I have written here before about my Dad. Twice in fact. He was an interesting, quotable character and a fine, fine fellow. Great father, too. I haven’t yet written about my mother. Until now.
Why not? It’s not because she wasn’t a fine person. She was. Certainly, it’s not because she wasn’t a great mother. Of that, there is no doubt. The reason, I think, is because–unlike Dad–she is difficult to capture in words. But I’ll try.
Mom died in 2003. Her life was probably unremarkable by most standards. She was born on January 19, 1930 in Detroit. (Coincidentally, my father shared the same birthday, being born in 1925). Her parents were in Michigan, because my Papaw was looking for work. Shortly after her birth, they moved back to Eastern Kentucky. She grew on Island Creek in Pike County and in Cumberland in Harlan County. She graduated from Cumberland High School and then Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1951. After a year of student teaching at Benham High School, she taught at Evarts High School in Harlan County for the next 30 years. She was a Home Economics teacher. She married my Dad in 1957, and they stayed married until her death. They had three sons, of which I am the middle one.
She had a brilliant mind. After her retirement, she became something of an expert on investing and taxes. She was my primary financial advisor. If my Dad was the engine that drove our family, Mom was the brains of the outfit.
She survived breast cancer and the resultant toxic chemotherapy, although she suffered neurological damage from the treatment which left her with a bizarre set of symptoms for the remaining 20 years of her life. She also weathered the death of her youngest son. Overall, she had a life like most folks–ups and downs, good time and bad times.
She was, by turns, funny and sad; inspiring and discouraging. She could make me angry enough to yell at her (which I would NEVER have done with Dad) and the next moment be kind and thoughtful. She was generous and genuinely tried to let me know that she cared. She probably wasn’t different from a lot of mothers in that regard.
What made her different, at least to me, were the things she said, the stories she told and the myriad eccentricities to which we all became accustomed. To give you a better picture, I’ve decided to share some of those:
Like most mothers, Mom had a vast library of cautionary tales which were repeated over and over and over…. Here are some of the classics:
Poor Cousin Stubby: Around the 4th of July, I would hear about Mom’s cousin, who lived in Chicago at some time in the distant past. He was just called her “cousin.” If he had a name, I’ve long since forgotten it. Cousin had a penchant for setting off dangerous fireworks. One year, he set off some particularly deadly explosive and “BLEW HIS FINGERS OFF.” That’s how it was always described to me. Not one finger, mind you (which still seems unlikely, unless he was playing with blasting caps). In my child’s mind, this meant every, single, damn finger. My little mind imagined Cousin fumbling about for the rest of his life with his stubs–all because of fireworks. Some years later, a short-fused firecracker went off in my hand. Other than making my ears ring and slightly burning me, it was no big deal. Oddly, I was a little disappointed at the lack of maiming. Just a little.
I actually did have a cousin who cut off his finger in a door. He was never presented as any kind of example. He was just an idiot.
The Medicine Cabinet Moron: We lived in a house with an old-fashioned bathroom. It had a steel tub and steel sink with a medicine cabinet over it. The toilet probably used about 10 gallons of water per flush. As a lad, I would climb onto the sink to access the medicine cabinet. This was, as Mom taught me, one of the most dangerous stunts a child could pull.
It seems there was a boy in an unspecified part of the world who also liked to climb on sinks. Coincidentally, he was about my age at the time. Sadly, he lacked my sure-footedness and fell while reaching for his medicine cabinet. He crashed to the floor, cracking his head on the tub. The result? “BRAIN DAMAGE!” No, he didn’t just split open his head. He had BRAIN DAMAGE. As a result, as Mom said, he became a moron. Not only that, but he was also a “VEGETABLE.” THAT, my friends, is a bad deal. I am now 50 years old. A few weeks ago, I was at my in-laws house (which is very similar to my childhood home). I looked at their medicine cabinet and could not help but glance at the tub to satisfy myself that there was enough distance between the two to prevent a moron-inducing fall. Oh, I didn’t climb on the sink. But I thought about it.
