The Story of My Mother – Patsy Ruth McCandless

Patsy at 16, taken approximately 1953 in Southern California. This was her favorite photo of herself.

Patsy McCandless was born Patsy Ruth McNamara in Tipton, Oklahoma on February 28, 1937. She was the youngest of four children to be born to George and Beatrice McNamara; eldest brother Houston (Mac,) and her two sisters, Anita and LaRue.

Though her life began in Oklahoma, hard times, including her parents’ divorce and the untimely death of her sister LaRue from kidney failure, sent Patsy westward to California to live with her brother and her father. After George’s death just a couple of years later, she came of age living with her older brother, Mac, and his new wife, Eleanor, who was quite a bit older than the two of them, so she took on a more maternal role for Patsy. Eleanor’s devout Christian beliefs helped shape young Patsy’s spiritual ideals, which led to her being baptized in the Salton Sea in Southern California, where she rather notoriously lost her shoe.

She went to high school in Inglewood, California, and had an active social life with several good friends, one of whom ultimately married Eleanor’s son, Buddy. Later Patsy herself would marry before returning to Oklahoma at age twenty-one, where she gave birth to her first child, Michelle, in Norman. When it became necessary to start a new life elsewhere, again, she finally found her way to Amarillo, Texas, where she met her second husband, Joel McCandless, who was a bus driver.

Joel Watson McCandless – 1960s, Amarillo, Texas

Their courtship flourished as she rode the bus every day to work. They married in Amarillo, before later moving to Lubbock, where they were active members of their local church.

Patsy and Joel McCandless, 1968.

She found her calling in the service industry, particularly sales and retail, thanks to her outgoing personality and her proficiency with math.

Patsy hard at work, 1961

In 1969, the McCandlesses relocated to the area of West Texas known as the Big Country, where Patsy gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Ginger, at Abilene’s Hendrick Medical Center in November of that year.

Patsy and Ginger McCandless, Christmas 1969, Abilene, Texas

By the 1970s, Patsy was one of the friendly faces Abilenians saw when they went shopping at Furr’s grocery store, when it was in business at its Grape Street location. Her family soon learned that Patsy never met a stranger, literally. Every single time they went anywhere, she’d find someone she knew, a phenomenon that would occur even if decades had passed between their seeing each other. She made a lasting impression, thanks to a friendly smile or joke to greet all types of friends, even the ones she hadn’t met yet.

Patsy was active in her churches, a faithful member who showed up weekly without fail. She was the kind of wife and mother who took pride in her family and in her home, as well as her job outside the home. She was creative both in the kitchen and in front of a sewing machine, often making her own clothes and clothes for her kids from scratch.

Joel, Patsy and Ginger McCandless in their Easter best, 1974, Abilene, Texas

Also in the 1970s, she became a grandmother for the first time when her first grandchild, Isaiah (Patrick) Pursley, was born. Barely 40, Patsy was overjoyed to be a young grandmother, and would brag about her grandbabies to whoever would listen.

Patsy and her grandkids, Patrick and Joni, 1978, Abilene, Texas

She cherished the three other grandchildren who joined her eldest daughter’s family: Joni, Dwayne and Melissa (Missy.)

After Furr’s, she went on to work at the Abilene State School. Because her husband Joe was disabled and retired, she took on the primary caretaker role, taking whatever job necessary to provide for her family while he stayed at home as the caregiver, which was pretty progressive for the 1970s. They relocated more than once, going back to Amarillo by September of 1980, where she went to work for the Levi-Strauss company.

Patsy was widowed by December of that same year, where she took on the unenviable task of single-parenthood right when her youngest hit pre-adolescence.

Patsy and Ginger McCandless, 1982, Amarillo, Texas.

Always a hard worker, Patsy attacked this noble job with gusto and determination, finding a way to support her small family along while single-handedly parenting her young daughter, without ever taking a dime of charity to do it. She worked for a time in insurance, before relocating back to the Big Country, where she managed at convenience stores in the Abilene area throughout the 1980s.

Patsy in 1986, Abilene, Texas.

It was while working at a convenience store in Amarillo in 1987 that Patsy met a man named Daniel Rutherford, who would go on to be her son-in-law. She would say years later she knew that he would be a good pick because of how well he treated her in those early days, when he would walk her to her car when it was icy or snowy, or come down to the store regularly to check up on her and make sure she was okay.

Daniel Rutherford and Patsy McCandless, Rose Park, Abilene Texas, 1988

By the 1990s, she returned to California, where both of her children had relocated. Ginger gave birth to three more of Patsy’s grandsons, Timothy, Jeremiah and Brandon Rutherford, which filled in Patsy’s family tree.

