Granny Thelma has been mothering people for most of her 89 years.
With eight younger siblings and an older brother, Thelma spent her childhood in Tallahassee helping her mother take care of their growing family.
“I’ve always been a little mom,” she said. “My sister used to tell me, ‘You’ve been a mother to all of us.’ When my mom was having all those kids, I would have to stay home from school to help her out. That’s the way it goes, baby.”
The family moved to New Orleans when Thelma was in high school and she had to drop out to help her mother. Then, at 17, she fell in love and married. Her new husband traveled north in search of better job opportunities. In Milwaukee, he visited an aunt who talked him into staying, and Thelma found herself moving to a city a thousand miles from home.
“You marry these men and you follow them around, you know?” she said. “I married at 17 and, you know, at that age, you’re in love. If he’d have said, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ I’d say, ‘Okay let’s go.'”
Though the city was completely foreign to her, Thelma settled in and has lived in Milwaukee for more than 72 years. She raised her four kids there and, when her sister Alma Lee died, Thelma took in her two young nieces, Carolyn and Elaine, then six and 10-years old.
Right around that time, Thelma’s husband Wade, who was only 55-years old, died suddenly of a heart attack and Thelma’s life really got hectic.
“Everybody has had rough days in their life,” she said. “Don’t think I haven’t. But, I overcame that. I rose above it and I’m happy. Very happy.”
An active member of the VFW auxiliary, Thelma has flown to nearly every state for national conventions and she still attends them throughout Wisconsin. She has been a hospital volunteer for 40 years, has a very busy social life and drives her 94-year old friend to church every Sunday.
“She lives alone in her house and she does really well for herself ,” Thelma said. “When I pick her up I say, ‘Hey, Miss Lady. You’re looking sharp today!”
Friends are important to her, but Thelma’s real calling is still her family. She is the center of a wide and generous circle, called mom, granny and auntie by people with whom she shares no biological connection.
“I have a lot of children and grandchildren that I didn’t even birth,” she said. “It’s the way I treat them. I respect them and treat them as mine and I expect them to respect me.”
“You should see this house at Christmas.”
Two years ago, Thelma got word that social workers in California were planning to put her sister Vietta in a nursing home.
“I told them, ‘Don’t touch my sister. I’ll be there for her,'” she said.
Then, she recruited her son to help with driving and her niece to help with the paperwork and headed west to Thelma and Louise her sister out of there. It was quite a well-planned little caper, involving an idling van and some quick thinking.
“I brought her back here and I’m happy I found a nice place for her,” she said. “She’s happy and that makes me happy. I don’t have to worry about her.”
With her family currently settled, Thelma has plenty of time for her other passion, fishing.
“Me and my buddies, we go two or three times a week, and we love it whether we catch anything or not,” she said.
As is her way, Thelma shares her haul with just about everyone she knows — family, friend, neighbors. “I filet everything and get it ready and all they have to do it cook it,” she said.
As she approaches her 90th birthday, Thelma shows no signs of slowing down.
“People get my age and they think about dying. Excuse me, I never think about dying. I think about what I’m going to do tomorrow,” she said. “You can’t think about dying. We’re all going to die some day, but you don’t want to sit around waiting for it.”
“I’ve always been a happy type person, but now I’m really happy. My best years are right now. I’m free. At my age God has blessed me where I feel good. I can go fishing whenever I want. I’ve got good kids and grandkids. They call me. They check in. I’m just really enjoying my life right now.