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Last year at this time, I was very busy. I applied for a transfer to a new job, I was looking for a new house, a new place to live.
This year, I am settled in the new house in a new place. Settled in a way I haven’t been since August 8, 2008. My heart has settled, and I am at home.
I love my little mother and I miss her every day. Something has shifted since we moved, since I lost my job, found a new home, found a new beginning in our relationship that is slower, happier, more careful of each other and more carefree.
So on this day, the 5th anniversary of Mama’s death, I want to express joy.
These are the peace lilies I brought from St. Petersburg to the new house. They are huge now, and always have three blooms, one for Mama, one for Jimmy, and one for my step dad, JC. The roots have spread out here, and it is thriving.
This is Mama at Callaway Gardens. She really loved her yard and her flowers and plants. I recall many times following her around the yard with a bucket, a shovel, the water hose, fertilizer, doing her bidding. She loved digging in the dirt.
This is Mama at her grandson’s wedding. I don’t know why she had that little sideways grin on her face, but that is how I remember her expression, with that secret little smile. You might say it made her look sneaky. Mama’s sense of humor was a little sideways and sneaky.
My whole life has been a conversation with my mother. Everything I have done, everything I have accomplished, all has been a dialogue with that old woman. An argument, a plea, a prayer to the court. I think this is a sad admission, that everything in my life has been an attempt to gain her approval. I loved that stubborn, hard old woman. That is not much of a surprise. Most children love their parents. They don’t know any better.
The thing is, most children grow up and gain separation and distance and perspective. I never did. Today, I am an old woman myself, stubborn, but not nearly as hard as I should be. And I am still that child desperate to please a tired, distracted, worried woman with eight other children, hungry mouths to feed, mounds of clothes to wash, babies crying, dishes and floors and work. Why did I think I must?
“It’s not funny.” That’s what I have been saying to everybody my whole life, whenever something happens to me that could not happen to anybody else, whenever I say something and I am deadly serious but people laugh anyway.
Some things are just not funny, and it is mean, or at least rude to laugh.
Then there are some things that happen that are so mixed up and not right that the only thing you can do is laugh, I guess.
Like the time Mama pulled out her gun. I didn’t know they made pistols that little. It looked tiny enough to be a cigarette lighter, like the art deco table lighters they made back when. I had a collection of those once, lighters set in fine crystal, lighters shaped like golf balls in silver, table ornaments made to match with fancy cigarette cases kept on coffee tables. Everybody smoked. It was once fashionable and sophisticated.
When Mama whipped that little .22 five-shot pistol out of her purse, I thought she was pulling my leg, that it was really one of those cigarette lighters. But it was real. I was driving at the time, and I almost ran right off the road.
At one time, when cars were still a novelty and a luxury, people went for Sunday drives. That what Mama and I were doing, I assumed, until the pistol brandishing and the dancing on graves started. Mama bears grudges for a long time. The grave was that of a long ago schoolmate of Mama’s, a girl who had been mean to her, I guess. When we found it, out in the woods, in an untended cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, Mama fairly cackled and did a jig right on the grave after I read the headstone to her.
Here’s why people laugh when I tell them about the pistol. Forgetting the context of the story, they laugh because Mama can’t see. So the fact of her carrying a sidearm for my protection is what made them laugh. It made me break out in cold, clammy sweat.
Now that Mama is gone, I often wonder what happened to the little pistol she kept in her purse along with her daddy’s old pocket knife, her nail clippers, tweezers, cigarettes, lipstick, wallet, Certs, and all the other things that I would sometimes play with when I was a child. I should have kept on inspecting the contents into my adulthood, apparently. That gun had white fake pearl grips. It was cute. Wish I had it now to add to my collection of ugly table lighters. No one would know the difference.
My mother had an attractive death. Everybody said so. She died the way she wanted to die, just as she arranged, ordered, demanded. She wanted to die at home, surrounded and attended by all her children, and she did so.
The fact that most of her eight children were not speaking to each other, and had no use for each other outside that command performance, lends definition to the role my mother played, that of matriarch and beloved center of a loving, healthy family.
The fact that I was completely enamored of this view of my mother as centrifuge demonstrates the depth of my shock when I found out, after her passing, that it was not so.
Mama had a sneaky, dry sense of humor. Many who have read her will would agree. Her gathering all her chicks to her breast for one final moment of forced togetherness was maybe a joke, her last joke. It was dark in her bedroom, lamp covered. We brought chairs in from the dining room. And coffee. We sat, wandered in and out, spoke in whispers, cried at times, in hushed reverence. Her sister Aunt Duck was there, with my cousin Christine. She was appropriately impressed, and said so to me later how beautiful it was, all of us there to witness.
More than one person commented on our closeness as a family. Her eulogy remarked upon it, how we all gathered, at Thanksgiving, at Easter reunions, and how it was assumed we would grow even closer now, that Mother would want that and expect it.
No such thing could be further from the truth. Earline knew, better than anyone, certainly better than I, that we only held together by her will, that it was her strength that drew us together, that we would not just fall away, but thereafter engage only in recriminations and snide communications, some of it held around an attorney’s conference table. Mama would have liked to be a fly on the wall at some of those sparse encounters. She would have grinned that sideways grin of hers, just like in the picture that now sits on my desk.
Mama was a guerilla humorist, sometimes being the only person who knew the joke, but that did not stint her own enjoyment.