Better Together

From shooting hoops to baking from scratch to following artistic pursuits, these mothers are sharing what they love with their children and imparting life lessons along the way.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

As is often the case with history, there are multiple stories regarding the origin of Mother’s Day. However, one story that has stood the test of time is that in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson, with the stroke of a pen, established Mother’s Day as an annual observance on the second Sunday in May.

The reason for the observance has never been in question. It’s a day to honor mothers and those who represent the importance of maternal bonds. It’s a day to remember those no longer here and laud those who remain. It’s a day to thank them for their love and their life lessons.

In the Kitchen

Lauren Stokes likely learned lessons from her mother that put her on a path leading to what she does today. Stokes and her husband, John, have owned and operated Tarasque Cucina in Oxford for the past five years.

Born in Maine, Stokes lived in a cabin with kerosene lamps, a wood stove and no electricity until she was 6½ years old.

“We were pretty poor when I was growing up,” she said. “Dad was a wonderful dreamer who found a cabin in our price range with stunning land, a workshop for his woodworking, a pond. It was heaven until you were in the middle of a snow storm.”

It was clear to Stokes even in her childhood that her mother, Deidre Uncapher, was skillful in a kitchen, especially where cooking was done on a wood stove.

“Mom is really an innate cook,” said Stokes, 38. “She read a lot of cookbooks, but there is just so much she just knows. I mean, a certain amount of planning must be done to prepare a meal on a wood stove.”

When the family moved from the cabin to a Maine farm, Stokes started spending some time in the kitchen, where she witnessed more of her mother’s kindness.

“She was always an encourager,” Stokes said. “She never forced us, but was very welcoming in the kitchen. It was like supervised free rein. She gave me cookbooks, and if I had questions, she made sure I had the knowledge. But she didn’t helicopter.”

Stokes’ mother said she wanted her children to feel comfortable in the kitchen.

“I grew up in a privileged family,” said the Manhattan native. “We weren’t welcome in the kitchen. I wanted to cook but had no skills. So I wanted my kids to feel welcome in the kitchen. It’s where they did their homework. And one night a week when they were growing up, I let them pick the meal and help prepare it.”

Perhaps the fondest culinary mother-daughter memory involves the baking of Christmas cookies.

“My mom’s best friend Karen would come over and cook all day,” she said. “I’m sure I wasn’t much help, but it is a tradition we continue, my mom and I.”

Stokes’ younger brother Daniel was also invited to join in the holiday baking.

“The day of baking was too long-term for Daniel,” Uncapher said with a chuckle. “He participated, but fleetingly. He liked to eat the cookies but not make them.”

One holiday season a few years ago, the cookie making involved at least 10 different kinds of cookies that yielded almost 1,000 cookies, most given away.

Stokes remembers many other simple gifts of grace from her mother.

“We’d have sleepovers, and in the morning, she’d send us out to pick strawberries or blueberries for homemade muffins or pancakes,” she recalled. “Every year for my birthday, she would make my favorite — an asparagus quiche — with asparagus picked from a 100-year-old patch on the farm. We had homemade bread with really good butter, wonderful fresh vegetables. Life was filled with really simple, simple good things, which I love so much.”

Stokes’ aunt and uncle left Maine for Mississippi 18 years ago after falling in love with Water Valley. Stokes transferred to Ole Miss soon after, and her parents didn’t wait long to follow.

“They fell in love with Mississippi too,” Stokes said. “And why wouldn’t you?”

It was in Oxford where Stokes met her future husband while they were both working in restaurants. They met at a “late night,” a social gathering of restaurant staffers late in the evening after eateries close. Soon after, she moved to western Australia and worked for a toy company for a year.

When she returned to Oxford, the two ran into one another and began dating. They’ve been married 11 years and now live in Water Valley where they’ve bought an old house to renovate. In addition to Tarasque, Stokes has worked full-time at BorgWarner in Water Valley for six years.

On the Court

Tupelo’s Natasha Lewis absolutely loves the game of basketball. And whether by some happy accident or the passing along of just the right bit of DNA, her two sons love it too.

Twelve-year-old Caleb has had a basketball in his hands since he could walk, his mother proudly proclaims. And his younger brother Kyle, 9, can’t pass a goal without shooting a ball. Let’s not leave their dad Carlton out of the equation — he’s also an avid fan of basketball.

“We have had a small basketball goal in our living room for years,” Natasha said. “There’s been nothing breakable in my living room. But last summer, we took it out, and I finally got a coffee table and end tables. The mini goal is in the garage, so now I can’t park in the garage.”

