With renewed spirit, military mom looks to light up a Christmas homecoming

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 18, 2012

After her son Clint’s death in a traffic accident in 2008, Darlene McElroy lost her enthusiasm for Christmas.

McElroy donated her ornaments to the Kidney Foundation and threw away the artificial tree.

“I’ve not really felt much like celebrating,” she says.

But this year is different. McElroy’s 26-year-old daughter, Amanda, is coming home with her family this weekend from Wichita, Kan., and it will be her first holiday trip back to China Grove since everyone’s last Christmas together in 2007, when Clint was still with them.

The community can help with the homecoming at McElroy’s house on Ritchie Road, but more on that later.

Amanda Thompson Talbert serves in the Air Force and is currently stationed at McConnell Air Force Base with her second husband, Kelly. She has two children — Avery, 3, and Rinoa, four months old.

The late Clint Thompson followed his big sister’s lead and enlisted in the Air Force after graduation in 2006 from South Rowan High School.

He was on leave and planning a transition into the Air National Guard, when the accident happened on Julian Road May 31, 2008. He was only 19.

Darlene and her husband, Wayne, bought a tree at Lowe’s last weekend and have set it up in the living room, where the U.S. flag from Clint’s coffin is on display.

To replace what McElroy gave away, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law supplied extra tree ornaments and decorations they had.

Darlene McElroy also found a miniature Christmas village she had stored away and forgotten, and now it’s featured in a corner of the living room with cotton creating a snowy landscape.

She plans to wrap a couple of pieces of framed art on the walls to make them look as though they are gift packages.

McElroy is a former middle school teacher who is legally blind and disabled,

After helping with the plane tickets from Kansas, McElroy doesn’t have enough funds to install the kind of outdoor light display she wants to be in place when Amanda and her family make their visit.

So she’s asking for help. McElroy is looking, for want of a better description, the loan or donation of any extra Christmas lights people might have at their houses.

You can call her at 704-798-8248, or drop things by her house at 2180 Ritchie Road (off Saw Road).

She promises things will be inventoried, tagged appropriately and taken care of, so they can be returned after Sunday. Wayne McElroy will be doing the hasty installation work.

“I just want this Christmas to be extra special for her (Amanda) and the kids,” McElroy says. … In Clint’s words, I want this Christmas to be ‘off the chain.’”

Amanda’s family will arrive Sunday morning, and Darlene hopes to give young Avery something to plug in Sunday night so the house and yard come to life with lights.

Christmas always meant a lot to Amanda and Clint as they were growing up, McElroy says. The holiday routine included going to her mother’s house near Asheville on Christmas Eve and the opening of gifts back home on Christmas Day.

She also insisted on family portraits with her kids on Mother’s Day and Christmas Day. McElroy hasn’t had one of those since 2007.

Seeing Amanda this Christmas also is important, McElroy says, because her daughter will be deployed to Central Asia in March on a security forces mission. Because of the nature of the assignment, she will not be able to communicate with her family until August.

It will be an adjustment. McElroy now speaks with her daughter by telephone about every other day.

McElroy’s life has been full of physical and emotional challenges over the past decade or so. At the birth of her son Treis, now 11, she suffered a stroke and lost sight in her left eye.

Multiple sclerosis has affected the vision in her right eye since 2003. She had total hip replacements in 2003 and 2005 and most recently had operations to remove her thyroid and gall bladder.

Though she hasn’t been able to drive, she worked roughly 16 months for Lions Services in Charlotte, making military parts, such as chin straps and parts for camel packs.

The trip by public transportation took two hours to and from work, meaning she had to rise at 4:30 a.m. and didn’t return home until 7:30 p.m. “I loved that job,” she says.

She also has volunteered locally for the Rowan County Council for the Blind and the MS Society.

The tough emotional fights came when she lost Clint in 2008 and her mother in 2009.

McElroy hopes she can put a slide show together for Sunday, when Amanda comes home, to include some past Christmas photographs of Clint with his big sister and little brother.

“I know he’s going to be here in spirit this Christmas,” Darlene says.

Again, to help McElroy with her outside Christmas decorations, call her at 704-798-8248.