Today is my mamas’ birthday. She was part of my life for fifty-seven years but I can’t say that I ever really knew her.
She was a tall woman and wore a size nine shoe. She had chestnut brown hair that took on an auburn hue when it was kissed by the sun. Her eyes were that ice-blue color that looked like pools of beckoning, chilly water on a hot, steamy day. She had slender hands with fingers that went on forever. I was the only one of her children who inherited those.
She could coax beautiful, haunting melodies from a piano and could reach almost an octave and a half with her hands. Until she died, mama never had to wear glasses. I have that good eyesight as well.
She could crochet, knit, was a wonderful seamstress and she could draw.
She was Southern but she didn’t have the uneducated-sounding twang that is such a common association with people from the South. I believe she was highly intelligent although we never talked about anything of any substance. She was handy, like me. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do or fix.
I don’t know much about her childhood. I don’t know if she ever broke a bone. I don’t know what childhood diseases she had. I don’t know what her bedroom looked like. I don’t know what her favorite color was. I don’t know what her favorite toy was. I don’t know if she ever had any pets. I don’t know if she liked going to school. I don’t know if she had a boyfriend before she met my daddy.
Granny told me that she was a towhead when she was little, which may explain why I was the only blonde in the family. I asked Granny once if she ever spanked mama. Granny told me that she never had but came close one time, when she caught mama on the roof.
I used to spend a lot of time on the roof. It was a little closer to God, I thought. I would go up there and pray and beg and promise.
My mama never knew her daddy. She never knew anything about him. All she knew was his name.
She had two half-brothers and one half-sister. She grew up thinking they all had the same last name and it wasn’t until she graduated from high school that she discovered that she wasn’t “one of them.”
Her brothers called her “Tiny” like my aunt did and Granny called her “Sister.” My daddy called her “Susie” but none of those were her real name.
Mama had planned on being a nurse when she graduated from high school but life got in the way.
She was a true Steel Magnolia and there is no doubt about that. She never lost her cool when it came to emergent situations, such as dealing with my brother who had seizures or knowing what to do when the attic caught on fire or keeping calm when my daddy fell on a bag of roofing nails and she had to pull every one of them out.
I never saw her cry….ever. I never heard her say a curse word….ever.
She cared about how she looked and didn’t look her age for many, many years. That’s another trait that I inherited.
She made all of her own dresses because “she didn’t want to pass herself walking down the street.”
She could find a smashed tin can on the side of the road and see something beautiful about it. She could make something out of nothing. I obviously inherited many of her talents but I came up short when it came to her imagination.
I don’t know what her hopes and dreams were and I wonder if any of them ever materialized. I don’t know how deeply she felt or what she thought….about anything.
I know that the loss of her first son at the hands of her daughter must have been one of the most devastating things that ever happened to her. I can’t pretend to imagine what it must be like to bury your own child. I do know that my intense hatred for her has softened through the years. Being a mother and trying to envision what I would do if I lost one of my children, tempers that anger.
When she was thirty-three, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I went home while she was in the hospital. They gave her five years to live but I never saw worry in her face. I never saw surrender in her face. I never saw anything that would even remotely resemble self-pity.
She had to have several blood transfusions while she was in the hospital. My daddy couldn’t give blood because he had malaria when he was in the service and all of “us children” were too young. She had a rare blood type and he had to pay for all that blood. It made an impression on me. When I got older, I started donating so that nobody in my family would ever have to pay for blood again.
When I went to see her, she was drugged. She actually said my name and reached out for my hand one time and I admit, a surge of hope ran through me like electricity. It touched me so deeply that I couldn’t hold back the tears. That was one time she didn’t say “that’s right. Turn on the waterworks.”
She started telling me stories….stories that I had never heard. One was when my aunt came up from F****** and took us out to see the Christmas lights. Mama said that P****, R***** and I were in the back seat and we were driving through the woods. For a while, we saw nothing but trees.
She said R***** got worried and said “we’s losted.” She said I put my arm around him and said “we’s not losted, Lonlin….see them tees?” I couldn’t say trees, so I said tees. I couldn’t pronounce R*****s’ name, so I called him Lonlin. Mama said she had always thought that was so cute. I felt special. I felt like she cared about me.
I don’t remember that and I don’t remember R***** except when he was laying in his coffin and that was the first, last and only time mama ever talked to me about him.
She came home and I was allowed to stay…to help. My stay didn’t last long. Her rage had returned with the swiftness of a rapid-flowing stream. She got out of bed and was coming after me but she lost her balance and fell. When she fell, her cath bag burst and her urine poured out all over the floor. She wouldn’t let me help her up and she didn’t want me to clean the up the urine.
I went into the bedroom later, crying and said “mama, I’m so sorry I made you fall down.” She turned her back to me and said “you didn’t make me fall down. Get out of here and leave me alone.”
Mama beat the odds and lived, most likely out of sheer determination but she wouldn’t beat the odds later.
After she started going to church, she played the piano for the choir. Years later, they got a new minister who wanted his niece to start playing so he told mama that she wouldn’t be playing anymore, with the comment “besides, you’ll probably be dead in five years, anyway.”
All mama wanted to do was live beyond the five year death sentence imposed by that fucking minister. She didn’t make it.
I can still vividly see her laying on that slab at the funeral home. I mentioned before that after I did my medical assessment…studying the lividity and the rigor mortis stage, I touched her face. I don’t know why I was momentarily surprised at how cold she was. It was like touching a piece of marble in the dead of winter. She was as ice cold in death as she was (to me) in life. After I touched her, I remember slightly backing up. I was cognizant of the fact that I had an underlying fear that she would suddenly come back to life and slap me.
I had seen dead bodies before but this was my mama. She was the woman who had terrorized me when I was younger. She was the woman who had never hugged me. She was the woman who had never told me she loved me. She was the woman who had called me a “parasite.” She was the woman who had called me “her royal highness.” She was the woman who had called me a “streetwalker.” She was the woman who had given me my first black eye. She was the woman who had told me she hated me…and yet, I still carry her around with me in the trunk of my car.
I have never dreamed about her. I have never wished that she was still here. I have never thought “we’ll meet again someday” and if we did, I think I might be afraid.
I’m still like a frightened little child when it comes to mama but there’s an underlying element of wanting to protect her and make excuses for her, just like I always did with Loser. There’s an unexplained desire to defend her, just like I always defended Loser when I was talking about him to my counselors.
She was my mama and like me, she was someones’ daughter. She was someones’ sister. She was someones’ wife. She was someones’ mother.
She was an intelligent, multi-talented women who mattered and truthfully, she mattered to me.
Happy birthday, mama.