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'Do What's Right And Have Fun': Remembering A Mother With A Fighting Spirit

Marlene Watson and Rosella "Rose" Liscum at their StoryCorps interview in Rensselaer Falls, N.Y., in 2012.
Jasmyn Morris
Marlene Watson and Rosella "Rose" Liscum at their StoryCorps interview in Rensselaer Falls, N.Y., in 2012.

Editor's note: Jasmyn Morris, who co-produced this interview, is a distant cousin to Rose Liscum. Gert Uhl is Morris' great-grandmother.

Rosella "Rose" Liscum died at 101 years old last week in Ogdensburg, N.Y., after contracting the coronavirus, following a long, full life.

Back in 2012, Liscum, 93 at the time, sat down for StoryCorps with her daughter, Marlene Watson, then 66, to reflect on some of her memorable relationships with loved ones and her own unrelenting spunk.

While Liscum was growing up in De Kalb, N.Y., her best friend was Vivian Davis. Together, 6-foot-tall Davis and Liscum, 4 feet, 10 inches, were quite a sight, she recalled. "She used to put her arm out, and I'd walk under her arm."

Liscum described her friend as a "holy terror."

"She used to chew tobacco. And when her father would be in the chair sleepin', his mouth would be open and she'd chew that tobacco and then spit that juice right into his mouth," Liscum said.

At age 37, Liscum befriended Gert Uhl, a new neighbor in town.

"She was a person that if she made up her mind, come hell or high water, she was going to do it, and there was no telling her, 'No, you can't.' She did it. She was funny as a crutch, and she liked her beer," Liscum said.

Watson remembered how her mother used to disappear every night to hang out with Uhl.

"Dad would ask you where you were going, and you would say, 'I'm going down to Gert's and help her wallpaper,' " Watson said.

But, as her mother admitted, they weren't really wallpapering.

Instead, the pair would jump in Uhl's car and drive aimlessly and, as Liscum remembered, once got themselves in a pickle.

"We were driving along, and all at once she said, 'Oh, my Lord, look at the nice big road over there,' " said Liscum. "Well, she whirled the car right around, and we were going right down the runway and the airplanes were landing!"

But military police were quick to pull the friends over.

Liscum went on to outlive her husband, who died in 1986, and, later, another romantic partner.

She was in her 80s when she met Bill Cota at a dance at a nearby AMVETS around 2004. They were in a relationship for about 14 years until his death in 2017.

"We went to a dance one night, and he went with a bunch of fellows and I went with friends, you know," Liscum said. "And he kept watching me. So finally he come over and asked me to dance."

Rose Liscum and Bill Cota dance at the Heuvelton, N.Y., AMVETS where they first met.
/ Marlene Watson
Marlene Watson
Rose Liscum and Bill Cota dance at the Heuvelton, N.Y., AMVETS where they first met.

After that night, Cota asked her on a date.

"Well, they had dances every week," Liscum said. "And he said, 'If you want, I'll come over and pick you up and we'll go to the dance.' "

Watson asked her mother how their relationship grew from that point: "How did you know that you were falling in love with Bill and that he wasn't just someone to dance with on a Friday night?"

Cota was someone she felt she could depend on, Liscum said. "He was just different than the rest of them," she said. "When you start trusting people, then you know that you're all right."

Without Cota, she told Watson, "it would be just a vacant spot in my life. It's just like coffee without sugar."

Liscum held onto her spunk, even in old age.

She remembered a woman at one of the weekly dances whom she saw whisper in Cota's ear. "I kept my eye on her. And finally she grabbed him by the hand, and I went right over to her. I said, 'If he doesn't want to dance with you, move on,' " she said.

That's the mother Watson remembers.

"As my younger daughter would say, 'Grandma is the one who taught me how to fight,' " Watson said.

Liscum told her that it was just part of how she stayed true to herself.

"Well, if you know you are right, you stick to it," she said. "You don't let nobody sway you one way or another. Just do what's in your heart. Do what's right and have fun."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Morris and Jey Born. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmyn Morris
Jey Born