Tuesday, April 29, 2008

If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother

Today my mother is officially a senior citizen.

My mom will never really seem old to me, though she does turn 65 today. Sure, she desperately needs to go get her hearing checked, and she should wear her reading glasses instead of holding everthing she needs to see at arm's length, but anyone who goes to local honkeytonks to listen to live music and cut a rug every Saturday night can't be labelled as elderly.

In honor of mom's big day, I want to celebrate her. A while back I had a lot of fun posting about her awesome way with words. Today I want to honor her spirit and wisdom (but still pick on her a little, because she is, intentionally or un-, a great source of humor in my life.)

Mom has a survivor spirit. She is the youngest of eight kids born to a coal miner and raised in a mining camp in the impoverished mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She was born too early, and was the only one of her siblings to be born in a hospital. At four pounds, I don't think Mamaw and Papaw expected her to make it, but she grew into a feisty, though sickly, kid. Mamaw told me once that Mom was always cold, even as an infant, so she kept the newborn on a pillow and set her next to the coal-burning stove. How she made it to adulthood without being baked is beyond belief.

I used to ask Mamaw, "Was my mom your best kid?" To which I would get an instant, "No. She was mean as a snake." But she was also the baby, so her older siblings, especially her two oldest sisters, doted on her. And she apparently was her father's favorite. At her oldest sister's funeral years ago, a couple of my grandfather's nieces and nephews, who mom hadn't seen since she was in grade school, came up to mom and introduced themselves. They told mom that when my grandfather would visit their father, he couldn't stop talking about his baby, "the runt of the litter". She may have been little, and often unhealthy, and always ornery, but she was her dad's pride and joy.

She was only the second of her siblings to graduate high school. She married my dad, who was her elder by three years, the weekend after her graduation. I wish I knew more about how they got together; I know they were set up by friends, but they hadn't been in the same circle in high school. In fact, my father had left her high school for a couple of years and graduated from a high school in Oklahoma long before they were introduced. The only details I've heard about their courtship was that they double-dated a lot, and didn't get serious for a long time, and that Dad popped the question with an oh-so-romantic, "How about you and me get married?"

As an independent woman who wanted to work and to be more than a housewife, she registered for the best form of higher eduation available to women from her part of the world at that time: beauty school. Her beauty school class picture is very telling; she by far has the tallest, most symmetrical beehive and takes great pride that she did it herself. She really can work magic with a comb and some Aqua Net.

After finishing her training she got pregnant with my sister and lived on an army base in Virginia while my dad was stationed in Vietnam. This is the part of my parents' lives that is hazy for me. Mom doesn't talk about it much, and my sister doesn't remember it. Dad served for four years as a merchant marine in the very early days of our presence in Vietnam, and I know despite what else may have happened that they were young and in love and he wrote her often; the only artifacts of my dad's life I wasn't given access to when he died were the stacks of letters I found with some old photos. Mom snatched them away, told me they were love letters, and were personal. I know she missed him, and her home, and she was very happy when he was honorably discharged and they could leave the base.

She lived contently in her home county for years. She fixed hair, raised her daughter, and due to some chronic health problems, didn't think she could conceive again. Dad's return from overseas saw him a changed man, and their marriage was strained. My father was a, well, cranky man and very hard to please; my mom always has worn her heart on her sleeve and nurses a fairly violent temper. One time they had an argument at my Mamaw's trailer, and dad said something cruel and sarcastic that hurt Mom's feelings. Right there in front of her own mother, she called my dad a a pretty shocking name that rhymes with "rock shucker" and swung her purse in his general direction. Having no aim, she ended catching him in the face. When he was struck speechless and walked off, she gasped and opened her purse to find a full can of aerosol hairspray she had picked up at a supply store and stuck in her bag and forgot about. She felt awful; they laughed about it later. And when my Mamaw tried to shame her about it, she instead starting laughing so hard she cried.

"They law...." my mamaw said. "Where did you learn that word?" Mamaw knew her youngest had a bad temper and didn't mean to hurt Dad. But she was very concerned about the language she had heard. To this day, Mom says she has no idea where she learned that word but thinks she may have been the one to invent it.

Realizing there were no good jobs in the mountains at that time, Dad followed his childhood friend to the GM plant in Norwood, Ohio, where he lived during the week. Mom and Dad only saw each other on weekends. And given how independent Mom always was, this arrangement was just fine with her. She had many friends, worked full-time as a hair dresser, and maintained her little home and raised her daughter more or less by herself and without much interference from my dad and his strong opinions about everything.

When my sister was ten, I came into the picture. I was definitely a surprise. I didn't make her life easy; I was very sick, I was colicky, and she didn't have much help. Like her parents had with her, she worried that I wasn't going to make it, and my first year was a blur of doctor visits, sleepness nights spent walking the floors, and appeals to God. Around my first birthday my health turned around and, according to my mom, I became an easy kid to raise. Until my teen years, anyway.

