Then something less than quaint caught my eye—a Slave Schedule, an appendix to the 1850 Census in which enslavers identified their “human property,” not by name but according to age, sex and color. I blanched, my ancestral pride dissolving as I counted the tick marks beside my great-great grandfather’s name: an even ten, six black males and four black females between the ages of six and forty-five.
All week, I’ve been noodling over a proper way to honor my mother on this March 21, 2019, the day she would have turned 100. I hate to repeat myself, or post photos I’ve likely used before, just because for my family this is a noteworthy day. But it does seem significant, the centennial. When early this morning, before my second cup, my daughter launched a group family text from New York, I thought, hmmm, she nailed it, and with little more than a string of emojis. Who needs words? Emma gives a crisp and warm tribute to “Joe,” the grandmother she respected and adored.
Then again … for those who still love words the way Joe did, perhaps a brief concordance is in order: Not exactly an angel in life, my mother, a devout Roman Catholic, certainly wears the loveliest of halos now, in one form or another. A woman worthy of swirling hearts? Absolutely. A charmer who loved to dance to the likes of Glenn Miller, she had her share of romances and enjoyed them every one, but once she settled down (at 22 no less), she was a loyal and caring partner to my father for 63 years. A superstar? Yes, Joe was, if a quiet one, as the characters that follow the star aptly suggest. Flowers … give her an old cut glass vase and she could bring out the best in simple back yard blooms. And, ah the little blue dress. Had she lived in another time or birthed fewer children (i.e. me), my mother had a shot at being the next Dior. Her sewing machine was her creative outlet and her family’s delight, as my sister and I and Emma herself can attest. At 81, Mom created for her a flower girl dress to wear in my nephew’s wedding that was elegant and sweet, just the thing for a six-year-old .
Next a crown … Was Mom the Princess to my father’s Prince? Indeed she was, bejeweled and beloved. And of course she became an old woman, a grandmother. If not doting, she was affectionate, full of pride and love for her twenty-five grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Still, my mother did not go gentle into that good night. I honestly don’t think she ever thought of herself as elderly, and though her stubborn resistance to things like wheelchairs and retirement homes brought her unnecessary heartache and her family endless frustration, maybe her stolid resistance to accepting the concessions of age was what kept her young-ish for so long.
A wearer of Easter hats, and yes, addicted to black coffee. A better piano player than she gave herself credit for, she was an admirable consumer of wine if not a connoisseur and a great fan of gifts, both received and given (accompanied by makeshift cards, always signed with love). Shopping! Boy did she love a good bargain, but the coup de gras of my daughter’s emoji-esque tribute? It has to be the stack of pancakes. A half-hearted cook otherwise, my mother made a damn good pancake, so light and fluffy we generally ate a few more than was advisable. Well into her nineties, she continued to host her in-town family for Saturday morning breakfast. Even on days she burned the bacon and stirred cornmeal into the batter when she meant to use flour, we wolfed it all down.
A couple of emojis I might add to my daughter’s thread … the jet plane, and the stack of books. A wannabe travel agent and a devotee of museums, ancient cathedrals, lush English gardens and French chateaux alike, my mother taught me that travel is the best learning tool we have, with reading a close second. She devoured books, and collected everything from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs to Virginia Woolf’s novels. For that legacy, with apologies to Marie Kondo, I am most grateful.
My Stats page tells me this is my thirtieth post in the Attic, thirty in about four years, though apparently I’ve shared nothing since last March. Maybe that’s a sign. Maybe it’s time to wrap it up. Lord knows (and as this post surely proves) I have repeated myself, circled around the same themes often enough. I won’t archive the site just yet, but I’m at work on a few other projects now. With luck, I’ll be able to share these one way or another before too long.
Those handy Stats also tell me upwards to six thousand folks have been kind enough to visit the Attic over its lifetime. They–you–have given my posts over ten thousand views. Thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for sharing the strangeness and laughter and joy and sorrow that come in the wake of losing a parent, no matter how old or young.
Happy 100th, Mom, our one and only.
Exhibit A: Me—twelve, Mom—fifty-four, family pooch—we’ll call it six. Her name, the dog, was Butchie, largely because the Mattingly dogs who preceded her, all male, were called Butch—Butch the first, Butch the second … George Foreman style, and if the tradition can be feminized, why not? The car (or perhaps victim?)—a convertible Cutlass, circa 1970. It belonged to my brother George (imagine that, Mr. Foreman), mid-twenties at the time and two years married to his lovely wife, Connie. Wait, it’s possible Connie brought the Cutlass in question to the marriage, a sort of dowry-like perk. Memory fails, but let’s go with that. It makes a better story, and for sure, I’ll never forget the happy couple’s gnashing of teeth after the incident that left their racy little Olds bashed at the hip …
Late spring or early summer, from the looks of my outfit, sunset of my seventh grade year, and apparently I’d set my sights on the Twiggy award (all arms, legs, and stringy hair). Late afternoon, as I recall, and I’m hanging out in our family den, a bag of potato chips and onion dip close at hand, maybe huddled over a pre-Algebra problem, maybe watching a “Brady Bunch” re-run, most likely fresh off the (rotary) phone from lamenting to a similarly pre-pubescent friend that my crush-of-the-month only had eyes for Laura or Cynthia or one of three other classmates more Bridgette Bardot-like, even at twelve, than Twiggy.
