Everyone’s Mama

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.”


  1. Nancy M - January 21, 2023 4:48 am

    Beautiful story! We need more people like “Mama!”
    I read another heart warming article about the Waffle House in Hope Hull, Alabama and the deaf cook.

  2. Steve McCaleb - January 21, 2023 7:24 am

    One of the biggest lies we are told is that “ you can’t change the world”. Excuse my language, but the Hell you can’t. You can change your little part of it. And if enough people get it in their hearts to change their part for the better….well, it could spread like wildfire. Maybe Steinbeck/Tom Joad had the right idea, I don’t pretend to know. But I believe in the basic goodness and decency of most of our people. I absolutely HAVE to believe that. And I hope I haven’t given you the wrong idea…..I won’t be singing “cumbayah” or hugging any trees anytime soon. I just think we can ALL do better.

  3. Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 21, 2023 7:36 am

    Sean, while I enjoy your posts, some ring a little more factually correct than others. This one strikes me as being correct down the the last “scattered, smothered, and covered!” Thinking back, in most small towns I’ve been around there are always people like “Mama” known and loved by the community at large. Wonder if she was the one who served Coarch Malzone and his wife after the AU home games? Anyhow, it’s getting late. I’m going to chuck this one into the “Good ‘Urn box and hit the rack!

    Your friend,


  4. Dolores - January 21, 2023 11:26 am

    On the heels of MLK day Mama lived his words which echo those of Jesus. Hearing about such a person is a reminder to arm ourselves wisely, with light and love.
    “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
    Lord, bestow Your blessed consolation on all who loved Rebecca. Amen

  5. Cynthia - January 21, 2023 11:32 am

    Thanks, Sean for a beautiful memorial to a life well lived.

  6. Gwen - January 21, 2023 1:16 pm

    Wonderful tribute!!!

  7. Christine - January 21, 2023 1:21 pm

    Love Waffle House and this story♥️

  8. Charlene - January 21, 2023 1:24 pm

    My daughter and I, along with my great aunt, lived in Opelika for a number of years and we asked for Mama every time we visited Waffle House. Not only was she friendly, she remembered our order down to the shared waffle every single time. When I went in after my aunt died, she cried along with me about her passing. She KNEW us. She knew every single person she ever waited on more than once. She was a beautiful soul who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. It was refreshing, especially when so many of us forget to be kind nowadays. She will be deeply missed. Prayers to her family at home and her family at Waffle House.

  9. George - January 21, 2023 1:27 pm

    We always enjoyed having breakfast with Mama. You told her story just as she was-she never met a stranger! I’ll miss seeing her when I’m there.

    And thanks again for a great show Thursday night!

  10. Grace R - January 21, 2023 1:29 pm

    Thanks to Mama, Sean and Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback), Waffle House is earning its due recognition!

  11. Julia - January 21, 2023 1:43 pm

    God Speed Mama… Thank you Sean

  12. Sheri K - January 21, 2023 1:45 pm

    After reading this, I decided to look up Mama’s obituary online. The picture the family chose perfectly exemplifies the warm waitress you describe. Thank you, Mama, for your loving care of everyone you met. And thank you, Sean, for sharing.

  13. Dorotha Coltrane - January 21, 2023 1:59 pm

    We eat at Waffle House often, and have aways received a warm welcome and excellent service. But this lovely essay about “Mama” makes me wish we had driven over to Opelika. People with such a loving heart are rare. I hope her family understands this loss is to so many ordinary people who were made to feel extraordinary.

  14. Jojo - January 21, 2023 2:05 pm

    What a wonderful trubute!

  15. mccutchen52 - January 21, 2023 2:08 pm

    Love the story

  16. Wanda Wilson - January 21, 2023 2:09 pm

    May she rest n peace.

  17. Becky Creighton - January 21, 2023 2:18 pm

    I would have loved Mama. ♥️ We lost our own “Mama” Thursday morning in our little town of Wayne City. Emily was a much loved waitress at our local restaurant, JT’s. She was 43 years years old. She wasn’t famous, but she sure was loved. 💔 May both ladies wait tables in heaven. ♥️

  18. Tony M. - January 21, 2023 2:30 pm


  19. John Wayne Hickman - January 21, 2023 2:43 pm

    No one should ask for a better obit, than everyone called her Mama.

  20. Richard Owen - January 21, 2023 3:27 pm

    I can think of one Waffle House employee like this. She was called “Miss Lucy”. My son’s first WH (unit #7 in East Point, GA) to be the manager had Miss Lucy (Lucy Shelton) as his hostess. She started at Waffle House #2 and ended up being a 47-year employee at different locations. My son said he tried to get to work before her each shift but could never pull it off. It was like she was sleeping at the store. I think that store was like the one you spoke of in Opelika. It was a neighborhood store. There was no interstate close by like a lot of the stores. People would swing by on the home and pick up togo orders. Photos of Miss Lucy hang in many of the corporate locations throughout the Southeast. Miss Lucy was 85 when she passed in 2010.

  21. Patricia Gibson - January 21, 2023 3:44 pm

    What a beautiful legacy to leave! I am sorry that I didn’t have the privilege to meet her! No doubt she is with The Lord now❤️

  22. David Britnell - January 21, 2023 4:37 pm

    Must be a huge loss to that community! Would love to have met her. Thanks for sharing Seanl

  23. sjhl7 - January 21, 2023 5:10 pm

    What a tribute to a woman who became everyone’s Mama! No more precious tribute than to be called Mama…

  24. ROBERT STORCK - January 21, 2023 9:20 pm

    No better legacy than you loved and were loved.

  25. MAM - January 21, 2023 10:45 pm

    Mama sounds like a wonderful woman, who will be sorely missed by the community. Thanks, Sean, for memorializing her in this column!

  26. Kathy - January 22, 2023 2:50 am

    It’s so good when people have their hearts right to appreciate a wonderful person like Mama.

  27. throughmyeyesusa - January 22, 2023 10:19 pm

    My stepmother was like that. They called her “Sue Baby”. She had a Native American name as well, “She Who Knows No Strangers”. When she traveled, she always, but always, met someone she knew! (And if she didn’t they were lifelong friends by the time they parted!). She lived in “Florgia”, when I knew her, but was a nurse & the wife of the manager of a (hunting) plantation in Thomasville, Georgia for decades. Her funeral was a wonder; SRO with every age & race represented.
    Her funeral procession was like you describe, Sean; traffic stopped, children got off their bikes, shopkeepers came to their doorways, linemen removed their hard hats & stopped working, high on their poles. The honor, respect & love shown was such a tribute to a life well lived & such a blessing to her heartbroken family.

  28. George Robert Leach - January 23, 2023 5:13 am

    Nice to have that kind of Mama!

  29. John Robert Dudley III - January 23, 2023 3:43 pm

    What a testament to a true Southern Woman! Words cannot describe the loss to our community! She found good where many had given up long ago! She will be missed by us all.

  30. Donnie Lepper - January 26, 2023 7:53 pm

    Man, “Mama” has me in tears 😭


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