There’s also a standard-size goal outside and little ones on the wall in most rooms in the Lewis home.

For the past seven years, Natasha, a computer software engineer, has been an instructor of information technology at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville. When she’s not in her classroom, she’s enjoying serving as a basketball coach for Tupelo Park & Rec. Serendipitously, the team she’s coached most recently — The Lakers — includes her sons.

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Natasha said. “I am naturally overly competitive, and I’ve played basketball all my life. I often see these kids with more potential than they are putting out there; it’s hard not to fuss, but I try not to. I want them to learn the basics and have a love of the game … but I still like to win.”

Her sons agree having their mom coach their team is a little weird, but they roll with it. Kyle even admits that he doesn’t mind it at all.

“I kind of like it,” he said. “She wants to teach me how to get better.”

In Park & Rec basketball, teams play nine games before moving right into baseball season. Lewis has also coached her sons in baseball.

“One reason I love teaching is that I need a work-life balance and teaching has given me that,” she said. “I don’t miss any of my sons’ moments. I tell them, ‘If it’s important to you, it’s important to me.’

“I learned that from my own mom who was a single parent for years. She pushed me to get an education, but she also taught me that making money is not the only important thing. She never missed any of the moments in my life or my siblings’ lives.”

Whether shooting hoops or stepping up to bat in an official game, the Lewis brothers rarely refer to their coach as Coach.

“They call me Mama all the time,” Lewis said. “In fact, there are several other little boys on the team who call me Mama too. After practice, I always seem to end up with an extra kid or two.”

The Lewis family plays a whole lot of basketball, but when not dribbling and dunking balls, they enjoy playing dominoes and going fishing.

Caleb and Kyle recognize they are winners when it comes to good moms.

“She’s a great mom because she pushes us to do better and work harder,” Caleb said. “Not just physically, but mentally too.”

Kyle has his own opinion. “She loves us,” he said. “She loves supporting us a bunch. That’s pretty much why she’s a great mom.”

In the Workplace

Anyone near Corinth with an affinity for unique floral arrangements or art in myriad mediums is certainly aware of Elizabeth Spencer Designs. But who is Elizabeth Spencer?

Elizabeth Spencer is not a single person, but instead it’s the mother-daughter creative team of Laura Spencer Albright and Anna Elizabeth Evans.

“We use our middle names for our business, said 27-year-old Evans. “A lot of people might not realize that.”

The two started Elizabeth Spencer Designs in May 2017 to do what they love — florals for events, such as weddings, and custom art.

“I do a lot of commission work like portraits of homes, paintings of bridal bouquets,” Evans said.

Her mom will also work on commission, but it’s not her preference.

“I love doing what I want to do,” Albright said with a laugh. “I’ve done a lot of watercolor paintings of homes. I had a great art teacher in Marty McLendon at Northeast Mississippi Community College.”

She credits her knowledge and love of all things floral to her mother, Ann White, who’s 81 and also lives in Corinth.

“She taught me a lot about wildflowers and foraging material from the side of the road,” said Albright, 57. “We’d go to Pickwick in the summers, and we’d pick phlox, black-eyed Susans. She taught me to appreciate and arrange flowers. To this day, when we go on a walk, she points out the flowers to us.

“We love to incorporate wildflowers in our arrangements for a more organic look, and that’s been a big influence on Elizabeth Spencer.”

As White schooled her daughter in the art of flowers and floral design, Albright passed it all down to her own daughter.

“My mom taught me pretty much all I know about flowers,” Evans said. “She taught me to embrace my creative side and to not be afraid to be different, in art and in life. I grew up watching her make art in all mediums — knitting, calligraphy, even in the kitchen.”

Albright is a registered nurse by profession, though these days she follows full time her love of art and flowers. Evans has a degree in journalism and eagerly lists ways she uses that degree in the design business.

“I do use a lot of aspects of journalism, I think,” she said. “I communicate with clients, do some photography and graphic design, and write captions for Instagram. Does that count?”

Mother and daughter admit to being perfectionists, but that has not created an obstacle to working together.

“We are a lot alike, and we’re very close,” Albright said. “Anna was never a moody teen or a princess diva daughter. We like spending time together, even working hard late into the night. Anna picks up my slack, and I hope I do that for her.”

Anna agrees. “Absolutely, she does. And it’s also amazing to be able to wholeheartedly trust and count on one another in life and in business,” Evans said. “So the burden is never resting solely on one of us. This has been a real asset to our mother-daughter business. We are also inspired by each other … we can develop ideas better when we’re working together.”

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