Suddenly, a high-pitched scream outside, at first faint then gaining volume like an oncoming train. I drop pencil and Lays and bolt out the back door, Butchie at my heels, to driveway’s edge. Our driveway (see Exhibit B below), ran about forty yards straight down at a precipitous angle from the street to our house in a hole, as I used to call it, a hole created in some long ago millennium by the babbling creek that flowed five to ten yards, give or take, to the right of said driveway. Just below driveway’s crest, a pile of mail in her arms and pocketbook swinging at her elbow, my mother chases as if to rein in with magical maternal powers her lemon yellow Electra, a popular boat-like Buick of the day. The Buick rolls merrily along, self-driven, ten feet ahead of her. I grab Butchie’s collar and freeze. The car seems more runaway cartoon buggy than dangerous projectile, and I sense in my mother’s screams more panicked embarrassment than fear. Sure enough, the hulking Buick all but eases over the wide drain at driveway’s base, where rainwater sluices away on a stormy day. Rather than careen toward the pup and me, she veers right, groaning, and comes to a cacophonous yet somehow graceful stop, her fall, so to speak, broken by the unlucky Cutlass situated in the handy parking slot my father cleared years before above the picturesque creek.
“Two cars! Two cars!” my mother hollers, spectator pumps slapping gravel and knees knocking beneath the hem of her skirt. Two car crash, she means, and the fact that she, whose exercise regimen features climbing steps and roaming the mall, has survived this descent without serious injury is perhaps most astounding of all. Her arms are empty now, spilled purse and mail littered across the drive, and she flails those arms overhead like a mad wing walker flashing his orange baton on a tarmac. I think I smile a little even then, because honestly, though this will be an expensive mistake, one that might have been tragic, it really is funny.
Moments before, the Electra’s trunk stuffed with grocery bags, Mom pulled over the raised lip that joined driveway to street and stopped, as she’d done countless times before, to fetch the mail. She mashed the emergency brake with her quad A, size 6, foot, opened the door, stepped out to the mailbox, and, ooh la la, there she went, Old Electra, smelling the barn and waiting for neither man nor dreamy woman. The gear shift, my mother surely thought. Did I put it in Park? She did not, and thus did the yellow workhorse begin her joyride home, happily slowed by that emergency brake. How was she to know my brother’s muscle car had claimed her favorite stall?
I wish whoever snapped this Kodak moment had included old Electra, whose escapade left her with quite a shiner (think of the Instagram likes Mom might have earned!), but otherwise, I love the old crash photo, grainy and blued as it is. I love the dense foliage in the background that was the leafy oak that used to shade my friends and me in the creek below as we hopped from rock to boulder, building dams and creating imaginary villages. I love the tall tree trunk to the right, one of so, so many towering pines in our Georgia yard. I love having a pic of Butchie, RIP ole girl, with her graying beard, and mostly, I love the amused look on my mother’s face, the hint of guilty delight that says she owns this crazy humiliating moment, much the way she owned others during her long wacky years of rearing six children.
It’s funny, I don’t remember much anger associated with the Cutlass caper—check that, George was pretty stoked, but who could blame him? I associate with it instead one of my father’s exasperated shrugs and the eye roll that often followed. Needless to say, our family weathered troubles much more serious over the years than a two-car crash (though how it must have stumped our insurance agent–who/what was at fault?). We weathered times that in the moment weren’t funny at all, but somehow, most of our dysfunctional moments did, in the retelling at least, dissolve into laughter.
It was all about sense of humor, and the fact that my mother and father managed to keep theirs, through better and much worse and even as they aged and life grew close and dark. That legacy is something I thank them for, every day.
Now that our nest has emptied, I have more time to think, especially during the unfamiliar quiet of morning. Gone are the frantic searches for blazers and ties on dress-up days, gone the burned toaster waffles and spilt milk, gone the forgotten permission slips. So I sit with my coffee and watch the sky brighten outside the window. I check the weather in all the places where my scattered children live. I read the news (too much news, and immediately regret it). I scan social media, pour another cup, play a few words on WWF, maybe do the Times Mini Crossword. I mean to write more, every day (you’ve got all this time now, finish that damn novel!), but thus far, the muse remains fickle and slow.
Today I woke determined. My nerves sparking with caffeine, I trained my index finger over to the Poetry app I installed, oh three years ago, thinking to read a poem a day for inspiration. (Total number read to date = five) Clinging to the idea that it’s never too late, I chose a theme, “Passion and Nature,” and waited to see what the Poetry algorithm would find. Never mind that by “passion” I meant fevered devotion to a craft, the app figured romance (…er eroticism). Still, a piece called “The Garden by Moonlight” caught my eye. Ignoring the sexual undertones, I lapped up Amy Lowell’s lyric imagery and the cadence of her simple sentences: A black cat among roses … Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon … The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock … Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush …
I thought of my mother, and the cut flower bouquets she had such a knack for, the postcards she used to send from gardens around the world, the places she took me as a child: Kew, the conservatory at Golden Gate Park, Monet’s gardens at Giverny (I know, lucky me). I read on to Lowell’s final quatrain in which–what a wonder!–the narrator speaks of her own mother: Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?/They knew my mother/But who belonging to me will they know/When I am gone?
A ping and there’s an email from my sister, reaching out to my brothers and me on the anniversary of Mom’s death. Yep, it’s October 19. My mother has been gone three years exactly. Next Wednesday marks the day my father, whose birthday we remembered October 9th, died fourteen years ago. As I’ve written here before, October has become a month of emotional contradiction for our family, and 2017 has not disappointed. While I was dashing between a big birthday bash for a dear friend and my niece’s wedding in Philadelphia (which morphed happily into something of a family reunion), our second son’s longtime girlfriend, a young woman our family cherishes as one of our own, lost her mother. She was hardly into her fifties, as brave in standing up to the terminal brain cancer she lived with for eight years as she was determined to be present for her children as long as she could.
