Contemplation: I Remember Mama
I Remember Mama
Peggy, my youngest sister, wept bitterly on her first day of school.
“Honey, don’t worry,” reassured my mother, “you’ll be home before you know it.”
My sister cried louder.
“You’ll love school. You’ll read and color.”
“But you’re SO OLD,” squalled Peggy, tears of shame on her face.
Mama, her hair already turning fine silver by age 40, shut off the spigot: “Do you think these young mothers know how to make volcanoes that explode and really ooze lava? Do they know how to camp and cook outdoors? Do they know how to be a room mother?”
This woman was wise in the ways of motherhood.
She could turn out a bunch of brownies and handily kill a copperhead snake in the wooded backyard, bearing her trusty hoe—all within 30 minutes without batting an eye.
Mama transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary: common bread became “buttery, buttery toast with cinnamon sugar on top” that enticed sleepyheads out of bed, and a pair of scissors magically cut construction papers into paper-doll princesses and castles. On special Saturday nights, the den floor, in the firelight, became the Great Plains, and we were cowboys in our sleeping bags, lulled to sleep by faint mooing of the herd. A floor to be buffed became an Olympic ice rink. With soft rags tied to our feet, we skated, rendering a lovely sheen on the wood floors in the den and down the hall, reserved for speed skating events.
From our first day in the world, my mother read to each of us and spun her own tales in which a fairy named Mindy Moonbeam took earthbound children on adventures, and dolls and little girls switched places for a day.
She applied creativity as needed. For an eighth-grade science project, Mama (who majored in botany) encouraged my oldest sister, Martha, to use one set of plants as a control group while she talked daily to another group to determine whether this attention accelerated their growth. On another occasion, Mama encouraged the construction of a White House replica by my sister Mary—sugar cube by sugar cube. Mama probably turned out as many recipes for salt maps as she did chocolate chip cookies. The greatest headache was Peggy’s attempt to re-create the coinage of the Roman Empire using toothpicks to carve the profiles of Roman emperors on bits of clay. Finally, she fell asleep, her head on the kitchen table while my mother and I soldiered on, carving the tiny heads of the Caesars in the hardening coins—well past midnight. I think we skipped Nero.
For years, Mama sewed Easter, school, and formal dresses. For dance recitals, holidays, pageants, and parades, her designs included a poodle costume, flapper dresses, witch rags, Pilgrim suits, a Mexican peasant skirt, Native American costumes, hippie ensembles, a Greek gown for Latin club, and outfits for angels, elves, the Holy Family, and one disgruntled Wiseman (Peggy begrudged a boy’s role).
She also stitched clown costumes, royal princess robes, and imaginative outfits for characters such as Pippi Longstocking and Sacajawea. But her greatest triumph may have been two hip pantsuits—one pink, paisley, and gold and the other lime green with gold-stitched details—created for Martha’s proms. With her cropped hair, Martha sported the look of a young starlet at the Cannes film festival. “Canned what?” my mother would have mildly retorted.
Even past the age of 40, I relied on Mama to help turn out my own Peter Pan costume for a party. The hat sported a feather and dipped rakishly over one eye.
For the grandchildren, she smocked holiday dresses and, continuing a tradition begun in our childhood, gave each one special PJs for Christmas Eve. She also churned out costumes for this generation.
Then there were the endless hours she spent in her car. In fact, it seemed she lived in her car, stoked by cans of Coca-Cola. Because of our staggered ages, she organized carpools to preschool, kindergarten, grammar school, junior high, and high school. When she drove Martha to high school, Martha ordered the younger urchins to lie on the floorboards so we would not embarrass her as the car rounded the corner of the parking lot. Mama did not question; she just sailed on with cowering passengers. For all I know, Martha may have asked Mama to hunch down, too, at the drop-off point.
She scooted us to ballroom, tap dancing, ballet, jazz, art, and piano lessons as well as endless cheerleader practices. At one point, Mama squeezed my father into the action. Once a week on the way to work, he dropped off Mary and me at the piano teacher’s house at 6:30 a.m. for back-to-back lessons. How she talked that woman into a sunrise gig mystified me. Promptly at 7:30 a.m., she raced by and stopped long enough to throw us in the car to make the 8:00 a.m. bell at junior high.
During the junior high routes, Mama endured hours of backseat chatter about girls’ periods, would-be boyfriends, first kisses (of the most sophisticated passengers), and life’s most embarrassing moments in the cafeteria and gym locker room. We squealed a lot about James Taylor; she assumed Sweet Baby James was the unobtainable boyfriend reserved for girls who made the Homecoming Court.
One day it seemed everybody in the gym locker room suddenly wore a bra. The girls in the carpool talked incessantly about cup sizes whereas I remained silent, a “walking board” unworthy of a training bra. I rushed home to report the locker room conspiracy. Mama absent-mindedly handed off one of well-endowed Mary’s castoff bras. My shirts, especially turtlenecks, had the look of rumpled bedclothes for one year, but at least I could change my gym suit without hiding in a bathroom stall.
