A Beloved Woman: the Amazing Grace Hughes

Gracie Lee Osborne, Grace Hughes, Miss Hughes, Grammy, wonder woman—Grace. Although there were times I took her company for granted, I always knew our bond, that incredible and close relationship, was special. It’s when that presence is missing there is not a hole, but a continuous sighting of this person in everything and everyone they once related to and have now, departed. That is love. That is everlasting influence.

Born on December 20, 1936, Grace was the ninth of thirteen children to James (Jim) Osborne and Florence Osborne. At the time, the family lived in Jonesboro, Louisiana. They later relocated to Sparkman, Arkansas in December 1941. As told by family recollection, Jim hired a man named Clay, the owner of a school bus, to help with the move. With their furniture packed and hearts determined, together they embarked on a life-changing journey. The trip was reportedly ‘’long and cold.’’ At some point, the family was forced to cover themselves with blankets after the heater had stopped working. Upon arriving in Sparkman, Jim rented a house with his sister, Minnie Taylor, while in the process of building his own establishment. The house was simple and had six rooms. Indoor bathrooms, running water, and electricity however, were not included.

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Grace (middle) with other relatives in Arkansas, having a picnic. Circa 1959 or 1960.

Life was better for the family, but far from perfect. Although they owned a home with nice neighbors, and Jim working an eight-hour a day job, schools in the area offered only a split-year for the colored. This meant sessions were active only during the late fall to spring, to allow more time for cotton picking. Summer school was further offered to those who wanted to complete a nine-month school year. As a young child, Grace picked cotton with her sisters during harvest season. To make the process more likeable, the siblings would compete to see who would collect the most bundles.

Despite the family being poor, the Osborne family deeply valued self-worth, love, and pride. Reportedly, Jim had a food for thought quote for every situation. Some of these sayings included ‘’Nothing beats a failure but a trier,’’ ‘’Once a task has begun, don’t stop until it’s done,’’ and ‘’If you choose to do a job, do it well or not at all.’’ These very fundamentals would sculpt Grace into what she was most known for: smart, strong-willed, and courteous.

Grace always had a longing to educate children, and dreams of attending college. With the drive of the Osborne gene she was superior of her endeavors. In 1955, Grace graduated as valedictorian at Sparkman Training School. Then, in May of 1960, she achieved her B.S. in Home Economics with a minor in Elementary and Secondary Education at Philander Smith College. This accomplishment inspired many individuals, including her younger siblings. Achieving a higher education was an even bigger deal back then. Being colored meant there were extra hurdles to cross such as, and most evidently, social injustice and inequality. During her college days, Grace also participated in a few sit-ins to promote Civil Rights.

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Grace and her three children (starting from the right, oldest to youngest) Lisa, Gene, and Michael. Taken in Oceanside, California.

On June 19, 1959, Grace married her childhood sweetheart, Therlon E. Hughes. Although the two later divorced, the couple had three children during their marriage, one girl and two boys. Because Therlon was in the military, the family frequently moved. Like many women during Grace’s era, she postponed her career to raise a household. This determination served well after all three of her children graduated high school, and eventually college.

The last location Grace settled was in Oceanside, California. Shortly after arriving Grace resumed her career and earned her certification as an early educator in 1977. In 1980, she worked as the Director of the Children’s Learning Center, and did so for twelve years. With her entire career spanning over twenty-five, she also worked in positions at Oceanside Unified School District and Immanuel Lutheran Children’s Learning Center. Grace’s teaching layout was unique, as all of the activities in the classroom she organized and created herself. The Learning Center liked her layout so much, that they eventually integrated most of her ideas into other classrooms.

A handful of Grace’s past students would have no hesitation to greet her when they, decades later, would spot her out in town. I was lucky to have been there during a few of these occasions. I’m even more grateful that I have a vivid recollection of these memories.

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A candid shot taken of Grace at the Children’s Learning Center, reminding a student of playground etiquette.

Back when I was in elementary school, a former student of hers approached us in the grocery store. I had already caught her trying to sneak around the orange and apple display, so she only scared one of us. Before I knew it, the woman tapped her on the back—so discreet—that she nearly flipped her shopping cart over. The two of them were laughing while I stood watching and smiling, also amused. ‘’I was just about to turn around the corner when I said to myself, that’s Miss Grace!’’ said the woman.

