Edwina Williams: The Role of a Lifetime
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Masa Hensley
When Edwina Williams was a senior at Lee High School in a year that she resolutely refuses to divulge, she was widely known to be sweet-tempered and kind, pretty and popular — a cheerleader at a time when cheerleaders were elected by the students.
In many respects, hers was an idyllic childhood. Her parents, Lorene and Edwin Ringold, doted on their only child.
“She was always a beautiful girl,” recalls Virginia Eselin, her high school classmate and lifelong friend. “You never heard of her doing anything ugly to anyone, ever. And that goes way back. She was a darling. She had always been taken care of by her mother and daddy. They adored her and did everything they could for her — she always had beautiful clothes. Edwina was very talented, too, and her parents were just so proud of her.”
Yet there was one thing that young Edwina wanted that she would be denied. There would be far-reaching consequences of that solitary disappointment, she suggests.
“I wanted to be in the senior play, but the higher-ups wouldn’t let me,” Williams says. “I never did know why, maybe it was because I hadn’t blossomed yet. Instead, they made me head usherette.”
She throws her head back and laughs at the thought that is forming in her mind.
“And now the whole town’s been paying for it all these years with me as Mother Goose, all because they wouldn’t let me have that part!”
LOVE AND AFFIRMATION
Many people in Columbus know Edwina Williams, but everyone knows Williams’ alter ego, Mother Goose.
For generations of Columbus children, Mother Goose has been a source of love and affirmation, of encouragement and inspiration. For the adults, many of whom grew up on the floor of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library listening attentively as Williams read to them during Mother Goose’s Story Time — something she has done every week since 1985 — she is easily the city’s most recognizable citizen. Her presence at an event gives the proceedings an air of legitimacy. It isn’t really a party without Mother Goose in the middle of it. And she is always in the middle of it, naturally.
She has played the role of Mother Goose for close to 40 years now, but in some respects, she has been grooming and perfecting that role all of her adult life. It has been the role of a lifetime, and while it’s obvious what Mother Goose has meant to her incalculable audience, it is less obvious what Mother Goose has meant to Williams herself.
EDWINA AND BAM
Named after her father (hence her name is pronounced “Ed-WI-nuh” rather than the more common “Ed-WE-nuh”), Williams was born in Winona in the Year-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but moved with her family to Columbus when she was just 2 years old.
She notes with feigned disappointment that she has not been accepted into certain social circles because she is not a native of Columbus. There is also the matter of some rather dubious characters in her bloodline.
“I had an uncle who swore we were related to Johnny Ringo and Jesse James,” she says, delighted with the incongruity of possibly being related to a couple of famous outlaws of the Old West.
She graduated from Lee High and then Mississippi University for Women before beginning her career as a first-grade teacher. She taught first-grade at Columbus’ Franklin Academy, Amory, New Orleans and finally in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 1958, she married Alexander “Bam” Williams after an on-again, off-again five-year courtship.
On the surface, it seemed like an odd coupling. By then, Edwina (“Wina,” he called her) was well on her way to what she describes as “blossoming.” She was a gregarious, lively young woman, always laughing, prone to breaking out in song, eager to launch herself into the middle of the room, always drawn inexorably to the spotlight.
Bam, by contrast, was far more circumspect, friendly enough, but reserved. A well-respected veterinarian, Bam was perfectly contented to be on the periphery of social settings.
“One time I asked him, ‘Why did you choose me?’” Edwina says. “He said, ‘Because you were different.’”
Edwina throws back her head and laughs again.
“I knew better than to ask him what he meant by ‘different,’” she says.
However odd the pairing of personalities, for the next 40 years their relationship proved far more complementary than conflictive.
“The two of them used to come to parties at our house, really before I knew her as Mother Goose,” recounts close friend Ralph Null. “She was the life of the party, of course, laughing and talking. Bam just leaned against the wall and never said two words. It always seemed to me that he was just standing there, living in her glory, her illuminicity.”
HOME AND HEARTH
The Williamses left Columbus twice during their marriage, once for a year when they lived in New Orleans and later, for 10 years in St. Petersburg, Florida.
