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A lifetime of Mother’s Days

‘Pet’ Sowell raised 62 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren

Posted: June 18, 2013 4:06 p.m.
Updated: June 19, 2013 5:00 a.m.

On Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013, hospice delivered a potted flower to Luvenia Sowell. It was left on her porch, for no one was home. The family had gone to church, including Mrs. Sowell, who spent this day as she had every other Sunday -- with the Lord.

She could have enjoyed breakfast in bed and accepted the attentions from the 17 children she raised, and the 41 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren who adored her. Instead, this Mother’s Day, which would be her final Sunday to attend church, she got out of bed to praise God and thank Him for the blessings of her family.

She passed away only six days later, leaving hundreds not only to grieve, but also to celebrate her life. In the words of Catoe Chapel Pastor James Lee, “We must celebrate Mother Sowell for her sweet spirit, her selflessness, and her willingness to be used by God to be a blessing to others.”

This is the story of those “others.”

In 1957, 26-year-old Luvenia “Pet” Sowell and her husband, Willie, were living in Bethune, raising their two young children, Howard and Trish. Pet was a stay-at-home mom and Willie farmed, drove logging trucks, and worked in a Columbia factory. Suddenly the couple faced a harsh reality: seven children needed a home, a family, nurturing, and protection, after losing one parent, and then the other. Those parents, Sim and Bessie King, were Pet’s own mother and father as well, and those seven children were her siblings, ranging in age from 2 to 20.

“I was 8 years old when Momma’s brothers and sisters were left orphans,” Trish remembered. “There was never a doubt we’d take them in.”

“Ma Pet and Willie wouldn’t let us be separated,” Liz, the youngest member to join the new family, said. “Pet became my mom, even though I was her baby sister by 22 years.”

Trish’s aunts, Liz, MaryAnn, Earline and Bessie Mae, ages 2 to 18, moved in and became her sisters. Uncles, Willie, Walter and Peter, ages 6 to 20, became Howard’s brothers. In the blink of an eye, nine children began sharing clothes, toys, two bedrooms, childhoods, and the lovely woman they called “Ma Pet.”

Earline remembers how they appreciated being together.

“Maybe we didn’t always have everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed, and knew we were all loved the same. We were thankful,” Earline said.

“We’d make animals out of Maypops and stick,” Mary Ann shared, adding in memories of picnics, tree-climbing and wild-rides inside a tire, “open persimmons to find the spoon or fork, and suck on sourweed. Sometimes we’d mold ashtrays or animals out of dough. It was a happy childhood.”

“Momma had the best garden. She canned peaches, squash, beans, tomatoes, blueberries, and peas,” Trish said, “It was considered a privilege to shell peas with her. The ‘tater bank’ carried us through winter.”

This was described as a hole dug deep into the ground, lined with straw and burlap, and layered with white and sweet potatoes to be stored for later use. Chickens, cows, hogs, and a smokehouse guaranteed plenty of meat.

“Hunger was never a thought. Ma Pet cooked as a hobby, not a chore,” Liz said, laughing. “She never used a recipe. Folks would come through the backdoor for her sweet potato bread, potato pie, or biscuits and syrup. All were welcomed any time.”

“I was only there about five months back in 1957, and then I got married. My bride couldn’t cook nearly so good as Ma Pet,” Peter joked as he commented on Pet’s cooking skills.

Earline’s son, Joe, remembered Sunday gatherings at Pet’s: “A soft radio might be playing, but seldom TV. It was about food and family.”

As were Thanksgiving and Christmas when all dropped by any time to get a plate, visit, and enjoy Pet’s culinary creations. Only one rule had to be obeyed:

“No messing in her kitchen! Not even to clean up or do the dishes. We’d get a plate and get out,” granddaughter Tracy said, laughing.

Liz’s son, Ron, shared fond memories from Pet’s years of working in the cafeteria at Bethune High School and how he and his cousins delighted in watching her serve up ice cream and smiles. Bobby, Liz’s husband, also knew and admired Pet through his school years.

“Back then I never dreamed I’d be part of her family, but I married Liz, and what a blessing for me. I often told Pet ‘thank you,’” Bobby said.

Ma Pet had no tolerance for misbehavior, and everyone followed her other ironclad rule: no fighting, especially amongst themselves.

“She kept all the children in check with nothing more than a look. It was a sign of the respect we had for her,” Liz said.

Despite Walter’s wry comment, “Except for a few arguments behind the barn,” all agreed with Trish’s simple explanation: “Momma taught us to love, not fight.”