The commute and never seeing his family wore on my dad, so he convinced my mother that they should move north. Some of her cousins, who were also her best friends, had already moved up here with their husbands. She tearfully left her home and her family for parts unknown. The first year we lived here, she rarely left the house. She was afraid to drive on northern Kentucky's busy roads (busier than those in Knox County, anyway) and didn't know where to go or what to do. She babysat the girl across the street to earn her own spending money and went "down home" at least one weekend a month and cried when it was time to come home. The independent woman vanished for a little while.

With the help of her cousins and some friends from high school who she kept literally bumping into every time we went somewhere (her current closest girlfriend and her stood next to each other in the Ponderosa salad bar for five minutes before realizing they had gone to high school together and caused a big scene) she began to get used to her new world. She started working part time at a salon and quickly became friends with the other women there; seriously, how do you not love being around my mom? She might be moody, she might be defensive, but she's never dull. And on a good day, she can get an entire room laughing.

When my sister married and left home, it was pretty much just the two of us. Dad worked second shift his entire career, and this arrangement afforded Mom some of the independence she loved. She eventually managed her own beauty shop inside a local "luxury" nursing home. When I was in high school and college, I would often stop by to see her at lunch time if I didn't have school or work. Only my mother could have done that job without losing her mind. Despite her quick temper, she has infinite patience with the small and helpless. I often think in another time and place she would have made one hell of a doctor or nurse. She was at her best as a mother when we were hurt, sick, or broken-hearted. She soothed the often confused and sorrowful patients, some of whom had no idea where or even who they were. She lifted and wheeled the patients from room to shampoo bowl mostly by herself, cleaned their messes (without gagging) when they leaked or got sick, listened to their stories, and held back when they were belligerent. I used to sit in my car and cry after visiting her; her "ladies", as she called them, made me so sad. And I was touched by the way she cared for them. All the stories I've heard about my Papaw have led me to believe he was a natural healer with a gift for caring for animals and babies in need; I think his favorite daughter, the runt of the litter, was close to his heart because she also had that gift.

She retired from her salon job after Ainsley was born to be her caregiver when I had to go back to work. Ainsley thrived in her mamaw's care. They still have a special relationship. If I ever get frustrated about something Ainsley's doing or not doing, I get, "Well, don't quarrel at it. It's the most precious thing in this world." If Mom calls you an "it", then you have found your way into her circle of small, helpless things she has sworn to protect.

She is her friends' first choice for advice and help when they get seriously ill or need surgery, for she is known to volunteer to take them in or stay with them during the worst of their convalescence and change bandages, administer medication, clean wounds, and dry tears. When Dad was dying, she carried the heaviest load of her life without complaining. She out-nursed his nurses and held his hand as he passed. We worried about how she would cope later. We need not have.

The past three years, Mom has bloomed. Though always her own woman, she had been dedicated to the needs of her husband and daughters her whole life; the last couple of years, she's been more in tune with making the best of her own life. She travels to Colorado and Florida and Vegas and is planning a trip to Ireland. She hits karaoke bars with her cousin and asks a certain daughter to be the designated driver so she can get silly on wine. She has expanded her circle of friends and has begun to date. She says she never wants to marry again, because even though she loved my dad dearly, she likes having no one to report to, having her house to herself, and being her own boss. Though they had a rocky marriage in spots, she says that Dad was the love of her life and she is not willing to settle for someone else.

My mom is a lot of things. She can cook a dinner so good it will just about make you weep. She's a god-fearing woman from an evangelical background, but she's no prude. One minute she can quote scripture and the next be unleashing a furious tirade of southern-accented curses that would make my dad, a former sailor, blush. She can speak to strangers and acquaintances in perfect, polite, nearly un-accented English and then turn around and tell me, "Nobody can't never tell you nothin'!" with a voice straight out of the bowels of the mountains she was born in. There are a couple of women out there who bear a resemblance to her; Paula Deen reminds me of my mother with her Southern manners, humor, and down-to-earth lack of pretention. Mom's a little like Dolly Parton with her love of big hair, high heels, and ample makeup and insistence that there is no such thing as "natural beauty." And if you've ever seen Steel Magnolias, then you've met my mom in the character of "Weezer." (Jason would also tell you that every time he's watched Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil the Lady Chablis has made him think of my mother, but I don't know how I feel about a black transvestite bearing a resemblance to my mom.)

But no one is exactly like her. She is an original. We don't always agree; at least once a month, we butt heads over my tendency to give her unsolicited advice. I have her quick temper and my father's sarcasm and sharp tongue, and we have battles so fierce that we have to give each other a few days to calm down before one of the other of us will pick up the phone. But she is one of my best friends, and I am proud to call her my mom.

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