Sometime during the middle of 1933, my grandfather boiled a pot of water to use for his morning shave. His youngest child, a daughter who had yet to take her first steps, reached up and pulled down on the handle. Her shrieks rang out and the months to come were hard and sad for her parents, her eight siblings and for the child herself.
Over time, the fingers of her right hand healed in a closed position. Her brothers and sisters mused that my grandad often petted or favored her, not only because she was the last of his nine children, but because of her crippled hand. That baby was my mama.
Jake, my grandfather, was a sharecropper during the Great Depression and he and my grandmother experienced that life near the bottom of the economic ladder. Even so, my mom, almost without exception, remembered and relived her childhood in the most positive light. She adored her own mother and told stories of my grandmother’s faith, work ethic, and sacrifice. Even today, my 87-year-old dad speaks highly of his own mother-in-law.
Fast forward to 1952, my dad, just back from his service in the Korean War, married my mom. In four short years my sister was born, then four years later, I came along.
Before I was old enough to go to first grade, (I was six and there was no kindergarten in our rural part of northeast Alabama) I remember hanging on the back of my mom’s sewing machine chair and nagging her about when my sister would be home from school. I remember running through the clean sheets she hung on the line outside to dry and how they smelled like outdoors after she brought them in. I remember sitting on the countertop hovering over her while she made biscuits and waiting for her to give me a taste of raw dough. I even remember the shape of the old plastic bowl she used and how the crinkled wax paper looked inside the bowl. I remember helping dad clean the quail he had shot, then watching mom fry it in a black iron skillet.
I remember wondering if I could ever shell peas as fast as my mom could. I remember following mom around with my pillowcase cotton sack while she worked in a friend’s cotton field. I remember being mom’s helper when she cleaned out chicken houses for relatives and I remember receiving my first real day’s pay for doing that job myself.
I remember accompanying her to tent revivals (although that is not what we called them), gospel meetings, funeral services, and to homes where dead bodies had been brought back for the customary amount of grieving time. And I remember going with her to take one of my cancer-stricken aunts for cobalt treatments.
I remember spending the day with her and my relatives cleaning the cemetery before “Decoration Day” in May and preparing food for the annual family reunion afterward. I remember mom reading a Bible story to my sister and me every night before bed, and then she would pray.
All those memories, and many more, were before first grade.
I wanted to be big like my sister and go to school, but I didn’t want to leave mama. I, of course, did go to school and pretended independence. As I recall, I teared up when I got out of the car, but settled in okay for the mornings. The afternoons, however, were a different story. I missed my mama and I cried, albeit quietly.
Mama knew I was sad because I begged her not to make me go back. Instead of keeping me home, she sent a smooth-rimmed nickel and one small box of raisins with me each day. She told me to buy chocolate milk in the afternoon during snack time and to eat the raisins. And she said if I could go that long without being sad and crying, that she would be there very soon to take me home. So that became my goal. I would hold the nickel in my sweaty left hand and the raisins in my right. I wanted to sneak just one raisin early so mama would come quicker, but I knew that was cheating. So I waited. And when time came I gulped down a half pint of cold chocolate milk and ate raisins with a happy grin on my face.
Sure enough, she came.
Of course not all of childhood was so simplistic and there were rocky times. I do not pretend that life with mom was always easy. I was strong-willed and sometimes rebellious, so mom and I fussed a lot. Both of us were flawed, but we always loved each other.
Mom survived a major heart attack and two cancer diagnoses. Through those physical struggles she never stopped loving my dad, my sister and me, our families and her grandchildren. She was strong. Very.
Her last years and months were hard for her and hard for us. Dementia is cruel. Even near death though, God gave mom some moments of clarity and I am thankful to Him for those.
A few weeks ago, I hurriedly walked into Wal-Mart, then paused at the Mother’s Day cards. For the first time in my life, I had no reason to browse through the options to find just the right one. It’s amazing how nice people in Wal-Mart can be when they see tears in the greeting card aisle. Even through my tears though, I can put mama’s life and death in a positive frame.
Mom often told us about how hard it was when my grandmother died. Mom was twenty-eight and I was almost a year old. She said she would feed me, then stand at the window with my sister hanging on her leg, and rock back and forth with me on her shoulder, and cry for her own mom. So while this Mother’s Day feels heavy to me, I like to believe that it is the best Mother’s Day ever for my mom. That she is embraced by her own mother and that Jesus is “gathering mama and grandmother under His wings like a hen gathers her chicks.”
I wanted my mama in first grade and I want her now. After the chocolate milk and raisins are gone from my life, and because of the grace of Jesus Christ, I too, will join mom and the angels to praise God forever.
Mom’s gravestone reads, “…away from the body, and at home with the Lord.” What a blessing!
Thank you God, for my mother.