IMGP9216 (1)

Women’s Stories of Successful Aging

Irene Jordan Caplan: Wordsmith

Twenty Plus Things About My Mother (Fall 1999)

Irene adored and admired her mother, Sarah Ann Whitehurst Jordan, known to friends and family as Annie. In this piece, written when she was 80 years old, Irene captures the essence of a remarkable woman.

My mother never needed “Women’s Lib.” She was born liberated.

She was completely unselfconscious, uninhibited and energetic. Unlike other women in our neighborhood, she played tennis and rode horseback, whenever she could afford to. She was gracious, pretty, and joyful with the sparkliest brown eyes. She was deeply religious, but had an almost irreverent sense of humour.

How she loved literature – everything from the Bible to Xenophon’s Anabasis. This she reviewed every now and then, so she wouldn’t forget how to read Greek. She was so familiar with some of the “Ancients” that as a child I thought she had known them personally.

We had no money, but she thought it unimportant. When I got married, she gave me a book entitled “How to Live Beyond Your Means.”

She loved to see us learn. She taught me to decline a number of Latin nouns when I was not yet five – but I didn’t understand why until I reached high school. She illustrated how part of the planet was light, while the other side of the earth was dark, by taking us into a darkened room and rotating an orange around a lighted candle. Etc., etc.

She couldn’t cook, but she didn’t have to. People of even modest means in the South in those days could afford live-in help, even throughout the Depression. She made much out of little, for every holiday and birthday, and celebrated as gaily as any child.

When Birmingham decided to start its own symphony, Mother brushed up on her violin technique for a few weeks, auditioned, and was engaged to play in the first violin section.

If it was the right thing to do, my mother did it. She had enviable posture, kept herself slim, attended a Slimnastics class and swam the day she died.

She idolized my father and spoiled all ten of her children. She thought BIG. She was not at all worried that my older sister might not go to medical school for lack of funds. She knew Martha would be admitted and that the money would turn up – and it did. She was brave enough to produce the first Shakespearean play ever to be given in the philistine city of Birmingham. (I didn’t see it – she was pregnant with me at the time.) After all, when she was eighteen, in the year 1913, she dared to enter an oratorical contest against finalists from a half-dozen Southwestern states – all of them male – and she WON.


She was physically daring also. One of the last times I visited her, we had to swim out and forcibly remove water skis from her feet, when we realized with terror that her grandson was starting up the motor to tow her on her first attempt at water-skiing. She was 76 years old and had a heart condition. Two years later her heart failed her – the heart which had never failed anyone else. She had the loveliest Christian character; when it was related to her once that someone at our church had cruelly criticized her for her regal bearing, her response, with a genuine smile, was: “Are we not all daughters of THE KING? – and then she added: “That’s the way I walk when I take out the garbage.”