The day had turned noticeably colder and darker and storm clouds threatened as the mourners exited the small church. There had not been enough room for everyone inside so consequently, every square foot of the generous church yard was occupied by the standing, overflow crowd. They stood reverently through all the salutations, prayers, songs, and the eulogy. They parted and created a path in perfect symmetry, as first the Pallbearers carrying the coffin and then the family, faces strained and tear stained, followed close behind.
The sorrowful mood inside the church accompanied by the awkward truce Mama had engineered had been stretched almost beyond endurance. Mama’s heart was broken, and she had begun to wonder if she could continue to feign good health throughout the burial ceremony. Her head had begun to ache and there was an odd tingling in her fingertips. Too much…it had all been…too much.
Both sides of the freshly graded but hard packed, red clay road was lined with cars on both sides and had become impassable. It would have been an exercise in futility to have tried untangling what had to be close to a hundred cars, in time to follow the hearse the 8th of a mile or so to the cemetery; the graveside ceremony would have assuredly been over by the time the cars had snaked the short distance and then again sought parking places, so the mourners simply fell in step behind the hearse, the car carrying the Pallbearers and the two cars carrying the immediate family. Not a single car that had arrived that day had carried just a single passenger. Some of the cars carried five or as many as could be squeezed in. Therefore, the parade of people following the hearse on foot was impressively long.
Mama had been relieved to be off her feet again if only for that short distance. She dared not mention her painful headache to Papa because he was still stony-faced and angry with her interference and for allowing that woman into the church. Not just in the church but allowing her to sit with the family! What must he be thinking right now? At least she had not pushed to allow her into the car for the cemetery ride. No, she would not disclose her pain, she would pray and ask God for His help and strength for a little while longer.
The grave which was to receive her baby boy had been dug the previous evening by Papa and his two remaining sons. Mama was pressed upon by formidable grief but still she prayed. She had begun to feel her resolve slip away as they lowered the coffin. Her lips moved wordlessly in a private conversation with God. She heard the coffin touched the bottom of the grave and remembered little else.
With God’s help, she would have told you, she made it through the remainder of the ceremony. She even fulfilled hostess duties by receiving the well wishes and the condolences of the many mourners; there had been so very many. It seemed they came and went for hours. At some point during the evening, someone had taken her by the shoulders, she could not remember whom, and they had guided her into her bedroom. She clearly remembered her hat being removed from her head, what an odd thing to remember, but could not remember who had helped her undress. She recalled asking whoever had been in attendance to her needs to send in her daughter who was overseeing in the kitchen and helping to dispense unending plates of food.
Her daughter found Mama sitting on the edge of the bed rubbing her temples. “Mama, I know you’re not OK, but are you feeling alright?”, she asked. Mama tried to look up into her daughter’s face, but the effort only caused additional pain. The painful throbbing inside her head had begun when the woman had driven up to the church and had not yet subsided. She’d bad headaches before but a couple of swallows of the garlic water she kept in the icebox and a teaspoon of vinegar, usually helped the pain within a few hours. She’d taken a dose right after arriving home, but the pain had only grown worse and the numbness and tingling in her fingers had escalated into pinpricks. Still holding her head down, she asked her daughter for one of those new headache powders people were talking favorably about.
Without hesitation her daughter rushed into the kitchen and returned with a glass of Coca Cola and a little yellow and blue envelop of Standback Headache Powder. She sprinkled the powder upon the surface of the cola and gave it to her mother to drink.
They could not have known that the combination of the 845mg of aspirin contained in that package along with the 65mg of caffeine also in that package combined with the additional caffeine of the cola, didn’t cause but helped to hasten the condition Mama suffered just hours after burying her son.
Days later upon awakening, Mama saw her daughter sitting in a chair next to the bed, her head resting on Mama’s left leg. She thought it strange that she couldn’t feel the weight of her daughter’s head. Mama, tried and was successful in moving her right leg, then tried moving the left leg, but could not. Her leg felt wooden as if somehow it was not a part of her body. She attributed the fact that her left leg felt odd due to her daughter’s head lying upon it and perhaps causing the leg to fall asleep, as it were. She looked about the darkened room and realized it was not hers. She allowed her thoughts to travel back a few hours to when she took the headache powder and finally fell asleep, but how had she gotten here and just where was “here”?