So mother-loss has been on my mind for lots of reasons. Of course, losing a mother at fifty-four as I did hardly seems worth mentioning compared with losing a mother at twenty-five. And yet what the heart registers, what we share no matter when such a loss comes, is a sort of sorrowful disorientation. How do we step forward without the person who so often, for better or worse, has blazed the path we follow?
The thing is, the beating hearts our mothers gave us are built for more than sorrow. Much more. Along with conflicting feelings, they hoard images, words, memory after memory of the people who move in and out of our lives. Maybe what the poet Lowell implies with her black cat and her moonlit poppies then is something simple, something I know but have to keep re-learning: As long as we take time to share these heart-borne images and memories, to repeat them and pass them along, whether through the written word or music or painting or just plain storytelling over a good meal, we give new life to those we’ve lost.
A few years ago, my daughter and I visited Giverny together. Not unlike Lowell’s lilies, the cascading wisteria, the rows and rows of forsythia and zinnias bursting gold and red against the Monet-blue sky, they knew my mother, who made sure they know me. And now, they know my daughter, too.
Somehow, we’ve been slung around the sun yet again and here it is, May 3rd. Earlier this week, I decided NOT to write about my big brother Ed, who died on an Atlanta May 3rd very like this one–bright, breezy, warm but still spring fresh, the air just a touch heavier, loamier than a week ago, way back in April. I mean, enough already! I’ve written about Ed before. The Attic faithful know all about his misadventures as a Marine in Vietnam, his “punny” way with words, his painful yet contemplative death (see Brother, Brother in the side bar!). What’s more, my MacBook is in hospital (wine spill and the drunken slash symbol now dances mercilessly across the screen), and writing (never mind, creating) on this effing PC borrowed from my husband’s office is proving the adage that you can’t teach an old hack new tricks. (How the heck do I UNDO an action? Moments ago, I hit something in the vicinity of the “numlk” key and deleted this entire post and had to start over. And don’t get me started on the backwards scroll bar …)
So I reckoned I’d bow out of this one, skip the ten-year mark in this age when no one with a shred of social media self-respect would miss the chance to celebrate an anniversary so post-worthy. I stayed strong through my second cup, especially after my initial efforts to navigate Google Chrome on this blasted machine left me in knots. I took a good Ujjayi breath and headed off to Wednesday yoga in search of some balance. A few Warriors, a couple twisting Chair poses, way too many Vinyasas, and it happened. As the class contorted with a collective grunt into pigeon (pidgen?), the music (which I’d hardly noticed before, as any good yogi wouldn’t) transitioned to a breathy version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I jerked up my head, made awkward eye contact with my neighbor, snuggled back over my Gumby hip. A chart-topper for years in the UK and Europe, the 1967 Procul Harum original made it only to number five in the States. You don’t hear it much these days, but it was Ed’s Numero Uno. He played it as vinyl, eight track, cassette and CD. He sang it A Capella (and out of tune) ALL THE TIME.
Maybe it was magical thinking, maybe a fleeting moment of Nirvana, but of a sudden, Ed was right there on the mat beside me, slinking his long limbs into their own Twister trick (a game he excelled at, as he did most games). I closed my eyes and smiled, relaxed into the lyrics as they came in his deep playful voice–We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor …
How could I take this as anything less than a cosmic nudge? Just like that, I determined to come home to do what I’d vowed not to, write about Ed (though for me, in brief, wouldn’t you say?). I don’t know, maybe big brother wants (certainly deserves) at least a nod on this day when so many across the country are thinking of him, missing him, laughing to themselves to remember his jokes and his ironic grin. There’s his widow and daughter and grandchildren in Oregon, our brother in San Francisco and sister in Pennsylvania, his many loving in-laws in New Orleans, his nieces and nephews and friends all over, and of course, those of us still in the city he loved–two more brothers, a son, the youngest daughter and their families and of course, moi, the kid sister (whose children adored their Crazy Uncle Ed).
This morning, many of us shared the usual email thread, a few photos, to reminisce. And just now, my niece reminded me that ten years ago, as we let fly Ed’s ashes over the chilly mountain waterfall where as children we used to swim and dive and scare our mother’s hair straight, Procul Harem played on a boom box balanced on a strong and solid Carolina rock.
Which leads me to believe maybe a few other folks heard Ed today, too, … as the ceiling fell away … and he wandered through his playing cards, calling out for more …
I was seventeen the first time I read “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner’s eerie tale of tribute to a spinster with attitude. I loved it. The story had just the right blend of macabre romance and Southern sensibility to appeal to my teenaged self, at once idealistic and sentimental. What’s more, I felt a whisper of warm recognition, even affection (despite the arsenic), for Emily Grierson and the “big squarish frame house” where she lived alone in early 20th century Mississippi. I knew that close musty air, the heavy walnut bed beneath rose-shaded lights, the Victorian trinkets and the lace doilies on coffee tables and upholstered chairs. In fact, I knew Emily. I once had a spinster of my own, my Aunt Louise, who walked with a cane and wore frumpy dresses, cameo brooches, pearls, and hats. Always a hat, and for Sunday Mass, a netted veil to cover her impish face. Above, see Louise as a young woman holding a pipe–surely just a play thing, a photographer’s harmless prop.
Louise was my father’s aunt, my great aunt, though when I was very young that relationship failed to compute. She was just Weezer (pronounced Wee-za), sometimes “the Weez,” and I loved her the way my friends did the grandmothers they visited on Sundays, shared jello with at Morrison’s Cafeteria, or listened to on the phone with half an ear (Yes, Weez, I’ve done my homework and passed a healthy, ahem, stool today). Great Aunt maybe, but in effect, Weezer was my grandmother. My father’s mother died in 1918 of what’s sometimes called the “Spanish Flu” (though its origins have since been traced to Kansas), a victim of our nation’s first pandemic. My father was four years old. Weezer, thirty-something and single, stepped in to raise him and his brother.
