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Thelma Eulene Cardwell Wyatt, 1932–2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020
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Thelma Wyatt, 87, of Spur, Texas, and Kingsport, Tennessee, died Sunday morning, March, 15, 2020 , after rapid onset of dementia/Alzheimer’s. She was the daughter of Bessie Leedy and Earl Cardwell, both descendants of early Kingsport families; but now, most of Thelma’s generation of Leedys and Cardwells also have vanished from the scene.

I think that Thelma would applaud my noting that she simply died—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—instead of embarking on magical journeys among imaginary gods and heavens that often clutter local obituaries. (But I smile at thoughts of Thelma driving Athena’s Chariot, bare-breasted, hair flying, behind four fiery horses whipping across those endless skies.)

Intelligent, talented, but (strangely) anti-intellectual, Thelma often was cantankerous, sometimes entertaining, quick with opinion, and readily switched between “Dr. Jekyll & Ms. Hyde” personas. Mere words are inadequate—her complexities defy definition. I’m reminded of Browning, lines 17 and 18 of “My Last Duchess”... Paint (Words)...can never hope to reproduce ... traits beyond the pale. Yet nicknames can reveal... “Mrs. Clean,” Lucrezia, ... Were I chiseling an epigraph, I think I would hammer out, “Never was she boring.”

With B.S. and M.S. degrees, she was versatile—teaching English in Tennessee, biology in Maryland, math in Ohio and Texas. She held C.P.A. certificates in Ohio and Texas, and worked in taxation, in auditing, and as a comptroller in the business world. Uncannily perceptive to space, shape and color, early on she designed clothing, interiors, structures and landscapes. After retirement, this talent eased her transition into “an artist”—and today many of her paintings, finished and unfinished, still fill the nooks and crannies around the house. Her oft-mentioned regret was that she couldn’t visualize the unseen—those “ultra” tiny, entangled quantum particles that form the fabric of the universe.

Born the middle of three girls in 1932 smack-dab into the Great Depression’s working class, she came of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her dad and mom divorced, and her mom remarried. After high school, she quickly married Eddie Martin, hoping to catch the bold freedoms of adult consciousness (actually she said, “just to get out of the house”).

Her albatross was that she had been imprinted with the pervading Appalachian/evangelical culture which enshrouded non-privileged girls: “What would your neighbors think?,” “Stay in your place,” “Don’t make waves.” Try as she might, Thelma never quite escaped that black shroud. Her nonconformist intellect invariably conflicted with this imprinted conformity. But she was stuck, unable to “throw caution to the winds,” to “let her hair down.” I often wished she could have.

Since her early pregnancies ended with premature births that failed to survive, she has no offspring. Her younger sister, Faye McConnell, lives in Fall Branch, Tenn., and her cousin Dixie Cardwell Munoz lives in Colfax, Calif. Despite our years of marriage, Thelma’s absorption of my wildly contrarian, West Texas attitude of mistrust and animus toward authority and religious hypocrisy penetrated only skin-deep. Yet, I believe that we both thought we made an effective team. I’ll miss her. Besides, she was one hell of a good cook. — J. T. Wyatt