The Boy Who Made Out With The Toaster: I have had a lifelong habit of looking at myself any time I pass a mirror. This isn’t because I am particularly handsome. It’s just a habit. My Dad did the same thing. When I was small fellow, I used to look at myself in the side of the toaster. I know that’s weird, but the toaster had a dent in it, and you could treat it like a fun house mirror. Besides, I just liked doing it, okay?
There was once this boy who, like me, stared at the toaster. One day–for reasons I didn’t understand–he kissed his own reflection! Much like Narcissus, he was done in by his own beauty. How, you say? By ELECTROCUTION. That’s right, he was electrocuted. Immediately. Dead. Just like the other kid who tried to get his toast out with a fork. D-E-A-D.
Here’s a secret: After she told me that, I kissed the toaster. What the hell? Life on the edge. Don’t tell anyone about that.
To this day, when I see a shiny toaster (you know, the silvery chrome kind), I’m tempted to plant one on it just to see. I don’t. Usually.
Sputum: If Mom saw me touch the bottom of my shoe–even for a split second–she would say “Oh, there is nothing filthier than the bottoms of your shoes. You have walked in people’s sputum.” Not spit. Nor phlegm. Not even snot. Sputum. When I got older, I would do it just hear the word sputum. She’s the only person I ever heard say it.
THE CATCH PHRASES
Mom had a habit of saying the same things over and over about particular people or situations. I considered these to be her catch phrases. This is best described by the following examples:
Social Disgrace: This was something to be avoided at all costs. A social disgrace would bring shame upon your family name. Divorce was a good one. Marital infidelity was another. Getting arrested was a biggie. Mom’s description was “Honey, you know that’s a social disgrace.” I’ve done my best throughout my life to avoid these.
The Lowest of Trash: One big step below a social disgrace was behavior reserved “the lowest of trash.” This behavior included drinking, drugs, premarital sex, children born out-of-wedlock, foul language, poor grammar, bad table manners and general trashiness. Normally, this was used as follows: “Honey, the lowest of trash wouldn’t do a thing like that.” Often, a woman who looked like a “floozie” would be used as a living example of the lowest of trash.
Stomped-Down Moron: To be a stomped-down moron may or may not involve social disgrace or the lowest of trashiness. All it required was poor judgment. Then, Mom might observe that “You act like a stomped-down moron.” This is not to be confused with a brain-damaged moron.
As an aside, Dad once observed during an argument with Mom: “Anna, I know that it’s important for you to get the last word, but you’re the only person I know who has to get the last scathing insult in any conversation.” Stomped-down moron fell into that category.
He Wears A Diaper: My parents knew a man who became involved with a much younger woman. It was a social disgrace, of course. This guy was about Dad’s age, and the gossip horrified Mom. Naturally, she talked about it all the time. Every time it came up, her description of this fellow included this tagline: “He wears a diaper.” WHAT?!? Evidently, this fellow had suffered some sort of hideous medical condition or that’s what folks said, anyway. As a result, “He wears a diaper.” Sometimes she would say “You know he’s incontinent. He wears a diaper.” Did he? Who the hell knows? How would Mom know this? I have no idea. It’s not like he was a close family friend. He was just some guy they knew. I doubt that he ever told Mom he wore a diaper. Regardless, his name was never mentioned without reference to his diaper.
Some years later, I happened to be in Harlan on business. I was at the Hardee’s and guess who I saw? Diaper Dandy! We exchanged banal pleasantries. I must admit that I checked him out for any tell-tale signs of diaper-wearing. You know what? I think that man was wearing a diaper.
The Ugly Man: Mom went to college with a man so ugly, so repellant that he was denied admission to medical school. This man was so hideous that the mere thought of exposing him to the sick and infirm was a shock to the senses. Since Mom was quite a few decades too young to have attended school with Joseph Merrick, the famed Elephant Man, what could this man’s affliction have been? Bad teeth. Yep, poor dental work. So bad–or “deformed” as Mom always said–that he couldn’t cover them with his lips. It seems to me that if you couldn’t cover your teeth, the lack of saliva would cause them to rot. Maybe they did or maybe he licked them frequently. Either way, it had to be really gross. I tried to envision this man’s appearance, his grotesque twisted teeth protruding. By the way, I’ve seen a lot of ugly doctors. Think about how bad this guy had to be.