She had a moment of panic when she realized that she had gone to sleep the night before without thanking God for bringing her through that awful day. Her heart still ached for her son, his smile, and the way he had teased laughter from her. She wondered if she would ever laugh again, but though her heart still ached, her head no longer did. That powder must have truly worked and for that she gave God thanks. But, what she needed right then was for her daughter to move because she wanted the circulation to come back into her leg. She reached out to touch her daughter with her left hand, but her arm didn’t move. She looked around the darkened room again and this time realized that she was in the hospital! “My God, My God”, she thought, “what has happened?’.
With her throat dry and parched, she called out to her daughter and didn’t recognize the croaky sound that burst from the side of her mouth. She tried again to call out, but instead of Vera, being sounded, something akin to BeerWa, BeerrWaa crashed against her ears! The panic she pushed down moments earlier rushed back and brought with it a dull ache which settled behind her left eye! She knew instinctively that she needed to gain control over her fear…she closed her eyes and concentrated on her prayers. One of her often quoted and favorite scriptures came to her mind, Isaiah 41:10; and she repeated it over and over: Fear not for I am with thee, be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen thee, yea, I will help thee, Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
She had silently repeated that verse as she had walked up to the woman’s car door yesterday. She had recited it as when she had entered the church and she’d uttered it again as she stood in the cemetery. She now found herself saying it again and it brought her comfort. She prayed for an extra helping of the strength promised to her in that verse from Isaiah. She felt the fear receding and the pain in her left eye gratefully, followed it. She then prayed and offered her thanks to God for His goodness and mercy. With renewed vigor, Mama tried again to call out to her daughter and was met again with the sound of BeerWa. But this time, her daughter stirred and called out, “Mama, you’re awake!” “Mama, the doctor said that if you didn’t wake up today or tomorrow…you probably wouldn’t.” “Mama, you scared us so badly, thank you God for giving me back my mother.”
Mama waved her right hand around indicating the room and her daughter understood that she was confused by her surrounding and whereabouts. “you’re in the hospital Mama and you’ve been here since the day after the funeral.” “HaaWong, haa Wong?”, how long, Mama tried asking. Anxiety returned unbidden and she closed her eyes and prayed again for strength to face this new issue. She thought rather than say the beloved verse again. It was now her daughter’s turn to panic because she thought her Mother had once again sank into unconsciousness. When Mama reopened her eyes, she saw her daughter’s eyes stretched wide in fear. “My poor child,” she thought, “what have she endured as I’ve lain here?”
After being relieved that Mama had only momentarily closed her eyes, she began to fill Mama in on the past few days, not the hours Mama had thought. “Mama, the doctor said you had a stroke and you’ve been here for almost a week.” She saw Mama’s eyebrows knit together in question and continued with, “Papa’s fine.” “He had been here for the better part of this week until we finally made him go home to rest. “Everything’s going to be fine now Mama,” she assured her. “Just please don’t try and talk anymore, just know that God is answering our prayers.”
Mama had indeed suffered a stroke with paralytic repercussions. The left side of her body had been compromised but once she’d accepted what had happened, she did what she’d always done; prayed, and gave thanks for another day of life. She prayed for her family and she asked God for her own healing, if it was within His will. Six months later, her doctor declared Mama’s recovery miraculous. He could not have been more correct. She had regained the use of her left hand, the droopiness of her mouth disappeared and her speech had returned to normal! The only physical remnant of the stroke, which remained the rest of her life, was her inability to walk without dragging her left leg.
When I was old enough to ask her about her leg but not yet old enough to be discreet, I asked her why if God had healed her, He hadn’t fixed her leg. She, without missing a beat reminded me that Jacob had been touched in the hip by God and he walked with a limp the rest of his life too. “Baby”, she said, “When God touches you, something’s got to give!” “Well Mama,” I said, “I sure hope if He touches me, it’ll be with that Mercy and Grace you always talk about and not with that limp that you and Jacob have!” She smiled and shook her head…I think she started praying for me afresh that day with renewed determination.
