Since March, Americans everywhere have struggled with the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, some with grace, others with grudging compliance, some even with defiance.
Shelter at home and social distancing orders have disrupted the lives of millions, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in the Golden Triangle whose life has been altered more profoundly than Edwina Williams, more commonly known as Mother Goose.
“I’ll say ‘Amen’ to that. It’s been A-W-F-U-L, awful,” Williams said.
For 38 years, Williams has been playing the role of the imaginary author of fairy tales and nursery rhymes that date to the 17th century. Costumed in an ankle length dress, apron, flowered straw hat and cradling a plush goose toy in the crook of her arm, Williams is easily the most recognizable citizen of Lowndes County, an expected presence at every city event and the unofficial goodwill ambassador of the community.
She is simply irresistible to children. Even the shyest child clinging to her mother’s skirt in the presence of a stranger bolts to embrace Mother Goose with a hug at her first sighting. She is, in short, a kid magnet, even for Columbus “kids” now in their middle age.
The former elementary school teacher and stay-at-home mom might have considered Mother Goose an alter ego in those first years. Now, decades later, it has become her identity. Even her closest and oldest friends rarely call her by her given name.
“She’s Mother Goose,” said Barbara Bigelow, director of Main Street Columbus. “That’s who she is.”
COVID-19 has kept Mother Goose largely confined to her home on Southside, and it’s been three months since she enveloped a child in her warm embrace.
“She’s missed all of that,” said Bigelow, who calls to check in on Williams regularly and has lunch with her once a week. “You can just tell.”
“It’s a sad situation. I miss the children,” Williams said.
Although largely homebound, the eternally optimistic Williams has been determined to maintain her Mother Goose persona.
“I’m playing the piano, reading my books and watching TV,” she said. “I’m watching every kids’ show I can find to see if I can get an idea or two for Storytime.”
Williams has hosted “Storytime With Mother Goose” at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library almost as long as she’s played the role of Mother Goose.
Since 1986, groups of children as large as 30 or 40 gather at the library each Thursday morning at 10 a.m. for the program, which includes songs, games and, of course, a book-reading. Parents who attend with their children marvel at Williams’ ability to maintain order among so large a group of often-antsy children, always in a gentle, loving and often humorous way.
That live program was suspended when the library closed under state order, but Mother Goose and library director Erin Busbea have managed to keep the program going on the library’s Facebook page.
Each Wednesday afternoon, Busbea videos the show on Williams’ front porch. It is posted on Facebook at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
“Based on the number of views and comments we get on the posts, it’s been pretty successful,” Busbea said. “And Mother Goose, she turned out to be a natural. I’m not even kidding. The first day we did it, I told her, ‘OK. Relax. We can stop and start again at any time. I can edit and piece things together, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at one time.’ Well, I hit record, and she didn’t stop for 25 minutes. She never let up for a second. I thought, ‘Wow. She’s really good at this.'”
Aside from a once-a-week lunch with Bigelow at the Columbus Main Street office (“She sits on one end of the conference table and I sit at the other,” Bigelow said), Williams’ main escape from her home is an occasional walk.
That makes her feel like Mother Goose again, she said.
“People will pass and wave,” she said. “I met a mother with two little girls one day, and one of them starts to run to me and I just said, ‘Stop! Mother Goose can’t hug you today, darlin’, so we’ll just have to wave.'”
On another day, a bus filled with children approached. The driver stopped and opened the door.
“I stood on the sidewalk and waved and sang to the children,” she said.
Care and Feeding of Mother Goose
Mother Goose doesn’t cook. She hasn’t since her daughters were living at home.
With many restaurants closed and others providing only curbside service, that’s been a major disruption, although her many friends have made a point to pick up the slack, not only by dropping off food but by checking in her.
“I call her about every three days,” longtime friend Fred Kinder said. “She’s fine. She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing, and she’s got more food than she knows what to do with.”
Williams said people drop off food almost every day.
“I tell you, there are some fine folks in this town who are thinking of me,” Williams said. “They bring me lunch, things for supper and all kinds of muffins for my breakfast. My Storytime mamas and dear Southside friends have just been wonderful.”
Ready to Goose again
Williams said she is taking the threat of the virus very seriously.
“I’m trying to be good and do everything the governor and the mayor say to do,” she said.
She also knows that she may have to stay away even after most people have resumed normal activities, a hard but necessary fact.
“When we opened the farmers’ market last week, I was talking to Mother Goose,” Bigelow said. “The rules are no pets, no kids. Mother Goose said, ‘I can’t come, can I?’ She’s disappointed because she was such a big part of the farmers’ market. But she knows she can’t have people running up to her and hugging her. It’s going to be a while yet for that.”
Bigelow said she looks forward to the day when Mother Goose can return to her much-beloved role in the community without reservation.
“I’ll be ready, and I can tell you for a fact that she’ll be ready,” Bigelow said.
In Columbus, at least, life will be “normal” again, not necessarily when the mayor or governor says so, but when Mother Goose is embracing a gaggle of children in some public place.
“That’s when you’ll know everything’s safe again,” Bigelow said.
“That sounds good to me,” Williams said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]