If Mama were still alive this Mother’s Day, I’d have a hard time finding the card I’d most want to send her. I would have to make my own, and it would say: “Thank you, Mama, that we didn’t discover any skeletons.” That’s a Mother’s Day greeting I’ll bet has yet to appear on any card, anywhere.
Mama was many things that irritated the crap out of me–one of which was being told at age seven that I wasn’t allowed to say crap like my brothers did–but being two-faced wasn’t one of them. My brother Chuck and I have spent two weeks now getting her house ready to sell since her death in December, going through every piece of paper and expired can of tuna. And I’ve been thankful that there have been no surprises as we’ve sorted through everything she owned, except maybe the nearly full box of aluminum foil from A&P purchased at least, as best we can figure, 40 years ago.
But even that wasn’t altogether surprising. Mama was a recycler before it was trendy, a confirmed hater of paper towels, plastic garbage bags, and tin foil. But it wasn’t because she cared all that much about saving the environment. Mama cared about saving money. Throwing away perfectly good garbage bags along with the garbage made no sense to her. When she visited at my house, she always dumped the garbage from the bag into the can and then wondered why the garbage men didn’t take it. “Mama, they won’t take any un-bagged garbage.”
“Well, they should.”
I confess that it was difficult to be grateful for the twenty cent savings of a slimy, black garbage bag or five cents’ worth of greasy aluminum foil, pressed out again and again. Somehow those “gifts” from her felt more like the dead moles the cat seems to think I prize and leaves for me on my back door mat. But I tried to practice gratitude when Mama visited so that I wouldn’t wring her neck, even though I felt many times that wringing her neck would have been more honest.
Chuck and I have left our day jobs twice now to meet at Mama’s home in New Jersey for a week where we have sorted and boxed, painted and staged, and tossed. Mainly tossed. The pile that was hauled out of her garage took up way more space than her car. And that didn’t include the fifty plus over-sized bags that we bribed the garbage men to take. Or the countless boxes and random furniture that the Salvation Army was scheduled to pick up. Stacy, Chuck’s wife, has helped us and brother Jack and his wife, Jane, have fed us wonderful meals every night while we gathered around her dining room table, swapping stories, some of which I’d never heard, but none of them really surprising.
We already knew that Mama was full of contradictions. She was both eccentric and main stream, expedient and meticulous, gracious and bossy, self-sacrificing and self-asserting. She was a marriage counselor who was herself divorced. A mother who spanked us for lying but never gave a straight answer when asked about her health. A psychologist who gave personality profiles to others but couldn’t figure out her own. An intellect whose favorite past time was gaming on her iPad.
As I’ve gone through her things, I’ve noticed that even her collections have a kind of contradiction to them. There are original oil paintings and framed posters on the same wall, real orchids and silk flowers in the same room, antique Persian and JCPenney rugs on the same floor. Many of her most beautiful pieces are glued or patched together. From a distance, the overall effect of her decorating style is classic, elegant beauty, but closer up, there’s the sense of shifty–of even slapdash. Her style was really more about how to make it look expensive on a garbage-picking budget, with the occasional fabulous-find tossed in to validate the rest.
Mama had the means to buy first quality everything. But where was the affirmation of herself in simply spending money for beautiful things? Anyone could do that. Mama liked to feel that she’d scored unbelievable deals…or re-purposed something as no one else could…or in some way proved her skill and creativity and beaten the odds. I asked her once why she always bought less fabric or less wallpaper than was recommended for her projects. “It’s a game I play,” she said, “to see if I can beat ’em again.”
“Beat who?” I asked.
“Those people who want me to waste my money and buy more than I need.”
Ahh, now we are seeing the man-behind-the-curtain that pulled her string: saving money. When she sold her Princeton home, the one she “downsized” from to her current one of 4,000 square feet, she took classes and earned her Real Estate license just so that when she sold her house, she could keep the commission. And she did. She never sold another one. She slept on the same Beauty Rest mattress that she and Daddy bought when they were newlyweds, and she still used her monogrammed trousseau sheets and towels from her wedding registry regardless of the fact that they were a little shabby. She regularly ran her finger around the inside of cracked eggs to get out the last drops. She often chided me for failing to scrape out all the brownie batter in a bowl when I baked, and even charged me if I used her ingredients to make cookies for my school club’s bake sale. She used only one square of toilet paper.
