As we were planning her funeral service, the minister asked my sister and me some questions about our childhood and about our memories of Mama. Then he asked for something brief that captured her spirit, perhaps something that we could imagine carved on her tombstone. I really couldn't think of anything to tell him, except for the word, "Mother."
Since I am a novelist, any effort to expand her description beyond a single word naturally metamorphosizes into many, many words. Since she was a singularly beautiful woman, that description naturally includes photographs. Here are those words and pictures.
My mother Lillian was born in January 1937, almost exactly one year after her sister. Two years later, their mother was dead of one of those things that don't kill healthy young women any more, pneumonia. I'm told that someone was driving frantically to Mobile, hoping to find one of those miraculous new antibiotics, a sulfa drug, but he didn't get back in time. She was 26.
Before their mother died, she made two special little dresses,one pink and one blue. I've never seen any like them. They were made of maybe 30 triangles of silk that were connected by flat strips of white insertion lace to make the dresses' skirts. The strips of lace extending from the skirt were sewn together at the top to form the dresses' bodices. I'm told that my grandfather helped her make them. She basted them together while he, being a mechanical engineer and thus handy with things that had motors, ran the sewing machine.
This picture of the girls wearing the dresses was probably taken after their mother died.
As a Mother's Day gift a few years ago, my sister and I had the original dress cleaned and mounted in a shadow box, along with photos of all the girls who wore it or the copy, as well as the grandparents who made the original. We included our sons' photos, not because they wore the dress, but just because we kinda like them. :-) Here's a crummy photo of the contents of that shadowbox.
Maybe I'm losing my mind, but look at this photo. I just propped the frame against the wall, sat on the floor, and snapped the shot with my phone, so you can see the reflection of everything in the room in the glass.
Look for my reflection. You can see my white shirt and dark hair. Do you see the reflection of someone else wearing a slightly darker blouse partially obscuring mine? It looks an awful lot like the blouse we buried my mother in. I've always had the traditional engineer's skeptical approach to the metaphysical, but I really can't think of anything to explain that picture.
Here's a photo of the last little girl to wear the current copy, my younger daughter, along with her mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and godmother.
While in nursing school, she met Daddy. Since people are at their most beautiful when they're in love, I'm including two photos from 1956, one of the two of them at a Christmas party and one that he took of her at Audubon Park in New Orleans while she was training at Charity Hospital.
My father never met a stranger, and he liked to tell about the time he was dressed all slick in a suit and tie, flying cross-country to a corporate meeting in Oakland. He chatted with the Yankee lady in the seat next to him for the entire flight, and he used his college English and his company manners and everything, but she apparently never got past the accent. As the plane landed, she asked, "Pardon me, sir...but are you a hick?"
He just grinned and said, "Yes, ma'am. I are."
Mama stopped working and commenced mothering when I came along in 1961. This picture was taken in 1963, while she was pregnant with her second and last child, my sister. So, technically, we're all three in the shot.
Here are two pageant gowns she sewed for me. The first one was made from fabric we bought at a fire sale. The other girls had department store dresses, but I won the pageant and the evening gown competition. For the state pageant, we found a photo of a dress we liked, then she copied it, using a pattern that really didn't look much like the original dress at all. Notice how perfectly the bodice fits and know that one of my shoulders is lower than the other and one hip is higher than the other and that I weighed ninety pounds at the time. Have I mentioned that I am spoiled when it comes to shopping for clothes?
Dr. Mary showed the southerner's typical disdain for hiring experts to do things that can be addressed through common sense. She told her to encourage any interest we showed and to fill the house with books. She took us to the bookmobile in the summers and all three of us left with stacks of books. The archaeology books passed through all of our hands, and they are probably the reason I write what I do. That, and the fact that my mother excavated some really cool stuff out of the trash pit left in the woods behind our home by the residents of a long-gone house. Also, she found some arrowheads and the quarry where their stone was dug in those very same woods.
My mother was there for me during all the little bumps in my road, and the biggest of those was probably my second child's premature birth. She and Daddy took my little son to their house and brought him to see me on weekends. Every week, Mama would go to the hospital, check out the baby, and pronounce that the doctors were wrong. (My sister and I have always said that if she'd been born in 1967, instead of 1937, she would have been a doctor herself.) She declared that this baby was going to be fine. Here she is, holding my daughter when she was three months old and nearly ready to leave the hospital. She kept stretching her arms out and waving her little hands in the air. The doctors said it was a reflex and maybe a sign of brain damage. Mama said that the baby was just saying, "Look at my pretty hands!" Mama was right. And my daughter's hands really are pretty...
Mama carried on alone, though it must have been hard. After they'd been married about 25 years, one of his friends asked my father if he'd seen the really beautiful woman who'd walked into church that morning. Daddy said, "Really, I think my wife is the most beautiful woman there is." I wish they'd had more than 34 years together.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. When the biopsy came up positive, I carefully packed my suitcase for the trip to Mississippi...then left it on my living room floor. I had to borrow underwear until her surgery was over and I could take time to run to Walmart.
After the diagnosis, I told her we'd take a trip when she got finished with her chemo. Because we loved archaeology and science so much, I found us a cruise that started in Athens, went to ruins in Turkey and Romania, then stopped in the middle of the Black Sea to view a total eclipse of the sun. Here we are embarking on our adventure and viewing the eclipse in our matching flamingo shirts.
Before my son's wedding in March 2009, Mama's doctor told me that she would not see my daughter's wedding in September of that year. She made him into a liar, then she lived more than another year, just to show she could. Her father did say that she butted with her own head. Here she is, making her entrance on my son's arm at that wedding she wasn't supposed to see.
To sew a lovely bit of trim on all this remembering, here is a photo from Christmas 1963, when I got my first piano and my infant sister lay on a blanket under the tree and Daddy caught Mama in her flannel pajamas. All Christmases should be like this one, and all childhoods should be like mine.