Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Nostalgic Celebration of Sorts

The sun hasn't been up long, but I have been up a couple of hours already.  The sky is a mixture of cloud cover and blue sky, sort of like my mood today. Looking at the calendar reminded me that this would have been my adoptive mother's birthday, her 108th, had she lived. As it was, she spent 55 years on this planet, gave birth to one son and grafted a daughter onto the family tree, lived a Christian life and died too soon.

Out of curiosity I perused a genealogy site just to see what I could find.  I knew she had been born in Idaho. Her father was a construction worker who subsequently worked in Florida and Louisiana, probably among other places. I have no idea how she came to meet my adoptive father, a native of Virginia who never lived more than 30 miles from where he was born. According to the genealogy site, she spent at least a while living with her husband's extended family of mother, brother, sister-in-law and their kids in the rural area where her husband had been born and grew up. They moved across the river to a small town called Yorktown -- short on amenities, long on history. They lived in that town until she died and her husband remarried a number of years later. That town became my home town because of them.

While looking through the site I came across so many familiar names, some mangled by others trying to read the handwriting on the census forms and without intimate knowledge of the people who inhabited that town. Many of those in the census forms were parents of adults I knew as a small child, still living with the same neighbors that I remember. Most have since died, but I remember them as friends, neighbors, acquaintances and sometimes almost legends. The town was old South for the most part, but African-Americans and whites lived cheek-by-jowl and, as near as I can remember, close enough to borrow a cup of sugar but maybe not close enough to sit down at the kitchen table for coffee and a bit of neighborhood talk.  We lived separate lives with separate schools and separate churches, but were still residents of the same streets and neighborhoods. It was a good place to grow up, supported by parents who loved me and put up with a very active and imaginative child at ages when they might have looked forward to their son (then a teenager) being grown up and out of the house. When I showed up, there went retirement. They had their prejudices and dislikes, and even without being blood relation I inherited those although I was taught to always be polite and kind, no matter who I encountered.

There are a lot of things I don't remember, like her voice. I do remember her hands -- well-kept hands with always-manicured nails polished quite frequently with a nail color called "Lilac Champagne."  Those hands could orchestrate a festive dinner fit for a king or curl a small and wiggly girl-child's hair with waxed paper from bread wrappers. She could sew all sorts of clothes and furnishings, clean just about any kind of mess and arrange flowers perfectly, like the dozen red roses she arranged in the silver Revere bowl every wedding anniversary. She was devoted to her family and to her adopted church, the one across the street from our house and where the preacher lived in the garage apartment next to our house for a number of years. His knees were under our dinner table as often as his own, and Mama considered him a member of the family, as did we all. I also remember those hands could be very hard when I misbehaved, but mostly I remember how beautiful they were. In fact, I still look at people's hands and remember hers.

I had a great childhood. There was a fly in the ointment, namely an aunt who took pains to remind me that I really wasn't a REAL member of the family on a number of occasions, but Mama never treated me any differently because I had someone else's DNA and genes. It was a shock when, at the age of six, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. That meant she couldn't wash my hair or sew clothes or do a lot that she'd done before for quite a while due to the surgical incisions. Three years later she had a second mastectomy and never really regained her former health and vigor. To this day, I remember her scars, scars that haunted me when I myself was diagnosed and chose to have a bilateral mastectomy myself for the same disease. She died about five years after her second surgery, after having been hospitalized and/or bedridden for nearly three years with transient ischemic attacks and increased weakness. I remember the date of her death more frequently than her birthday, for some reason, but this year I celebrate her life and what she gave me in the way of life lessons.

I look at her china and remember that food is something to be enjoyed, especially in an extended family setting. I remember those gorgeous red candied apples she made for my class in school at Halloween. I remember rolls and rolls of Life Savers she went through, slipping them to me one by one in church as she tried to keep my wiggling to a minimum. I remember Saturday matinees at the movies, usually Disney flicks, but also seeing Grace Kelly in "The Swan" when I asked to see it. I remember shopping trips to Richmond at Christmas, complete with tuna salad sandwich lunches at a drug store counter and the special Christmas windows at Miller & Rhoads. When I need comfort, I still have tuna salad sandwiches on toast like I had on those trips. I remember a pair of earrings she always wore for "good," small gold jack-in-the-pulpits with a tiny pearl for the jack and her double stranded pearl necklace. I remember her engagement ring that she wore, a ring I wore for years myself. I remember fried chicken on the boat during fishing trips and baked rock fish from Daddy's rare excursions to the Bay with the "boys."  Cakes?  Pies?  Cookies?  She was a master baker. I look at the mementos I have around the house -- her wooden box with the bird on top, her tattered cookbook, even a casserole dish (sans lid) that she bought from the Jewel Tea salesman that called at our house as regularly as Mr. Morse stopped by with his pickup truck full of fresh vegetables. All those memories come flooding back, sort of a nostalgic journey but oh, such a pleasant one for the most part.

So today I remember Mama's life and her contributions. I don't know that I became the daughter she (privately) hoped I'd be, but she tried her best to make me a little lady with good manners and good grades. I generally messed up both, but she loved me anyway. Oh, the manners improved over the years, and the grades depended on how interested I was in the subject (I excelled in English, was abysmal in math). I wonder, though, what she would think of me now that I am older than she was at her death by over a decade. I hope one day I'll find out, because as sure as I am of my own redemption, I'm equally sure that she will be waiting for me on that other shore and in that different light.

Happy birthday, Mama. I miss you more every passing year.

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