Tomorrow will be the 3rd anniversary of my mother’s passing. It’s really difficult for me to write about her as if she is no longer here because she was always (and still is) such a strong presence in my life. When other women I know talk about the hard times they have/had with their mothers, I have no point of reference. From the moment I was born, when I was first placed in her arms, my mother and I really liked each other. Oh, yes, there was always the deep, strong and abiding love that parents and children have, but often gets shunted aside with personality conflicts, rebellion or what have you. But my mother and I genuinely LIKED each other. We liked being with each other, we liked working together, laughing together, being crazy together. I really have not met many people who had a relationship with a parent like my mother and I had.
Unfortunately, her house burned down twice when she was growing up, so there are virtually no photos of her as a young girl, except for this one, which hangs on my kitchen wall:
That’s her in the back, age 12, with her 2 younger sisters. I think this picture was taken at their home in North Carolina, remnants of a tobacco plantation, where they always had gardens, rasied their own pigs, and my grandmother (Emma) drilled into their head that it was not how much cash one had but “the blood that runs in your veins”. A good thing, too, since just coming out of the Depression, no one had much cash!
She graduated from high school in the same town, having been shuttled from school to school by her mother who knew every teacher and was determined that her daughter have only the ones she thought “suitable”. She was a fiend for movies and “movie magazines”. She told me tales of cutting out photos of movie stars and keeping scrapbooks (which she never kept up with–other than being a pack rat!). She told me about various old movies, and she was a natural-born story teller. She made everything she talked about come alive in your mind and imagination and I do think she missed her calling when she didn’t become a teacher.
I remember once watching an old movie on TV that I thought I had seen before, but as it was over, realized I hadn’t actually SEEN it, I had only heard my mother TALK about it–that’s how vivid her descriptions were.
She came from a Southern tradition of female strength
Her own father was a charming, Scots-Irish alcoholic who could sing the birds out of trees, loved to cook, was always “hale-fellow-well-met” but couldn’t keep food on the table, so it fell to her mother to be the “stable” one, and she taught her daughters the value and depth of female friendships, bonding and strength. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s physical strength wasn’t up to the long haul, and she died at age 50, when my mother was pregnant with me. When I think about that, looking back, I don’t see how my mother did it without her mother to fall back on.
But she did, and she embraced the roles of wife and mother happily and wholeheartedly.
By the time I reached high school and finally made some friends, I liked nothing better than to have them over to meet my mother. How many teenaged girls actually WANT their friends to know their moms? My 16th birthday party was a home-cooked dinner at my house with mom at the head of the table. She regaled my 5 girlfriends with her “Southern gothic” tales and we all laughed till we nearly peed our pants.
That’s probably the biggest thing I remember about my mother–she loved to laugh. Even in the midst of sorrow or tragedy, she would toss out some kind of offhand remark, we would look at each other and just burst out laughing. She was an eternal optimist…just as my dad was always looking on the down side. About a year after my father died, mom had a huge deck build on the back of their house, turning one of the family room windows into the door leading out to it. She loved sitting out there in the morning, reading the paper or just chatting with me. “Yes, ” she said, looking around the back yard, “your father would have loved this deck, but he would never have let me build it.” Beat. “But he’s dead and I’m not, so there!”
It’s difficult to describe her to anyone who never met her in a way that could possibly be adequate. She was warm and affectionate, fiercely protective of her family, curious and open. The phrase, “never met a stranger” completely describes my mother. At age 68, when I was finally able to fulfill a lifelong dream of hers and take her to visit England, Scotlan and Ireland for a month, we bumped into a fellow traveler at our B&B in Edinburgh:
Meeting in the lobby, he asked us if we knew if there was a pub nearby and she immediately invited him to join us for dinner at the nearest restaurant. They hit it right off, and we spent our week in Edinburgh in Danny’s company, a fellow traveler from Australia. In the course of our many conversations, she told him that in two years (our trip was in 2000), she was going to turn 70, and she was having a big party and he was invited. He promised he would come. Two years, and a number of phone calls and emails later, and damned if Danny Cooper didn’t show up at Meeps’ birthday party from Australia with his wife Shirley. That was the kind of effect she had on people.
My daughter was the one who christened her “Meeps”. I’m not sure where it came from out of her little head, but somehow the sound came out of her and it got applied to my mother. Oddly enough, it fit her. My sister would refer to her as “Meeps on wheels” when she got on her high horse. My college friends wanted to know what was going on “Chez Meeps” when they called or e-mailed. She was the Atlanta-based surrogate mother for many of my friends who were far from home and not close with their own mothers. She accepted my friends from every background imaginable, housed them when they visited, fed them when they were hungry, regaled them all with her tales and left them wanting more.
She really was a Queen in her own right:
When I first started seeing G, I wondered how I would broach this subject with Meeps, not that I worried about approval–I knew there wasn’t anything I could do that would change her love for me, but just unsure how to start. After all, coming out to your mom at 45? I remember the phone call. It was after I separated from my alcoholic husband (THAT was something she could totally relate to), and I told her that I had started seeing someone and was very happy.
