Eulogy for Mary Juanita Puckett Harden
Mom was a small, determined lady who excelled at teaching and left behind the best of herself. She was a giver.
The Pucketts originally came from Dorchester in Oxfordshire, England, immigrated to Virginia, then South Carolina, before settling in Georgia. Mom’s great-great-grandfather commanded the Cherokee Dragoons, a cavalry company in Phillips Legion, Army of Northern Virginia. Earlier in 1844, he brought his family from Edgefield County, SC to the community of Hickory Flat in the Woodstock District of Cherokee County, Georgia. In 1911, mom’s father was a year shy of graduating from the Georgia College of Eclectic Medicine and Surgery when he delivered mother in the house of his wife’s parents in Hickory Flat, then a part of Milton County.
Mom grew up in Montrose, GA, the fifth of six children. When she was 16, her mother died and Mom went to live with her sister in Macon. In the 11th grade at Lanier High School for Girls, she passed the entrance exam for the State Normal School and left for Athens.
Mom lived with the Fred Whitehead family on Oglethorpe Avenue her first year of college, later teaching several of their grandchildren. Mom majored in math and graduated from UGA in 1933, never meeting my father on campus. She returned home to Irwinton and started teaching 4th grade for $60 per month. In the summer of 1935, she attended Columbia University. A few years later, she met my father, the Wilkinson County Agricultural Agent, and married him in 1939. After the birth of my sister, Mom and Dad moved to Fitzgerald and she continued to teach grades 4 – 7, interrupted by my appearance and my brother’s. In addition to her career and family, she helped my father in his work, ghost writing his weekly newspaper column during WWII, and supporting his brilliant, but brief political career that followed.
In 1955 we moved to Athens and she started teaching 8th grade math and English at Athens High School. Two years later she switched to algebra. Among her many students was Carolyn Bramblett, later my wife and mother of our children.
In 1964 Mom left Athens High and again taught 4th grade at Bogart Elementary School. Two years later she took a position at the new Athens Academy. She taught algebra, trigonometry, and analytical geometry there for three years until she retired to her home in 1969.
That was my mother to the world.
However, this is who she was to me.
She was the matriarch of the extended family and her home on St. James Drive was where all of us congregated on special occasions. It was big enough for seven raucous grandchildren and their diversions. Always, there was lots of food. Mom loved to cook from watching her mother and never used a recipe. My favorite was a tossup between her pound cake and pecan tassies. I took her biscuits for granted and to this day, I have found no equal. When she could, she would dig in the garden. She had a huge bed of daisies that bloomed every anniversary in June. He preferred way of fishing was from a bank or dock using a cane pole, cork bobber, and a can of worms from her garden. She taught us all, and the fish were mighty afraid!
She also had a creative streak. Like her sisters, she enjoyed sewing and crafting seasonal decorations with the children. Before the invention of the aerosol spray can, we dipped pine cones in silver paint suspended in a pail of kerosene, made paper chains, and strung muscadines for Christmas. When I was very small, she made a life size doll for me, and one for my sister. Mine was Little Black Sambo. In those days, I thought nothing of it. We went for Sunday drives after church and I got to stretch out on the shelf under the rear windshield, enjoying a special view of the world until I got too tall. I was subjected to the usual piano, voice, and tap dance lessons, not realizing then, as she did, how her aspirations would expand my awareness.
Teaching must have been in her blood, for she enjoyed a quiet pleasure when those she influenced succeeded. After her retirement when we would return to visit, she always told us of former students who recognized her around town. In later years, she was dismayed at times when she could not remember their names. No doubt, some of her students are here today.
The happiest I ever saw her was when Carolyn and I told her we were getting married. She was genuinely delighted. For my wedding present, my mother gave me something Carolyn’s mother had given her, a homework assignment Carolyn had written shortly before we met. It reads like this:
The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met
by Carolyn Bramblett, English 9
When I first came in contact with this person she was sitting behind a desk with a look of tiredness on her face. What a day I had had because it was the first day of high school for me. When I walked into this sixth period class I felt relaxed and comfortable. This teacher told us her name was Mrs. Harden and talked on with ease and assurance. She was medium height, smiling and had a way of making you feel at ease.
