Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Mother's Day - 2007
Recently, when I was contemplating my 72ed birthday with a mix of dread and amazement, a good friend of mine asked, “So, what do you want for your birthday?” Without thinking about it, I said that I would like to see my mother. I delivered a rambling monologue about how I had only seen her a few times in my life. Shortly after my father’s death, she left me with my grandparents and “caught the bus to Knoxville” – an act that in my childish imagination was akin to going to Oz or Alpha Centuri. I never saw her again until my senior year in high school when she miraculously appeared just in time to purchase my class ring. My grandmother refused to let her in the house because she had “abandoned a two-year-old young’en on my front porch.” Well, that was my grandmother’s version.
After she returned to Tennessee, she arranged for me to come and see her. It was a mistake since she was married now and had another son. I still remember sitting in a silent living room while the new husband and the sullen son stared at me. I caught the Trailway bus for Sylva the next morning. Many years later, my mother attempted to visit me while I was teaching in Georgia. Another mistake. My marriage was falling apart and when my mother sensed the tension in my home, she quietly departed.
Forty years passed without a letter or a phone call. Then, ten years ago, I made a trip to Tennessee to find her. She was in Columbia,Tennessee, a widow who used “a walker.” Her husband was dead, and she was living alone on a street called “Pleasant.” Diabetic and frail, she was beginning to worry about her ability to take care of herself. We talked for two days and she frequently wept. She insisted that she had not “abandoned” me, as I had always thought, but had simply married a man who refused to raise a child that was not his own – a decision he had made after the wedding. I was confused and skeptical. We often sat silently staring uncomfortably at each other, unable to bridge the chasm of years. When I left, I felt that many questions still remained unanswered and unresolved. The years passed and my mother’s health failed. I received occasional letters that catalogued her losses: her car, her house and furniture which were traded for a wheel chair, medication and “supervised care.” I never thought I would see her again.
Last January, after a six-hour drive, My friend and I found my mother in Lewisburg, Tennessee – not in a nursing home, but in a little boarding house called “Home, Sweet Home.” She is one of six boarders who each have a room and eat at a communal table. The furnishings are sparse: a bed, two chairs, a little TV, a table and a lamp. Home, Sweet Home is near a busy intersection and the sound of speeding trucks, car horns, sirens and the constant chatter of distant voices is something she has learned to live with.
I had written her I was coming and she was eager to talk. “So much to talk about,” she said. “I need to tell you how it was.” And talk she did – about my father’s murder and its bitter aftermath. She talked about her own parents’ casual cruelties, her loneliness in the months after “John Lyndon died,” the resentments expressed by my father’s brothers and sisters and her second loveless marriage.
Then, there was the half-brother, a being so alien to me I could only stare as he discussed the joy of being “born again,” quoted his mentor, Russ Limbaugh and explained a conspiracy theory that left me stunned – Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, in the throes of a torrid love affair, had plotted the death of President Kennedy! I began to wonder what it would have been like to have grown up with this half-brother and my mother. In the end I came to realize that possibly the greatest privilege that I have enjoyed in life is to have been raised by my grandparents.
On the day that I left my mother at Home, Sweet Home, she was still talking…talking about her attempt to operate my father’s service station after he died, and her long walk home each night (she walked the railroad tracks alone). She gave me a locket, containing two faded pictures of my young, smiling parents) that she had kept for seventy years (“I only loved one man in my life,” she said.) – all of these things she did with a nervous urgency, as though she sensed that this was the last time she would see me. When it was time to go, I bent to look at her worn face one more time, and I kissed her…..finally.