Mama lived without the deep depression and melancholy that engulfs most stroke victims. She reveled in her life. Although I have no memories of what her laughter sounded like, I remember the absolute genuineness and sincerity of her smile. She and Papa contrasted in everything. Papa’s laugh never fully exploded from his body. It seemed more as if he was coughing and trying to clear his throat. His shoulders would shudder, rise and fall and tears would flow from his eyes. I was always afraid that he would be unable to catch his breath. But Mama never uttered an audible sound of laughter. The corners of lips never rose to meet the corners of her eyes. There was always sadness, or something related to it behind her eyes.
During her weeks of recovery and healing, she had reflected upon her children. Her eldest son occupied most of her prayers. Always unflinchingly serious since returning home from the Korean war, he had become a wanderer. Taking jobs that would not allow him to settle in one place for too long. Never truly putting down roots. Her other twin boy loved laughing! He was just like his twin in that regards. But unlike his twin, he was a big man and his mere presence demanded respect. The only person who could make him stand down with a simple look was his father. This son, with his large personality and equally large, not fat, body, ruled every space he occupied. His name suited him perfectly. Her daughter was her support, her caregiver, her constant companion. She was everything one could hope for in a daughter; but her baby boy had been her sunshine and as he had been lowered into the grave it was as though her life had darkened. She fought to find solace and delight in serving God and unsurprisingly, in cooking.
She had always been an excellent cook and people used to say, when they would remember her, that God guided her hands in the kitchen. She appreciated their thoughts but believed that God guided her hands in everything she did.
You can trust that Mama, never did anything with lackluster. She taught Sunday School, and Mission studies. She cultivated beautiful roses and daffodils. She participated in the BTU (Baptist Training Union) at the church…(I could not tell the difference between that and Sunday School, except that it was held on Friday evenings.) But one of the things I appreciated her doing more than anything, besides cooking, was one of the most colorful event I’d ever witnessed. I relate it now to the annual hot air balloon festival held in Albuquerque, NM every October.
Her quilting bee was mind-bendingly colorful. Beautiful quilts where stretched out over the open spaces between the main farmhouse and Mother’s house. At least 50 quilts each on their own frame occupied every bit of space. Twenty or so ladies would come to our farm on the appointed morning and began setting up their frames. Some of them would bring two or three quilts to be finished off with the help of other ladies. The day before the quilting bee, their husbands or other menfolk brought the frames to the farm by truck, wagon, or horseback. They would set them up and hustle back to their own farms to complete their never-ending list of chores. The frames were used to stretch the quilts and hold them in place as the women performed the finishing work upon them. As the men were busy setting up the quilting frames, the ladies, each prepared double helping of their noonday meals for their families to eat the next day while they attended the Bee at our farm.
All of the thousands of colorful squares of fabric had been stitched together the previous fall and winter months. After preserving the last of the harvest, it was time to settle into the long autumn and winter evenings chores, which meant, unfortunately, sewing together the hundreds upon hundreds of patches. Little girls as young as five or six were given their own little baskets or bags of scraps from which to cut squares, triangles, or circles. They were also given needles and thread to practice their stitches. No crooked or overly long stitches were acceptable. Mama would inspect our stitches after we’d been at it for forty of fifty squares (about 2 weeks’ worth of sewing), and if she found stitches that didn’t follow her exacting rules or if any of the stitches were too long and allowed for light to pass through the seams, she would quietly instruct us, mainly me, to remove ALL the stitches and begin again! It only happened ONCE to me!! I declared sewing to be one of the most hated chores ever invented and was sent from Satan to torture me!
But, when summer arrived and the ladies met at random farms to finish off their quilts, it was just about as close as a child could hope to come to being invited into the inner sanction of “grown women’s sacred circles.” A Quilting Bee was everything! If only you could be there without the sewing! There were patterns named Garden of Eden, Crown of Thorns, Double Wedding Ring, the Star of David, and Jacob’s ladder. So many lovely patterns whose names made absolutely no sense to me but brought oohs and aahs and instant recognition as each lady presented their top pieces. I’m convinced, with no proof, that the ladies must have agreed upon which patterns they would be making at some point during the previous fall because not even one of them made a duplicate of another’s pattern.
After the quilts had been stretched across the frames, the ladies began the serious aspect of quilting. Stitching the solid sheets of muslin backing to the quilted pieces, then filling the quilts with batting or wadding and finally stitching the layers together. Some of the more ambitious ladies would sew long diagonal stitches across the layers thereby creating the familiar quilting effect. Other’s would use colorful and coordinating embroidery thread to tack down the batting in strategic places preventing any slippage of any of the layers. Whichever method was used, you could be assured that a quilt, with care, would last several generations.
