My mother died on August 28, 2012, at age 88. She passed quietly in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Pulaski County, where she had lived for the final years of her life. When it became obvious the day before that the end was near, I sat at our bedside through the night, holding her hand.
Amy and I spent Mother’s Day earlier that year at her apartment with a dinner we prepared at home and brought. She opened her gifts slowly and her mind, as it did often in those final days, wandered off. She struggled to remember who we were.
Those who knew Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt recognized she had a varied, interesting and often exciting life. Born in Meadows of Dan, she graduated from Willis High School. She and her best friend Gaynor traveled the country to areas of the country that both had read about in school. Ironically, one of the places they visited was a Mississippi River town in Illinois — Alton, just up the river from St. Louis — where she and Gaynor spent the night at the Mineral Springs Hotel. Many years later, I would take a job as a reporter for the newspaper there. The Mineral Springs had closed but later reopened as an antique mall.
The patriotic Ethel McPeak moved to Norfolk to work for the Navy Yard during World War II. She moved up quickly through the ranks to take charge of the gas rationing office there, handing out coupons and deciding on those who deserved more than their normal allotment. One of those was a young sailor — Electrician’s Mate William D. Thompson, who wanted extra gas to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle home to Tampa, Florida, to visit his parents after his ship put into the yard for repairs.
Ethel McPeak also rode a Harley, often with the Motor Maids women’s motorcycle club chapter in Norfolk. She talked bikes with the young sailor and granted the extra coupons. When he returned, he ran into her at at motorcycle enthusiasts’ hangout in Norfolk. She was there with a date, a Norfolk man and motorcycle racer named Joe Weatherly, who was also working at the Navy Yard during the war.
Thompson challenged Weatherly, a two-time national bike racing champion, to a race through the streets of downtown Norfolk for the right to date Ethel McPeak.
Sailor Thompson won that race and started dating Ethel McPeak. After the war’s end, he proposed and she accepted. Weatherly became one of the early stars of NASCAR and died in a crash at Riverside, California. One of his best friends and a pall bearer at his funeral was another NASCAR star — Floyd County’s Curtis Turner.
Ethel McPeak’s parents were shocked when their daughter, dressed head to toe in motorcycle leathers, rode home with her husband to be — each on a motorcycle. They hadn’t known about her riding exploits.
They originally planned to ride their bikes together down to Tampa to meet his parents but she stayed behind to calm down her parents. Then she climbed aboard that bike and rode, by herself, from Meadows of Dan to Tampa to meet her future in-laws. They rode together after their marriage and performed in motorcycle thrill shows.
I came along two years after their marriage but never knew my dad because he died in an industrial accident in 1949.
With me in tow, mom returned to Floyd County in 1954. We lived in an apartment over the Hoback’s Furniture Store in Main Street in Floyd, a space now occupied by the employee parking lot of Bank of Floyd.
She married Floyd Countian Truman C. Bolt when I was eight and outlived him after many years of marriage. After his death, her adventurous spirit remained and she traveled a lot, going to Australia and on cruises.
She stayed active in Floyd, volunteering at Angels in the Attic and at The Jacksonville Center. She played piano for church services. But deteriorating health and a fall at home put her in a Radford rehab facility, where another fall broke her hip. Confined to a wheel chair, she moved into assisted living with help from Amy and me.
Before she died in 2012, mom told me she wanted to rest with both of her husbands so half of her ashes were shared with Truman at the cemetery of Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church and I planned to take her remaining ashes on my bike, following the same route she rode in 1946, to be with my dad in Tampa.
But an an encounter on my motorcycle with a cow on U.S. 221 at the bottom of Bent Mountain shortly after she died — delayed that trip. After 18 months of recovery, I was recently cleared to ride again and will take her home to be with my dad later this year.
Happy Mother’s Day mom. You are missed and you will soon go home.