I am sad to say that I still do not know my mother. We talk on the phone and see each other once in a great while, but certain things have never been discussed. Our conversations are polite and mostly meaningless. I have never understood her, and I wish that I did. My siblings and I have no recollection of ever being hugged or kissed or held on our mother’s lap.
After I had children of my own, I came to realize just how unimaginable that is. I couldn’t go through a day without hugging my children numerous times and telling them how much I loved them. I am an overprotective mother, because I never wanted my sons to know pain and isolation as I had known it.
I wrote to my father about how Mother always isolated herself from all of us emotionally, and he has begun writing some letters to try to help me understand her a bit more. He is really the only one who ever knew her well, aside from Granddaddy. In a recent email he wrote about the complexity of my mother:
I’m sure that your mother loved you all, but she was a complicated, very intelligent woman – and too young when she began to have children. We were both bewildered by the experience, right in the middle of our college years.
As my father unveils her, I see myself more clearly. Everyone remarks how much I look like her, and I suspect there is more than just a physical resemblance between us. For instance, neither of us can stand for a man to tell us what to do. Once as I was contemplating my wild days, the thought came to me that Mother must have kicked up her hooves a few times too, like a beautiful untamed mare. She will always be a mysterious figure in our lives. I can only tell you the things that I remember.
I remember my first cup of coffee with my mother. I think I was seven or eight. She said, “Since you are a young lady now, you may have some coffee with me.” We sat together and sipped coffee from dainty bone china tea cups with saucers under them. We stirred in little cubes of sugar with tiny chiming silver spoons. I felt like a refined little lady. I have loved coffee ever since, and I have never forgotten that moment.
I do remember the little things that she did for us from time to time when we were children- boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts she delivered to us, daffodil dresses she sewed for us, quiet days when she showed us how to paint and draw and make pottery. Once when we lived with her, she brought home three cats- for my brother, sister, and me. She named them Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I remember one snowy day when she sculpted snow-women, -cats and -rabbits in the front yard.
I recall that Mother taught me this little traditional song that I used to sing a lot as a young girl:
All night, all day,
Angels watching over me, my Lord.
All night, all day,
Angels watching over me.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
Angels watching over me, my Lord,
Pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Angels watching over me.
If I die before I wake,
Angels watching over me, my Lord,
Pray the Lord my soul to take,
Angels watching over me.
I suppose my mother knew that I would need plenty of angels, and I thank her for this little spiritual lullaby. Many human angels have been dispatched to me over the years.
There have been many small kindnesses. Mother has always been a giver of unusual and wonderful gifts. My jewelry box is filled with her presents for various occasions- a fossilized mammoth tusk pendant engraved with a dragonfly and a rose and the face of an angel, a bracelet with faceted green peridot and purple amethyst, a signed brooch with a cameo of Iris, Messenger of the Gods. I guess she’s trying to compensate for her lack of maternal affection or protectiveness, for the four-letter word she never spoke to us.
I don’t think that my mother intended to hurt us, because I know she has deep-rooted problems. Her mother died of tuberculosis, when she was about six years old. I have a copy of a poem she wrote in her twenties about what it was like as a child to stand by the coffin of her mother. It was given to me by Granddaddy, and the title of it was “The Red Lined Coffin.” I have seen pictures of my mother with her mother, and I know that they were very close. There is such a serenity and joy in their faces together. I have also seen the photos of my mother after her mother’s death, and there is a tragic change in her. She looks lost and forlorn and miserable. I suspect that Mother passed on her sense of abandonment to us, that she could not mother us because she was deprived of mothering.
Granddaddy told me that she was very involved in church when she was young, and that she was a zealous member of the Rainbow Club, a well-known Christian youth organization in those days. He said that she was extremely spiritual-minded. That really interested me, because I am the only one of the grandchildren who turned out that way.
But Granddaddy said that something happened to her after the tragedy of his wife’s death, that my mother had seemed hopelessly embittered since then. Granddaddy tells me that the manner of his wife’s death was terrible and prolonged, and that she literally coughed herself to death. He said the medications could not control the coughing in her final stages, and that he would never forget the sound of her torment all through the night. He was a teacher at the time, and he said that he could still remember the sound of his young students’ footsteps tiptoeing up the steps in the middle of the night, to leave his family bags of groceries and other things.
Granddaddy remarried and his new wife Endora was terribly cruel to his children. The wicked stepmother profile in fairy tales must have some basis in reality. Endora made my mother watch while she drowned a litter of kittens. I have heard other horror stories about this woman. I am told that Granddaddy was overseas with the Navy for awhile during this time. He was not aware of what was happening until great psychological damage had been done to the children, and he divorced her. To the present day, my mother’s house is always overrun with cats, and she adopts every pitiful critter that she meets.
I am very hesitant to complain about my mother, because I really do believe that she tried in her own way. I believe she needed help, and that she was incapable of normal motherly affection. Perhaps if my father had stayed and supported her, she could have worked through some of her problems. Or perhaps not. But we will never know that. My father wrote to me about the minister who gave them marriage counseling:
“She got me to attend the Sunday afternoon coffee hours at the Presbyterian church, organized by Dr. Martin, the minister of that church. He gave us some counseling early in our marriage. And the meetings were a source of inspiration to us- at least to me. Sometimes there was a string quartet, once there was a lovely reading from Finnegan’s Wake. Often there were discussions between rich Cuban students in favor of Baptista, and poor Cuban students in favor of Castro. (Unfortunately, Dr. Martin killed himself one morning before breakfast, a heavy blow to your mother, who was really taken with him and his wife.)”