She really knew her subject, math, and with her rich knowledge and charming manner made many people like, admire, and look up to her. She showed a liking for everyone and seemed to enjoy her job of teaching. She was determined to do her best in everything she attempted.
She could talk well on any subject and helped us with many problems in and out of the field of math. She believed that enjoyment and learning went together and proved that you could have fun while learning math.
Of course no one is perfect and sometimes she got mad. I really think she is a great person with a wonderful personality.
She has instilled in me the desire to make the most of my advantages and taught me to be proud of my educational opportunities.
This is the only record we have by a student about her.
During our returns to Athens, I liked to eavesdrop on the many conversations between my mother and my wife – two educators with often decidedly different ideas about teaching, passionate at times but always equanimous.
One of the big shocks of Mom’s life was a gradual and gentle one: the mathematical realization that her 5 feet, 3 inch body could help produce a grandson 6 feet, 7 inches tall. That’s a gain of 16 inches in two generations. At that rate, she and I couldn’t help but wonder about the descendants to follow.
In 1985, after much encouragement by my sister, Mom started her memoirs and finished them five years later, an instant family treasure full of vignettes.
In 1918, on her first day of first grade, she came home sick around noon. She had double pneumonia, pleurisy, measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough in succession, and never returned that year, the year of the Spanish Flu epidemic. The next year, she started again in the one room schoolhouse for grades 1 - 10. On April Fools Day, her older brother Willard told everyone to meet at school early. He then led them on a hike to the creek where they spent the entire morning and afternoon. The next day, the teacher lined up the whole school and paddled everyone in turn, except for the two youngest girls, including Mom.
Her family called her “Spitfire” as a child. She learned all the bones of the body from a human skeleton in her father’s office, and rode with him on his rural house calls, primarily to open gates. Being a doctor, they had the first telephone in Montrose. One sad time she assisted in the delivery of her stillborn stepbrother. The strongest cuss word she heard growing up at home, she said, was “Tarnation.”
Mother was a product of her time. Adversity seemed to make her more determined and durable. She outlived her stepmother, only a year older than her, and Ronald Reagan, also born in 1911. And the cigarettes she smoked never seemed to harm her.
Mom gave me many gifts including the inspiration and thirst for education. She wrote: “If my children aren’t an improvement over me, then I’ve failed.” The most poignant gift was her loving care during 66 days and three trips to St. Louis while Carolyn was terminally ill. I am forever grateful my mother was present when Carolyn left this life, because I was not, and for her tender care of Ben until my return.
I also remember her comforting presence when I was so sick as a child, her generosity when I studied photography after retirement, and her unwavering trust in my sister Lane, my brother Marc, and me. Like countless mothers and teachers of her generation, she gave much to many, and we, the living, are grateful proof.
The education of me that my mother began I can sum up with one sentence: In me there are infinite possibilities; there are no mistakes; there is only learning.
Mother considered herself an ordinary person. If that be so, then I do not worry for the future of our world.
I read recently these words, helpful at this time: “You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.” My mother is not lost, she is still around somewhere, in some form. With that understanding, I do not worry, but rejoice, not only for her, but for me, for all of us on our transforming journey of existence.
I look upon her death as a new birth of freedom from past encumbrances, another chance to explore a new world and delight in it. Mother, thanks for everything. May the love of us all bless and keep you in peace now and always. I wish you well.
I will close with a Sanskrit prayer I learned from an Indian mystic and spiritual master that seems appropriate at this time. I am told that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages and that AUM is the root sound for Amen, so I will use it here.
From Untruth to Truth,
From Darkness to Light,
From Ignorance to Enlightenment,
From Mortality to Immortality,
May I be led.
Peace, peace, always peace.
February 11, 2007