This entire month of blog challenge, dealing with family, led me to yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Obvious, I know. I knew that at some point I was going to have to speak seriously about my mother, and I knew how difficult that would be for me.
The stories I’ve written this month have taken me to places where emotions have near drop-kicked me on many days. This one will lay me out completely and I know it. I was going to write it yesterday. I just couldn’t force myself to do it. I wasn’t ready yet to drown in all of those feelings that had been swirling for a month, just under the surface where they would swallow me at the slightest provocation.
Let sleeping dogs lie is the old adage that covers this situation, and I’m about to begin poking that big brute that lives below the waves. That being the case, I’ll share a part of my mother that has less sorrow for me.
Mom loved kids and animals better than anything else in the world, family excluded, of course. She was a natural mother, who could sooth any child, tame just about any creature, and generally get along with the world regardless of circumstance.
From the time I was about thirteen or so, old bird cages, boxes, baskets, etc. shared Mom’s kitchen with us. Inside those cages, boxes, baskets, etc. were babies. Some were birds, some baby bunnies, or any number of other wild things. She definitely took after her mother in that regard.
There were orphans that stick strongly in my memory. I came home one day to find baby groundhogs nestled inside an old towel in a cardboard box on a chair beside the stove. They were two of the sweetest little creatures I’d ever seen; all brown and cuddly, rolled up into balls keeping warm against each other. Someone had found them abandoned and had brought them to Mom.
I don’t remember how long she had them before the groundhogs were released, and I don’t know that it matters now. I do know that there were few weeks during spring or summer when orphans didn’t come to our house.
Dad brought her the baby bunnies. He was mowing the yard and didn’t realize that one of the local cottontails had made her warren near the edge of the driveway. The rabbits were tiny things and terrified. Dad knew that the mother would never return to the nest warren after it had been disturbed.
On another occasion, a friend brought her a pair of silver fox babies to tend for a few weeks, until they were weaned. He bred silver foxes and needed a surrogate mother for them for a while. Mom did her thing and they soon went back to their rightful home.
One wet, cold spring day, Mom went mushroom hunting. Keeping her out of the woods during mushroom season was unheard of. Having her come home with a baby Great Horned Owl, though, was different. The wee thing had fallen/or been pushed from its next.
She heard it, found it, and scooped it up. It was in shock; its down feathers were soaked, and it couldn’t stop shivering from the cold. It was so young that its talons hadn’t completely hardened. She perched it on her shoulder, under her hood where it could get dry and warm. Mushroom bag in one hand, and one holding the owl in place, she returned to the house.
Peeper, named for the sound he made, sat on the rim of a half-peck basket in the kitchen when I came in. I’d never seen an owl baby before, especially up close. I fell in love with those big, sincere eyes. Mom just laughed. She had one convert.
Mom ended up with all of us vying for owl-holding privileges. He ate fresh ground beef, fresh fish, and chicken. Meat wasn’t difficult to get for him.
During his growth period, we all rallied to teach him how to be an owl, but Mom was the one he looked to. She was his mother. Dad could teach him to hoot. All of us could help teach him to fly. We could all help to teach him to hunt on the fly and catch his prey.
But Mom was the one to whom he returned the next spring to show off his new mate. She was the one’s whose approval he needed before leaving for his adult life.
When I think about all of her orphans, Peeper and Jim, the crow, stand out as the most like family members. Jim was the orphan who remained with her to the end, the one she grieved for when his curiosity and trust turned fatal.
Jim gave her more delight than all of her other orphans. He lived in the house with us. He went on our outings. He talked to us, but he held conversations with her. And his laughter rang through the air from the roof of the house. Jim was a character that enlivened our lives and made us smile.
I try to keep these memories to the forefront of my mental file cabinet. They help push back the later ones that center on her excruciating pain and life cut short. These orphan memories carry their own tears, but they don’t taint the rest of the day with sorrow.
And these, above all, portray Mom as she was to us more than any others; loving, generous, willing to take in any orphan as a new family member.
As soon as I was born, comparisons bombarded my parents. As a newborn, later as an infant, and on to school, everyone in the family talked about how much I resembled my father’s youngest sister. In fact, my first infant picture and hers were nearly identical.
With normal aging and family life came more comparisons. I was as stubborn as she was. I wouldn’t stop until I accomplished whatever I put my mind to. I could argue with the best, and so on.
She was the baby, the one who stayed at home the longest, the first one to scandalize her father for wearing shorts. I was the oldest, the one who demanded my hair to be cut because of the heat and almost gave my father heart failure. Yep, she was my heroine supreme.