Let me zoom out. Besides beautiful things and money, Mama also collected words. She kept handouts for counseling on neatly typed sheets in file folders. Or she arranged them in dresser drawers. Or simply forgotten, she left them next to the ironing board or stacked up on the floor beside the sofa. Handouts like, “Things I’m Not Responsible For,” or “Healthy vs Unhealthy Anger,” or “Ways to Love without Touching.” She had neatly written lists of Scrabble cheats–allowed two and three letter nonsense words–several pages of which she kept with her Scrabble dictionary in her chair along with her iPad.
She also had everyday lists of “What to get at Shop Rite” and “What to take to Eve in Georgia,” using any scrap of paper at hand–the backs of used envelopes or greeting cards, the torn top from a cereal box. Buy a notepad for notes when there’s free cardboard to be found? Goodness, no. Lists like these were stuffed in junk drawers, jacket pockets, car cup holders. She also kept every greeting card she ever received from family and friends in shoe boxes, including those from a mysterious, poetry-writing admirer who signed all of his cards of appreciation to her, “from the Motherless Men.” It was pithy, praiseful poetry. I kind of wish I’d saved it…or knew who wrote it.Mama was considered by people outside our family to be clever and accomplished, the consummate hostess, the business man’s model wife. She was smart, too, and competed on multiple game shows on TV as a winning contestant in the ’60’s–The Big Payoff, Password, Jeopardy, and Concentration.
When she got tired of dealing with our cat’s litter box, she invented a device for teaching cats how to use the toilet and went so far as to have the invention patented and manufactured. There were still boxes and boxes of Kitty Caddys and padded mailers and enormous bags of plastic pellets (aka Kitty Caddy litter) in her garage until we had it hauled away last week. Kitty Caddy, as you may have guessed, was not the big seller she had hoped it would be. Chuck says she had maybe 15 customers, one of which asked for their money back. The books she wrote were slow sellers, too. But she wrote them, and they were published, and we gave them away at her funeral, her own idea, written as an addendum to her Last Will and Testament.
At home, we saw all of these wonderful things, too, but we, or at least I, found her to be preoccupied and unavailable. Like many mothers, she was just too darn busy. But she was unlike the other mothers I knew, too. She read a lot, she knew a lot, and she talked a lot about politics and issues. She supported a local congressman and campaigned for him. She went back to college at night and got another degree. At different times, she was a foster parent for teenage girls. She worked out at a local health club at a time when “working out” meant solving a problem, not exercising. She taught Sunday School, cooked countless meals, was in garden and bridge clubs, volunteered with both Boy and Girl Scouts. She sewed most of my clothes and hers, too.
She always did more than anyone else and did it better it seemed to me, and sometimes (and I didn’t know how to put this into words then but as an adult I see now), I wished she didn’t do so much for me. I wish she’d done more with me. I was wanting her to see me, to know me and to tell me what she saw, to speak into me. These were things she didn’t know how to do. After all, no one had done them for her. “Mother always called me a nuisance,” she once told me. In all her busy activity, I see now that she was wanting the very same thing I wanted—to be seen, known, and appreciated. For all of our mutual love of words, neither of us had the words for that.
Like all relationships, ours had its peaks and valleys, but my memory like fog seems heavy in the valleys. She took good physical care of me but hadn’t a clue about how to just hang out with me and girl talk. Gifts I received from her at birthday or Christmas were often ones she wanted me to have or maybe that she even wanted herself, chandeliers and antique figurines for example, rather than the blue jeans or tennis lessons I asked for. While she’d been huggy in a healthy way when I was little, she stopped when I asked her to when I was in the 4th grade and learned what queer meant. “You can’t hug me anymore, Mama. OK? Bethie told all of us what a queer is, and I’m not going to be one.”
And just like that, she didn’t. I never thought that what I wanted mattered to her at all, whether it was ordering my own food at a restaurant or deciding what I wanted to wear to school, but when she respected my request never to hug me again, well, it was the wrong thing to respect. We never quite grew out of that awkward place, and I really needed her to lead us out.
