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TALKING TO MYSELF 2 March, 2014 Last week, I was lured into yet another impulsive purchase at Costco. What excuse can I offer? It was a frostbitten day in Kentucky, and the tulip bulbs floating in a glass container enchanted me with their siren promise of spring. The buds, tight and green, gave no hint what their flowering color might be, but that didn’t matter to me. I only wanted a glimpse of sunshine in May. The buds had grown fuller over the past few days, but even yesterday they remained green and secretive. To my surprise, a vase of brilliant red greeted me this morning on the breakfast room table. Since March 2 is the anniversary of my mother’s birth, I wondered if she’d sent me a celestial reminder, hurrying the bulbs along from her vantage point in Heaven. Red tulips are a recurring image in my essay, “Mother.” Some of you may have read it in Butter in the Morning, but I hope you’ll indulge my repetition of it here. I need to hear her voice today, saying, “Sure, a monster storm is predicted for later today, and yes, it’s been a long winter. But spring always comes round again. Keep paddling or you’ll miss it.”
"I am standing again beside the plain little dresser made of hard rock maple watching her in the morning light. Her long, bright hair, swept upward and held in place by tiny combs, frames her pale face reflected in the mirror. She opens her mouth, just wide enough, and careful to stay within lines I can not see, she colors her full lips with a delicious looking crayon, until they bloom, a brilliant tulip red, out of nowhere, out of a winter landscape into the vibrant spring."
(March 2, 1921 – December 29, 2006)
My daughter asks if she can donate my mother’s old dresser to Goodwill. Close to fifteen years ago, we’d pulled it out of storage at the farmhouse for her first apartment, but after multiple moves, its finish is bruised and its drawers no longer glide. It looks out of place in her new suburban house with the granite countertops.
“No,” I say, too quick, without the appropriate hesitation, closing the discussion before it can begin, and so I add, “It’s hard-rock maple. They don’t make furniture that solid anymore. “ I ramble on about finding room for it at my house, though she and I know my place is over-stuffed. I’ll have the drawers repaired, and maybe I’ll even have it re-finished because, you know, it’s hard-rock maple.
I refrain from telling her the back-story one more time because I know she knows it. How my parents bought the matching bedroom suite at Sears when we were homeless, a few days after the old house burned to the ground. The plain little dresser with its matching wooden handles stood in a corner of the downstairs bedroom for decades until it was replaced by a gleaming new cherry piece that caught Mother’s eye. It was relegated, then, to an upstairs room, and finally left behind when Mother moved to an apartment after Daddy’s death.
What I can’t tell her, what I’m only beginning to understand myself, is that I’m afraid if I give away the dresser, I may lose my mother’s face, the one not captured in photographs, the one I see in dim early memories as I stand off to the side watching her hands move over the dresser’s smooth surface top, fingering her small arsenal of cosmetics to create the face she put on every morning of her life to meet the world. How do I explain that to a grown-up daughter?
“I was never pretty,” Mother would say matter-of-factly, as though she were commenting that the world was round and not flat. She had bright red hair even as a newborn, Aunt Sis said. It wasn’t strawberry blonde or auburn, but red, a notch, maybe two, darker than orange. Her eyebrows and her eyelashes were white, all their pigment re-directed into hundreds of freckles that covered her arms.
I am four, maybe five, and she is twenty-eight, maybe twenty-nine. I am watching her as she stares into the mirror that hangs above the dresser. She arches first one colorless eyebrow and then the other as she pencils them into life with
Maybelline magic. Then, she swipes a doll-sized brush I covet, a tiny thing with a little handle, across a soft cake of mascara until the dark goo clings to the bristles. Holding her chin upward at a tilt and her head motionless, she looks toward the ceiling as she paints her invisible eyelashes brown.
Life can be harsh for women in hundreds of ways men find difficult to comprehend. Some shatter, or become bitter, or run away, or sink into depression, and I’ve glimpsed their shadows within myself. My mother, however, belonged to that tribe of females who can hold close the joy of living in spite of what life throws at them. They would describe themselves as ordinary, and would remind you that they are not rich or accomplished or acclaimed, that all they ever did was what needed to be done. They are not ordinary, of course, these modern amazons made of stuff more stable, more sturdy, than most of us. When I attempt to tell a little bit of my mother’s story to others, however, I pull back. She begins to sound like an iron lady, someone I might be uncomfortable to be around, yet that wasn’t the way she was at all. I remember her as the happiest of people, the kind who could make a drive down an unfamiliar country road seem as adventurous as a trip to Europe, the kind who never lost her childlike wonder at the beauty of Christmas lights or the color of a new tea rose. She was the softest of women, the kind who listen with compassion to the details of the school janitor’s operation, the kind who can coach a special ed student into a blue ribbon win at the science fair.
But I saw her cry for herself only twice. The first time was in that year after the house burned, when we had so little, and I, age four or five, knocked over the table by the chair and broke our only lamp. The second time, I was seventeen.