As the noon hour approached Mama excused herself to prepare lunch for the ladies. She’d had Papa bring in a ham from the smoke house the previous evening and she, after our own supper, carved paper thin slices of the meat, placed them on a platter and stored them in the icebox. Early on the morning of the Bee, she baked several pans of light and fluffy homemade biscuits and covered them with tea towel until they were ready to be served. She also set out several jars of her Blackberry and Peach preserves. There were teacakes and coffee for those who drank it and a pre-Kool-Aid drink called Poly Pop, grape flavored of course, was made the night before and waited next to the ham to be served. Sliced tomatoes, green onions and cucumbers with a sprinkle of salt and vinegar were served along side the biscuits and ham. There was so much chatter and laughter from all the ladies that Papa swore the birds hushed with fear! The laughter was enthralling and came freely from everyone except Mama.
I don’t know how many quilts the other ladies had, but Mama had a treasure trove of at least 20 even though she had given many away to newly married relatives and girls leaving home for the first time. A little something from home to bring comfort on cold nights, she’d say. Even after the stroke her tiny, perfectly straight stitches never wavered.
It was during times like the quilting bees when I’d hear many stories of Mama when she was younger. Mama was about 73 when I was born and it strained my imagination to picture her as a young woman. Not that she looked her age, she didn’t, and the only thing that bespoke of her age was her thick, long, wavy and breathtakingly silver hair. Some said that she had gone to bed with inky dark hair the night her first son was killed and had awoken the next morning without a single dark strand of hair on her head. Overnight, as a young woman, her hair had turned snow white, or so it was said.
Those who knew her then also said she had loved to dance!
WAIT! MAMA?? DANCE??? WHAT TYPE OF MADNESS WAS THIS????
She was said not only to have loved dancing but was considered the best dancer around! Actually, she was as well known for her dance steps as she would later become known for her cooking!
I knew better than to call any of my elders’ liars but I surely thought they must be. But thinking back, I can recall times when certain music with defining beats were played on the radio and Mama’s right foot tapped in perfect rhythm. Well dang!
Beyond cooking, growing roses, quilting, teaching the Bible and praying, Mama dearly loved watching over and overseeing her granddaughters, My sister and me. If I’m to be completely honest, Mama seemed, to my six or seven year old mind, to be quite hawkish in her manner of overseeing. Nothing missed her gaze, at least nothing I did. My sister was the favorite granddaughter out of the many. She was the one who received the coveted nickel or dime that was tied into the corner of Mama’s handkerchief and kept safe in the deep pockets of her ever-present aprons.
My sister could ask Mama for anything and would most often receive whatever had been requested. I, on the other hand, could ask for something remarkably similar and would receive a pat on the bottom and a gentle push to another area. I think, I perhaps had the same effect upon Mama as a puppy did upon an aging adult dog. My kinetic movement and unbounded energy, I think made her nervous. She therefore made excellent use of the phrase, “idol hands are the Devil’s workshop”, with me. Anytime I got “underfoot”, I was handed a series of Bible verse to memorize, I couldn’t then and still can’t remember verses. Or, I’d be given a bushel basket of peas to shell, corn to shuck, clothes to fold, or dishes to wash or worst of all, squares to sew! I learned quickly to love the outdoors! But even when she shooed me away, she would reach into that apron pocket of hers and send me off with a piece of her wonderful hard candies. The only time Mama generally saw me during the day was at mealtime of which I think we were both grateful.
Under Mama’s watchful gaze, I was given invaluable lessons. Not the least those listed above but within those few short years I spent around her and then avoiding her, she taught me that love is irreplaceable, that family was everything and Self was only first when someone else’s love put you in that position. She taught me that prayer was centering and should be as much a part of my life as breathing. She taught me that strength was not noisy and that a lovingly made cake of sugar could weaken a stronger hand quicker than hitting it with a stick! I learned from her to value quiet times. She taught me to hold onto laughter even after the person who’d given it to you had left the room or your life.