When I became an adult and she’d visit, she focused on my mending pile or upholstering a chair or transplanting fern from the woods to my garden. She’d make appointments with me to talk, formal requests for time with me that made me angry, though at the time, I didn’t understand why. When I visited her, she continued to see counseling clients all day long, missing hang out time with my kids, her grandkids, and the Uno and Spoons happening at her kitchen table in the next room, the loved ones right under her nose.
After all of the missing we did of one another over most of my life, now that she’s gone, I realize that I am actually missing her. It’s as if all the irritating things have melted out of memory and only the sweet ones remain. I’ve thought more times to call her since her death than I can ever remember calling her in her life to tell her some small thing, something you’d only tell your mother because only your mother would be interested in the minutia, and I realize, Dang it. I can’t call. And my chest tightens and my ears feel hot. A few weeks after her death, I accidentally dialed her number and saw “Mama/Tibby calling home” on my screen, and my heart squeezed in a moment of amnesia-joy and then broke out in fresh tears, all over again.
Chuck was in her basement last week, looking for a leftover can of bedroom paint to match the wall that he was patching, and after finding multiple cans of possible matches, he had a moment when he thought he’d just bring them all up and ask her which one was the right paint. Amnesia-joy and heartbreak for him, too, right there amongst her tools and her rickety ladder, her skil saw and a rotting mouse.
The truth of her death seems to be settling slowly for us both. Maybe that’s the mercy of grief. While the brunt of it hits hard right away–the body breaking down, the breath rattling, the breath stopping, the burying–all of it is a blur, an unprocessed blip and blam. It takes time for death to actually settle into your bones and your blood cells, your nervous system and memory, and into your dreams at night. Mama isn’t dead in my dreams yet. And I’m glad. She’s a living presence in them still, even when the dream isn’t about her. I feel sure that eventually my brain will catch up to reality. And in the same way my grandboys have made their appearance in my dreams a few months after their births, mama will disappear in them eventually because of her death. But in the meantime, there’s this little mercy. This slow settling.
Along with the stabs of amnesia-joy and the little heartbreaks, Chuck and I laughed a lot last week, and we mostly laughed at Mama. I don’t think she’d mind. When we moved her bedroom furniture away from the walls so that he could get a ladder closer to the crown molding to paint, we realized that she had painted around the furniture when she wanted to change the paint color rather than behind it. Why didn’t she simply move the furniture and paint the walls behind? When seen through the double lens of our mother’s expedience and thriftiness, it seems clear: when she moved to this home 12 years ago, she was 80. The furniture would have been too heavy to move by herself once it’d been placed. She didn’t want the inconvenience of asking someone for help; she would have to submit to their timetable. Painting around the furniture would have made sense then and also appealed to her thrifty self, as she would have been delighted to think she was saving paint by not using it needlessly behind the furniture. When we made this same wall painting shortcut discovery in every room of her house, we decided that hiring painters made sense.
As with the painting, Mama was always doing something her way, without asking for help. We see the results of her work now and marvel, not because the work is necessarily well done, but because it was courageously done. It doesn’t escape us that she climbed a rickety extension ladder to do the sponge painting by hand in her 12 foot high ceiling kitchen, or to rig the Christmas candle in the equally high ceiling window over her front door, or to hang the lace curtains she had made herself for every window of her new home, including the ones high up in the garage. It doesn’t escape us because Chuck climbed the same ladder, taking down the same candle and painted the ceiling above that high window, terrifying me as he threw caution to the wind, the realization coming over me that he had inherited Mama’s tenacity, determination, and, dare I say it, stupidity? Yes, I dare.
We remembered the time Mama cut down a tree when she was 84 with her skil saw. She wanted to get rid of a tall pine that had been badly planted by the HOA grounds crew. The landscaping was the domain of the HOA, and when she asked them to move the pine that blocked her kitchen window, they declined. So she poured gasoline on it and killed it, and then cut it down herself. Which is exactly why I poured gasoline on a tree I wanted cut down recently when I was told it couldn’t be done because the tree was still alive. Thanks to Mama, I knew just how to fix that.
The skil saw story reminded us of the time when she decided that Chuck’s backyard had too many trees in it, and she offered to cut them down for him. Stacy was wise to Mama and specifically said, “Don’t cut these trees by my kitchen window. They’re dogwoods.” The next day, Chuck and Stacy left Mama alone at their home. There was a saw in the garage. Need I say more? The dogwoods and all the rest of the extraneous trees were gone by the time they got home.