The doctor’s appointment schedule had not allowed time for tact. “You have advanced glaucoma. A large chunk of your optic nerve in each eye has been destroyed, and you’re going to go blind, maybe not tomorrow, but it’s inevitable. All you can hope to do is delay it,” the doctor said.
Mother was forty-one years old. She and I had made the trip to the Lexington ophthalmologist alone because Daddy was harvesting tobacco. A week earlier, we’d gone to the Kentucky State Fair where I’d competed in the 4-H Speech Contest. For a lark, we had wandered around the vast Exposition Hall signing up for prizes – I had my hopes pinned on a Florida vacation - and took advantage of every free sample, including health-screening tests. Mother had 20/20 vision and had never worn glasses even to read, but the technician working in the fair booth was alarmed at her elevated eye pressure. He advised her to see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. Glaucoma, we learned, is a silent disease with almost no visual symptoms until you abruptly, and forever, lose sight.
She was explaining to me what the doctor had said, putting the best spin on it, but as we approached an intersection near our house, tears filled her eyes, and a quiet sob escaped her lips. Within moments, we hit the ditch on the side of the road. We weren’t hurt. She righted the car.
Soon after that, she righted herself. That meant keeping track of twelve daily eye drops, sometimes fifteen when things weren’t going well, administered on a rigid timetable for the next 44 years. Decade after decade, she set an alarm clock to wake herself for the middle of the night dose. Sitting in a church pew before a granddaughter’s wedding or at my aunt’s funeral, anywhere, she would unobtrusively slip her bottle of eye drops from her purse. Holding her chin upward at a tilt and her head motionless, she would look towards the ceiling as though she were applying mascara, and without a sound, drop them in at the appointed hour.
She would instruct me to bully my way into surgery recovery rooms after her hip replacements, back operations, hernia repairs, to get her eye drops in on time. “We can’t rely on the hospital staff to stick to the schedule, and my eye pressure will already be soaring because of the anesthesia,” she’d say in her practical way. I’m not assertive by temperament, but I talked down arrogant surgeons to gain access to my mother, still half sedated, to lift her eyelids and drop in the medicine we prayed would keep her remaining thread of optic nerve intact. How could I have refused to do this when she wouldn’t even take a pain pill because it might interfere with her glaucoma medicines? Not until the last week of her life did she let go of her regimen, but even then I don’t think she had forgotten it. I believe she only stopped because life was over, and she gave herself permission, finally, to sleep without interruption.
When she died, two months shy of 86, she could still read the morning newspaper. Her ophthalmologist – a younger, kinder doctor, Mother having long since outlived the first one or two -- called me at home after her death, to grieve with me, to marvel at her discipline. He said she, not he, had saved her eyesight.
Mother was born in 1921 in her parents’ four-room farmhouse. She was the second of two children, twelve years younger than Aunt Sis. By local measures, my grandparents were considered prosperous because they owned a good-sized farm that lay in the rich bottomland along the creek. Frugal people, they’d been out of debt when hard times hit, and were able to survive the Depression when others around them lost their farms. There was no cash money for anything beyond necessities, however, and their life was simple, even austere.
Mother would live out her life on the creek as generations of her family had done before her. She loved that land and its history, and would nurture it all her days on earth. She was a full working partner with my father on the farm, herding and vaccinating cattle, driving a tractor when he was shorthanded, and always, grooming and surveying the land, coaxing it, like herself, into doing its best. She would proudly introduce herself as a farmer to the end of her life.
Her girlhood ambition, however, was to become a doctor, maybe because she was smart and someone said she ought to aim high, maybe because my grandmother – as Mother herself would later be – was always sick with something. It was an implausible dream. Only about five percent of people entering medical school in that era were women, and her country high school didn’t have a microscope or a semblance of a chemistry lab. Few of the local farm girls even went to college in the 1930s. Mother was undaunted. She graduated first in her small high school class, and set her sights on beginning her pre-med studies in the fall of 1939.
Only weeks after Mother’s high school graduation, my forty-nine-year-old grandmother suffered a massive stroke. Aunt Sis was married and lived in a distant state, nursing homes, if they existed, were for people abandoned by family, and there was little money to hire help to come in. The obvious solution was for Mother to postpone college to maintain the household and help nurse her mother. Whatever disappointment or resentment Mother may have felt was never shared with me. When she spoke of this time in her life, it was mostly always with laughter about her cooking and housekeeping mishaps.
It’s difficult to explain to my daughters, who’ve never known a world without microwave ovens, how much labor it took to “keep house” on a farm in the 1930s. Even I, a generation closer to that time and place, am in awe of all that had to be done, day in and day out. All the food was prepared from scratch, and in my grandparents’ home, cooking was done on a temperamental wood-burning stove. They thought their electric wringer washer was a great advancement over the washboards they’d used until a decade before, and it was. The water to fill it, however, had to be carried from a cistern a hundred yards from the house and then heated in a metal tub on top of the cook stove. After the laundry had been beaten clean by the machine’s electric agitator, each piece was manually fed through the washer’s wringer – which sometimes caught a finger too -- and then hung outside to dry on a clothesline. In an era before no-wrinkle fabric existed, everything was starched and ironed.
