At least a dozen years ago, when Toody Byrd was a guest speaker for the Woman’s Club in Brownwood, I went to cover her speech, and – you know – say, “Hey.”
I got pretty close to the lectern so I could take a picture for the paper, and Toody stopped, and said in her naturally amplified schoolteacher voice, “I have to stop and smile. Candace is one of my relatives.”
It wasn’t the first time I got to hang on to the tails of fame because I was Toody Byrd’s relative. In some families our kinship would be considered distant, and a technicality. That’s not the case with ours, however. And that could be due in part to the loving attitude and spirited benevolence Toody McDermott brought with her when she married Hoyt Byrd, my mother’s first cousin, more than 75 years ago.
Toody was a feisty, delightful, hilariously funny, extremely wise woman. She had look on the bright side and laugh life perspective down to a science. After she retired from Eanes ISD, where she’d been a beloved counselor for more than 20 years at Westlake High School, she began a whole new career as a public speaker that took her all over Texas and 35 states in the USA. She was lauded by the 71st Texas State Legislature as a “Texas Treasure.”
Here’s a bit of Brown County trivia worth taking notice – especially if you know there’s not much left standing in Cross Cut. Toody began her career in education there in 1942. The world was at war, and Toody became a teacher and served as principal, a position, she would swear she was give because she could “run faster than the big boys.”
I wish everyone in this big old not-always-nice world could know some wise and understanding soul like Toody. It’s too complicated here, now, to set up the situation, but twice in my adult life, Toody lent me her ear, and her heart. She saved me. Her bottom line advice was “do what you can, with what you have … and keep doing it.” The second time, she told me, “Starting over can be a grand adventure if you let it be. Learn to love the opportunity.”
Toody Byrd died last Sunday. I know she laughed climbing that staircase to heaven because, coincidentally, it was April Fools’ Day. Nobody enjoyed a coincidence better than Toody.
When I shared her obituary on social media, I was amazed at the friends near and far who posted Toody Byrd had touched their lives, inspired them to be better teachers, parents and people. Many said they had copies of her 1998 book, “Toody Byrd Talks, and Talks, and Talks…” on their shelves, and refer to it still when a bit of wisdom, laughter or inspiration – or any combination of the three – is necessary.
I know. I have the book. There’s a lot of good advice to savor, but, I think my favorite is Toody’s signature closing of things she’s learned while living and loving. In her honor, I would like to end this column with her classic truth and consequences of unconditional love.
“The greatest thing I’ve learned is to love unconditionally,” she wrote – and always said. “Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t learned to love everybody. But people I love, I love unconditionally. There are no more, ‘I’ll love you ifs’ or ‘I love you buts’ or ‘If you loved me, you’ds.’
“I said to my kids and I hope they say to theirs, ‘I love you. It’s a gift; take it. You don’t have to earn it with good looks, or good grades, or even good behavior. It’s a gift I give to you because I’m your mama! Nothing you ever do or say is going to make me love you any less or any more. That does not mean I’m going to like everything you do. That does not mean I’m not going to set some boundaries and stick to them. It does not mean I’m not going to ride your sore back sometimes. It does not even mean I may not shake you while I hug you, but I love you. You don’t ever have to worry about losing that.’”
Good stuff, isn’t it? But the best part is the finish.
“And you know, the other end of unconditional love is if they love you back, it’s a fringe benefit, but there’s no string attached. It’s made my life a whole lot simpler. It’s a gift I’ve given myself.”
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.