Sometimes her overdoing backfired on her. When her parents could no longer care for themselves and came to live with her and Daddy, she took down the wallpaper she’d put up in her parents’ home and used it again in their new room at her house, so that they’d have the comfort of familiar surroundings. It was also because it was cheaper to reuse the wallpaper than to buy new, but it was also a lot more work. Her plan to make them feel welcome with the wallpaper, as well as cooking homemade meals and caring for them physically, literally around the clock, was lost on her mother. Gama’s short term memory grew fuzzier with every heart attack, and once she told me with tears, “Martha promised me she’d never put me in a place like this. And the food’s awful!”
Jack remembers a time when he was little when they had no milk for his lunch box thermos. Mama fixed tomato soup to put in it, but Jack objected saying, “What will I do when all the kids see my tomato soup instead of milk and make fun of me?”
Mama replied cooly, “Tell them it’s pirate’s blood!”
So when it came time for lunch, Jack poured the soup into his cup. As he predicted, the kids said, “Oooh, what’s that?”
Emboldened by Mama’s creativity and with a gleam in his eye, Jack said, “It’s pirate’s blood!” He was the envy of every boy at his table.
Chuck remembers Mama’s help with science fair projects. They once constructed a mice maze to test if a better mouse diet enabled better learning for mice. It did. Another project involved using hypnosis and slapping him in the face with a wet washcloth during the night to see if he could be trained to wake up at various times. Unfortunately, Chuck slept through it all, night after night, but it worked for Mama. She continued to get up for weeks after the experiment, right on schedule.
Our parents had never gotten along. When there wasn’t tension and an uncomfortable silence between them, there were loud words and cries in the night, and tears and bruises in the mornings. I was honestly elated by the news of their divorce. We children were all grown and gone by this time, and Mama threw herself into her faith, into the arms of Jesus, and into her counseling, which she often did pro bono. She was 63. She got rid of a lot of stuff then. A few years after that, she sold her house, pocketed the commission, and moved on to start over, again.
And this is maybe the greatest contradiction to me of my mother’s entire life. While outspoken in the community and in her friendships and with her children, she was a wet noodle with Daddy, the consummate Christian Woman Doormat empowering the Beast He Became. I know this to be true because I witnessed it but also because for a long time, I thought this behavior was healthy, even pleasing to God. But disrespect never pleases God, whether it’s of yourself or someone else. I am still recovering from the wounds of their mutual disrespect. (For the story of how God entered Daddy’s life and made him a Beauty, see my post “The Second Chance.”)
After their divorce, she began to replace the doormat on her back with a combat boot on her foot. Cracks appeared in the veneer of this gracious Southern Lady. She became more and more demanding of her rights. She went to the mat again with the HOA to have a window moved in her living room wall that she’d discovered was off by a few inches from the original plan. She won the battle, but spent a cold week of late winter while they yanked it out and replaced it. I don’t think she had any friends left in the HOA after that.
She kind of forgot how to say please and thank you, too, of even the most ordinary things like jam with her toast or cream in her coffee. In her last year or two, her desires were often communicated with one single word, repeated angrily over and over. It was “Jam!Jam!Jam!” or “Cream!Cream!Cream!” as if no one could be trusted to respond to her if she used a calmer, kinder, “Would you mind getting me jam and cream?” One of the last times I visited, she forgot who I was for a moment and said, “Juice!Juice!Juice!”
“Who do you think you’re talking to like that, Mama? I’m not your bitch.”
To which she quietly replied, “May I have some juice, please?”
We were two recovering doormats, trading kicks, both in need of a little grace.
I realized as I went through her belongings last week, choosing the ones to keep in the house for staging and which ones to pack up for the family or to toss, that I was having a grand time, knocking myself out, just like Mama would have done. I was up late every night and early every morning, rearranging her furniture, her bookshelves, her drawers and closets and cabinets. Things had gotten disarrayed in her last years and tired looking, and I had always wanted to do a makeover for her. But when I had offered, she always declined. “Just do what you want to do that’s fun,” she’d say, meaning just read or watch TV or go shopping. “Nothing needs doing.” I never could get her to see that doing things for her was as fun for me as it had been for her to do them for me.
