When I was a kid in Nashville, we’d go to church on Mother’s Day, and everyone would pin a carnation on their Sunday best. A red carnation meant the wearer’s mother was still alive, and white meant that she had died. I don’t know if this was simply a local custom — I haven’t noticed it anywhere else I’ve been, and I don’t know if it’s still done. In any case, this is my second white carnation Mother’s Day, and while I’ve talked a lot about my dad, I haven’t said as much about my mom.
First of all, Mom in her prime seemed larger than life — I’m sure that’s true for all kids, but I think I can make a decent case. At her peak, before age and illness took their tolls, Mom was six feet tall and 275 pounds, and I remember watching her carry a washing machine up a flight of stairs. She could make her own case for Zontarhood, as well — she spent her first seventeen years with a congenital heart defect, finally corrected by surgery in 1961, when she was in high school. Believe it or not, it could have stunted her growth — her grandmother was 6’4″, the same height I am. Maybe as a consequence of this, she didn’t cut herself or any other woman any slack. I guess one example of this was when I was a kid. A girl in my class had hit me, and then said I couldn’t hit her back because she was a girl. When I told Mom about it that afternoon, she said, “If she’s man enough to hit you, she’s man enough to be hit back.” Mom took a lot of punches from life — the heart problem, MS, diabetes, and the various bad things that happen to us and the people we love — but she always dragged herself back up, and if she could hit back, she would.
Perhaps as a result of all this, her personality was outsized, as well. For most of her life, Mom dyed her naturally brown hair red, at least in part to match my brother and me. But she actually had dyed it red even before that; when I was born with red hair, the joke was that it had soaked through. And Mom’s dramatic personality matched the flamboyance of her hair color. I haven’t known many people who could laugh as hard or as loudly as Mom did, and I can remember her bursting into off-key song (a favorite was “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?”) around the house or at the occasional church supper. Once, she jumped up and sat for an hour on a counter at JC Penney’s until they delivered a coat she had ordered for me from another store, where it had been misdelivered. Her sense of humor could be Rabelaisian — she worked at a Fotomat store for the last few years of her working life (and long after her doctors told her to quit), and occasionally customers would call and ask if they could have “umm… personal photos (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)” developed. Mom’s stock response was, “Unless there’s a kid or a dog in it, we’ll do it.”
At the same time, she was a remarkably sensitive listener. She volunteered as a phone counselor for other MS patients for years, an enterprise she called “Cripnet.” When she worked at Fotomat, regular customers would just drive up and start unburdening themselves as they dropped off their film. (One regular customer, a Catholic priest, told her it was because the Fotomat booth looked like a drive-through confessional.) She served as an auxiliary mom for my friends (including the Major) and my brother’s, and no one ever came to the house and left hungry or without a place to crash if they needed one. Physically, emotionally, or spiritually, my mother didn’t want to see anyone suffer — even if it may have been deserved. She took in strays.
She was insecure about a number of things — I think some of her seeming loudness was cover for that. Mom was very bright, and a talented artist (when her hands worked), but because my dad was brilliant, she intimidated herself into a subsidiary role, and never saw herself as being remarkable — but others did; when I was in junior high school, she was offered a scholarship to a local college to become a teacher. She turned it down, because we were moving to Cincinnati for Dad’s work, and the family came first. I think her insecurity also played out in that ferocious loyalty to Dad, my brother, and me. If we screwed up, we’d have to deal with and overcome the consequences, but God help you if she decided you had wronged one of hers.
She was insistent upon good manners, not in a proper typeface for the place cards kind of way, but in her insistence that although we didn’t have to like everyone, we had to treat them with respect until they gave us reason not to. On the other hand, she wasn’t much of a respecter of rank. The mother of a friend of mine once introduced herself to my mother as “Jane Doe, Ph.D.” Without missing a beat, she replied, “I’m Madge Moore, M-O-M.”
After she got sick and couldn’t drive, she spent about two decades at home, as something rather like a shut-in. She contented herself as best she could, reading when her vision was up to it (it would come and go — MS is a strange disease), working in the garden when it wasn’t too hot, talking on the phone, and worrying, it seemed, about everyone she knew. But she was always in pain, and although she took a wide range of medicines, they might dull the pain without eliminating it — in fact, her doctor told my dad that on Mom’s best days, she probably felt like someone who had been in a serious car accident. She was an amazingly tough woman, and while late in her life her ailments (and yes, some of her medications) would render her irascible and difficult, she just kept coming as long as she could. I have no doubt that as a matter of course, she handled pains that would have crushed me, and whatever strength I may have, I credit to her and to God.
Happy Mother’s Day.