Honestly, I’m not sure this is true, that my mother taught me to read. I recall lying belly-down on a thick-piled prickly rug (an Oriental, as Mom used to call them in the days before we knew better), sounding out words in The Little Engine That Could. But the rug in question covers the floor of my father’s library, and it is my father, crunching numbers at the desk above me, who comes to my aid when phonetics fail and I stumble over a word.
The thing is, “learning to read” involves much more than figuring out a diphthong (“bl” plus “UE” equals blue?!?), or understanding that “th” ends up sounding like whatever it is (“I think I can, I think I can,” said the little blue engine). Learning to read means coming to love the musty smell of an old paperback, the grainy touch of its spine, the voices both lyrical and rational that speak from the pages of any book, even an e-book. Learning to read means finding your proper posture. For my mother, this meant perched with straight back, ankles crossed and feet up, whether tucked, tickly, behind me on the couch or buried under her bedcovers. Learning to read means losing yourself to the story, soaking it in through your pores so deeply that the satisfaction of reaching the conclusion to a well-crafted tale feels not unlike the sensation of discovering someone you’ve long loved from afar loves you back. And when the tale ends, when you must surrender your book’s characters and plot twists and precise lovely language back to its well-thumbed pages, it’s as sweet a sorrow as love lost.
But my father. It’s not that he didn’t read. Daily reading was part of the routine that sustained him. His day at the office complete, the dinner dishes rinsed and racked, he carried his Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta papers to his armchair in our family room and settled in. He read his papers pretty much cover to cover, but he wasn’t much into fiction. At one point in late middle age he became enamored with Ferrol Sams, a Georgia novelist whose most successful book, Run with the Horsemen, told a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up during the Depression, much as my father did. Other than that, I don’t remember a single fictional title in Dad’s lifetime bibliography. He may have shored me up with the fundamentals, provided the scaffolding for the life in words I would build, but it was my mother who proved true the adage, Children Do What You Do, Not What You Say. Mom read everything, everywhere: den, kitchen, bedroom; trains, planes, automobiles; mountain cabins, hotel rooms, beach.
Yesterday was her birthday, number 101 were she still with us, and with COVID19 running roughshod over our world and everyone in it, I have more time to read. It’s one of the things that helps me stop obsessing (did I wash my hands after touching that banister? Wipe down that counter where my son just scarfed down a sandwich? Did I, did I, did I?) I’m glad, in a way, that my parents aren’t around during these troubled times. My mother, as my sister reminded me this morning, couldn’t abide talking about one’s health, or illness in general (what else is there to talk about now?). And my father lost his mother to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the only other health crisis in modern history to grip the entire planet as ruthlessly as COVID19. Dad always claimed he couldn’t remember his mother’s illness or death. He was only four at the time, but I fear some long-repressed and terrifying images might have resurfaced for him, were he around to try and survive this scourge.
My grandmother Mattingly was a lovely woman, as you can see here. She died, pregnant with her fourth child, at age thirty. Unlike COVID19, the 1918 pandemic killed mostly strong young adults. Though I never knew her, I miss my grandmother somehow, and always have. With all this idle time on my hands, I miss my father, and especially my mother, during this, her birth week. The less we’re occupied, the more strong emotions rise to the surface I suppose. And though it seems wrong, selfish to speak it, I miss getting together with friends. I miss eating out and going to movies and plays and damn it, it’s spring. Of all entertainments, I miss baseball the most.
We–that is those fortunate enough to have so far avoided the virus–have lost something we desperately need: camaraderie, breaks to the routine. But I have what Mom left me, a love of books to help pass the shut-in hours. And I’m most grateful.
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.
My grandmother, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old.
Emma and her Joe
My parents and I, Fernandina Beach, Florida, circa 1966
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.
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.
My dear friend Tracy (left) and I at the Paris Women’s March
Gathering beneath La Tour Eiffel
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!
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.
My letter on “cheap paper,” including four numbered afterthoughts.
Mary and I, May, 1984.
