabbits, we turned a corner of the backyard into a massive habitat. And of course they had baby rabbits. Then came horse camp and horses, Zoo Camp and Zoo animals, where I eventually volunteered. I learned to drive on the rode to the Zoo, Mom and I would sing “Skyyyyyy-diving and Rocky Mountain Climbiiiiing” and ate PB&J’s.
When I turned 16, she brought home a little fuzzball sheltie who we called Pup, who is still adorable and the center of our lives. She drove my to my first job at Ace Hardware, took me surfing, moved me in and out of two different Colleges and got me settled and staged in Savannah. She supported my decisions, and talked me out of making some bad ones, and encouraged me every step of the way.
There is no way I could sum up Charlene’s amazing life in one blog post, but I am so thankful she got on the Greyhound bus. As I got older, she was always, ALWAYS, in the passenger seat on our way to the farm. She is the one who told me “You either love the farm, or you hate it. And you don’t hate it.” Without her, I would not be sitting at an old wooden table with a dog at my feet, facing a window overlooking the mountains and the woolly horses. I would not be a writer, a farmer, or a Duvall.
Happy Birthday Mom, I hope today is truly special, and you know how loved you are!