Patsy and her two grandsons, Timothy and Jeremiah Rutherford, 2001, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Patsy proudly poses with grandson Tim Rutherford after his graduation in 2009.

Indeed it was family that meant the most to Patsy. Whenever she was needed, she moved heaven and earth to make sure she could come through for people she loved the most. They meant as much to her as her Christian faith. They are also the ones who will feel her absence the most. Even to the end, her sense of humor endeared her to her caretakers at Coronado Nursing Center, where she spent her final days.

On December 6, 2015, Patsy McCandless was finally called home, where she joins those who have gone before her, including her parents, her siblings, two grandchildren and her beloved son-in-law, Daniel Rutherford.

Dan and Patsy, Hawthorne, California, 2002

Surviving Patsy are her two daughters, Michelle Pursley of Texas and Ginger Voight of California; her grandchildren, Isaiah, Dwayne, Joni, Timothy and Jeremiah, as well as several great-grandchildren.

Patsy’s funeral will be held Wednesday, December 9th, at Girdner Funeral Home, 141 Elm St in Abilene, Texas, after which she will be interred at Hawley Cemetery.


All of that is the technical obituary stuff, the stuff you could print in a newspaper if you wanted. This is the official one, but it only skims the surface of what she managed to do in 78 years.

It tells you some of her story, offering just a little bit more than a dash between dates… but not much.

Let me tell you about her life, from a daughter’s perspective.

My mother was one of the strongest women I had ever met. She had to be. Her life was not an easy one. Not only did LaRue die in her arms, but my mother had to sit with the body, because that’s what people did in those days, particularly in towns where milk was still delivered by horse and buggy.

She would go on to lose her sister Anita to brain cancer at the tender age of 32, and her mother in 1978. Uncle Mac was all that remained of her family, and she loved him deeply. They remained close despite the miles between them. In 2010, she’d return to Southern California to be with Mac and Eleanor in Eleanor’s final days.

Mac and Eleanor McNamara, Hawthorne, California, 2010

As a child who came along at the end of the Depression era, my mother knew the value of money. She believed in getting a good deal, and making sure things lasted. She was incredibly self-sufficient, doing as much as she could for herself for as long as she could do it. I wasn’t kidding about the homemade clothes. I was 11 years old before I got my first pair of jeans, and only because she got a job working at the Levi plant in Amarillo.

Me, November 21, 1980, my eleventh birthday.

After my dad died December 19th of 1980, it was my mom and me against the world. She couldn’t afford for me to have any kind of babysitter, so I began to babysit myself. I was alone from the time I got home from school till the time I went to bed, where I’d go to sleep on the hide-a-bed in the living room just because I was too wigged out to sleep in my room after my dad died.

She’d come home, wake me up, and I’d go on to bed.

I was safe the minute my mom got home, and I knew it.

She was learning how to be a single parent around the time I was learning how to be a latchkey kid. Some days we got it right. Some days we got it wrong. But I can never fault my mother for the things she did. She simply did the best that she could with what she had to work with, and that’s all we can ever do.

I remember those early days together, as we kinda got to know each other in new ways, playing Hearts or Rummy whenever she had some free time. Game time is when I loved being with my mom best. She wasn’t my “mom” anymore, the one tasked with telling me to sit up straight and keep my elbows off the table. She could let her hair down and have a good time – and that’s when we connected, that was when I felt like we were family, of the same tribe. One of the best Christmases we ever had was in 1978, when she bought me a game called Mr. Mouth, and we played it, my warring family and me, late into Christmas night, having the time of our lives.

My mom, my sister, my nephew and me, Christmas 1978, Abilene Texas. (She’s wearing her Furr’s uniform here.)

She also passed playing dominoes down to me, something she’d learned from her own father, who would enjoy a game of dominoes and a beer every Sunday. My mother was a complete teetotaler. She didn’t smoke. She didn’t drink. She didn’t curse. She really didn’t know how to have a good time like a lot of folks, simply because of the way she was raised. Her mother shunned fun things, like biking or playing or swimming or camping, to keep my mom’s nose pressed firmly in a book. As a result, my mom didn’t know how to ride a bike, or swim, had never been camping, didn’t go to theme parks, didn’t act silly or play with me as a kid.

My mom was taught to work hard, to be an adult, to take responsibility, to do what she could for others.

Despite all that, my mom also loved fun.