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.
My heart does a loop-de-loop. Hanging in there, I almost say, a grapefruit in one hand and a pack of sponges in the other. For so long, this was my stock response to this stock question from this kind-eyed Pakistani woman with the sprawling memory. This isn’t my usual grocery. Close enough to my house, it’s closer to my mother’s, or to the house that was my mother’s, and my father’s, mine, for half a century. In the years after we took away Mom’s keys and before her get-up-and-go got-up-and-went, we did her shopping here.
“Oh, she passed away,” I manage, cheeks flushing with heat as I do a quick calculation in my head. “Um, a year—no fifteen months now.” Can she have been gone that long? And why this need to pin it down, to date her death for a stranger?
“So sweet,” the woman says, her soft features sagging. “Your mum … such a sweet lady.”
With this, she gives a wan smile and we all grin and nod like eager Labradors, even my daughter. Yes, my daughter is there at the far end of the cart, home from college for the holidays. Leaning in for the dish detergent, she smiles broadly for the checkout woman then glances at me. They were close, Emma and my mother. They shared a love of fashion, things that sparkle, a petite stature. She misses her grandmother, her “Joe,” but there’s more. Already, at twenty-one, Emma’s smooth pearly skin gives off a curious vibe, a blend of sorrow and unease I’m all too familiar with. She’s as concerned about me in this awkward moment as she is mourning our shared loss.
I finger the sugar snaps in their crackly bag, straighten the box of microwave bacon on the belt because, well, who knows why. When on the spot, I am an aligner, cutlery on a spread table, the floor mat at the door, bacon on the belt.
“She shopped here?” asks the bag boy. “Your mother?”
Our rescuer! He’s young, Emma’s age, maybe younger, and a pleaser. I can see this in the easy way he puffs out my recyclable bags and hands in the heavy items first, the eggs on top, the meat in its own plastic.
“She did,” I say. “All her life! She was ninety-five …”
“Oh yes!” The checkout woman, keying in the zucchini. “She shopped here each week …”
She sweeps a hand in the direction of the produce, the condiments aisle, the canned goods. A knot has risen at the base of my neck. Enough, I think, but still I track the woman’s wave and who is that, just there? A small bent white-haired figure struggles to read the label on a jar of jam. She fumbles for her glasses, shakes her head, purses her lips. Something is not right and she reaches, a tremor in her hand, to reshelve the jar. It doesn’t fit. Where is that patch of free space she pulled it from? With a sigh, she drops it in her buggy anyway then scans the shelves again, squints at the creased scrap of a list between her gnarled fingers.
Marmalade. Maybe if I think it hard enough, she will remember … It’s the orange marmalade you want, the one with the red gingham cinched over the lid.
“Oh, how I remember her …” The checkout woman again, on a roll. “She walked like this …”
The bag boy pauses, his chin tilted up with interest, a pound of sugar balanced in one hand. We watch as the woman drops her arms to her sides and shuffles her feet—my mother’s signature walk in her last fretful years. Like a penguin, my young grandnephew once said, nailing it. The woman flicks her eyes at me and quickly away—has she gone too far? Yes, and no. Emma smiles again, not so broadly. I follow her lead. After all, how often have I mimicked the penguin walk myself, in Mom’s presence and otherwise? We only tease the ones we love …
“I used to help her outside, to wait.” The woman can’t be stopped. She meets my gaze, her eyes less kind. In her household no doubt, the elderly are revered.
“To wait for you,” she continues, gesturing again, through the plate glass window . “On the bench.”
The bag boy glances over his shoulder, past the Lotto machine and the ice cooler to the empty bench on the far side of the glass. It’s true, on very busy days I sometimes dropped Mom to do her shopping alone while I scooted off on some other errand, to pick up a child from baseball or gym practice, maybe to grab a cappuccino. There were times Mom had to wait on me. She didn’t mind, usually. In fact, she liked it! I expect I can do my own shopping … she would say with a toss of her head. She needed it, my mother, this small dose of independence.