A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along Weez lived three blocks from the cathedral and parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons my mother was otherwise occupied, I would sling my book bag over my shoulder and walk those three blocks in my plaid dress and saddle oxfords. Weezer would greet me at her doorstep with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs–pandemics will do that), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up a special Weezer-snack: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.
“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland in shaky blue script. “Being a poor hand at selecting presents, it is hoped the enclosed will be acceptable as it carries my wish for you the merriest of Christmas greetings … It would be best if you would use it for something you desire for yourself. Very pleasing to me but use it as you wish and I will be happy. Sincerely, with love, Paul. December 25th, 1961.”
This is the one missive in which Paul addresses Weezer as Louise. Otherwise, it’s “Miss Bickers,” though tellingly, he signs off “Paul,” and “with love,” in each of the letters I’ve found. In 1962 he concludes “with a heart full of love to you.” Family letters as early as the 1930s mention Mr. Strickland. My uncle, planning a visit home from Ohio in September, 1953, writes: “Weez–Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?”
Paul, it seems, was the boss man.
My father used to joke about catching Weezer and Mr. Strickland unawares when they were younger. Now and then, he came upon them sharing the living room couch. If Mr. Strickland had his arm around Weezer’s shoulders, he would do the quick head-scratch retraction, as if they were naughty teenagers. My older sister and brothers remember his Sunday visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, Mr. Strickland would sit and smile, always at a proper (social) distance from Weez, on a dusty glider on her front porch. But he said little. By this time, both had retired. Paul lived alone in the Georgian Terrace in midtown. Weezer had moved six miles north to her big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.
Still they kept visiting, and after Weezer lost a second sister to the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right by her side, comforting her. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Was it simply against workplace etiquette? Maybe early on Weezer hesitated to inject a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Could be Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of that. But later, ten, twenty, thirty years later? My mother’s theory, which no doubt trickled down from my father’s clan, was that Weezer was afraid of passing along the tuberculosis she contracted as a girl (germs, at it again), that even after being cured she vowed never to kiss a man. Hmm. My brother Tom posits that perhaps Mr. Strickland was, God forbid, a Protestant. Might Weezer’s fierce faith have led her to resist his advances, maybe even to lean on a certain germophobia to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?
My mother’s attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has not provided a clear answer. Weezer was a prolific letter writer, or letter-typer, I should say. She tapped away with dry wit on Beck and Gregg letterhead, often annotating and always signing by hand. Two weeks before my parents’ 1941 wedding, she needles my father about expensive gifts and potential guests and updates him on a family controversy concerning their write-up for the paper. “When I get ready to announce my engagement …” she writes. “I’m going to write it myself, or get St. Peter to do it.” And handwritten on the reverse is this: “Will there be any question about the priest marrying you in Sara’s back yard? Better see!”
My mother was a Baptist. The logistics of getting them hitched by a proper priest in her small Florida town created many a sleepless night for my father’s kin. The idea of their marrying at all gave them apoplexy. In this day of destination weddings and bachelorette weekends and TV rose ceremonies, it’s easy to look back and laugh at their anxiety, but to Weezer and her family, marriage was more sacrament, less party. The traditions of the Church mattered to them. A lot.
And yet, in the end Weezer gave my parents her blessing. She bent the rules for the man she’d raised and loved like a son. Why not do as much for herself? And who even was this man my surrogate grandmother loved in secret? I ran a Google search. Nothing. On Ancestry.com I found a possible match for a Paul Strickland, born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Made sense. My clearest memories are of visiting “Mr. PBS” in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Far from satisfied, I went to the downtown library and found (on microfiche) this Mr. Strickland’s obituary. It revealed that he’d resided in Atlanta, that seven years prior he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware (bingo), and that he was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.
Then this: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87 … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. And retired at age 80–who works until 80? A man who prefers the company of a co-worker to his empty apartment.
Late in her spinsterhood, Faulkner’s Emily Grierson finds a sweetheart in Homer Barron, a Yankee foreman on a scalawag-inspired construction project. Some in town are hopeful Emily will marry at last. Others, namely her out-of-town kin, are scandalized by the idea of Emily taking up with a Yankee. Their outrage, stoked by Emily’s pride, leads to a haunting conclusion some see as a twisted sort of triumph for Emily. Faulkner later said this about his story: “I pitied [Emily], and this was my salute … to a woman you would hand a rose.”
I don’t pity my Aunt Louise. I admire her. She stood down a pandemic, bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters and cared for aging parents. In a time when women didn’t much, she built a career for herself and found fulfillment in it. She lost two sisters far too young and outlived a third. And somewhere across town–who knows, maybe just where she wanted him–she had a partner through it all.
December, 1949: Weezer writes my father to thank him for sending along a Christmas card and a photo of my three oldest siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the dialogue that transpired among her and her co-workers as she passed around the card:
“First Man: ‘Who are those children?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’
First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'”
This routine continues with another “Lady” and three Men giving like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then, as if she just can’t hold it in, she types a P.S. for my dad: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”
I feel I know my great aunt Louise a little better now, Louise the woman, the survivor–feisty, hard-working, proud, and passionate in ways her faith and her scarred past caused her to hide.
A dozen roses to you, Weez. I bet you smoked that pipe with abandon.