Two years after the Sowell’s took in the seven children, their own brood grew with the birth of Willie. The very next year, the death of Pet’s sister, Dinah, left another seven children motherless. Without hesitation, the Sowells gathered in Evelyn, 11; Dianne, 8; and Kathryn,6, a special needs child.

“Aunt Pet helped my mom too, who was like the old woman in the shoe, with a heap of children,” niece Eva, one of 14 children herself, said.

“Pet just seemed to trade kids -- sons, daughter, whoever was in need,” granddaughter Melissa said, chuckling. “She helped raise us all, really. All the generations in one way or another.”

When Pet’s husband, Willie, died in 1965, she took a job to care for Mr. and Mrs. Lester Best’s children, Marty and Betty.

“I was blessed to find Pet Sowell to provide in-home care for my children for the next 12 years. She was more than a caregiver, she was everything to us. She was family.”

Daughter Betty recalls Pet’s constant hugs and the apron always tied around her waist.

“She gave meaning to the words comfort food,” Betty said. “She was total love in the kitchen and everywhere. As adults, we have mental awareness and a sense of knowing, but as children, all we know is how we feel … how someone makes us feel. And always, what Pet made me feel was love.”

Kershaw County Deputy Sheriff Marvin Lee Brown, a cousin of the Best children, also basked in the maternal affections of Pet. He was identified in her obituary as one of her “honorary children.” Brown expressed gratitude at being remembered that way.

“Pet was a beautiful lady who treated us like her own. When Pet’s daughter Trish would see me in town, she’d hug me and say ‘this is my brother’ We were all family,” Brown said.

In the days before her death, a steady stream of friends and family poured into Pet’s home in Bethune. They sat by her bed, touched her hand, prayed, and offered endless thanks to her for her endless love for them. Grandson Justin was one. He recalled a recent visit when he asked Pet about her pain. She smiled and told him, “I’m not complaining. Complaining won’t end the hurting. I’ll stop hurting when I die.”

Justin remarked how glad he was to be with her then and now.

“With her is where I need to be.”

Fifteen-year-old De’ja voiced gratitude for all she has learned from Pet.

“She taught me so much -- lessons I can use in life.”

Niece Deborah agreed.

“We all want to pattern our lives after her. She showed us how to walk in integrity and character. It was such a privilege to be with her and watch how she lived,” Deborah said.

Pet’s son, Willie, struggling through tears of grief, said, “I know how lucky I was to have a good mother and father who reared me right and proper to be a man.”

Great-grandson Thedrin said he is blessed to be the last child raised by Pet.

“Patience, respect, all that and more she taught me. She was my conscience, my heart, my everything,” he acknowledged.

Trish nodded.

“These generations will all continue where Momma left off,” she said.

Renda Hodge is the hospice nurse who cared for Pet and witnessed the devotion in this family, each for the other.

“I saw how Mrs. Sowell’s eyes would just shine when she talked about her children. She’d light up with joy. She was a true role model to her children and to all, teaching them goodness, grace, and patience -- even in death,” Hodge said.

Pet’s home-going service on May 22 celebrated her as a faith-based child of God who raised all to know and love the Lord.

“No matter what was going on, it was Church on Sunday,” Liz said. “She never sent us to church, she took us to church, packing us all in her old station wagon.”

A lifelong member of Catoe Chapel Church of God in Christ, Pet served on the Mother’s Board, sang in the choir, and worked in the sewing circle. Her church overflowed with nearly four-hundred worshippers joining in prayer, praise, song, and celebration of Pet.

Eight visiting pastors from various towns came in tribute to this remarkable lady so diligent in her faith. A proclamation from State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk in honor of Pet Sowell’s life and legacy was presented to the family.

Martha Mungo, a church missionary, eulogized Mother Sowell as someone who lived for the Lord.

“She would be at church Tuesdays for Pastoral Teaching, Wednesdays for prayer and Bible, Sundays at 9:30 for Sunday School, and through the eleven-o-clock service,” Mungo said.

She remembered looking across the aisle on Mother’s Day.

“There she was, happy, smiling, clapping just like always, and now she is sleeping in the Lord.”

Pastor James Lee consoled the congregation with these words:

“We cry when we are separated from good, we mourn and grieve our loss. But Mother Sowell has not died, but only stepped over into eternity with God. That’s why we celebrate. Death has been destroyed for eternal life in Paradise.”

“This is not the end of the story of Pet Sowell,” one friend remarked. “She will live on in the kindness, faith, and selflessness she instilled in those who were blessed to be in her care, and fortunate enough to celebrate such a mother every day.”

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