And … she was not ninety-five then! I want to cry it out. She was late eighties, maybe ninety-one at the most! Boy, does my head hurt.
“Ninety-five!” the bagboy exclaims. He too meets my gaze, yet with nothing but good cheer. “What a life. I’d take that any day.”
I grin fiercely, more Pit Bull now than Lab.
“Yes,” Emma says. “Ninety-five!” She settles a bag, then another, into our cart. I swipe my card, say my thank you’s, and we turn to go.
“She was nice,” Emma says on our way to the car. “That lady. She must have really liked Joe.”
“Yes, she’s worked there a long time. I used to …”
“I know, Mom. You did everything for Joe.”
She doesn’t mention the bench, or the penguin shuffle, or the fact that in those feverish wonderful days when she and her brothers lived at home and their widowed grandmother lived half a mile away, I may have let things slide a bit, that on those last visits to this grocery Joe might have been too rickety on her feet, too forgetful, to be left to her own devices. Emma doesn’t say that maybe Joe needed her daughter there to pull down the marmalade and help her out to the bench.
She doesn’t mention it, but like she says, she already knows.
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.
And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm.
Big splashy holidays like today sometimes still my fingers on the keyboard. Hard to come up with a single original thought at a time when the entire planet is striving to do the same. Besides, to adapt a bit of Lucy Van Pelt, we all know Mother’s Day is just another commercial racket, run by a big Eastern syndicate … In this happy vein, I happened upon a Facebook post yesterday that called for a moratorium on all things Mother’s Day. Think of the millions, it asserted, for whom this day brings heartache–those who have lost mothers, and grandmothers, those who have toxic mother-child relationships, those mothers who have lost children and those women who want to be mothers and were never given the chance, for whatever reason.
The post gave me pause. Who am I to share photos and tell stories that might bring pain to so many? Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’m one of them! I’m motherless on this day for the first time, I’ve been grandmother-less for thirty years, and ironically, today is the last day our family calls the house my parents designed and built, the house where I grew up–my mother-home, so to speak–our own. Yes, My Mother’s Attic has disgorged her last mournful scraps. She’s been emptied out and swept clean. Tomorrow, a new family will sign on the dotted line and before long, some other mother, a box of dusty souvenirs in her arms, will bash her shin as she climbs the old girl’s steep wooden stairs. I can hear her cursing under her breath now.
I admit I’ve felt pretty wistful the past few days, though really, I can’t complain. I have four healthy children who like me well enough (most days) and all of them called. The youngest even joined us for lunch and my daughter ordered up a vase of roses and lilies from her room at the sorority house. It was delivered at nine am by, who else? A mother! We wished each other well and she didn’t seem the least bit upset to be doing a good turn for another mother lucky enough to be lounging in her pajamas while she made her rounds.
I saw a lot of women my age out today, their living mothers bedecked with corsages and leaning on their arms for support. Funny thing is, they made me feel better. Sure, when I scroll through the hundreds of tributes posted from sons to mothers and mothers to daughters, every dog, cat and fish to its surrogate mom, I get a little twinge, but I keep at it. Mostly, I smile. Turns out we’re a social species, one that thrives on emotion. Being alive often hurts but maybe in the long run, we do well to open ourselves up to the whole messy shebang–the happy thoughts, the teary memories, the moments of deep gratitude and the ones we can’t help but resent, whether that resentment involves those who have what we don’t, or our very mothers themselves. Maybe it boils down to the obvious: If you’re on this Earth, whether old or young, you have or had a mother, and God knows it doesn’t take long to develop some mixed feelings towards that woman who made you eat Brussels sprouts and called you Sweetie in the school hallway. But even if she did it poorly sometimes, she did what no one else could. She gave you your one particular life.
Hope you enjoy these photos of my mother and my two grandmothers, all wearing their Mamma hats (or in Mom’s case, scarf and curlers, like any good mother would, on the beach, in the ’60s.) Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and cheers to you, Mom. I owe you the world.