Attic Fans: I’m honored to welcome Laura Schalk as my first guest blogger. I like to think of Laura, a lifelong bookworm raised in Poughkeepsie who now lives and works abroad, as my very own American in Paris. We met a decade ago at a writers’ workshop held not far from Hemingway’s old haunts on the Left Bank. Thanks to the bottomless generosity of one of our workshop members, we and six others from that initial group have continued to gather each summer to work, study, write, eat and laugh together in Bordeaux. (And the local grape, we enjoy a bit of that, too.) Despite the miles that separate us, we have become the best of friends.
Like me, Laura lost her mother a few years ago. Like my mother, Elisabeth Schalk was a discerning reader who had a flair for fashion and a tendency to hold tight to what she loved, be it a shiny pair of patent heels, a box full of paperbacks, or her beloved family. Laura’s tribute to her mother here is graceful and true. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have. And by the way, Laura writes insightfully hilarious short fiction, too. Be sure to check it out through the Amazon link that follows …
Martha and I have chatted many times over the years about our mothers: when they were alive and when they were dying, and later as we were coping with their deaths and with the resulting need to plow through the detritus of a beloved and fashionable woman’s years on the planet. Across two continents, we’ve shared the attendant emotions which that particular and at times painful task has stirred up – laughter through the tears and all that jazz.
When I read the first installment of “My Mother’s Attic,” I was jerked through space and time from sitting in a chair in my living room in Paris, to sitting on the floor of my parents’ bedroom in Poughkeepsie, New York, heartsick and hot and dusty. My mom was still alive then but in a nursing home, and far gone with Alzheimer’s. My dad had decided to put the family house up for sale, and I had flown back from France to spend three days going through Mom’s stuff.
Although this had taken place several years before, as I read Martha’s blog post, suddenly there I was on my parents’ bedroom floor again, pulling pair after pair of black size eleven shoes out of the cupboards that lined the baseboard. Black flats, black sandals, black loafers, black half boots – dozens and dozens of pairs, all stretched and worked and bearing the marks of Mom’s dear feet, some emitting puffs of dust and others disgorging dead flies or hornets. (At the Lutheran Care Center, my mother and the other residents on her ward wore white sneakers with Velcro closings, though very few of them walked at all.)
While I worked, my dad holed up in his study downstairs and left me to it. My equipment: a box of extra large black Hefty garbage bags, a marker, post-its, tape. After tossing most of those damn shoes, I dove into closets and drawers full of my mother’s clothes. One of the tics of Alzheimer’s is that people tend to re-buy the same thing, and Mom was no exception. I found stacks of barely worn pastel Eileen Fisher dresses, identical black “agnes b” separates, and bushels of handbags. I shared out a dozen pair of black leather gloves amongst my girlfriends, and returned home with twenty purse-sized bottles of Purell. Dad and I made multiple trips to the Salvation Army in downtown Poughkeepsie, unloading our flotilla of garbage bags from the back seat and trunk. To cheer each other up, we told ourselves that women from the area who were looking for jobs would find their happiness and good luck in interview outfits, courtesy of Mom.
Each day during this seemingly endless process, I cooked elaborate meals – magret de canard, frisée salad with lardons, crab salad tucked into beefsteak tomatoes, the mayonnaise homemade. Dad and I brought out the good china and silver and crystal (including glasses Mom never let us use) for both lunch and dinner. Between bouts of cooking and sorting, I meandered through the house putting post-its on chairs, paintings, a desk, that read, “Laura – Paris.” At the time, this seemed a momentous and never ending task and I struggled to see the point of shipping all that stuff home.
And yet, as I prepared the other weekend for a dinner party, I set the table in my flat on Rue de la Chine with my parents’ wedding silver. I put tapers in some candlesticks that used to grace the dining room table of my youth. I didn’t serve my friends anything as refined as the meals Mom would spend a day preparing (Julia Child’s coq au vin, lemon-lime soufflé), but I felt joyful carving my basic roast chicken on a lovely old Willowware china platter. And when my friend Nadia had a recent dinner party of her own, I brought a few things along … we ate Berber chickpea stew (a recipe from Nadia’s mum), served on my parents’ pink linen placemats with matching napkins. I’m sure my mother, ever the expert and gracious hostess, would smile to see her old treasures being used in other’s homes, and used again.
It may be reductive and even ridiculous to state that my mother is dead but lives on through her wool coat, her books, or the much-mended eight foot long white linen tablecloth she rescued from the dissolution of her own parents’ home. But still, to this day I can’t leave the house without wearing or taking along some item of Mom’s: a ring, a bracelet, a slippery Hermes scarf that I never can tie with her Seven Sisters’ insouciance. And when some months ago, the chain to one of Mom’s necklaces broke as I was getting dressed and the pendant dropped to the floor and rolled from sight, I wept. I crawled around on all fours searching until, already late to my meeting, I had no choice but to give up. I shoved one of her rings on my finger, reapplied mascara and left the flat.
As time passes, I continue to muse about the lingering power of objects that have been owned, held, chosen, worn by our loved ones. Is it unhealthy, superstitious to confer such mojo on material things? Perhaps. Probably. And yet, in amongst the clutter my mother left behind, there were multiple potent talismans, enough to buoy her daughter, to propel her through the days ahead.
POSTSCRIPT: As I prepped for the Women’s March in Paris last week, I was sure to wear the t-shirt my father gave me years ago, one which sadly is now more relevant than ever, and says, “Women’s rights are human rights! Stop the Republican war on women!” But I also gave full reign to my mania for talismans and wore or carried a panoply of objects from beloved women and men in my life: bracelets, a necklace, earrings, a pin, a flask and Dop kit and a handkerchief. Before I headed out, I tucked a water bottle bearing photos of my nephews in my knapsack and slipped my mother’s wedding ring on my finger, a thick gold band whose inscription is still visible: “Amor vincit Omnia.”
