I read how politicians are spending millions upon millions of dollars basically to beat each other up, to garner more power, or keep power, and I think of Sara Owen, one of the most powerful people I have ever known. She was my mother-in-law and she died seven years ago this month. She was 85.
Increasingly hunched over due to effects from polio then post-polio, Sara used a motorized scooter to get around in her last years. Her eyes shown bright. Her smile was radiant. If she suffered physical pain, I never heard of it. She had this inner strength that could match, or outmatch, those we typically think of as powerful.
Once there was a tense disagreement among some family members. All she said was: “Perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding.” That was her brilliant way of cussing people out.
I felt welcomed into her life immediately. We liked many of the same authors. There was no judgment from her. And, of course, we shared a great love for Michael, her younger son.
In the late ’50s and ’60s, when the civil rights movement was brewing in Atlanta and elsewhere, she went to work. Sara journeyed from her Atlanta home to Atlanta’s south side for various outreach projects. It came with some risk, this love for people many whites maligned. She and Michael’s dad lost friends because of it. But they soldiered on to make their little corner of the world more just.
(An aside: Michael went to public school for a time with Marty and Dexter King. When the King boys showed up, the white coaches thought they’d hit the lottery. But, like their father, they were intellectuals, not would-be sports stars.)
Post-polio wasn’t her only health problem. Sara had, then survived, cancer. After her second mastectomy, she said: “Well, they can’t do that to me again.”
She was brave even near death. She was taken to the hospital a couple of times when her blood-oxygen levels would dip precipitously. Before it could happen again, she told her nurse she wasn’t going back to the hospital. She was done.
“I’m sad you didn’t get to know us earlier in our lives,” she told me once.
“Yes,” I said, “but the great thing is I got to meet you in the first place.”