I remember my mother describing to me how she had decided a long time back that she was going to support Gil in his activities, instead of pursuing anything of her own in a big way (other than the family, of course). It all seemed natural to me, but I look back now and wonder what it must have been like for her to ready the guest bedroom on the spur of the moment for someone from Nigeria or India or Spain, and to come up with something for dinner! So there was this stream of fascinating people in our midst. We made a special friend when Gurmit Braich (a Sikh wearing a turban at first, but he later cut all that hair and opted for a flat-top haircut) stayed at our home for a year while he attended Furman University. Sylvia Santiago, a refugee from Castro’s Cuba, stayed with us for several months and Clay had a great time speaking a bit of Spanish with her. And so it went …

She had her own interests, of course, and a unique, vivacious personality. I think that most of her life she was dancing, or running — not walking — wherever she went! And always smiling! Energy would probably be the best one-word description of Clay. And the other key characteristic was her genuine interest in other people. She made friends instantly – at the doctor’s office, the grocery store, the airport, or while getting the car fixed. I was always amazed at how quickly she could be talking with someone about their children’s activities (when it was a perfect stranger one moment before). People just naturally opened up to her.

And yet she didn’t have a busy social life, in the usual sense. She always had one or two close friends that she treasured, and over the years that included her college roommate Kent Siegel, YWCA Program Director Peggy Davis, fellow Unitarians and nature-lovers Joe and Elaine Norwood, and her neighbor Shree Yongue.

The place where she was most at home was the YWCA. Now, sadly, its influence has waned, but the YWCA was an important force for women decades ago. (Until the 60’s) the Greenville YWCA provided living quarters, a dining room, and high standards (like a curfew) for young women who left their homes to live and work in towns and cities. The YWCA promoted Christian values and provided activities for women and girls. Clay had worked as a physical education teacher at Parker High School when she finished college, but I think the Y suited her much better. She worked there almost her entire working life, mostly part-time. One of her great joys was to host the Saturday night dances at the downtown Y when I was a little girl. There were young men from Donaldson Air Force Base on hand to spend the evening with the young women who lived at the residence. Clay would leave her children with Gil to babysit, put on a fancy dress and head out for a night of music and dancing. Having been brought up as a strict Southern Baptist (her father didn’t even allow baths on Sunday, for example!), dancing was not something she had much experience with. Of course while attending the Woman’s College of UNC at Greensboro (starting there in 1929!) her interest in early “modern dance,” and her major in physical education, led her to participate in some creative works along those lines. But it was at those Saturday night dances that she learned to do the waltz, samba, rumba, cha-cha-cha. Can you imagine how fun that was? She told me that if she got one good dance during an evening, it had been a great night.

There were a number of “group” dances that Clay had learned about while in college, and Clay was quite an enthusiast of square dancing. When my brother and I were children, sometimes our tiny living room would become the site for a square dance — she would roll up our living room rug and move the sofa back out of the way. The room would accommodate two “squares.” She put on her square dance records and took on the role of caller – “if you meet your honey, pass her by, pick up the next girl on the fly!” What a great time everyone had – including me, as I was observing it all from the back of the sofa. Clay also participated in folk dancing and square dancing at Sears Shelter and enjoyed being with her friends Tom Shirley and Elizabeth Shaw who were the leaders of that “movement” in the schools of Greenville.

Clay always enjoyed reading the New York Times, especially the articles about the dance. She told me that she always regretted that her strong sense of duty prevented her from going to see Martha Graham (one of her favorites!) perform at her college. At the time, she felt that she just couldn’t miss a meeting of her college church group.

When my brother was about 16, we built a swimming pool in our backyard. This gave Gil a new opportunity to welcome others, especially the Unitarians, to our house – to swim on Sunday mornings, or in later years just to sit around the pool and talk. But Clay took this opportunity to help my brother teach swimming lessons to children in the neighborhood. This was an important source of college funding for my brother. It was a family venture — Clay and Howard taught classes; I cleaned the pool every morning and kept the attendance records. Clay brought her usual zest to this new chapter of our lives. Her loud encouragement to the children to “Kick! Kick! Kick!” resounded through the neighborhood for several years! She spent most of her summers in her shorts and halter top. Again her energy was amazing.

When the YWCA moved to its Augusta Street location in the 1960’s, there was to be a swimming pool — dance classes and swimming classes would now be an important part of the program. The director called on Clay to become the head of the pool and the gymnasium. She again went back to being employed full-time, and was excited to be able to draw on her experience and knowledge for this new responsibility. This was a time when the Y’s steps forward in race relations were an important force in Greenville. The Y was one of the few places where African-Americans were welcomed. There was a “Birnie Street Y” as well, which was for African-Americans, but interracial activities were held whenever possible. The new pool was integrated, and this was not something that was easily accepted. I know Clay was proud that on one occasion she was able to rescue a little African-American boy from drowning (resuscitation and all – terrifying to Clay that she could have lost him).

She took great pleasure in putting her Y swimming students in swimming shows at the Y. The best, perhaps, was the one based on Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and other Peanuts characters. She always loved music, especially the great musicals like South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Pajama Game that were often on the record player when I was a little girl.

Clay and Gil loved to travel. They spent time at their shared “Tiltin’ Hilton” at Hunting Island as often as they could. But they had some big trips as well, starting a year after they were married. As school teachers at Parker High, they had their summers off. In 1936 and 1937 they drove, with a couple of schoolteacher friends, down into Mexico (pulling a home-made trailer). They lived very simply, camp-out style. They went as far as Monterey the first year, but all the way to Mexico City the next. They made a couple of trips to Europe when my brother and I were grown. In 1972, the “Rowland Tours” took them to Germany, where they bought a Volkswagen camper, and then to Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. In typical fashion, Clay did something creative while they were on their journey – embroidering little vignettes of the highpoints of their trip on a large piece of linen – like the flower-filled countrysides, a cathedral, the Rhine River, and the gates dividing East and West Berlin.

As much as her energy and action defined her (and I must not fail to mention her killer ping-pong style!), Clay also cherished her solitude and quiet. I can remember how much she loved to sit at the kitchen window in the early morning darkness and absorb the stillness of the woods below our house. As a girl, she lived with her family in their home on the Indian River in Florida. She told me she used to row out into the river, and lie on her back in the rowboat, just drifting along, looking up at the sky.

And what she loved most of all was being in the woods. She knew all the wildflowers, it seemed, and she loved the trees, the wild plants, and the birds. She enjoyed taking her children, or a group from the Unitarian Sunday school, for a walk in the woods, looking to identify whatever was growing there. The Unitarians of our area used to have a summer conference at Blue Ridge near Black Mountain, NC. That was where she introduced me to mountain laurel and rhododendron. The YWCA had a summer camp for girls called Burgiss Glen. Going there for weekend gatherings was such a joy for her. Often she was responsible for the evening recreation, and would lead a group in the “Bunny Hop,” “Put Your Little Foot,” or the “Hokey Pokey.”

In her later years, Clay’s life took a wonderful turn when grandchildren appeared. She was even happier than ever before. My brother was in the Air Force, so a visit with his children Clay and Margaret Anne meant a trip to St. Louis, or Washington, DC, or best of all – Germany! And Clay had a special relationship with my son Thomas because for three of his pre-school years she kept him at her home all day while I was at work.

Gil’s death in the early 1990’s was truly devastating to her. Even though she had always been very independent, it took quite some time for her to adjust. But she got through it because of her friends, her flowers, the out of doors, and most of all, her family.

We wrote in her obituary that we would miss her cheery “Hi Ho!”

It has been ten years, and we still do.

Miriam Rowland Williamson
February 2016