After all, how could I go wrong? She was lovely, athletic, hard-working, fun, and generally a role model. She was the closest in age to me, though not by much.
Her honey-colored locks explained my own blond curls as a child. We looked alike, acted alike, and considered things in the same way. We were ageless bookends.
Like all of the “girls” in the family, my young aunt could stand up to what life threw her way. Two marriages, widowed twice, and two children didn’t dampen her spirit. She could take care of herself when need arose and proud of it.
Like her sisters, she had talents. She could sew beautiful clothes. I remember one summer when I was visiting, she was making a double-breasted jumper for one of my cousins. I fell in love with that jumper. Of course, it was too small. I asked if she could make one for me.
As soon as she finished the one she’d started, she took out extra fabric that she had. I was confused when she picked up the newspaper. I asked what she needed that for and she said that she had to make a new pattern for my jumper and would use the newspaper for that. I paid special attention to her hands and what they did. I listen as she explained the process of the task.
A few hours later, I had my own jumper; the prettiest blue with white banding that I’d ever seen. It was something no one else could do for me, and it was special. I was in junior high or high school at the time. Many years later I would emulate her process to make tank tops for my best friend. Knowledge should never go to waste.
My aunt was the kind of woman who would allow my brother to ride the milk cow because he wouldn’t stop pestering her. Even when she told him that he could get hurt, that he’d be thrown, he wouldn’t let up. Finally, she said go ahead.
She held the halter and waited for him to slowly move from the top of the stall wall onto the cow’s back. A second later, that cow exploded out of the stall, brother hanging on and playing cowboy, until ten feet later when he flew off the cow and landed on his back on the barn floor. Auntie looked down at him, asked if he was hurt, and said something like, “Do you still want to ride the cow?”
So much has happened in both our lives since those days of simple sewing and tending to chores, and watching foolish boys learn to fly over cows. Like her sisters, she has grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. Some days her body aches. Many days she tends to the needs of other older women who need help at home.
Granny taught her daughters the habits she valued, and service to others was one of those habits. And the baby of the family spent more time with Granny, having her as a constant companion in her last years. That bright, willful, hard-working lady whose baby picture could have shown my twin will always shine as an example for me; a mirror image in many ways.
For all our similarities, we do diverge in habits, aspirations, and lifestyle. She stayed near home, while I live at a distance. She married and had children. I remained single. I work to build another career and future. She is content to enjoy retirement.
We both still know how to play. Don’t ever challenge us to a game of Rook. You’ll lose.
My father’s next youngest sister epitomizes the term “generosity of spirit.” As a young woman she could have modeled for any top agency in the world, with raven hair, laughing eyes, full mouth, and alabaster skin, all in a tall lithesome frame. She had all of this and more.
With marriage to a kind and playful man came responsibilities of farm, home, and family. Two daughters, each unique and talented, kept her busy and focused. Bickering inside the family was unheard of.
By the time the first grandchild came along, this dark beauty had become a matron, happy in her authentic plantation-style house and space enough for the girls to have enough land of their own to build homes next to the big house. Any threatening clouds to her life were as yet unnoticed. Her life was moving along very well to all appearances.
Months rolled by, minor medical issues came into the household for her, but for the first grandchild, the issues were serious and potentially deadly. She dealt with her fears and uncertainty as she dealt with life in general. She faced them, head-on, one step at a time, and helped wherever she could.
The grandson never grew out of his early medical distress. The situation grew more complicated and disconcerting as time wore on. Soon another child entered the picture, and he, too, suffered from the same disabilities.
Soon, the younger daughter had begun building her own family, living on the other side of Mom and Dad. The brood had expanded with another son-in-law and three more grandkids. Over the years serious medical concerns stalked the branches of that family tree, bringing with them sorrows, fortitude, and making do for the family’s members.
My aunt moved ahead through it all, through her own medical troubles, with frequent hospitalizations, treatments, etc. She did what she’d always done. She took care of her family; cooking, cleaning, soothing feverish children, smiling, praying, and loving.
She did all of this, and if she ever complained about her lot in life, I figure only God witnessed it. She has faced her days with gentle resolve to do the best she can, able to laugh at the foolishness and play of both human and animal, and using her indoor voice most of the time. Getting flustered never gets a task done, so she never bothered to use it.