Laura’s short fiction is anthologized in “That’s Paris: An Anthology of Life, Love, and Sarcasm in the City of Light” and “Christmas, Actually: A Holiday Collection.” You can find both at http://amzn.to/2jL4Oun.
My mother spent her twenties and thirties (and thanks to me, her forties) changing diapers by day and going to PTA meetings by night. While my father went from WWII vet to laundromat owner and on to the life insurance business, she prettied up basement apartments and matchbox houses ’til they felt like home. But Dad thrived at Guardian Life, and by the time I reached double digits, Mom figured it was her turn, time to shake out her wings and fly, literally. Travel became her passion. I don’t mean quick jaunts to the Georgia coast or the Smoky Mountains, places my father, known to gaze upon a crashing waterfall for hours, loved. My mother didn’t mind an ocean breeze or the smell of woodsmoke now and then, but the older she got, the more she craved something a little higher brow–the French Quarter, Williamsburg, Gothic Cathedrals and castles on the Rhine, the Tuileries, and of course, Harrod’s and Le Bon Marché.
Who knew? The small town Florida girl, the markedly fertile eldest daughter of a Baptist dentist and his civic-minded wife (neither of whom ventured beyond the rolling hills of Virginia) pined for the Old World. In her fifties, my mother joined study groups led by Atlanta professors of history and literature and philosophy. She bought oversized maps and guidebooks (saved in the Attic, by the boxful). She thumbed through classics like A Moveable Feast and Dubliners at the public library. She concocted elaborate itineraries that she oft edited and revised, adding notes in red about what neighborhoods were frequented by which authors and which shoes to wear with what skirt to which restaurant. My father, hesitant but game, found the local Delta office and gathered birth certificates and with Passports and Travelers Checks in hand, my parents were off.
The only child still at home, I was invited along on some of these Grand Tours. Above, c’est moi at twelve, enjoying a baguette while cruising the Seine. It didn’t occur to me to be bored by the idea of spending a few weeks tagging along with my older parents. Well, not until I hit fifteen. My young heart swelled at the sight of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament shining in a chilly London fog, or the endless sumptuous rooms of Versailles rising above checkerboard gardens. My spine tingled to see the bones of the saints lying in dank crypts and the passion of Christ splashed out in the bright incongruous colors of stained glass and Italian triptychs. Believe me, I saw no shortage of stained glass and triptychs, also piétas and Virgins with Child and saintly frescoes on stone church walls. My parents, devout Roman Catholics, were a little biased toward the house of worship. We visited Romanesque and Byzantine and Renaissance, everything from the most ornate nave to the simplest country chapel. In fact, the first thing we did after unpacking our bags was to locate the nearest Catholic church, check the times for Sunday Mass, and plan the rest of our activities around them.
This went for domestic travel, too. Mom saved hundreds of dusty church bulletins from their Sunday visits over the years. I admit this was my least favorite part of our journeys. Attending Mass weekly (and forget not holy days!) at home was trying enough. None of my friends (Protestant, most of them) had to go to church on vacation, especially if it meant sitting on a wooden pew sans cushion while a priest wafted myrrh and offered the Communion Prayer in German, or French, or God forbid, Latin. Honestly, what’s a vacation if not a means of escape from life’s ordinary duties? But go along I did and here’s the thing. It hath marked me. All these years later and fallen away Catholic that I am, I can’t resist a good musky cathedral when I see one.
In a few weeks, I have reason to drive from Seattle to Atlanta. It’s a trip I both dread and look forward to. Forty-something hours in the car across country I’ve only heard tell of–Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. My daughter will join me a couple days in and we’ve decided to take the southern route. Emma is good with a camera and I’d like to try my hand at travel writing so we plan to document our journey, here, in My Mother’s Attic. My father loved the sort of dramatic scenery we’ll encounter, canyons and long vistas and rushing waters. My mother? Less so. Long drives and roadside motels weren’t exactly her thing. Since these are her pages, I keep thinking we need a theme for our trip, something to make our journey Attic-worthy, some pursuit that would have made Mom sit up and say, “Sure, strap me in and hit the gas!”
Churches! We’ll pass through areas settled by Spanish missionaries, si? So between stops at river gorges and ghost towns and desert oases, Emma and I will keep an eye out for them, for churches and temples historic and plain, maybe a few that are a little strange. And when we find one, we’ll share it in this blog. When you think about it, writing is akin to hanging on to letters and photographs, boarding passes and admission tickets and pamphlets. Maybe Mom’s instincts were okay (is admirable a stretch?) Hoarding helped her to hold close, later to share, the joy she felt in real time as she sat on that plane to Munich, or strolled through the Louvre, or attended Mass at St. Mark’s in Venice. She and my father had landed themselves in places exotic and holy, places she’d only dreamed of during those long lean years of child rearing. Who could blame her for making each moment a keepsake?
If any of you reading today hail from the American West, shout out your favorite tourist attraction, especially if there’s a house of worship in the vicinity. And see ya in a couple of weeks, from parts unknown!
Today, October 9th, 2016, would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. I’ve written about him and his tumultuous life here before, a few times over, so I won’t wax on. I’ll post a few photos, though, sort of a “Souvenir Sunday” in his memory, or his honor, or both. Thirteen years since we lost him, and I still miss his wry humor, his balanced and intelligent guidance, the devilish grin he liked to flash early mornings, when he was the only one in the house in a good mood.