Mom had a number of peculiarities or eccentricities or whatever you want to call them:
Car Sickness: Mom usually got car sick when she opened the door of the car. Sometimes, she would just puke in a plastic grocery bag. (Oh, the word “puke” is only said by the lowest of trash). Other times, you’d have to pull over to let her “get some air.” Once, we when she was a child, her father drove their family from Pikeville to Cumberland, Kentucky. When asked at the gas station how far he had driven, Papaw replied: “Nineteen pukes.” Normally, when my parents came to visit my home in Lexington, the first thing Mom did upon arrival was go to the bathroom and vomit. My wife thought it was odd, but I was so used to it that I rarely even noticed.
Camera Shyness: I suspect that there are more photographs of Howard Hughes and J.D. Salinger than there are of my mother. She hid from cameras like you were the Paparazzi. She would turn her head, hold up her hand, run from the room–anything to avoid the camera. Future generations will wonder why we have so little photographic evidence of her existence.
Burning Paint: She had no sense of smell or at least that was the claim. There was one notable exception to this malady: She could smell burning paint–and she often did. It was like a super-power. Unfortunately, she would smell it when it wasn’t present. Or maybe it was but only her heightened sensitivity. “John, do you smell that? I smell burning paint.” There was never any burning paint, as far as I know. Then again, I don’t know what burning paint smells like.
The Pre-Planned Funeral: A lot of folks pre-plan their funerals, but not many do it without the help of a funeral home. Mom did. Shortly before her death, she gave my brother detailed plans, including a budget. No embalming (“It’s not required and a waste of money.”) We followed her instructions with one exception. We didn’t tell the funeral home to get all the gold out of her mouth (“They’ll steal it, if you don’t.“). But someone might have:
THE TALES OF WOE
Mom had a vast reserve of maudlin stories, most of which involved her childhood. Here are the best–and most repeated–ones:
Jitterbug: She had a dog named Jitterbug. I don’t remember what kind of dog it was. Here’s what I do remember: Jitterbug go run over by a train or a big truck or something like that. It was horrific. The story had a tremendous build up of how wonderful and loved Jitterbug was. Then, he got killed. I hated that story.
The Bracelet: When Mom was a girl, her father bought her a bracelet. She got mad at him one day, took off the bracelet and threw it at him. He weeped. He didn’t cry or sob or tear up. He “weeped.” That’s how it was always said, like a Bible verse: “Daddy weeped.” My older brother so hated this story that he refused to listen to it after a while. (Dad, being cynical as he was, observed “Can you imagine what a cheap piece of junk that bracelet was?”) Nevertheless, Mom never got tired of telling it.
Poor Little George: Mom’s Uncle George was about the same age as she was. He had some kind of awful liver disease. He died when he was 8 years old while his parents were driving him to a specialist somewhere. This is a legitimately sad story. The kind of story best told once. Once.
Papaw: My grandfather–her father–was one of the finest people I’ve ever known. Kind, caring–just a nice guy. He did, however, have the cardiac history of Fred Sanford, having suffered innumerable heart attacks. Mom would recount some of those to me telling me how he barely survived each. Once, he had one while working underground in a coal mine. Again, he barely cheated death. My Dad’s version was much different: “When we got to Cumberland, your Papaw was flaked out on a lawn chair listening to a transistor radio. He didn’t look too sick to me.” Papaw later moved to Utah and any time we visited him, he cautioned that it could well be the last time we saw him. He reminded us of that, too. He died in 1998 at age 91. Oh, and I never knew him to have a heart attack.
So, that’s Mom. It’s easy to say you love your mother. I did, but I also liked her. She was funny. She cared about what happened to me. She always tried to help. She rarely raised her voice. In her later years, I don’t think she could yell. She spoke barely above a whisper, often prefacing her comments with “Oh, Lord, honey…”
When my younger brother died, sadness infected her like a bad cold she couldn’t shake. She got better but never well. Even with that, she was a good mom and grandmother. She is greatly missed but left me with a lot of good memories.