March 23: A Memoir

Today is my mother’s birthday.

She should have been ninety-six years old today. She should have lived that long; she had the genes. Her mother, my grandmother, lived to be ninety-seven. Mother would have lived to see seven precious great-grandchildren, some of them now almost grown up themselves. But she didn’t live. She died of uterine cancer in 1985, when she was only sixty-five, so young by today’s standards. Had she gone to the doctor sooner, it’s possible that she might still be here, but she ignored the signs that something was wrong. She was too busy taking care of my grandmother, who had had a stroke that fall, to take care of herself. The way she’d neglected herself to look after my father.

In February 1982, my father had died of a heart attack and the bottom dropped out of my mother’s world. They were married forty-seven years. She was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married–an unlikely pair, but they adored each other. A couple of months after his death, Mother hemorrhaged, and her cancer was diagnosed. She underwent horrible treatments: radium implants in her uterus that kept her in bed for a week in the hospital, unable to move, then surgery, then more radiation. And after, she suffered from various complaints, strange swellings and numbness, odd neurological symptoms nobody seemed to be able to explain, weight loss. But she persevered. I can see her now, doggedly walking the block of broken sidewalk in front of her house, back and forth, back and forth, to get in her “mile” for the day.

The thing is, she lost the will to live. I asked her once, when she seemed particularly down, “Why aren’t we enough?” By we, I meant me, and my sons; why weren’t we enough to make her want to live? She had no answer.

I read a piece this morning in The Washington Post about depression and suicide. I don’t believe my mother ever contemplated suicide. She would have believed that suicide was wrong, sinful. But I know she suffered from depression, and periodically, when she felt “low,” she would go to her local doctor for a B-12 shot to pick her up.

motherme 1
Mother and me

When I look at photos of her now–her pretty blond hair, her blue eyes, her smile–I think about how those photos belie her real nature. She was often sad and insecure, even though she was smart and beautiful. When she was dying, the nurses in the hospital talked about how beautiful she still was. But she had a complicated and difficult relationship with her own mother, and much of her insecurity must have sprung from that. I remember one day when my grandmother made a cutting remark to Mother and stalked out of the room. My mother stood with her back to me, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter. She was already sick by then, but it wasn’t the sickness that spoke when she said, “Why is it that nothing I do is ever good enough?”

I don’t remember what I said to her. I was too furious with my grandmother and if I recall correctly, I followed her to her bedroom and told her so.

Today I’m remembering the complex dance of three generations of women, our lives bound together by blood and place. Long after my mother’s death, and my grandmother’s–she outlived my mother nine years–I  still feel my mother’s presence. Sometimes when I laugh, I’m startled because for a second, it’s my mother’s laugh I hear. Because she did laugh. She grew roses. She entertained her garden club. She was active in her church. And she loved my father and me and my sons so very much.

One last memory: when she was getting sicker and could no longer drive, she would get a friend to drive her to meet me half the distance between our towns so that my two younger boys could spend a few days with her. I wonder how they spent that time together. I’ve never asked them. They were old enough to understand that she was ill, but they went anyway, willingly. I think she was determined to spend time with them so they would remember her, and they do. They loved her.

As do I.

Announcing a New Feature: Friday Photo

 

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Crossroads, Corinth, Mississippi / Gerry Wilson

I’m excited to announce a new feature on the Intersection!

Every Friday, I’ll post a photo, most likely one of my own. I may simply comment on it (or I may not; I may leave it to you to consider); or I may spin a story or a memoir piece. I hope you’ll respond with your own thoughts.

Crossroads

Last spring, I attended a family reunion, a gathering of distant cousins who were mostly strangers, all linked to my great-great-grandfather who settled in middle Tennessee in the early 1800s. We cousins are a diverse group–all ages, many different professions, some with strong genealogy interests and knowledge and some, like me, more or less novices. I am an only child. Until the last few years, when these cousins surfaced, I’d felt isolated and wished for a big, extended family. Now I have one. We swapped a lot of stories that day.

For the reunion, my husband and I stayed in Corinth, Mississippi, the nearest town of any size to Selmer, Tennessee, where my father’s family roots are.  We visited the Civil War Museum in Corinth, a museum that doesn’t glorify the war but portrays its heartbreak and deprivation. We also discovered the little railroad museum built beside the tracks that, as in so many little towns, run right through the heart of things.