Like mother, like daughter.
dried rose petals, and poinsettias that she’d kept alive, turning red right on time every Christmas. As adept as she was with living plants, it always surprised me the amount of artificial flowers she sprigged in vases and baskets throughout her home. It was easy to make choices and remove the things that needed to go, but it was hard to see them piled up in her garage, awaiting the landfill or Salvation Army.
It’s also hard to be inside her home without her there, to be unable to call her on Mother’s Day. Often I think we weren’t close, we didn’t share much. She really didn’t know very much of who I am. But then I’m flooded with memories of Girl Scout badges she helped me earn, home made birthday cakes, driving my friends and me into New York City many times just so we could see it all over again (her chauffeuring us despite being told, “Ok, you can drive us, but you can’t talk!”), her rubbing my knees countless nights when they ached and I couldn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep those nights either, and she cared for me and did a myriad of other things without complaint, because being a mother was her greatest joy. She was the one person on the planet I always knew had my back.
And now she’s gone.
Losing a mother isn’t really about losing a person. It’s about losing a life force, a landscape, a way of life, essential nourishment, an element akin to fire or water or air. Mama was and always will be for me the most unappreciated, uncelebrated, generous and tireless blessing of my entire life. When I look at her through the lens of a lifetime, the irritations fade and the lights come up on what she did well. And I’m blinded by the beauty of her, of all that she was for me. Mama wasn’t a big, black African Mama like in The Shack, the kind you wish could swallow you up in her arms and hold you forever, the one you feel connected to God through in a whole different way than when you think of him as Our Father.
But Mama was, after all, MY mother, the only one I had, and she swallowed me up in her love the best way she knew how by doing things for me, by being there for me, and maybe the best part, by giving me a front row seat into her life with all its pain and heartache and healing. At the end of her life, Mama and I held on to each other for dear life. And on this side of her life and leaving me, I realize she did enough. I’m so very thankful to have had such a stable, secure presence from him in her. I don’t know why I couldn’t see her this way when she was alive. Seeing her like this now gives me hope when I look at my failures with my own kids. Maybe they’ll remember what has been good, too? Maybe the eyes of the heart only fully see at a distance.
We had some trouble agreeing on how to go about destroying her client files, my brothers and I. When it was finally decided how we would proceed, un-HIPAA-like as it was, we went through her filing cabinet and destroyed everything we found. It was a tedious process because Jack wanted us to save the holders for the files and this required us to take the time to separate them. “They’re expensive,” he commented. “Don’t trash them.” And of course we didn’t. We saved each and every holder. Recycling comes easily to all of us; it’s a family sport.
Before I left at the end of the 2nd week, Chuck and I put some furniture we didn’t need for staging in an attic space. It was the end of the day and we were spent when we began moving things around. We found leftover scraps of the antique Persian rug she’d cut and glued together to fit her dining room and oh joy! More artificial flowers. Over in a corner, there were at least eight more bankers boxes stacked up alongside three metal file cabinets.
“Chuck, you don’t think…I mean, surely not…” I stammered.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. I closed my eyes and opened a box. It didn’t take long to figure out what was inside since we’d just dealt with the file cabinet downstairs: more client files. The box was packed full of them, as was the next box and the next. All eight boxes in fact were stuffed tight with client files and so were the three filing cabinets. There must have been hundreds of people, I thought. As if he read my mind, Chuck let out a deep breath and said, “Eve, there have got to be thousands of files in here.” We looked at the literal motherlode before us as the truth of her landed:
Our mother saw thousands of people.
“Why do you think she kept all of these, all these years?” I asked him.
“I’m thinking the only active ones were in the files downstairs in the library. But for some reason, she couldn’t part with any of them. So she stored them up here…”
“…for us to find,” I finished his sentence. “I think she wanted us to know. She wouldn’t tell us, but I think she wanted us to know, and the only way she knew how to tell us about herself was leaving all her pretty stuff and all her people behind for us.”
“Well, she sure did that.”
“Goodness knows, she couldn’t just sit us down and talk to us,” I laughed, “being the counselor and all…”
“She wasn’t trained for that,” Chuck rejoined sarcastically.