Mom and the Easter Bunny, Abilene Texas 1984

She loved to joke and to laugh, though there wasn’t always the opportunity for fun and games over the years, when she’d work 50-60 hour days running convenience stores. There were times when I would go to the store with her, where I was stocking food and pricing merchandise from the grand ol’ age of thirteen.

Even still, I’d make damned sure that my sodas were paid for. My mother was the disciplinarian of the household, and I remember quite the spanking I got when I had lifted some gum from the local grocery store when I was four years old. That was when they had those stick pieces of gum that tasted like milkshakes, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. I wanted some, but couldn’t decide which flavor to pick, since Mom said I could only have one.

One was all she paid for, but I took the other two flavors anyway. When we got to the car, I pulled them out of my pocket to show her that I had gotten them, and she proceeded to drag me back into the store to make me return my ill-gotten goods with an apology.

Then I went home and Mom asked for my dad’s belt.

It was one of the few instances she used corporal punishment with me, reserved only for those times when the lesson couldn’t risk being repeated – like me stealing from a store, or disappearing from her one day at the local Kmart when I was three, or playing hooky for a week when I first flirted with depression after the death of my dad.

Granted, that probably wasn’t the most effective punishment for a grieving kid – but it was also the 1970s/dawn of the 1980s, in the middle of Texas no less.

That was just how it was done.

I knew she always had my best interest at heart. No one had my back like my mom, all the way up until Daniel. Mom was willing to go without just so I could have whatever I wanted. Some called me spoiled, and perhaps maybe I was. It was difficult for her to connect with me any other way – she wasn’t raised by a warm and fuzzy mom so she wasn’t a warm and fuzzy mom. (By no surprise, I’m not really a warm and fuzzy mom either.)

This was simply the language we spoke. Whenever I got my first job when I was 18, I’d buy her plants (because she LOVED plants and had a wonderful green thumb.) I paid rent – not because she asked, but because I wanted to. That year I was able to afford her favorite perfume, Wind Song, all on my own, and it made me happy to give her the kinds of surprises she’d never buy for herself.

I didn’t have to bring in a paycheck to do nice things for her. Whenever I wasn’t working, I was cleaning or doing errands or trying to make her life easier and better, even if I had to go against what she had taught me to do it.

When I got into a health class in junior high, which tried in vain to reverse my bad habits before I spiraled helplessly into obesity, one of the things they taught me was that I had to stop needlessly adding additives to my food.

I grew up on the house wine of the south – sweet tea. We always had it around. Sodas were forbidden up until Mom started working in convenience stores, mostly because a doctor told her when I was very young that I might have a weight problem later. So we stuck to what we knew. As Hal might call it, “Brown Kool-Aid.”

Me washing dishes in Lubbock, Texas, I think, 1974ish, ever-present sweet tea in the pitcher on the counter.

(You’ll also notice the whipped toping lid in the dish drainer… yes, that was how we stored food. No Tupperware in our house, just whatever could be recycled and used more than once for the money.)

Also because we were good southerners, we ate salt on things that didn’t need salt – namely watermelon and cantaloupe. My mother had always put salt on both of these, as well as a lot of other food she ate, so I had learned to do likewise.

When I first tried these fruits WITHOUT salt, I was amazed at the difference in the flavor. After that, I went on a no-salt mission with my mom, whose high blood pressure was cause for caution. She, however, was not quite as keen on the idea of giving up her favorite seasoning. I remember having to hide the salt shaker from her so she wouldn’t use it.

Eventually, she bid it adieu.

In fact, my mother adapted to me in a lot of unexpected ways. I even turned her onto rock music when I fell crazy in love with Steve Perry when I was 13 years old. That year I handed her a list of possible Christmas gifts with almost nothing but Barbies and music (albums preferably,) and she and my Aunt Gertrude, possibly her best friend in the early 80s, had to figure out what an “Air Supply” was.

Later, she would develop her own tastes. This was one of her favorites:

That song reminds me so much of the 80s, when it was just me and her against the world. My sister had her own family to worry about and raise, so most of the time it was just me and Mom. And of course as a self-absorbed kid, I never saw the hard work she put into being a parent. She made it all look so effortless as she struggled to pay Dad’s medical bills, and keep us afloat, without all the cool stuff that everyone else had. No cable, no MTV. No Atari system like my friends. She wouldn’t have even had a microwave back in the day had it not been for my Aunt Eleanor, who had gotten one from her son, but one that she wasn’t eager to use since she had seen a man electrocuted when she was much younger and had a weird sort of phobia about electricity as a result.