I remember this lady from the time I was five or six years old. I’ve never known her to exhibit rage, prejudice, or ill-will. I’ve seen her cry, rock a sick child for hours in the middle of the night, and work until her fingers bent with arthritis. I know why her family is the way it is.
Those in her immediate family follow hers and my uncle’s example in their generosity and grace. There are no personal complaints about how life isn’t fair. They recognize that truth and work hard with what they have to make their situation—whatever that might be–the best it can be at that moment. They accept their roles in life, without blaming anyone for them.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Always happiness and light, never raw emotion hanging on the clothesline for all to see, no enemies or troubles coming from the outside.
Like most things in this world, happiness is a relative emotion. These lucky people love and respect each other. They work as a team to make it in the world and to move forward as quickly as they can. Their happiness comes from trusting God and knowing that they are safe in the hands of one another. They support one another in all ways.
She and my uncle act as a lode stone for their family. They create the core from which other members gather strength and direction. That doesn’t diminish the innate strength of my cousins, their husbands, and their children. Indeed, each of the younger generation has manifested that same sense of strength, resolve, and grace.
I’ve watched and admired this branch of my family for most of my life, as I’ve admired all of my family members for individual reasons. I’m blessed to be shown a living example of grace and generosity each time I envision my aunt working in her kitchen, hearing her laugh about some small clumsiness she experienced that day. I know that I’ve been shown one the self-actualized people in the world and thank God for it.
There is no such thing as perfection on this earth, but until the real thing comes along, I’ll keep using this family as my lode stone for living a good life.
Growing up in the Midwest during the 50’s and 60’s took less effort than it does today, or that’s how it seems from my perspective.
I wouldn’t be a teen today for any amount of money. My friends and I had greater freedoms then; greater responsibilities as well, I suppose, especially those of us who lived in the country. I can only speak from that perspective since I didn’t have the “townie” frame of reference.
We country kids grew up with a different sense of the world. Take hunting and fishing, for example. Most of our dads did both. Sometimes Moms helped out in that hunter-gatherer pursuit. I know mine did.
When I was in elementary school, it seemed that Dad went fishing every weekend. There are family photos that show some of his catches; catfish, bass, crappie, and others. Much of the time his preference was catfish. He and a few of his friends would spend the weekends at the river or large creeks in the county and they’d fish. We had a freezer full of fish at all times.
Perhaps this explains why the smell of catfish makes me wretch; over-exposure at an early age.
Hunting worked much the same way. Dad took me squirrel hunting when I was about six. He gave up that idea because I couldn’t see well enough to avoid pit-falls, small twigs in my path, and other noise-makers. I also could never see the prey in the trees. My participation, therefore, was pointless. I would never be Diana on the hunt.
Bless his heart; he just couldn’t give up hope for me. When I was about eight, he stood me outside, facing the door to the shed, on which was tacked a homemade target. In his hands was a .22 caliber short-stock rifle. Thus began my instruction in the use of firearms. I practiced until he was satisfied that I could consistently hit the target and then the bulls-eye. As soon as I accomplished that, I didn’t have to do it anymore.
Of course, he wasn’t serious about me using a rifle to go hunting. I don’t have a memory of his taking me rabbit hunting, for instance. I would succeed with that only when the prey stood still, giving me a clear field for a heart shot. I doubt that would have ever happened.
At age thirteen, I received my introduction to archery. By my own reckoning, I did well enough. I don’t remember losing too many arrows. My brother took his training with me. He’d completed and passed his other trials with flying colors and went on to hunt very successfully with his own bow and arrows. I never hunted that kind of prey.
During those early years Dad taught me all sorts of skills, most of which I can’t remember now unless conditions are absolutely perfect. He delivered regular dissertations on local flora identification with explanations of purpose, leaves, bark (if any), resident fauna, and other lessons.
Along the way, brother and I learned how the climate affected our small part of the world, why certain species grew on one hillside but not in the hollows, as well as other natural science topics. Every day held its lessons, though we seldom thought of them that way. We knew that he wanted us to understand the world we lived in, from the ground up.
His guided lessons in the hunter-gatherer framework prepared us to take up our responsibility for our planet, our immediate portion of the planet, and to accept those responsibilities as both guardians and reapers.
I wish millions more people could have studied with Dad and his friends. Perhaps less destruction would have taken over the world, if they’d been made guardians, too.
This one aspect of my father never diminished. He’s kept his knowledge and passes much of it on to his great-grandchildren. It doesn’t look like he’s going to close that classroom for a while yet.