“No skeletons, though,” I reminded him. “I’ll take stability.”
The stories we shared around the table had simply added confirmation, an “ah, yes, that was Mama!” kind of high-fiving of the mother we already knew her to be–a dichotomy–a marvelously complex and straightforward woman in an age of secrets and scandal. And her known-ness, her dependable and exasperating sameness–even for all the quirkiness–felt like a gift I never thought to appreciate until now. No skeletons meant safety and trust. I’m a big fan of those.
There were maybe 250 people at her funeral. Some had stormed the house to say goodbye the week before she died, a few getting downright pushy and not very gracious about it, either, even after we finally said no more visitors. People felt strongly about our mother. Some of them were more needy than others, a few without eye contact or any cool factor whatsoever. Some stuttered, stood alone, or couldn’t speak…or couldn’t stop speaking. One man offered to be there for me if I ever needed anything. A woman asked sincerely if she could start calling me now that Mama was gone. Several others asked if I would give them my phone number or email address. There were African American, Indian, Pakistani, Asian, and Caucasian people there, her crowd way more diverse than any I run with.
I’d always noticed that Mama seemed to attract the down-and-out types, the broken and the depressed, The Rejects. But Mama never seemed to notice. She gathered them all in, loved them, advised them, and gave them the good news about Jesus. At her funeral, I felt ashamed that I’d always dismissed “her people.” Everyone needs a shepherd…or a shepherdess. Everyone deserves to be loved. Everyone is needy. Weren’t these just the people Jesus came for? In the grand scheme of things, how valuable is cool anyway? Cool is just a flimsy cover for needy. At least it is for me.
I was thankful that our mother hadn’t spent her years as a divorcee nursing her bitterness and shopping full-time as some do. She could have. There was plenty to be bitter about and plenty of resources at her disposal. But she chose instead to give her life away, to mother the motherless men and women who found their way to her door. At least three people told us she had come in their darkest hour and literally saved their lives. Seven couples had met and married and begun families because of Mama’s introductions. Dozens of marriages had survived and thrived because of her intervention. Many told us of her journeying with them as they walked through the painful end of their most intimate relationships.
The irony never escapes me…the wife who couldn’t save her own marriage, helped to save others. The mother who didn’t mother me–at least not in the way I longed for–mothered others in precisely that way. The grandmother who was too busy doing chores when she visited to hang out with her grandkids, hung out with others whenever they called her, for free. God “uses who he chooses,” and it’s often the last person you’d expect.
One man called her every single night at 10 p.m. for years upon years. Last October when I last heard her talk to him she said, “You always complain about the same old things. I’m so bored. Call me when you have something new to say.” And she hung up on him, just like that.
For all her bluntness, thriftiness and eccentricities, I’m thankful that Mama used her wealth–her time, her wisdom, her love–to help people. She shot it straight from the Bible and straight from her no-nonsense heart. I know this wasn’t entirely unselfish. After all, she got back plenty–intimate relationships without the baggage, Mother-Goddess status, plus all those gifts and cards. But maybe the best thing was this: she had company in her journey from divorce to death so that she wouldn’t have to travel alone.
God is complicated and not easy for me to get my head around. And so was Mama. Both of them love me deeply and cause me to stretch my head and heart and arms wide enough to hold on to what I know and love about them and what I don’t particularly like. There are no skeletons with either, no unknown secrets that change who they are for me. Mama’s hallelujah was a broken one, a bit atonal with her jam!jam!jam!-ing, but nonetheless, a clear praise of God until the end.
But God’s hallelujah in Jesus is the overwhelming anthem of heaven itself. It rocks the airwaves, the glory falling down over us daily in showers of sunlight and raindrops, hugs and kisses from loved ones, written words of love on pages we can hold, messages of welcome in our heads and hearts, and all from him. All that I loved in Mama is found in him, X infinity.
The Living Water. John 4:10 NIV
The Bread of Life. John 6:35 NIV
The Honey from the Rock. Psalm 81:13-16 NIV
A Strong Tower. Proverbs 18:10 NASB
“Glory be to the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be,
world without end.
Quoted words are from the Gloria Patri.
(The story of Mama’s death is posted as “Troubling Ourselves.”)