I laugh now as I remember Mama at 78 or 79 coming into my sister’s and my bedroom on a Saturday afternoon and with her crippled leg hindering her not at all, crawling into and under a tent we had constructed from a sheet and four chairs. She brought with her to our tent a perfect picnic of Morton’s barbecue potato chips, Sunshine’s Applesauce Oatmeal cookies and Grapette soda. I didn’t even mind helping her to her feet or having to try and recite a Bible verse after she was again steady on her feet.
I remember how although Mama would fall fast asleep almost as soon Twilight fell, she would get up during the night, every night, to check on her sleeping granddaughters. She would stealthily and lovingly replace kicked off blankets, protecting us from the cold in winter and replaced errant sheets in the spring and summer keeping us as free as she could from insect bites, as we slept. If I closed my eyes and allow myself to drift backwards thru six decades and into the stillness of those nights, I would still be able to recall the sounds of her slippered feet as she quietly retreated from our bedroom; the clear tap of her right foot and the shsssss-la sound of her left foot, as she dragged it along the wooden floors. Far from being a sound that brought fear in the stillness, unwavering security lives within that sound instead.
Mama had been so fastidious in her efforts to keep our feet covered while we slept that I find myself now, unable to sleep with uncovered feet even during the hottest of nights. She has to be smiling at that admission!
As I grew older, I devoured any remembered tidbit of Mama that came within my earshot. Cousin Zee, an older relative from by father’s side of the family, took particular delight in sharing a story of Mama on one of her infrequent trips back home. She lovingly recalled how upon one visit, Mama had baked her favorite cake. She’d said that it wasn’t just that the cake was delicious, because it truly was, but that Mama had taken the time to beautifully decorate it. From a large cedar tree that grew in our front yard, Mama had taken some of the tiny cones or buds and cut pieces of fronds, washed them, brushed the buds in beaten egg white, coated them in sugar and decorated the circumference of the cake plate. She had used the fronds to make delicate and lacy impression in the cake frosting, presenting Zee with a one of a kind masterpiece.
But the memories I cherish most of Mama is the look on her face when her brother George and her sister Ola would visit. They would sit in our front porch swing and recall shared memories or their youth. Had I known that I would one day be called upon to record my memories, I would have worked all the harder to remember those conversations between those siblings. Although their conversations are lost to the whispers of time, I do recall the look of contentment on Mama’s soft unlined face as she sat and swung in sing-song rhythm of their voices; and contentment will always be the capstone of my Mama memories. She was always content. Another of her oft quoted scriptures came from Philippians 4:11-13 where the Apostle Paul writes: “…for I have learned…to be content.”
Mama fell asleep too early one evening and could not be made to rouse. An ambulance was dispatched to transport her to a hospital where she stayed for several weeks before her doctor informed us that there was nothing that could be done. He advised us to take her home and make her as comfortable as we could for as long as we could. Another ambulance was used to bring Mama back home. My mother took the care of her mother’s daily needs as a new life’s purpose.
Mama’s comatose state lasted throughout that spring and far into the summer. It was after one of Mother’s daily rituals of bathing, grooming and changing Mama’s bed linens and carefully making sure Mama stayed hydrated by using an eye dropper to put water into the corner of her mouth and then massaging her throat to coax the water down, that Mama spoke to Mother as she was leaving the room, laden with laundry. Mama’s voice elicited a shriek from my unsuspecting Mother and cause my sister and me to go running toward the sound!
Not only had Mama awakened, but was speaking in a clear unencumbered voice! She motioned for the three of us to come nearer as we were all frozen in our tracks! We settled around her bed and she began to tell us the most hauntingly and amazingly beautiful story.
She told us that she’d spent the time away from us in the presence of God. She had been shown her own lovely home there and that it was surrounded by the most glorious flowers. Flowers she’d never seen before and their fragrance was, well…heavenly. She said that the light in Heaven was brilliant but not blinding and that she didn’t have words to describe the sights and sounds she saw there! She told us that she had known a kind of happiness there that could never be found here, even surrounded by the love she knew we had for her. And despite of all of the beauty and happiness she’d found there, she’d asked for permission to return to us to say farewell, but not goodbye.
