A Belated Mother’s Day Tribute
When I was a wilful child (which was most of the time), when I provoked my grandmother to the point where she lost her temper, she would grab me by the scuff of the neck (or my shirt collar) and would march me to the front porch where she would point to a worn spot in front of the big white bannisters, and she would say, “There!” (Oh, I knew the speech by heart, for I had heard it often.) “That’s where I found you! Pitiful little young’en, just barely two years old, and you was holding a little paper sack with some clean underwear in it.” Then, she would look about with feigned puzzlement, and add, “But where is your Momma? Why did she leave this young’en on my porch? Where is she?” Then, she would pretend to look for her, peering down the dusty little trail that vanished beyond the barn.
“Do you know where she is, Gar Nell? Where is your Momma?”
That was my cue, and I would chirrup “She gone to Knoxville on the Trailways bus, Momma.”
Then my grandmother would say softly, “Who are you calling ‘Momma’?”
I would dutifully reply, “You.”
“That’s right. I’m the only Momma you got. I took you when nobody wanted you, cause your real Momma left you on this porch. Right there!” She would point at that same bare plant. Then, finally, she would say, “So, Gar Nell, you owe me.”
“What do I owe you, Momma?”
“You owe me respect, young’en. You owe me a load of stovewood so I can fix supper. You owe me some evening chores, because I am old and slow, so you fetch the cow from the pasture.” So I did that.
Many years later, a neighbor told me she saw my mother on the morning that she caught the bus. “She had a busted, little cardboard suitcase, and the clothes on her back. She looked frightened.”
My grandmother never forgave her. “What kind of a mother would abandon a two-year-old child? I can’t forgive her.”
Over the years, my grandmother built a hard case against my mother. “She said she was coming back to get you, but she didn’t. No, she married another man, a smily, smirky peckerwood and they had another son and went on with their lives ... like nothing had happened.”
On one occasion, she said, “You know your mother tried to kill herself?” Of course, I didn’t. “It was when she was courting your daddy, and one morning when he arrived to take her to school, Irene’s mother, who was not sane, ordered your daddy to leave. That is when your Momma found her
father’s pistol. In the middle of the old lady’s rant, Irene shot herself. I always wondered why she didn’t shoot her mother. She lived, of course, but her arm was still in a sling when she got married.”
All of that happened over seventy years ago, and a lot of things have happened since. When I graduated from high school in 1953, my mother came to the graduation ceremony. She had bought my class ring and the high school principal gave it to me before the graduation. The next day, she came and stood in the dirt road in front of my grandparent’s house. I was in the bedroom reading (yes, I was always reading) and my grandmother came in and said, “Gar Nell, a woman who says she is your Momma is out here in the road. Now, there ain’t no way that she is coming in my house, but you can go out there and talk to her if you want to.”
Went I met her in the road, I remember that she was beautiful .. as beautiful as the picture that I had of her that I kept hidden in the attic. So, we walked through Rhodes Cove, sometimes stopping to rest. My “real” mother’s parents lived nearby, and finally we walked there and sat on the front porch and talked. We talked for two days and although I went home each night to my grandparents’ house, I returned the next day to talk to my mother. We made plans. I would come to live with her in Knoxville and she
would send me to a university.
It didn’t happen, of course. That summer, I rode the bus to Columbia, Tennessee, where my half-brother greeted with screaming tantrums. My would-be father-in-law talked as though I were not present. “Irene,” he would say, “ask him if he wants some more mashed potatoes.” Or, “ask him if he would like to go to a movie.” My week-long visit was reduced to a single day, and I was delivered to the bus with a ticket for Sylva.
But I had learned that things were not quite what my grandmother reported. At one point when my mother was attempting to explain why she had left, she showed me an ugly scar behind her knee. “My own mother did that,” she said. “Did it with a white-hot poker. She was not sane and my brothers and sisters lived in terror of her. After your father’s death, my mother told me that I was not to bring you home as she would not allow it.” I learned that all of my mother’s brothers had run away from home by the age of twelve.
So, my mother lived in Columbia, Tennessee and I lived in Sylva, N. C. We made no further attempts to correspond until ten years ago when I wrote a book and sent a copy to my mother. She sent me a letter with a single sentence: “Can you forgive me?” I went to see her shortly before she died. By then, she had lost everything and was living in one of those nursing homes with eight other widows (It was called “Home, Sweet Home.”) where she had a single bed and a black-and-white television. My unstable half-brother was a reluctant visitor.
On our final meeting, my mother was filled with anxiety, and kept saying, “There is so much I need to tell you.” She told me what her life was like after my father’s death and the painful details are difficult to repeat here. It was an account of petty cruelties that gave me a painful insight into what it was like to be a young widow in Sylva in the 1930’s. Not wanting to return to the home of her own parents, she tried to live in a small apartment and
attempted to keep my father’s old store, called “Hap’s Place” open. She received a lot of unwanted attention from drunks and was finally assaulted one night. At this point, she hit on the desperate idea of going to a “business college” in Knoxville and finding employment as a secretary.
When it was time for me to leave Home, Sweet Home,” my mother grabbed my hand and pressed a locket in it. “This is all that is left, dear,” she said. The locket had photos of my parents, young and smiling.
So, I had two mothers, I guess. Agnes Carden, (who was also my grandmother), and Irene Ashe Carden, my mother. In answer to my mother’s question, yes, I can forgive you, although I have come to feel that I need to be forgiven for being such a wilful child. When I conjure up a vision of my frightened mother standing at the bus station with her battered suitcase, or when I remember my grandmother pointing at that worn plank on the porch, I can finally say, “I forgive you.”