After Grace retired, she continued volunteering at my elementary school, Nichols, until I graduated to middle school. With the amount of close friendships and hours she gave to both the faculty and students, the district found it only appropriate to recognize her dedication. On Teacher’s Appreciation Day in 2006, the school honored her with a Super Volunteer award. Many students even signed a book, thanking her, to show their appreciation.

Whenever I think about my childhood, I remember the long days and conversations with my grandmother. She still lived in the same Oceanside house the family owned back in the seventies. The place was never updated, so as one can imagine, there was all that green shaggy carpet, popcorn ceiling, and red velvet furniture. Since my parents worked long hours, only to return home late in the evening, my grandmother would either take me to her house or my parents’ place for the afternoon throughout the week. We lived only a few miles away. By dusk she would drive me back home. The golden glow would tickle my arms, shining through the window of her white 1997 Toyota Corolla. Frequently, I would also accompany her on errands, picking up her medicine at Camp Pendleton or getting groceries from Stater Bros. Other times, I tagged along for a visit with her closest friend, Modell Abrams. By the time I came around, the two had known each other for years. I mostly remember them chattering away on the phone—for an hour or two sometimes—if they weren’t able to visit each other in person.
In May 2015 she had a major stroke. This was ultimately the reason for her moving to assisted living. A progressive decline in her health made it unsafe for her to manage a large house. Unfortunately, she also wasn’t able to live at our house because she wasn’t able to walk up the long stairway anymore. The transition had its rough patches, but as a family we visited her throughout the week. As time passed she adjusted, and even made friends with many of the staff and other residents. When walking around the facility, many individuals would approach us with smiles, explaining how they loved ‘’Miss Gracie.’’ During her time at assisted living, she also helped organize the arts and craft activities. By the end of her first year there, the facility officially recognized her as Treasurer.

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Candid shots taken of Grace at the Children’s Learning Center.

In mid 2016, she was diagnosed with cognitive memory impairment. The doctor explained that her memory loss would progress similar to how grass decays: once a patch has turned yellow, it cannot grow back. Eventually she transitioned to memory care. During that period, I visited her almost everyday. She was limited to a wheelchair by mid 2017. It was becoming more common for her to confuse events and identities of people. Still, I would find ways to make her smile, the way she used to. I’d dress her up (she still had an entire wardrobe), brush her hair, fix her makeup, wheel her outside to get fresh air, and play Motown records, as she once did for me. The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and James Brown were among her favorites. On a certain visits, I would surprise her with a few of the children’s books she had gifted to me when I was little. I saved them from her house, back when we were cleaning it to sell. ‘’The Giving Tree’’ by Shel Silverstein was one of these stories. I remember us both tearing up towards the end, when the tree tells the boy to take her limbs and use them to build a house.

I knew mine were of bittersweet nostalgia. A moment like this was when I, in depth, realized that our roles had reversed. I was taking care of her now—and I sensed her tears were of the same recollection.

I’m most happy knowing she was able see me go off to college. She was there for it all, front row seat. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her that I wanted to publish my own novels someday, and that I was studying for my Bachelor’s in Professional Writing and Communications. Her mouth had opened in a large ‘’O’’ shape upon hearing the news. Her eyes, big and excited. ‘’That’s good Michelle, that’s really good,’’ I remember her saying. At a young age, she often bought composition books from the store, encouraging me to write in them.

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Grammy reading to me on Dr. Seuss Day at Nichols Elementary, circa early 2000s.

On the day after Thanksgiving that same year, Grace experienced a continuous seizing episode. The hospital said this was expected, due to her level of dementia. But it was however, unusual for it to occur that early. On December 6, nearly two weeks before her birthday, she passed away. I will never forget my grandmother’s beautiful singing voice, those notable hums of joy. During that week, I had begun to sing Christmas carols with her, particularly The Jackson 5 Christmas album and Nat King Cole.

Her impact continues to reign in those she encountered throughout her lifetime, including myself.

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