Well of course I miss him. He was my father, and yet, for the first time since his death I forgot to think about him, or the fact of his birthday, until I’d been up and out of bed for a solid two hours. Around 9:30, I opened my phone and my eye registered the date. Wow, I thought, and felt a flush of shock and shame. Time’s funny that way, isn’t it. You lose someone, a parent, a sibling, a lifelong friend, someone so fundamental to your being you can’t imagine living on after he or she is gone. Still, you have no choice but to do the laundry or write the article or move the child who is no longer a child to college and the years slip by and you wake up one day to realize hmmm, you’ve done it. You’ve survived, and wonder of wonders, it’s happened almost without your knowing it. You’ve simply lived, rearranged your day-to-day in ways that have eased the sting, plugged the holes and filled up the spaces that once felt so gaping and raw. It’s not so much that the spaces are gone, or even that time heals. It’s just that time is time. Like it or not, it chugs past and most of us, the lucky ones I guess, can’t help but jump on the running boards and hold on for dear life.
Besides … I have the Attic! Or more precisely, the Attic’s scattered remains that have found new life here in my house. Thanks to Mom and her inability to clean out when cleaning out was called for, I can time travel, nostalgically speaking, and have a little visit with Dad. So I made myself a hot cup of Lipton tea–his signature drink–and began shuffling through stacks of photos and letters. Just seeing my father’s face, and especially his handwriting (Miss Martha A. Mattingly, he scrawled across an envelope meant for me during my sophomore year in college) lifted my spirits. His script is hurried but generous, with little white space on the page, and it strikes me now that this was just like him. My father always was a man on the move, a Puritan work ethic-in-motion who wasted not and always kept his tee’s crossed and his i’s dotted. But he braked for family and friends, my father, and that made all the difference.
Here’s the letter Dad enclosed in that envelope from my sophomore year. He wrote it October 5th, just before his 65th birthday. Apparently, I was headed off for a weekend with friends rather than coming home for the family bash. (What was I thinking? Sixty-five is a big deal!) Note to my whiney mother-self: Dad took this news with good humor and wished me a happy time wherever I was going. There’s nothing special about the letter otherwise–he and Mom were off to the Symphony that night, he was enclosing a check to help with my “tight finances” (which they weren’t, thanks to him), and he sure appreciated my phone calls whenever they came, said they brightened his spirits, “put life back” in their big, quiet house.
I imagine that house felt plenty big and quiet, much quieter than I knew. Our youngest is now in his senior year of high school, and I feel his leaving already, his Pottery Barn Teen bed shrinking around his broadened shoulders, his keen mind yearning for space and freedom to question and grow. The unoccupied corners of our house now loom larger, blow a little draftier each day. But there’s good news. In one way, I take after my mother. Between the kindergarten artwork and piles of yellowed report cards, the baseball lineups and class photos and Playbills I’ve collected from our family’s younger days, I have plenty of sorting and tossing, and yes, safekeeping to do, more than enough to keep my mind off of all these empty rooms as Time does its thing, and chugs on.
Friday was my birthday. Mid-summer, any way you slice it, prone to the lingering 4th hangover and hot and gluey the hemisphere around. In Atlanta, my home town, July 8th often dawns drowsy and nondescript, a day when traffic is strangely light and folks wind up sipping icy beverages by the pool or streaming baseball in front of an AC vent. I mean, think about it … has anything of true significance ever happened on July 8th? I looked it up, and not much. In 1835, the Liberty Bell cracked, though reports vary. It might have been the 12th. In 1907, whoop-dee-doo, Ziegfield opened his first follies in New York City. 1918: Hemingway was wounded on the Austro-Italian front but macho-man that he was, survived to pen his oeuvre. 1947: a UFO crashed down in New Mexico (or not), and in 1949, Wolfgang Puck was born, followed by Kevin Bacon in ’58. Hmmm.
To be honest, I used to feel a little sorry for myself for having my special day during this time of scatter, a summer limbo void of classroom cupcakes and pinatas. When I was a wee thing, my birthday parties tended to be poorly attended at best, fleshed out with persons (see photo) my mother rounded up to stand in for my wider circle of friends, who were off at camp or beach-combing with their families. Nowadays, I often vamoose on July 8th myself, and really, as the calendar turns, what could be better than to flit out of town and have one’s birthday forgotten altogether?
But this July, 2016, I’m home in the city. My birth-week went haywire from the start. On Tuesday the 5th, Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, another possible case of color-coded fear having led to the panicked and deadly misuse of power. Ditto on the 6th, when a routine traffic stop in suburban St. Paul ended with Philando Castile, an African American man, dead. Yet sadly, if not for what happened next, on my birthday eve, these events might have become little more than tragic footnotes in the on-line version of “On This Day in History.”
As yet unaware, I woke on the 8th to the joy of family texts and emails sent at the crack of dawn and a birthday poster lovingly drawn by my youngest son (see left, an old Payne tradition). But before I could pour my first cup of Joe, I found myself longing for the dull birthday anonymity I used to lament. On the kitchen television, an endless loop of chaos and gunfire on the streets of Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, a dozen policemen sniper-shot, five dead.
Mass shooting number 150 or so on the year, and we’re hardly halfway home. I don’t know how many of these were racially motivated, but I’d bet a silver dollar they were all rooted in hate, the kind of hate that when kindled by emotional instability is likely to fester in the heart of the dispossessed, the kind of hate that so often meets with an ironic end, where one desperate individual lashes out against others equally marginalized, but for different reasons, the kind of hate I believe is at its core self-hate, and in the end bound to turn on itself, but only after havoc has been wreaked. Consider the deeply troubled and alienated white drug addict who guns down African Americans in a place of worship historically vital to the Civil Rights movement; the pathologically angry Muslim American, isolated within the country of his birth, who opens fire on his gay neighbors; the mentally disturbed black war vet who ambushes white police officers as they monitor citizens of varied races seeking to prevent future incidents of policing gone sour.
