Nora Swango Stanger: The gift of time

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 19, 2020

Front row: Emma Swango and Ella Roberson; back row: Ruth Langer, Tresa Baker, Gary Belcher, Nora Stanger and Ella Jones (Photo courtesy of Nora Swango Stanger)

What kind of present to you give a person who is 88 years old?

I was struggling with this dilemma and asked my mom prior to her birthday, “What do you want? What do you need?”

Her response was the same as always. “Nothing, I’m just fine.”

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But this didn’t settle in my heart well. In her golden years, we can’t help but consider God’s favor that we still have her with us. I decided that time with her would be the best gift. I contacted my sisters and brother to see if they could meet to celebrate Mom over lunch.

Mom loved the idea, but she didn’t just want her children there. “Please invite Dinky.” (Dinky is the childhood nickname for her twin, Ella Dean.) Mom was over the moon with excitement and I knew I had struck gold!

I drove through torrential rains from Cincinnati to Ironton, anticipating our reunion. Some thought maybe it was too dangerous to drive, but you know that gnawing in your gut that says, “I just have to be there?” I felt like a postman, “neither rain, nor snow, nor dead of night…”

We gathered at Frisch’s Big Boy, one of our favorite comfort food restaurants. (Thank you, manager Jerry and the amazing serving staff!) When I arrived, most of the family were seated. The chatter and laughter were loud and welcoming.

Emma Jean Mitchell Swango and Ella Dean Mitchell Roberson were born on Sept. 14, 1932 in a little cabin on Aaron’s Creek. They were extremely premature, and my granny described them as being so small that they could fit into a shoe box.
Granny estimated that one baby weighed less than two pounds and the other baby was less than three pounds.

I remember Granny saying the babies were scary to look at and their skulls were like the soft membranes that cover eggs in the hen before the shell is formed.

Three days later, when a doctor came, he told her these babies were not meant for this world. He instructed her to set the babies aside and to wait for their death.

What the doctor did not know was that life was extremely precious to this Appalachian woman and she was determined that her babies would survive.

With the help of her mother-in-law, Granny made a bed for the babies in the seat of the rocking chair and lined it with lamb’s wool.

She constantly kept the babies rocking in that chair-bed. Granny also kept a fire burning in the fireplace to heat towels that were used to wrap the babies and kept them warm.

She fed them with an eyedropper. Not only did both babies survive, they were of normal development and normal to high intellectual ability.

I walked about the room, listening to the stories of cousins catching up, to young ones talking of their school experiences, and the football games they had attended.

The newest baby was being passed around as photos were taken and shared online so that sister, Amy, in Alaska, and brother, Garry, in Lexington, could virtually share in the excitement.

Mom and Dinky had smiles on their face the entire time. My heart was full.

Mom struggles with energy these days, so I was shocked that she was able to be with us for two hours. She was the last to leave the restaurant!

I can imagine her getting home, putting on her PJs, and sitting in her recliner with her little dog in her lap, soaking in the memory of her birthday present — the gift of time.

Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at