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.
Home at Last
Some of you met Mary Darian in “I Am Mae Mobley,” one of my early posts here in My Mother’s Attic. In part an outcry against an upsurge in race-related killings during the summer of 2016, that piece is at heart a tribute to Mary–the woman who helped my mother rise to the Herculean task of raising six children. Since I launched this blog, Mae Mobley continues to garner far more views than any other Attic post–testimony to Mary’s captivating character. In that earlier piece, I lamented that during the two decades Mary worked for our family, I failed to learn much about her life. I vowed then to make amends for this, to reach out to Mary, though I was more than a little nervous about cold-calling after so many years of silence. I might have known that was a waste of emotional energy. In the years that followed, in spite of facing one personal challenge after another, Mary shared detail after detail about her story, and more broadly, her family’s story, which to her were one and the same.
One morning not too long before the pandemic hit, I went to see Mary at the nursing home where she’d recently moved. Her room was small but comfortable–a sink and closet against one wall, a twin bed at the center, a broad window at the far side, the ledge below crowded with photos of her grand- and great-grandchildren. Mary’s devoted daughter, Lou, had a bird-feeder installed just outside the window so Mary could enjoy sparrows and robins and fiery red cardinals as they flitted about. By this point in her life, Mary was confined to a wheel chair, though I was soon to learn that in her case, confined did not apply.
I breezed through the door a little earlier than usual to find no Mary in sight. I heard a scuffle on the far side of the room and stepped closer. She had wheeled herself into the narrow space between bed and radiator and crouched low over her knees, her head nearly hidden between the bed and bedside table.
“Mary?” I asked, trying to control the worry in my voice. “Can I help?”
“Oh!” she said, her voice bright with enthusiasm as she looked up. “Angel Face!” (the pet name she coined for me as a baby). “Come on over here!”
I did just that. Mary craned about and reached her long arms around my neck. That’s when something shiny flashed in her lap–a long, thin metallic tool.
“Just give me a minute …” she said, ducking head under table again. “While I find my Puh …”
“Here, can I get it for you?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Her paper? Her pillow? I tried to maneuver between wheelchair and radiator but the space was tight, the bedside table happily cluttered–a card illustrated in blue crayon, a tub of Vaseline, a small glass vase filled with Alstroemeria, a stack of word puzzle books and a red leather Bible, its pages well-thumbed.
“What is it you need, Mary?”
No answer, just more poking at that shelf.
“Ah, here it is!” she cried at last. Turning, she sat up straight, her expression devilish and triumphant. “My Ponds!”
She held out the stick, which I then could see had a grip handle at one end and a sort of claw at the other, not unlike the mechanism in that arcade game in Toy Story (The claw is our master … ). Caught firmly in Mary’s claw was a jar of Ponds cold cream, same pale green cap and tulip logo as the ones my mother used to keep on her vanity table.
With easy dexterity, Mary twisted open the jar, scooped out a finger full, and chatting all the while, began massaging the silky cream into her still-smooth complexion. Her task complete, I offered to return the jar to its shelf. She laughed, waved me away, and did it herself, metal claw re-extended. Then she nabbed her hairbrush from the drawer, dropped it in her lap, and wheeled over to the sink. One of her feet–slightly swollen–nearly collided with the corner of the bed frame as she went.
“Mary, your leg–is it ok?”
“Oh that …” she mumbled as she set the hairbrush at the edge of the sink. “Some kind of blood clot in that old leg.” Then she plucked a cloth from a towel rod, wet it generously, and ran it across her short thick curls before brushing them out.
“Ok, now …” she went on, patting her head and smiling at my reflection in the mirror. “That’s better. I never know what it’ll look like in the mornings.” Then guttural laughter as she spun her chair around to face me. “Now tell me … What have you been up to?”
I gathered my thoughts, but before I got a word out, her eyes flew open wide and she cried, “Wait a minute! … I forgot my teeth!”
With that, and without a wrinkle of embarrassment, Mary spun back around, tugged a set of dentures out of a cup and slathered them with toothpaste. While she gave them a sturdy brushing under the faucet, I marveled at the independence, the lack of self-consciousness, and the serene acceptance of the time-consuming rituals of growing old that she possessed.
“Your mama liked Ponds, too,” she mused. “You know …” She paused and turned to me, that devilish smile restored. “She may have been the one who got me started with it!”
