This was originally published in My Southern Heart…the Stories.
It was August of 1994 and I had just lost my Mother at the age of 90. It was a deeply sad time for me and my three sisters and our families. I was working full-time and still had an eighth grader at home, so I did my best to keep life steady and “normal”. I had lost my Dad four years before. I was only 48 and had lost both my parents. Years later, my children would be 36, 35 and 25 when they lost their father.
I would drive the short drive home from work every day and spend my lunch hour writing about Mama…and my family. It ended up being the best way for me, for as I typed, the tears fell and I grieved. I compiled a cookbook of Mama’s recipes and included the following story with it.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mama…
A soft rain was falling as we left for the cemetery after Mama’s funeral service. We were taking her back to the “hills” of Mississippi to rest in peace beside Daddy. Driving through the winding country back roads of the small Mississippi towns, I noticed the pines, the fields of green crops and the scattered farm houses. This country haven had been the home of her youth, where she had lived with her parents and her five brothers and sisters.
Ninety years. The last of four daughters, I had been born when she was forty-one. Although she had always been young to me, still I had not known her as my older sisters had. Often they had laughed and talked about their youth and the days “on the farm”. . . picking cotton, milking cows, riding a school bus to a small country school and the friends that they had known there. They had also talked about the hard times – the times that come naturally with growing up on a farm in a small Mississippi town.
Now, the windshield wipers beat out a steady rhythm with the softly falling rain, as the slightly rolling patchwork hills of green stretched out before us.
Now I wondered about the early years . . .what her parents had been like, about her childhood, if she had always been as creative as I had known her. Winter mornings often found her quilting over the “wooden horses” set up in the middle of the living room. She sewed beautifully and made many of our clothes, even my wedding gown.
She was in her mid-fifties when she went to driving school and learned to drive – seldom more than thirty miles per hour though – much to my chagrin. Whenever she set her mind to accomplish something, she was persistent. Years later, I would see that persistence again and again . . . as she recovered from a major stroke twelve years before her death and struggled to regain a portion of her speech . . . after she broke her hip and spent many weeks in rehab learning to walk again, only to break the other hip two weeks after returning home.
I was a teen-ager before I knew that she had a gift for writing. For some reason, long since forgotten, she began to recount a story about her brother, Bill, and something that had happened to him on one of his cross-country trips as a truck driver. Had I realized then how quickly time would pass, I would have encouraged her to write about her life . . . and the events I so wondered about now.
I smile to think now that I never thought of Mama as aging. I knew, of course, that time was passing. I grew up, got married, had a family – just as my sisters had . . . but still, for the longest time, she remained the same in my eyes. Of course, I would notice the subtle changes that age would bring, but the Loving Care “soft plush brown” covered her gray hair; and her indomitable spirit remained the same. Years later, recovering from a stroke, the “soft plush brown” would be forgotten. . . and we would laugh with joy to discover that Mama had the most beautiful soft white hair, the perfect complement to her blue eyes . . . and she would laugh at our amazement.
As we continued our journey to the cemetery, a song on the radio reminded me of an earlier time and place . . . a Christmas just a few years past when Mama and Daddy had spent weeks apart . . . in separate hospitals in Memphis. My sisters and I had shared the vigil of staying with each of them around the clock. For the most part, Mama’s speech was gone, but she managed to ask often where Daddy was. I can’t remember now whether or not we told her the truth – or whether we tried to protect her, but I do remember an early December morning, driving home after staying with Mama at the hospital all night, and the words to the bittersweet ballad by Kathy Mattea playing on the radio:
“. . .They’d never spent a night apart. For sixty years she heard him snore. Now they’re in hospital in separate beds on different floors. . . .she soon lost her memory; forgot the names of family. She never spoke a word again.. . then one day they wheeled him in. He held her hand and stroked her head. In a fragile voice she said, Where have you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day. Where have you been? I’m just not myself when you’re away.”
A few days after that, we were able to take Daddy to the hospital to see Mama. It was a bright but bitter cold Saturday morning before Christmas. Though he was still very weak, he was cheerful and excited about our excursion and the fact that we had planned a surprise for Mama. My sisters were already there as we rolled Daddy’s wheelchair into Mama’s room. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as they reached out to touch one another and Mama said, clearly this time, “Where’ve you been?. . .You’ve been gone so long.”
Now, many months later, as we faced the task of dividing our parent’s possessions, representing a lifetime together, we cried together and remembered. Each little thing brought back a memory, and we talked about it and cried again. Our parents had not been able to leave a great deal of wealth or material possessions, but what they had given to their four daughters was even more valuable. People of a strong but quiet faith, they trusted God in their daily lives. Family was immensely important to each of them and they rejoiced with each of our successes or joys and offered support and caring during the hard times we faced. At times, we would believe we were protecting them from some “bad news” or tragic event, but they were never surprised or unable to handle any situation . . . and usually had some words of wisdom.
A family is woven together with many different cords or “threads”. Perhaps the strongest thread, lasting a lifetime, is love. The most precious gift, given to each of their four daughters, four sons-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was a strong love for and belief in each of us.