That must have seemed like a hex upon their marriage, a sign that the tragedy would never end for them.
Ministers have always been drawn to my mother, and I can recall two men of the cloth who wanted to marry her. The first one was named Charlie Huber, and he visited a lot when I was a young child (five, perhaps). He would sit on the floor with me and play animal games. I would climb on his warm back with my tiny hands clutching his collar and he would crawl around the room, pretending to be a cow then a horse, then a pig or whatever I wanted him to be. I would squeeze his nose and he would make animal noises of different kinds to make me laugh. He had thick curly black hair, and once he sat on the floor and let me roll his hair with pink curlers. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I loved him and longed for him to be my new father, but things didn’t work out.
When I returned from Thompson Orphanage to my mother’s house at the age of twelve, a minister named Jim would visit pretty often. He took the five of us- Mother, Margaret, my two half-sisters, and me- to Silver Springs to see the glass bottom boats. It was the first and last time that I ever saw swimming pigs, snorting and kicking their stubby legs in the clear water. What a sight! Jim disappeared soon after that. Maybe those pigs were just too much for him.
There is a Lutheran minister in Saint Augustine who still inquires about my mother when he sees me. I have always found this odd, and wonder why preachers are so intrigued by her. Are they looking for a little stroll into the jungle of sin, or do they perceive something in her that she tries to conceal?
I watched The History Channel one day, and scientists discussed possible explanations for the plagues of Egypt during the time of Moses. They said the fire which rained from the sky was the result of a volcanic eruption mixed with hail. Molten lava was encrusted with ice, creating amazing grenades. Volcanic hail!
My mother is like a snow-woman with a heart of fire. Sometimes I can see it blazing in her eyes. She is consumed by guilt on the inside, because she will not speak of what she did to us or why. She must know what it would mean to us to hear her version of the story, and I think she would feel better too, but she will only remark, “The past is the past. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I have photographs of my mother from the years that we lived in the orphanage, and they make me think of Dylan’s song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”- especially the part about her “saintlike face and ghostlike soul” and how her “fingertips fold.” She always wore flowing tie-dyed dresses and crocheted sandals and long golden hair that was usually braided. Sometimes she would coil the braids on top of her head like a crown.
Now Mother’s hair is pure white. The last time I picked her up at the airport, she wore a striped top, a vest covered with rainbow cats, black knickers, and striped knee socks with embroidered baby doll shoes. Her long white hair hung down on her shoulders. If she had been toting a big lollipop, she could have been a perfect munchkin.
There are so many interesting stories I could tell about her, like how she knocked a wild man over the head with a lasagna pan so hard he almost fell down, or the time that she punched a yelling woman so hard that she landed on her bottom and slid a few feet on the pavement with her feet up in the air. So much for non-violent Quakers.
It is an experience to go shopping with Mother because she delivers a loud ongoing commentary while she shops. My son loves to watch people’s faces when my mother does this.
We went into a boutique one day, and Mother said she had drawn the name of a nasty co-worker for Christmas; she proclaimed that she was looking for something that the lady would hate. She picked up a ghastly gold egg-shaped bag with a one-loop handle and brocade edges. She opened it up into two satin-lined halves and looked inside and said, “That is so ugly! I’m going to get that for her, just for spite.” She snapped it shut, and I looked around and noticed the eyes of the sales lady glaring at us. Her glittery reading glasses were resting on the tip of her wrinkly nose. But my mother never cares. She does what she pleases and I can only smile.
She bought the bag and called me after the office Christmas party. She said, “Would you believe that woman loved that ugly bag, and she just raved about it, and she’s been nice to me ever since I gave it to her? What a fluke!”
But my favorite story of all is the underwear story. My mother is a very large woman who is obsessive about beautiful underwear. She doesn’t wear the white cotton version that you expect grannies to wear. She wears the kind that you would expect to find in a children’s boutique or the Victoria Secret specialty line for old ladies. In her underwear drawer you will find amazing lingerie in gargantuan sizes: purple satin with black polka-dots, pink with white ruffles on the fanny, red satin with white hearts, baby blue with tiny pink roses, sexy black lace with red edges.
She travels a lot by airplane and whenever her luggage floats down the belt, it is impossible to miss. Among all of the professional blues and tans and greys, one hippie bag with bright colors and flowers will declare its independence, and you instantly know it is hers. Since security has been tightened at the airports, her bag is always the first one to go under the microscope. I think people are just curious about what might be inside the bag that dares to be different.
So one day, Mother was preparing for a flight and she decided to get revenge. She called me and said, “I’m so sick of always having my bag searched for no reason. This time, I’m putting all of my underwear on top of everything else in my bag, just for spite.”
A few days later, she called me again. She said, “You should have seen the embarrassment on this man’s face when he was digging through my big underwear, and the people all around him were giggling under their breath. I enjoyed every minute of it.” I imagined that scene and laughed and laughed about it. She can be terribly funny.
But deep inside of her, I perceive a troubled child.
When she comes from California to visit me, she always wants to sleep on the big cozy couch in the living room. I have heard her wake up with nightmares, and I’ve heard her talk to herself. But the most chilling thing that I have heard is when a child’s voice comes out of her mouth in the middle of the night, praying out loud to Jesus. It is the sound of a little girl with a mousey voice saying, “Dear Jesus, bless us all and take care of us, and help us all to have a really good time…”