Whether this was true or its inverse–that Mary actually introduced my mother to Ponds–didn’t matter. This was a habit they shared, one I hadn’t known about, and something soft padded into my heart. Not a visit passed between us that Mary didn’t turn our conversations back to my parents, or one of my siblings–to those days she was part of the everyday workings of our busy household. She loved especially to wax on about my mother’s expertise as a seamstress, but then she’d been doing this since my summer camp days. Your mother made a white jacket for her new formal gown with shells around the midriff … she penned in a letter she sent off to Camp Merrie-Woode. Wow! When the lady moves, she gets momentum and never stops … Then, one of her witty after thoughts–I think she’s going to wear her sexy red sandals.
Back then, ten years old and homesick, I likely cried to read this, but it was a good cry. Mary was enfolding me from a distance into the home life I loved. I understand now that during our recent visits, she was doing much the same. Her smiles, her laughter, her stories, were keeping my mother, my father, in short, my childhood alive. She did me as much good–no, probably more–than I did her.
Though she lost her mother very young, Mary was eager to share her father’s story, too. In the 1920s, when he was hardly more than a child, Jimmie Lee Cochran worked the cotton fields of Hurtsboro, Alabama, where he lived on a farm with his mother and grandmother. In 1939, when Mary was four, Jimmie Lee came within an inch of being lynched. After a narrow escape, he managed to slip away to Atlanta, where he built a long career with Southern Railway. More importantly, a decade later Mary’s father brought her and her younger siblings to the home he’d built–literally built with his own hands–for his family. The twists and turns of Jimmie Lee Cochran’s story, and Mary’s alongside, paint a shimmering picture of courage, devotion to family, and perseverance. It’s a story that could fill a book. Maybe someday it will.
Born in 1935 in Hurtsboro, Mary Cochran Darian moved on from this world on April 18th, 2023. She worked those Alabama cotton fields herself before graduating from Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High. She married her sweetheart, Lewis Darian, and after twenty years with our family moved on to an administrative career at Crawford Long Hospital. Through it all, Mary took care of people–her four children, her physically disabled brother, her neighbors and grandchildren, her church family (to them she was “Mother Darian”) and me and … well, the list goes on. Her family held a “Homegoing Celebration” last week at her beloved church. The service left room for sorrow but had joyful music aplenty and tributes full of love and hope meant to speed Mary along on her journey to the place she firmly believed was her true home. I think everyone who spoke of Mary mentioned that infectious smile that so warmed me during our visits in her last years. I’ve mentioned the knack Mary had for helping me laugh away my little girl challenges and preteen angst. Her ability to smile and laugh herself through the many trials of aging was to me more remarkable. My mother had her strengths, but facing old age with grace was not one of them. She raged against the dying of the light, and though there’s something to be said for that, the way Mary kept her spirits high in spite of the slings and arrows fortune tossed her way not only eased her days, it lightened the hearts of those who cared for her.
The pastor who gave Mary’s eulogy asserted that her smile set an important example. If you love God, he suggested, the least you can do is smile for the world to see. Mary’s resting face was a smile, a natural one, broad and vibrant in a way that said, Watch out because here comes a laugh, a big one straight from the belly! The photo below offers proof. I can hear my brothers and my father laughing with Mary even now.
The cover of Mary’s Homegoing tribute booklet features a couple of her favorite phrases. “I expect a miracle every day,” reads one of them. For those who consider miracles to be only raising the dead or turning water into wine, this may sound like hyperbole. Like the wisest among us, Mary knew that the simplest things could be miracles: The touch of her first great-great grandchild settling into her lap; the familiar taste of the meals Lou prepared at home and brought to her room; the right to vote safely and the freedom to shop where she pleased and sit at the front of the bus (freedoms she had to wait until age thirty to enjoy); the weekly Bingo games (she won a lot) with other residents in the nursing home common room; a skittish bluebird in the morning sun, darting close for a nibble from her feeder before the pushier birds moved in.
Miracles every one, just as Mary was to all who knew her. She is home now, flights of angels singing her to her rest.
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.
Not Your Mother’s Oldsmobile
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.
To Know A Mother
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 …
Mother, May I? A Wish List on the Occasion of the 98th Birthday
A Rose for Miss Louise
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.
The Power of Stuff … or Here’s to You, Elisabeth
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.
Have Faith, Will Travel
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!
Time, and Time Again
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.