By the time the couple arrived back in Columbus in the mid-’70s with their two young daughters in tow, Williams had left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom while helping Bam get his veterinary practice off the ground.
Williams took to her domestic role with her typical enthusiasm. There was, however, one aspect of being the June Cleaver of Columbus that Williams failed to master.
“When she first married daddy, he loved a home-cooked meal,” says Lee Williams, the younger of Williams’ two daughters.
“But she didn’t want to cook. She did want to please him, though, so she went to the store and bought an angel food cake, brought it home and beat it up a little with a spatula … so it would be believable, I guess. She figured that would fool him, and it did at first, but every week, she kept bringing home the same cake. Dad caught on. He said, ‘Wina, what’s up with that?’ and the charade was over.
“She never did learn to cook much, but she kept trying. Lane and I knew it wasn’t supper time until there was smoke billowing out of the kitchen and everything was charred. We wound up eating a lot of sandwiches.”
When Bam died in 1998, Williams gave up cooking for good. A few years ago, a friend was startled to learn that she had painted the interior of her oven with spray paint because it had begun to look a little faded. When told spray-painting the oven would make it unusable, she simply shrugged. The stove had been unplugged for years by then.
Aside from the cooking, in her own eccentric way, Williams relished her role as housewife and stay-at-home mom, but her love for teaching and children never diminished.
It was Bam who made the suggestion that she adopt a character for those reading visits.
“I thought about it and thought about it,” she says. “Finally, I thought, ‘well, maybe I should be Mother Goose because children are familiar with the character from books and stories.’”
Williams adopted other characters to suit special occasions. The Good Witch visits schools around Halloween to offer tips on being safe during the holiday. Miz Claus dons her red velvet cloak and cap each Christmas season. And at Easter time, Miz Easter Bunny makes an appearance.
But most days, costumed or not, she is Mother Goose.
“I see so many things in mom’s life and realize that Mother Goose is a natural extension of who she is,” Lee says. “She was a cheerleader in high school and she is a natural cheerleader for getting kids to believe in themselves. She loves young people and loves to see them learn. Mother Goose stresses reading, getting an education, good manners. Those are the things mom values, too. Mother Goose is an extension of her own personality and beliefs, delivered by a character that children can relate to. That’s very smart, I think.”
So intertwined has the person and the character become that it is difficult, even for some who have known her for years, to distinguish between the two. Is Williams playing the role of Mother Goose? Or is it the other way around?
“I’d say now she’s Mother Goose about 99.999 percent of the time,” Lee says.
Williams tends to agree.
“When I hit the door in the morning, I’m Mother Goose,” she says. “Whether I’m wearing my costume — the hat, the apron, the shoes — or not. When I’m out, she just comes out, too. It doesn’t matter where. When I go to Military Hardware, I hit that door and start singing. I can’t seem to help it.”
But other longtime friends see the subtle distinction between the person and the character she has assumed.
“I think Mother Goose is something she retreats into,” Eselin says. “Her real self is much quieter, much more reserved. We have a piano, and when she comes over, she sits down to play, but she’s not on stage. I think there is another side, maybe, that she keeps from public view. But I do believe that Mother Goose is a comfort to her.”
Bam died after a short illness in December 1998 on their 40th wedding anniversary.
“I just realized I had to keep on going,’ she says. “And the only way I could keep on going was to keep on going the way I was going. Mother Goose is going, so I have to keep up with her.”
And she has been going strong ever since, enriching the lives of children and adults alike, becoming the town’s unofficial goodwill ambassador and most loved resident in the process.
“I know she knows she’s liked and loved, but it was never really about that with mother,” Lee says. “It’s just natural to her. She wakes up in the morning, always cheery, feet on the ground, ready to see what the day brings and excited about it.”
For Edwina, it’s all very simple:
“I guess, maybe, I’ve just always been an entertainer of a sort,” she says. “I try to make people happy when they are around me. I just like being around people, being around children, and I love to see them being happy.”