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Diploma Honors Family Memory

Momma won’t be there Saturday, and the very thought of her absence evokes emotions strong enough to make a grown man cry. She missed his birth. She missed his graduation from kindergarten. She missed the soccer years, the Little League years and the miracle catch he made playing junior high football.

He’s 22 now, and she’s missed all of it. On Saturday, when he officially accepts his degree in history education from Ole Miss, my mother’s short life, and her vision of a better one for us, will be at the center of my thoughts. She died when she was only 54 of a debilitating heart disease that caused health struggles most of her adult years.

But the disease did not stop her from dreaming. It did not stop her from demanding the most out of us so that we could rear children like my Christopher Paul Agnew, who Saturday becomes the family’s latest college graduate. In my family, that’s a big deal.

Both of my parents had to leave school as pre-teens in the 1940s to work the cotton fields with their siblings and parents. Not one of my mother’s siblings – 13 of them – finished high school. Not one of my father’s five siblings finished, either. But the interesting thing about my house was that it was never a question that my eight siblings and I would. There was an expectation, and there was accountability that came in the form of a stern look and one-sided lectures when grades fell short. Living in those times, that approach seemed hard, but in hindsight it established a standard that enables young Chris to walk across that stage.

His graduation is the ultimate Mother’s Day gift to a grandmother he never knew. It was preceded by a few months with another family achievement: The hooding ceremony of my niece at the University of Louisville, where she became the first member of my immediate family to receive a doctorate degree. She is a health researcher, studying causes and potential cures for the very disease that caused her grandmother’s death.

While I will pause to remember my mother on Mother’s Day, I will do so only briefly. Her legacy is ongoing and will forever bear fruit. She had an ability to see into the future and realize that education was the only way to give us a fighting chance at better lives. And in redirecting our course, she has changed the lives of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Advanced degrees are now common in my family thanks to Charlie and Bernice Agnew. They knew that life in the cotton fields was back-breaking work. They were driven by the dream of a different path for their children. The beauty of dreams is that they often take you beyond your own comprehension. If my mom were here today, I know she would be overcome with emotion to know that God continues to answer her prayers.

At this point in his young life, it may be too much for Christopher Paul Agnew to understand. But one day I hope it hits him like the weight of his tremendous accomplishment. He is an Ole Miss graduate. That means something. It is not a cliché to say that she’ll watch from above as he accepts his diploma, with a wide smile on her face and a heart that now dances with eternal joy. She prayed for this day. It is as much her day as it is his.

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