Monday, March 21, 2011

The Good Mother

She was born a twin in '35 in a feather bed in a white frame house west of the tracks in a town where we all grew up. At home in the blazing heat and thick humidity of a Texas August, my grandmother was expecting a single birth, but the doctor said "Miz Travis , there's another one a comin'" and my mom was born. She was a quiet girl, often abused with a razor strap when my grandfather felt it necessary. She was a fair-skinned freckle-faced red-head with an athletc build and a great high school basketball player. When she was 16, she married my dad and they began life together in that same little town, in a little green house just east of those same tracks. Dad was a machinist and mama got pregnant with her first child. Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage and my folks didn't waste much time before she was pregnant again. And so there was mama's first born, Billy Tom. Daddy had gone to work at Swift Meat Packing knocking cattle in the head with a sledgehammer and Mama was busy being a good mother. About a year later, she was pregnant again only to have another miscarriage. Then a year and half-later, I was born -- followed by another brother, Michael Jack, a couple of years after.

It was 1961 in the sweltering heat of a Texas August, I was almost five, and another brother, Wendell Robert had arrived, but this time it was different. Flipping through a journal, I found this entry from December 16, 1994. The previous day I had been riding on a bus from Denver to Boulder reading a poem, The Colors of Mourning, by Nora Mitchell and my heart's mind was flooded with memories of mama, my good mother in '61.

16 Dec. 1994
Yesterday I wept several times as I recalled Mama in Aug. '61. Wendell had passed away and been buried and Mama never went to his funeral. I was reading Nora Mitchell's poem, The Colors of Mourning, and the fuscia night gown that Mama wandered around in following Wendell's passing came flashing to me. I had recently turned five and helplessly watched as she moved zombie-like from room to room in the white frame house on Ruby Street -- the house we rented from Uncle Jack and Aunt Margie. Daddy is almost absent from my memory during this time. She continued to wander through the house, rarely stopping to rest -- as she floated from room to room, she was like a fuscia colored bird with a bright red crown searching for a yearling that had mysteriously disappeared. Mama was overwhelmed with grief and my need to rescue her from the sorrow that stole who she was -- haunted me even today, 33 years later.

My father and the Dr. didn't think Mama should or could endure the lowering of the cheap, paste-board death box -- Wendell's final home -- quite a contrast to the warm and secure womb of my good mother. Did Daddy know or did he think or did Dr. Garnett wonder how denying Mama Wendell's last rites would haunt her for so many years?

Twenty-three years later in 1984, when Mama's eldest, Billy Tom was crushed like a coke can in a red Pontiac Firebird by a drunk driver  --- she called me in San Francisco, I was then 32 -- she wanted to borrow $300 from me -- the 5 year old that mourned with her through both losses. She needed the money to buy a funeral plot next to where Tom had just been buried, and so she bought a resting place beside him to relocate Wendell. It was then in '84, twenty-three years later that Mama was allowed the time and place to mourn Wendell's passing.

It was as she watched the grave diggers dig into the burnt-crimson clay of Bourland Cemetery, finally reaching scattered portions of the dilapidated casket, she was told that the yellowed-white tiny baby bracelet -- H-A-R-R-I-S 

M-E-T-H-O-D-I-S-T   H-O-S-P-I-T-A-L was still intact.

Swallowing the bite of peanut butter sandwich she brought along for the exhumation -- she felt a deep sigh -- a release from the depths of her soul -- where only hurt lives and nothing else is invited. It took a double-dose of pain -- all those years later -- loss of two parts of herself, her sons, before she could feel resolve in the loss of a son she never knew.

My mom now lives with my Dad, her life-partner of almost 60 years, a few miles from that town where it all happened. My mama, the Good Mother, now lives with Alzheimer's. We talk often and I miss her deeply. A few weeks ago while visiting on the phone my mama, the Good Mother said, "I don't know what it feels like when you're dying -- I've never died before".