They called her Mama. Everyone at Waffle House knew her that way. Few knew her real name. To them, she was “Mama.”
“She was everyone’s mother,” said the Waffle House cook, standing over a flat-top stove. The older woman was cooking my eggs, reminiscing about the 69-year-old waitress who died suddenly two days ago.
The Opelika Waffle House is decorated with pictures of the late waitress. Mama. She was a white-haired woman, with a warm smile and the face of a matriarch.
“We started calling her Mama when her daughter got a job here. Her daughter would call across the dining room, ‘Hey, Mama!’ and we all thought that was hysterical. The name Mama just stuck.”
They would never call her anything else.
Mama worked for Waffle House for over two decades. There were ribbon-cut potatoes in her blood.
“She was middle-aged when she started working here,” said the cook. “She was born for this job. She brightened this whole place.”
Rebecca Ella Yarbrough lived in Opelika all her life. She grew up in Pepperell Mill Village, near the old mill. Her life revolved around the mill. Rebecca’s first job was working as a textile weaver until the mill shut down. At which point Rebecca applied at Waffle House. On her first day, something just clicked.
“Being a waitress is all about personality. It ain’t about hard work. It’s about putting up with people’s B.S. It’s about personality. Some have it. Some don’t. Mama did. She ain’t never met a stranger.”
They tell me Mama treated you like you were family, no matter who you were.
“You coulda been a drunk, from off the street. But when you come in here, Mama treated you like the Prince of England. She loved everyone the same.”
Mama worked from Can to Can’t to support her family. She worked Thanksgiving. She worked doubles on Christmas. She took the New Year’s Eve shift. She worked birthdays, holidays, weekends. You name it. Thousands of locals visited this Waffle House just to see her. Thousands.
“We used to have lines out the door, people just waiting to see Mama. None of the other Waffle Houses had lines like we did.”
She knew everyone in this town. And everyone knew her. Mama was not just a waitress. She was a fixture in Opelika. And that’s not an opinion.
“I remember once, her husband, Steve, done took her to the Grand Canyon. While they was there, looking at the canyon, they ran into some people who said, ‘Hey, you’re that waitress from Waffle House! In Alabama!’ And I think they all got their pictures made with her. That’s just how Mama was. She knew er’body.”
She was married for 35 years. She leaves three children behind. Johnathan, Christy and Kyle. She also leaves behind five grandchildren. And eight great-grandchildren.
“She was beautiful,” said the cook, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Mama loved folks like it was her full-time job. When they told me she died, I almost died right along with her.”
Mama’s funeral is on Monday. They will bury her in the Garden Hills Cemetery. They will have a motorcade procession. Vehicles will parade through Lee County before noon, headlamps blaring. Traffic will pull to the shoulder to watch Mama’s procession pass. Songs will be sung. Tears will be shed. Hearts will break.
“Everyone from Waffle House is gonna go to the funeral,” said the cook. “We employees are gonna take turns covering each other’s shift so we can all visit.
“It’ll be a huge service, I don’t think her family even knows how many people’s lives that woman touched. She belonged to more than just her family, you know. She was ours, too.
“She was our mama.”