I’m over-simplifying, and even so, my head spins. The line between villain and victim grows more muddied every day as hot-button issues like gun legislation, immigration, mental health care, police brutality become so multi-layered and complicated it’s impossible to discuss them without simplifying. But enough. I don’t write today to enter a particular dialogue (though I have opinions! I sign petitions!). I write because as a white woman born and raised and still living in the American South, my bones ache with a helpless sorrow I can’t well reckon with. I write in the hope that putting words to paper will help me lasso emotions I can’t otherwise make sense of. And already I’ve erred. Sorrow isn’t the right word. What I feel is closer to despair. That we as Americans, no matter the shade of our skin, continue to wrestle with the violent manifestations of the same brand of hate, the same demons that have threatened our nation since its inception, is unthinkable.
During the last long hours of a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I flipped through Air France’s film library and settled on The Help. I’d seen it before, and found it on both occasions more moving, more true-to-life than I expected (I boycotted the book, perhaps unfairly, having heard it was sappy and overdone). What I’d forgotten was the uncomfortable blend of warm recognition and biting shame the film dredged up in me. In some ways, I am Mae Mobley Leefolt, the little white girl loved and cared for by the family’s black maid, Aibileen Clark. Mae Mobley was born, fictionally speaking, in August, 1960, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in July, 1960, in Atlanta. Mae Mobley had Aibileen. I had Mary Darian, the young woman who worked at our house not every day but often enough I thought of her as family. When in the final scene Mae Mobley calls out to Aibileen, “You’re my real mother!” (yep, pretty sappy), my heart leaps in spite of itself. Though my mother wasn’t negligent like Mae Mobley’s, Mary was sort of her co-mother, an energetic, funny, hands-on, more hip role model than Mom, forty-one when I came along, was capable of being.
And Mary was black. And far too smart, too gifted, for her position. She had small children of her own someone else cared for while she raised us, no doubt earning less than she deserved. Yet she changed my diapers and sang me to sleep. She picked me up from school and brought my dog along to greet me. She fried a chicken for us on Friday afternoons. Later, she wrote me at camp when I was homesick, sharing details about what my brothers were up to (“Tommy and I cleaned out his closet. He hates making decisions”), complimenting my mother’s sewing projects or cracking a little joke, usually at her own expense. Sometimes she signed off, tongue-in-cheek, “The Maid.” My favorite letter (from Mom’s Attic, of course) is written on two sheets of construction paper torn crookedly across the top and quadri-folded to fit the envelope. After dating the letter, Mary wrote “cheap paper” in parentheses and a few lines later elaborated: “This paper is slightly uneven–like the writer.”
Like Mae Mobley, I was Mary’s “last white baby.” She left us when I began junior high, taking a job at the hospital where I was born. Mary made a career there, earned a few promotions and stayed until she reached retirement age. We kept in touch, a phone call now and then, quick visits during family weddings, funerals. Then, a long gap of time passed with little contact until the day of my mother’s funeral. As I walked out on my brother’s arm, I caught sight of Mary at the end of a pew. White-haired, a little stooped, she somehow wept and smiled at once. I stopped, and we hugged each other’s necks and cried together. She told me how much she’d loved my mother, her friend, how she misses me, and all the Mattinglys.
Since, and especially during weeks filled with race-inspired violence like this last, I think about Mary, now eighty, and feel that same warmth tempered by shame movies like The Help can rustle up. I like to think our bond was unusual, deeper than most of its type. Mary was my friend and yet, history says what we and thousands of other black-white, maid-child duos of the fifties and sixties shared was tainted. History says that if not for the evils of slavery, these bonds wouldn’t exist, that perhaps they shouldn’t have existed. I can’t deny the truth in this, but then, what do we do with the warmth, the love, that remain?
It occurs to me that other than what I share here, I don’t know Mary Darian’s story. I don’t know how she, eighteen when my parents hired her, managed to break the cycle of domestic service. I knew nothing, as her white baby of the 1960s, about the sit-ins and marches, the tear-gas and beatings, that were happening across town, maybe in her neighborhood. I don’t know who or what she might have lost to the long slog of the Civil Rights struggle. My parents, like Mary herself, were careful to shield me from these seminal, sometimes violent events that would shape our lives. In this, my ignorance of Mary’s story, lies a valid basis for guilt and shame. I can’t change history. I can’t make amends for actions taken by my forebears, though I regret and renounce them. I can’t go back and rearrange the circumstances of my relationship with Mary, but I can at least do what another one of Kathryn Stockett’s characters, Skeeter, does. I can learn Mary’s story. I owe her, and myself, that much.
On Friday, after I switched off the reports coming in from Dallas, I gave Mary a call. She knew my voice immediately and as she spoke, I pictured through the line the tall, confident, young woman who used to drive me to McDonald’s for a Big Mac after school. She told me she’d had a fall, but that her daughter, Lou, had taken such good care of her she was back on her feet. With held breath, I asked after her three sons. They’re well, she reported, all working and living in the metro area. I smiled. Mary’s sons, middle-aged black males in a Southern city, are thriving. They’ve beat the odds, so far. I caught Mary up on my own family and asked if I could come by to see her. “Why sure, anytime!” she said, then paused. “Well, anytime other than Wednesday. I still get out for my Bible study on Wednesdays.”
So we’ll have a visit on Tuesday morning. A late birthday present. I can hardly wait to hear what she has to say.