I imagine my brother’s carpools gave her a satisfying silent break.
In her most demanding “trucking” years, my mother taped to the kitchen wall more than a dozen index cards—with destinations, dates, passenger names, carpool mothers’ names, and phone numbers intricately scrawled on them. She usually showed up on the right day, at the right time, except for the one occasion she mixed up a junior high route with an elementary school route, which left us pouting by the flagpole for 45 minutes.
Perhaps burning all that tread in a child-packed station wagon made her crave a snatch of solitude. She usually found it in the shower whereas most people escaped with television. Popular culture held no interest for her. Soap operas annoyed her. For years, she thought Linda Ronstadt was one of our friends at college because we talked about her incessantly. Mama admonished us to bring Linda home for dinner; to do other wise would have been unwelcoming. After Daddy took her to see Deliverance, she never darkened the door of a theatre. The word pig took on a distinctive meaning for quite some time.
My mother cared little about excessive fripperies. In fact, in the early 1970s, she was the only woman enrolled in the community auto-repair class. How many times I saw her hunched up under the hood of her car, chatting with the mechanic. She dickered for and sold all her own cars. Her affability around men stemmed from years of playing sandlot baseball in a neighborhood of boys as well as excelling at basketball, swimming, diving, tennis, and field hockey. (She earned the nickname “Bunny” because of her constant hopping up and down as a toddler.) She strode like an athlete, a single step overtaking many of her friends’ mincing steps. Not one of us matched her as a jock, though we engaged in enough team sports to learn the value of working cooperatively in a group.
As the first woman to chair a number of committees dominated by men, Mama coached and played as the situation warranted. When she cracked the church’s glass ceiling—chairman of the board—she was not above instructing, most politely, some of Birmingham’s most powerful CEOs to sit down and hush up during meetings. When one executive stormed out because he did not get his way on a vote, she waved her ballpoint pen at him and sternly said, “Now, Mike, you get back in your chair and finish your job.” Mike skulked back.
In her own way, she was tough. Indeed, her protective maternal instinct had its own flavor. When an oversized football player bullied my brother in middle school, my mother went into action. As my uncle’s sparring partner in childhood, she had picked up quite a notion or two about boxing. There we found her in the kitchen, dancing and jabbing around my brother (who stood still and ignored her) while keeping her left fist protectively in front of her face. (Bud worked it out his own way; with a preference for brains over brawn, he rerouted his daily routine until his adversary lost interest.)
Yet Mama was soft. Any of us could call in the night and suddenly be pulled safely to her, warm against her flannel nightgown. My mother stayed until the tear-stained face of a child relaxed and sleep stealthily offered comfort. When she left for three weeks to tend to her uncle who had suffered a stroke in California, at night each of us clutched one of her nightgowns lightly scented with talcum powder, Paquins lotion, and Mentholatum.
Mama accepted life as it played out. Her uncle, a longtime colonel in the army, lived with us for a time. Colonel Francis Marion Brannan thought my father was a general; my mother, a sergeant; and the children, privates. (Later she would joke about never getting the promotion she deserved.) Southern gothic was an everyday affair. After the Colonel spent the morning reading the newspaper upside down, she served lunch in the dining room, using fine silver, china, and crystal. However, that did not stop him from complaining when she ladled a bowlful of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, garnished with saltines.
“Sergeant, the service has deteriorated abominably,” he declared.
She just laughed to herself and then seriously promised to speak to the “mess” about its egregious failing. (Mama later offered her own mother a warm, inviting home.)
My mother faced most challenges with aplomb. Even when Peggy and her toddler friend flushed some rubber training pants down the toilet and my father hauled a Roto-Rooter home to solve the problem, my mother cracked up. There she was, with all five children, in the backyard, in deepest, darkest night, in a drizzling rain, holding hoses while my father barked commands down the line to “Move up!” or “Go back!” She smiled a little harder after Peggy and her little friend put an extremely soiled diaper in the dryer—and hit the start button.
Mama faced life with grace. When words and names were slipping away to dementia, I wondered how she felt. She took my hand and gently said, “I must accept it.” It was her bravest moment.
How do you describe in a few pages someone who gave you life? Does our own aging smudge memory? Nonetheless, my clearest image is my mother’s crescent-shaped blue eyes—dancing and twinkling while we taste freshly baked chocolate cookies and sip from tall cool glasses of milk while chatting about the day’s events. I feel her gathering me onto her lap because the boy I love just broke up with me. I hear the mellow bell ringing in the backyard and her voice at twilight calling us to come in for supper—the long vowels, the soft southern r’s, and the momentary lapse in names until she calls for the baby, too: “Martha! Bud! Mary! Cathy! Mar—, Cath—, PEGGY!”
Her love did not overlook. Not one of us. Not once.