The rails in the photograph mark where the east-west and north-south railroads crossed–a significant crossroads for both North and South, thus the battles nearby for the control of that area. Those railroads and the nearby Tennessee River were major conduits for goods and soldiers.

At the war’s end, my great-grandfather reached a crossroads of his own. His oldest son had been killed at the Battle of Corinth. (My father was named for that soldier.) A younger son was arrested for passing himself off as a Confederate soldier and commandeering a horse and a mule. My great-grandfather posted bond for him, using his land as collateral, and when his son failed to show up in court at the appointed time, my great-grandfather went on the run, too, taking his family, including the wayward son, with him.

I imagine him rushing into the house, the door banging shut behind him, telling his wife to hurry, throwing things into the wagon–a feather bed, a chicken crate, pots and pans, maybe my great-grandmother’s travel trunk she refused to part with–settling in the children, and setting off into the night. Leaving much behind: house, land, family, friends, debts, a dead son. They moved to Mississippi, and that’s where they stayed. My grandfather, the youngest child, was six years old.

Colorful stuff, this. The stuff of story.

Think about your parents’ or grandparents’ crossroads. Whose choices have shaped your life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today or Tomorrow, Noon or Evening

Today, another assignment from Blogging 101: use a prompt from the Daily Post and make it my own. Here’s today’s prompt:

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

Bruce tells it like it is.

By many people’s standards, my days are not “hard-earned.” I have a good life, not without its problems and sorrows, but relatively easy compared to some.

My dad’s days, on the other hand, were hard-earned. He came up poor, and after high school, he went to live with and work for my uncle, who had a car dealership in a nearby town. When my uncle decided to move back to Pontotoc, the tiny town in the hills of north Mississippi where they had grown up, my father moved with him. In those days, Daddy  followed the big bands that traveled the South. He was quite handsome, and I have old photographs of the pretty girls he knew. But my mother put an end to what seemed to be his confirmed bachelorhood. When they married, she was eighteen and he was thirty-two, and the love affair that was their marriage continued until his death forty-five years later. For the rest of his life, he worked six days a week, from six in the morning until six at night, to provide for my mother and me. Maybe we were his reason to believe.

Do I believe in providence?

Daddy @ 1937
my father, about 1937

Yes, I suppose I do. I’m not certain how my parents met. I do know that my mother’s best friend lived across the street from the little service station my dad ran. I imagine her walking past the station, blushing, never looking his way. Did she and her friend watch him from the friend’s front porch? Did they giggle? Did she write her name as his–“Mrs. G______”?

I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t. What a shame I never asked.

I can only speculate, just like I can speculate about the coincidence of meeting my first husband at a college party. We were both there with other people, but he cut in and danced with me. Later, I ran into him on campus and he offered me a ride back to the dorm. Still later, he called and asked me out. And that was the beginning.

Or much later, some twenty-five years ago now, a phone call came from a man I didn’t know, the man who is now my husband. He needed a judge for a high school literary magazine contest; would I do it? When I said yes, he offered to bring the materials to my house. And soon, there he stood, on my doorstep, this man I would eventually marry. He says he remembers I served him iced tea (it was July, maybe August). What if I’d offered him coffee? Or lemonade? Or nothing? What if I’d said no on the phone? I so easily could have, but I didn’t.

Today or tomorrow, noon or evening.

This restaurant or that one. Why are we in particular places at particular times? Five minutes, or less, even seconds, and the turns our lives take could be so very different. Call it providence. Call it fate. Call it God-ordained. Our lives unfold in mysterious ways.

What is my reason to believe? My best answer is how can I not?

I’ve lived long enough to look back on the days of my life–some of which were indeed hard-earned, heartbreaking days that I thought at the time would surely break me–and see how they didn’t. They shaped and matured me and made me a different person from the one I might have been. That evidence is my reason to believe. No, I can’t prove it. But it sustains me, and that’s what matters.

Have you experienced a particular moment in your life when you felt something larger than yourself at work? I’d love for you to tell me about it here.

 

Reason to Believe