Home at Last

Like her father, once Mary earned the right to vote, she never missed the chance. Here she fills out her absentee ballot in October of 2018 for Georgia’s gubernatorial election.

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.

Celebrating Easter. April 2022

“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.

Mary’s father, Jimmie Lee Cochran, as a young man.

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.

Mary returns for a much-anticipated visit with my family, sometime in the 1980s.

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.

Mary with her daughter, Lou Darian Qualls, on Mother’s Day, 2022


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 .

My mother at nineteen, duly admired by some of her beaus.

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.





Wooly Bully

Skeins from Mom's knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See below for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
Skeins from Mom’s knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See right for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.

The sweater that wasn't
The sweater that wasn’t

I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.

My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.

Wool dreams
Wool dreams

Making do with remnants
Making do with remnants

She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.

Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don't you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.
Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don’t you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.

When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)

The closet
The closet

Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.

Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.

The blue collection.
The blue collection.

Some of Mom's finery …
Some of Mom’s finery …

As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.

Pocket treasures?
Pocket treasures?

These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.

Unfinished business.
Unfinished business.

And another.
And another.

My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.

Of Ghosts and Goldfish

IMG_2757Before I leave the sewing room (fully reserving the right to return), a word about ghosts. I don’t much believe in them, but I’ve come to expect them nevertheless. This is a contradiction I can live with, and nowhere do I experience it more than among the stuff of my mother’s creative passion. Maybe it’s the dusty Butterick patterns stuffed into drawers, or the wooly smell of the moth-eaten skirts in the closet, or the sweet droop of the faded curtains that hang over the table where Mom used to spin her magic, whether finishing up her mother-of-the-groom dress within hours of the rehearsal dinner, or whipping in a final buttonhole on an outfit for me in the wee hours of Christmas morning. But somehow I, a non-believer, can feel my mother standing beside me, looking over my shoulder, ready to cry foul when I dump her treasures into my industrial-strength trash bag.

“But Mother—it’s a mess in here. Look at the dust bunnies around the rusted bobbins that are balanced over the old tailor’s ham that’s perched on those remnant boxes … under the bed!”

“We-e-l-l-l, Marth. I’ll think about that—tomorrow,” says my mother-spirit. “Ok then, Scarlet,” she adds with an ironic roll of her Vivienne Leigh eyes. A smart, self-mocking specter, she’s proud to have snatched up the Gone With the Wind reference before I could pounce. IMG_0621

Mom seems happy in this hybrid room, as she always was before, and she’s got company. There in the corner are my miniature pet turtles, dripping with salmonella. Their soft bellies bared, they teeter on tiny green feet and scratch at their plexi-glass prison, just as they did in life. And over here, on the table beside the bed, Oscar the goldfish—who like all domestic carp, got his death sentence the minute I dumped him out of his bloated plastic bag—swishes about unawares in water no one warned me to de-chlorinate. Best of all, my gal pals sit crisscross-applesauce on my pink gingham bedspread, fans of Crazy Eight cards in hand and boxes of Red Hots in their laps. It’s way past our bedtime. I can tell from their soft giggles and the still darkness at the window.

I feel better now. Once I’m done ditching yards of mildewed swatches and sorting all the buttons for Goodwill, I’ll be okay to leave this room behind. It’s a good cozy place. Maybe some young couple will recognize that it would make a perfect nursery. A changing table would be nice under the window, and a bassinette could fit beside the closet that leads to the master. But they needn’t bother with a music box. The tap of a shadowy foot on a pedal, the snip-snip of threads, the phantom whirr of a Singer engine going full steam–these were my lullaby, and I slept like a baby.


Vivienne … See what I mean?
Vivienne Leigh, alias Scarlet O’Hara


Vivienne–See what I mean?