My eighteen-year-old mother did all of this with only occasional help, including putting clean sheets on her mother’s bed every day. When I questioned why she changed the bed linens daily, given the difficulty of laundering and ironing the sheets, she looked at me in surprise, as though the answer should be obvious. Finally, she said, “Because that’s what you did when someone was bedridden.”
I’m amazed she didn’t drift into marriage with of one of the suitors who came around that year after high school. It would have been the easy thing to do. But in the fall of 1940, with my grandmother’s health improved and with her blessing and encouragement, Mother packed her suitcase for college again, and boarded a Greyhound bus to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
She loved her time at Georgetown College. She met my father there in a chemistry class, joined a sorority, learned to dance, and made lifelong friends. Before she left, she’d also scored high enough on the MCAT examination to qualify for medical school.
Pearl Harbor, however, had shaken Mother’s world. It seemed like the war would go on forever, she told me once. Money to go to medical school seemed impossible to find, she said. She had barely put together the money for college. She accepted a job teaching high school math and science a year and a half before she graduated, opting to go to summer school and interim terms to finish her degree. When Daddy came home on a furlough in August of 1943, they drove to Georgetown and were married in the living room of their college religion professor.
My grandmother had a second stroke in the summer of 1944, and this time she would not survive. With my grandfather left alone and grieving, and Daddy off in the war, Mother, now twenty-three, moved back to the farm to help. She continued teaching and saving money, but when I was born a few years later, she let go of her dream of becoming a doctor.
Perhaps it’s just as well. She may have been too empathetic to endure the losses that are inevitable in medicine. Mother was all about hope and tomorrow, and that made her a fine teacher. Many of the farm kids she taught entered medical fields and related occupations such as engineering and research. On three occasions, her rural students advanced to the international level in science fair competition.
I think Mother’s gift, however, was her ability to encourage all types of students. She believed that you could do better, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, you did. Maybe it was her enthusiasm, but I think it also had something to do with her faith in people. Letting her down didn’t feel good.
Once, a woman I didn’t know drove thirty miles to hear me speak. She wanted to absolve herself for an ill-conceived prank she’d instigated in Mother’s class decades earlier. “She didn’t punish us,” the woman said, “but she looked so disappointed in us.” I laughed, understanding.
Perhaps all children fear being orphaned, but I was aware early on that I could lose Mother, and that terrified me. I never went through a rebellious stage with her, in part because she was a sensitive and reasonable parent, but also because I had such a fear of her dying. She didn’t dwell on her health problems, however, but it was obvious that she was sick more than other people’s moms. From her early adulthood, she was plagued with myriad problems, the most severe being migraine headaches that flattened her for two days at a time, kidney disease that sent her to bed for six months, and high blood pressure, the villain that killed my grandmother. Arthritis, too, was always lurking around, slapping her to the ground at inconvenient times. Eventually, it would put her in a wheelchair the last decade of her life.
When I was a middle-aged woman and done with having babies, beyond being scared of my own body but experienced enough to understand, Mother began to talk more freely to me about the difficulties she’d had in childbirth. Having lost her mother early, she was determined to make her own family, surround herself with her own children. Yet each of her pregnancies brought complications that were life threatening. When she lost her last baby, her blood pressure soared to 300 over 200, and the doctor felt he could not safely give her an anesthesia. With Mother hemorrhaging and the infant already dead, they performed an emergency Caesarian with Novacaine injections.
Her darkest moment came when she drove home from the beauty shop one January day and saw my father and his tractor crashed at the bottom of the long, steep hill below the barn. Before she took a breath, before she tried to get to him, she called 911 and then neighbors for help. Hysteria was an indulgence Mother would not allow herself when doing was what was needed. The crying would come later when there was nothing more she could do for him.
Daddy was the center of Mother’s life, and she never got over missing him. But she went on living, what else can you do, she said, with purpose and humor for another sixteen years. That span of time was important to our family. She helped me see my children grown, and me safely into late middle age. She remained at the helm of our family ship, sharing wisdom when asked, encouraging us through crisis, laughing and celebrating with us. A day came, though, when she said, “I have to turn the family over to you, now. I have my hands full with myself.” I smiled, because I thought she wanted me to, as though she were making a joke, but I understood. It was her way of telling me how ill she had become.
When I look at photographs taken of Mother in her young adulthood, I agree that she wasn’t pretty. She skipped over that adjective, and like the ugly duckling, grew up to be a swan. I know that I’m not objective though. I see Mother, not the picture. I am standing again beside the plain little dresser made of hard rock maple watching her in the morning light. Her long, bright hair, swept upward and held in place by tiny combs, frames her pale face reflected in the mirror. She opens her mouth, just wide enough, and careful to stay within lines I can not see, she colors her full lips with a delicious looking crayon, until they bloom, a brilliant tulip red, out of nowhere, out of a winter landscape into the vibrant spring.
©Georgia Green Stamper
Butter in the Morning is available from Amazon.com and your local Indie bookstore