So if I was spoiled, it was because she made me believe I could have everything I wanted – and made it look to the world as though I did. I guess I was spoiled, because I know I’ll never get a love like that again. No one will ever love you like your mother will. It took me 46 years to figure out exactly what that means.

When I told her I wanted to marry Steve Perry, she didn’t even blink an eye. She let me dream big. When I wrote, she was my first real PR person, turning in my sixth grade poem to her insurance newsletter, where she alone was responsible for anyone seeing my name in print for the first time.

When I told her I wanted to write books, she never tried to rein me in, to suggest that maybe I should choose a more solid or guaranteed career. She was proud of every poem I wrote, every story, and every book – even if she couldn’t or didn’t read them all.

It was in those books I worked some stuff out, and got to know my mother on an adult level. My story Comic Squad ended up hitting very close to home, with a young girl who lost her beloved father, who was being raised by a mother she barely knew, and frankly resented, unaware of all the ways that her own mother was attempting to be her superhero and she didn’t even know it.

For a long, long time I didn’t know that Patsy McCandless was my superhero.

For a long, long time I took it for granted.

So I’m going to correct that error the only way I know how. I’m going to  tell you her story. I’m going to tell you that her favorite color was yellow, and her favorite flowers were tulips. I’m going to tell you how much she loved Jim Reeves and Jimmy Stewart, or how we laughed forever when she’d mimic Mr. Tudball talking to “Mrs. A’Wiggins” from the Carol Burnett Show, or how she’d dance like the gopher in Caddyshack just to make my friends and I laugh, or repeat Foghorn Leghorn because it always tickled her when he’d say, “I say-say.”

She loved Laurel & Hardy and jigsaw puzzles. She read Mary Higgins Clark books as she rode the bus to downtown LA for years, working for a stock brokerage company. She bet on horses and lived by the Game Show Network in her later years, when her body had failed her and she couldn’t live the life she wanted to anymore.

Instead she wrote letters to her dear friends she’d met over the years, in the same perfect penmanship she had always had my entire life. Where my handwriting looks like some cracked out doctor high on his own prescription medication, my mother’s handwriting could have been taken off of those posters hanging around school rooms, showing you how to write in perfect cursive.

It was elegant and beautiful almost all the way up to the end.

She knew my best friend was gay way before I did. I thought for sure she’d tell me to stop seeing him, because of the staunch Christian faith she’d raised me under, and I was ready to go to the mat for my bestie. Instead she just said, “Oh, I already knew,” and that was that. She never said one bad word about it, or him.

Mom wasn’t perfect, so she gave people a lot of leeway to be imperfect as well. I told you that I became a latchkey kid raising myself, and sometimes that had disastrous results. Every time I screwed up, she was right there to help me back out of the mess, even when it had to test her faith and her resolve. How many times did she feel hopeless, afraid, alone, with no one there to help her shoulder the burden?

She never said one bad word about that either.

She never judged me, though I screwed up plenty. She would have given anything for both of her daughters, and often did, even if we didn’t “deserve” it. As if one can ever “deserve” a mother’s love. As a mother myself, I know that it’s just there, no matter how much it tests you. She always had my back and I knew it. There was always someone I could call, who would tell me it was going to be okay, that she would figure out what to do.

She was my mom every day of my life, even if she couldn’t always remember.

I hope she remembered the good times.

I know I do.

And now… maybe you will too.

I love you, Mama. May you rest finally in the blissful peace you earned a hundred times over in this world. Until we meet again, look after Dan and Brandon for me. I carry you all with me always.

Me and my mom, November 2004

“Every Day”
By Ginger Voight

Every day we write our stories, one single breath at a time.
Every day we aim for immortality, an impossible hill to climb.
Every day we whisper into the void, don’t forget me when I’m gone.
Every day we leave a fingerprint, though we know it won’t linger very long.
Every day we sign our names in books we will never read.
Every day you taught me lessons, lovingly planting every seed.
It took some time to see it, a little distance, some time away
But if you ask me if I loved you, I will answer, “Every day.”

For every day you strove to give me everything I needed.
You loved me even when I made mistakes, your wise advice unheeded.
Every day I hear your echo in the voice inside my head.
It is this echo that assures me that no one is every really dead.
For every day you’re remembered, your story continues to write on.
Every day you are loved by someone, you’re immortalized in their song.
Every day there will be a moment when it’s your name my heart will say.
And when it asks if I miss you… I will whisper, “Every day.”


One thought on “The Story of My Mother – Patsy Ruth McCandless

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