“Ohhhh,” she said in a pleased voice, “who is he?”
“Mom, it’s not a he.”
“Well…” and then she said my name with this odd inflection. We talked a little longer and finally she said, “Well, what am I going to do? You’re a grown woman. You’re 45 and I’m 70, should I go out in the street and shoot myself? I don’t think so!” And that was that.
Later, after G and I moved into this house, we sent her some home-canned veggies, pickles, pickled beets, etc. G. found some kind of a fancy box and packed them up very professionally and we sent them off. A few days later, I came home from work and found G rolling on the floor with laughter. Meeps had called and left maybe a 10-minute voice mail raving about the veggies, and most of all, the PACKING!
She often did that. She talked to my voice mail just like she talked to anyone. I could come home to learn about my siblings, her job, what was going on with the neighbors, just as if I were standing there, saying, “Uh-huh” as she talked. Finally, she would run out of steam and sign off, “Well, enough of this trash–I’ve got to go. Luuuvvvv youuuuu.” There’s an old phone in the garage with that message about the food on it. I haven’t been able to listen to it yet, but maybe I will this week.
Being a grandmother was a joy for her. I moved back in with my parents after I divorced my crazy first husband. I worked, had my daughter in school and day care, but I wanted her to have a “real” relationship with her grandparents, something I never had growing up in different states. Like most “grands” they hit it off from day one, taking great pleasure in ganging up on me. I’m sure it did my mother’s heart good to have a frilly “girly-girl” around after raising tom-boy me. I was probably the only teenaged girl whose mother begged her to WEAR make up and I steadfastly refused. My daughter was better at make up at age 6 than I am now!
When the previously-mentioned 70th birthday party came around, my daughter and I were here in Colorado, and she was pregnant with her 2nd child. So, I rented a car and with grumpy boyfriend and a 2-year-old in a car seat, we drove from Pueblo to Atlanta. Not as far as Australia, but nearly with that combination! It was worth it, though:
One of the very few photos of the 3 of us together, and of course, her opportunity to meet her very first great-grandchild:
Four years later, it was my great joy and pleasure to take G to visit Meeps and have her accepted as another daughter and family member. We visited one more time, in April 2006. We had a wonderful visit, got her out and about, but I could tell that the diabetes she had battled since at least 2000 was taking its toll. In June of that year, she went back into hospital with yet another infected foot ulcer. When my sister called to tell me, I had a strong feeling that she would not be coming out of the hospital this time. More calls passed back and forth, and a late-night arrest and resuscitation confirmed my fears.
I let my office know what was going on, G and I packed the car, only a month old at the time, and we headed east. Everyone said, get a plane, get a plane, but I wanted time on the road, time with music in the car with G sleeping, time to think and remember and just be alone with my thoughts before I had to face what was coming. I wasn’t exactly sad, wasn’t angry. I had no “unfinished business” with my mother. There was never any kind of division between us. And, I knew that since her arrest, she had been fairly unresponsive. So, I drove 1500 miles and remembered her. I felt it was the best thing I could do.
We left on Friday night, got in on Sunday night, late. Monday morning, we headed to this hosptial. She was in ICU and we had to gown because they thought she might have some kind of systemic infection. She was off the ventilator, but still intubated. The room was very quiet. I remember she was lying on her right side and we came in to the left of her. Her left hand was quite swollen. I held her hand and called out to her, and rubbed her sternum sort of to get her attention. She turned and opened her eyes and looked at me. They were so green, and I remember wondering how 2 green-eyed parents could have 4 blue-eyed children. I knew she was THERE. I knew she knew me. I told her I was there, told her G was with me, that my daughter and the boys were doing well, that she was working, that everything was fine and was going to be fine (my 2 grandsons had been involved in a shooting accident in April, the week before we went to visit her). She looked at me, and I knew she understood everything I was saying. I saw the monitors spiking, and the focus in her eyes.
We were just there for a while, me holding her hand, looking at each other. It was all we really needed. I told her to rest, and that I would be back later. Afterwards, we found a very kind social worker to make sure that DNR/DNI were in my mother’s chart. Our whole lives she had been adamant that she would NOT be kept “alive” on machines and I was ready to fight the whole medical community to insure that didn’t happen.
Turns out, it wasn’t necessary; she passed quietly at 2 am Tuesday morning, 16 years and a week after my father. I knew she had been waiting for me, waiting for word of the next generation, and having news that all was well, she could go in peace.
I can’t say I really greive her, because for me, she simply isn’t gone. Her presence in my life was too strong, her love and humor too deep to be severed just by a change from physical to nonphysical. I know she’s there, laughing with me, watching this world with the incredible interest and curiosity that she always had and managed to impart to me. I could tell you the story of her memorial service, but that’s a whole post in itself. Suffice to say that Meeps lives on.
You were one of a kind, Meepsie (as Danny called her). If I’m half the woman you are, I’ll be happy.