Monday, May 12, 2008

Mama, oh Mama


Right before she died, Mama turned to the nurse who was taking care of her and said, "You know, my husband was a most unusual man." At least that's what my sister says happened. I was at work at the regional library about 25 miles up the road from the little town where my mother was born, grew up and was then dying. We had brought her home from the hospital in Atlanta because her doctor cousin, Levering, had said there was nothing more to be done. That had been just a couple of days ago. She had a fungal infection of the lungs, rare in the days before AIDs, and it scarred her lung tissue and kept her from taking in oxygen when she breathed. She was drowning in the air. It had taken a while for her to get this bad. For a year or two she would get out-of-breath and tire easily. But right before she died she was on oxygen all the time. Finally, even that wasn't enough. The scarring was too extensive.

Mama had huge hazel eyes that caught the light when she looked around the room. This gave her an expression of alarm unless she was laughing or smiling. She probably wasn't smiling when she said that about Daddy. I imagine that she was reliving her life there on her deathbed and thinking how he had totally changed her life in ways she could not have imagined in the years before she met him.

My father had died barely two and a half years earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage. They were living out in the country then on the farm land Mama had inherited from her own mother. They raised a few cattle and grew hay to feed them. I figured she got the fungal infection from messing with the hay; she'd go into the barn with someone she'd hired and get hay for the cows in the winter. In damp dark places hay can get moldy. My sister thinks her lungs were ruined when she was young because her town sprayed for mosquitoes during the summer with a chemical that is now outlawed. Whatever the cause of her infection there was no cure for it then. She died a horrible death, drowning on land.Her name was Mary, but Daddy pronounced it May or May ry.
She was 11 years older than my father and when she married him it scandalized the good people in the little southern town were she was a schoolteacher. He was a good looking stranger dragged to family dinner by my namesake Aunt Annie during the Christmas holidays.

Pearl Harbor was bombed a year before I was born. Daddy was rejected by the military because of an abcess in his thigh bone from a badly healed break. He was a geologist though and worked for a company that manufactured aluminum, a much needed metal during WWII. He was prospecting for bauxite in the Dominican Republic right after my brother and sister were born. Then he was sent to Oregon. Mama had to travel from Georgia to Oregon by train alone with me, a two-year-old, and baby twins. She carried them in a big basket where they faced one another. She always said she couldn't have made it without all the soldiers on the train who helped her take care of us.
Mama was a fabulous cook and an accomplished hostess, an asset to my father who kept moving up in the corporation after the war. She had Bette Davis eyes and a wonderful laugh that made others laugh involuntarily. She had auburn hair when she was young and made the best strawberry shortcake I've ever had. When I went away to college she started writing me letters and kept it up until I moved closer to her towards the end.

Daddy, her handsome and brilliant husband, turned out to be an alcoholic. Alcoholism gets worse as time goes on and eventually he lost his job as an executive at company headquarters in Pittsburgh. That same summer I got pregnant while working at a beach resort. My parents talked me into going to a "home for unwed mothers" in another state. I had a red haired daughter whom I gave up for adoption.
My parents sold their house and moved to Mama's farm in Georgia. Daddy became a geological consultant and Mama returned to teaching. She loved her students and they loved her.

But bad things kept happening. My brother was killed by his girlfriend in an Atlanta hotel. He was 23. My sister and her husband divorced and she returned with her daughter to live with them. Daddy got TB and gave it to my niece. They were quarantined in a hospital 30 miles away until they got well. Almost a year. Still, Mama was living near the town where she had grown up. She had family, including two sisters and a brother, living close by and I know they were a comfort to her. After she retired she would drive to town in the big Buick and meet her sisters for lunch at the Greyhound Bus Station cafeteria. Meanwhile, I quit my job at a newspaper in the state where my daughter had been born. Attracted by the "counterculture" I protested the Vietnam War and joined the women's liberation movement. Sometime later I went out West, took acid and had a very bad trip which shattered my self confidence. Back East, I sort of fell apart at the end of the Vietnam War.

Mama didn't know what to do but she kept writing me her cute letters talking about life on the farm. They lived in a dry county so Daddy never got drunk unless he had occasion to drive to a "wet" county for something. I got involved with Al-Anon and was working in a shoe store when fell in love with a Mexican American engineer on assignment in the area. After he left I followed him to Los Angeles. Things didn't work out between us. I was working in a restaurant in Santa Monica when Daddy had surgery for cancer of the larynx. He refused to let the surgeon remove his voice box and was really sick. I was going to fly home to see him. But then some cops saw a marijuana plant on my back porch. Pot was legal in LA at the time. Growing it was not but I didn't know that. A friend had just given me the plant before he left town.

I was a grown woman but when they handcuffed my hands behind my back, I started sobbing and calling out to my mother. "Mama, oh Mama," I kept crying. Daddy sent money for bail but the charges were dismissed after I attended drug education classes. Then Daddy died and I flew home to attend his funeral. Mama was so happy to see me. She was always happy to see me. We buried Daddy on the farm next to where my brother had been buried.

I went back to LA to get my Volkswagen bug, packed it with everything that would fit and moved to Georgia to stay. with Mama. I got a job in town but after a year took the library job and moved there. Soon after, Mama's health started to fade. When she died, my sister and I arranged for a blanket of shasta daisies to cover her casket. She loved flowers and shasta daisies had become favorites. Later we learned that the ladies of the Episcopal Church altar guild disapproved. White flowers were for priests and bishops, not for lay people. But they didn't see them until the funeral and by then it was too late. They were beautiful, happy looking flowers and Mama had loved them. Mama, oh Mama, I love them, too.