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.

Friday Photo: Dodge, late 1940s

This old Dodge, circa 1946-48, is parked at a gas station on the grounds of the Mississippi Agriculture Museum. (An authentic building moved to the museum grounds, the gas station is 1940s-era, too, complete with original gas pumps.) The car is still pretty spiffy except for the bit of rust you can see if you look closely.

Can’t you imagine flying along some hilly back road with all the windows down?

Can’t you imagine two kids parking in this car with the one bench seat on a summer night in the moonlit shadows of kudzu vines, music filtering in over the radio?

The war over, their lives just beginning.

Dodge194648DSCF8937

 

A Little Fiction: All Fall Down

Shelly and Hank had planned this camping trip as an attempt at getting back together. It wasn’t working. He was late picking her up, the drive took five hours instead of their usual three, and when they finally found a space to camp, they argued over where to set up the tent.

She dropped the side of the tent she was holding and walked away. “All right, fine. You deal with it.” She headed for the river bluff. She thought Hank would come after her, but he didn’t.

riverview
the Mississippi / Gerry Wilson

The bluff dropped steeply away to the river, maybe thirty, forty feet. Willows clung to the banks and leaned out into the sky like filmy, green parachutes. Shelly walked as near the edge as she dared and considered climbing down. She had always wanted to do it; why not now?

She looked for a place that wasn’t a sheer drop, where there was brush, or outcroppings of stone. She eased over the edge and grabbed a sapling, then another, her breath coming hard, thought I can do this, until a branch bent and snapped, rocks skittered and fell, and she slipped, clutching at mud and stone and brush. She slid all the way down, landed on the narrow bank, rolled towards the rushing water, clawed at the mud to drag herself back. She lay still and assessed what hurt: her head, her right shoulder, her right ankle.

She sat up. The knees of her jeans were torn and stained with blood, her hands scraped and bloody, too, and caked with mud. She unlaced her hiking shoe and took off her sock. The throbbing ankle was already swelling and turning blue. Jesus. She pulled the sock back on and forced her foot back into the shoe. Pain jolted from her ankle to her thigh.

“Hello?” she yelled. “Hank? Anybody?”

Nearly five o’clock. The bluff cast deep shadows on her and on the river. Maybe  twenty yards away, a sandbar extended out into the water. She’d be more visible from there. She tried to stand, but she couldn’t bear weight on the ankle. She crawled far enough out onto the sandbar to see the top of the bluff. She called out again, “Hello? Hello! Down here! Help me!” But the day picnickers and hikers would have gone home by now. The overnight campers, like Hank, would be settling in. On the river, no vessels—an old-fashioned word her father, a retired Navy man, would have used—this time of day, no kayaks or canoes, no pleasure boats.

The sky was a clear, deepening blue. The wind out on the sandbar went suddenly chilly. The rising moon had a corona of light. That was supposed to mean something: a sign of rain? Bad luck?

Shelly washed her stinging hands and splashed her face with the cold river water. She struggled to her feet and tried her weight again on the throbbing ankle. She had to get off the sandbar. She hobbled the length of it before she dropped to her knees and crawled back to the shelter of the bluff.

No way she could climb. She’d be fine right there, a little banged up and wet. Hank would come looking for her. All she had to do was wait.

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