“Don’t touch that bed” must have rang out many times on that drizzly cold day back when I was so small. Mom always contended that my great-grandmother’s bed was a prized and sacrosanct object to be avoided at all costs.
I have only one memory of that great lady of the South. Mother and I were visiting. Baby brother was still “in arms,” as they said back then. I don’t recall who else was there, other than it was a woman; probably Dad’s mother or one of his sisters. The vague memory I have of our matriarch ebbs away further with each passing year.
Her meticulous home with its furnishings reflected who she was as a person. Her bedroom and the backyard are the clearest images I have of that day.
A tall sea of white bed linens fosters an itch in my palms. The sheets and coverlet look so crisp, so pure. I know that under those bedclothes are feather beds half as thick as I am tall. I can imagine well how soft these must be for sleeping because I sleep on my own, thinner, feather-bed at home. I keep my hands clasped behind my back.
Mom told me to touch nothing, and she’d positioned her Shaker chair to watch me through the bedroom door from the living room.
Narrow, multi-paned windows reach from my waist to near the ceiling, swathed in sheer white nylon curtains with their ruffles and frills; very girly. Stark walls resist the need for ornamentation that clutter rather than emphasizes. Shaker chairs in here, too, sit as if waiting for someone to occupy them while putting on socks and shoes.
In one corner a small round table exhibits a Victrola, its horn pointed toward the front window. At near eye-level for me, I can see the arm resting, waiting for the record to spin and for someone to flip the head and place it on the grooves. The crank hangs, unmoving, tempting.
I reach out to feel its smoothness and hear “Don’t touch!”
Questing hand retreats in a snap of muscle and chagrin. Too dangerous. Everything is too dangerous in this room filled with white.
Outside in the narrow backyard, new spring green is taking hold of everything in view. The back fence keeps chickens and other stock from roaming around the house. A fine mist envelopes me as I explore the cistern area, looking for early blossoms. The trees have begun to bud but remain barren to the eye.
Mom will be upset with me. Sunday shoes, wet grass, Great-grandmother’s clean floors. Not good, not good.
I’m the only one left who can attest to this short episode in my life. Perhaps that’s why I try to hang onto it as hard as I do. Great-grandmother died not too long after that day. My Dad’s mother and my own are both gone as well. Only I remember the day of drizzle, white linens, and a silent Victrola.
Do you remember throwing a temper tantrum as a child? If so, where were you and who calmed you down? Do you remember the reason for the tantrum?
I have one memory of such an event and there’s very little to it. I was at my father’s parents’ house. I stood facing my grandpa, who was trying in vain to placate me. My young five/six year old self was having nothing to do with placation.
My parents had promised to be home soon and they hadn’t come yet. Were they dead and no one had told me? Where were they and why weren’t they here?
Neither Grandpa nor Granny could calm me down. I was furious, terrified that I’d never see my parents again, and I was headed for a complete meltdown. The end of my memory was where I kicked Grandpa in the shin as hard as I could and demanded he produce my parents “right now!”
My mother, many years later, told me that she and Dad had remained in town to visit other relatives while my little brother and I went back to my grandparents’ home. She said that they’d been delayed for a couple of hours because of friends and other relatives taking up their time.
It seems like a simple enough explanation, and one that probably would have worked on an older child who wasn’t terrified that her parents were lying dead somewhere along the road. I never bought it, she said. Their excuse was never accepted by me. I believed, though I didn’t want to, that they’d lied to me when they said they’d be home shortly.
Looking back on it now, from so many years into my own future, I can understand my fears and accusations. I quail to think of my striking out at that most gentle of men, my grandpa, even as I can fathom the depth of my feelings. I can’t remember if I ever apologized for my actions that evening.
There are some fears that take precedence over logic. Fear of abandonment is a child’s worst nightmare. Does a child ever outgrow that tendency to hang on so that the caregiver can’t disappear? Does that fear develop from a toddler’s misperception that a person/thing disappears when no longer in view?
I’m sure I don’t know the answer to that question. I doubt the experts do either. I do know that when I invest my trust and love in a person, I expect them to honor it and not throw me curve balls. I’ve always had that response in relationships, whether within the family or those outside of it.
Perhaps Grandpa’s mistake in dealing with me and my fears was actually two-fold. He tried to speak to me in a reasonable tone and manner, and he didn’t know where my parents were and admitted it to me. Grandpa’s are, after all, supposed to be all-knowing, all seeing, and above all else, always right!
If I ever threw another tantrum, I don’t recall it. Thank God! The recollection of this one has haunted me for enough years already.