My roots burrow deep into rusty Georgia clay.
Daddy might’ve been born tasting a silver spoon but Mama worked, and worked hard, for everything she had. I remember a literal pot to pee in when we visited Papa, her father; but when I think on that a little more it was a white enamel bowl, and if memory serves properly, edged in worn out red.
I hated it and held it as long as I could when we were there. The tinny taste of water drawn from a bottomless well made up for it, but I had to be careful. If I drank too much I’d have to use the bowl.
Mama wanted to escape those dusty dirt roads so she moved to the city and sold costume jewelry at Davison’s. One day Macy’s would gobble it up.
It was over a retail counter Daddy met her, and theirs was a courtship that lasted a little while before they married in Las Vegas. She wore a sleek suit and no one was there to walk her down the aisle, or at least I can’t imagine there was.
That’s the kind of question a girl would ask her mother when she was a little older if she had the chance; but death would separate us before I did.
I never thought to ask my father.
Mama slipped from this life into the next when I was nine, a courageous warrior in a battle that would ravage her body part by part before taking her for good.
I hate cancer because it’s so mean to little girls and boys…
…and husbands and wives and mamas and daddies and even friends who don’t share blood but might as well.
Memories of Mama are so few I hold them with white-knuckles. I’m scared one by one they’ll slip through my mind’s sieve until what’s left of her is a whisper, a whimper, a shadowy specter…all of ’em together are hardly enough but when they’re all you’ve got, they’ll have to do.
Sometimes I wonder if I parent anything like her.
There’s this thing she used to say that has been a freckle on my ear for as long as I can remember. When my children were old enough and the situation called for it, I’d want with all my heart to say exactly what she said to us over and over and over again.
Probably what she said when her bones were screaming angry and she was lonely and tired and afraid. And worn out from her children asking the same damn question every day, the question that didn’t matter because they were stubborn and picky and, well, pretty typical kids.
WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR DINNER?
Right behind Are we there yet? it has to be one of the most frequently asked questions by children who never have to worry about their next meal.
Now, before I tell you what Mama answered when she was hanging by the tattered end of a hair-thin thread, let me tell you a little more about her.
She was strong. Strong in spirit, strong in temperment, strong in her will and ways, strong in her faith. When I think of Steel Magnolia, I don’t think of her because that paints too sweet a picture. So floral. She was tough like leather, the kind used for men’s belts not ladies’ shoes.
Daddy went to church twice a year – Easter and Christmas – but Mama made him promise that every week he’d take us to church after she died.
She. made. him. promise. She was too stubborn to die until she was sure he’d keep it (and throughout our youth, he did). She found a church with the sort of people who’d look after us, too, and when Daddy dropped us off, there were arms not just willing, but ready and waiting to pull us in. Doris (she cleaned our teeth, too). Debbie G. (so pretty and young). Polly Allgood (she always reminded us she was All Good and she mostly was). The Robertsons. So many more who knew her concern for her babies and who helped seed fruit ten years following her death.
They loved us in their doing. Jesuses with skin on.
So, I suppose it’s clear Mama was both a woman who loved the Lord and concerned herself with the salvation and sanctification of her children AND she was feisty and determined.
It was the latter who answered that daily, gnatty question, the country girl who remembered her roots and made sure her babies did, too. The mother who did everything in her power to assure her children were positioned to know Jesus.
Chicken shit on a shingle.
Now, it might sound harsh or you might just think that’s God-awful to tell a child, but our discriminating palates believed Gorton’s fish sticks with ketchup were gourmet and Oscar Mayer bologna was fine dining. Who can fold a New York Strip in half and chew holes in it you can see straight through?
I don’t know a lot of things about Mama, but I do know she was very sick for five tortuous years. I think God extends a lot of grace to a woman who CAN barely stand up and cook, particularly when she whirls an expletive towards squirrely little children asking about a dinner they’d probably complain about anyway.
I remember the time I didn’t want to eat my peas so I poured my milk in them to get out of it.
I also remember the time I ate peas floating in milk.
Chicken shit on a shingle.
It conjured an image that made me squinch my nose then, and I suppose even now, though I’m less inclined to imagine a literal interpretation. As a grown up (and writer) I secretly appreciate the alliteration and poetic Je n’cest pas.
Twenty years after Mama died I gave birth to my first baby, and two more would follow before the oldest turned five. The sickest I’ve ever been was when I had pneumonia at seven months pregnant; otherwise, I’ve been pretty healthy.
My mother never got to meet her grandbabies.
But once upon a time during my children’s Season of Picky Eating, when they peppered me with questions that threatened my sanity and annoyed me worse than flies, ants and rain at a picnic in July…
they just might have met her.
~ Originally published on Deeeper Story, one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written.