She reached out to touch her beloved daughter’s face and tried to catch her falling tears. Mama told her there were no tears in Heaven and there was no need to cry for her because she was going to go where she had looked forward to going all of her life. She told us that if we followed the tracks she had tried to leave us, we would see her again, healthy and whole. She reached for my sister’s hand, pulled her close and whispered words not meant for any of our ears. As my sister stepped away, crying uncontrollably, Mama took my hand and told me that I was wise beyond my years and would need that wisdom to guide me through some hard times in my life but, she continued, God would grant me new wisdom with each hurdle if I earnestly sought Him. (I couldn’t have possibly grasped the importance of what she told me that day however, I have come to cherish those gems she bestowed upon me that summer day, although then, I would have preferred she had told me where her stash of hard candies where hidden.)
After Mama had finished her conversations with us, she’d asked if we could push her bed closer to Papa’s, who had also become invalided. My last clear memory of Papa and Mama together was of them, lying in their identical hospital beds, surrounded by the few but treasured mementos spanning over 60 years, in the home they had built together, in the room in which they had brought their children into the world and raised them surrounded by unfaltering love, holding snarled and arthritic hands, saying whatever lifelong partners would say if given the unimaginable gift of a few extra minutes of time as Mama and Papa had been given. I glanced back at the two of them as we left that room and saw for the first time in my life, tears on Papa’s cheek…for the first time in a very long time, I wanted to stay underfoot, instead I ran outside and cried my own tears.
Mama closed her eyes for the last time 4 days later on August 17th, 1964 at 1:45 in the afternoon. Fifty-five days before the 10th anniversary of the day laughter left her life. I was not quite twelve weeks old when Mama stopped laughing and had just turned ten by 23 days when I believed her laughter returned.
That August afternoon had been a bright sun filled day. A day only East Texas could serve up! Known for its typically hot and overwhelming Gulf Coast humidity, that particular day was bathed in with an uncommonly cool breeze ridding the air of excessive heat and oppressive moisture. The breeze seemed to find its way down from the tops of the red and white Oaks, the Ash and Sycamores, the Elms and yes those cherished Pines and its cooling effect helped to soothe the sore heart of the four of us that day.
Papa, Mother and my sister sat together with Mama’s body and waited for the mortuary attendants to arrive and take her away. I stayed from underfoot by remaining outside. I watched to see if the breeze dancing through the leaves was strong enough to lift Mama’s soul and carried it to Heaven. I had convinced myself that the sole reason for that uncommon breeze was there singularly for that purpose. One of Mama’s favorite hymns and one she sang most mornings has a line that says, some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away, to that place where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away…
I was a without doubt, certain that Mama’s soul had ridden the breeze to her new, flower surrounded home. From somewhere inside the house mournful cries reached my ears and I ran…I ran in the direction of the breeze, I ran looking up and waving, assured that Mama waved back as she went higher and higher away from us and this world which had been deprived of her laughter.
For the past 56 years, I know Mama has not experienced a day without laughter. I’m sure she had been met that long ago day in Heaven by her eldest and youngest sons and today, with the exception of my sister and me, they are all together. Before writing these recollections today, I called my sister and asked what she remembered most about Mama…(I had expected her to throw a shot to my ribs by reminding me that she was Mama’s favorite), but she surprised me by saying she remembered most how Mama prayed and loved being in church. I would add only how devoted she was to her family. In that area I’m pleased to say that I am like Mama…nothing gives me as much pleasure as peeking through the cracks and watching the interaction between my sons or watching them at play and in relaxed moments with their own sweet children.
On quiet days like today, a breeze is blowing through my neighborhood making it a day sweetly similar to that long past but enduringly remembered August day. Leaves are dancing on the trees and I think of Mama dancing. The sun, as I write, is high in the sky and shining brightly and I remember Mama describing how bright Heaven was with the only source of light coming from Jesus himself. Oh what laughter she must be sharing with all of her children, many of her grandchildren, great grandchildren and sadly a few of her great, great grandchildren. Mama and Papa, I must believe, is overlooking them all without a backwards glance.
When it’s my time to join in that true heavenly laughter I will follow that gleeful sound and find my place among my family. But until then, I’ll laugh for all the moments Mama could not. I’ll remember her smile and keep hard candy on hand. I will seek wisdom through prayer. I will ask God to guide my hands when I cook, I will keep trying to remember Bible verses…but Mama, I’m going to BUY my quilts!
With every soft breeze, I remember Mama….