In honor of Mother's Day, I wanted to share an excerpt from The Light in the Leaves, the story of our relationship. My mother and I loved each other fiercely, and we experienced all the joy and heartache that goes with it. I still miss her very much.
"It was the 1960’s. She was like so many other women in the middle-class South, at home with their children, focused on being supportive wives, totally dependent on their husbands to earn a living. Bra burning and civil rights protests were happening to women living a very different life from that of my mother, and she didn’t understand a desire to be independent when it felt so much better to be part of a matched set.
It was hard work behind the scenes to maintain the façade of an ideal household. Dot cooked big Southern meals, cleaned house, ironed endlessly, scrubbed and clothed four children, and had the rollers out of her hair by the time my father, David, got home. For a while, she made sure we arrived at the Methodist church on time on Sunday mornings until David decided to stop going. David was an extremely smart man and worked in the corporate office of a local company. They socialized with his co-workers or with other couples they met through a men’s club. After their husbands left for work during the week, Dot and one or two of her girlfriends would occasionally huddle at our round kitchen table with cigarettes propped between their fingers, the mid-morning coffee mugs filled and refilled. As they laughed together over light gossip or told stories about their children, my sister and I tried desperately to stay underfoot, lingering in the kitchen with fascination to listen to their conversations until we were spotted and dismissed.
Dot loved to read and taught me to love the quiet companionship of a good book. She read constantly: historical novels, mysteries, and anything she could finish in the small amount of time she had. She occasionally played Bridge with other women she’d met at church, pulling away from the driveway in her unmistakable yellow Plymouth station wagon, easy to spot in any parking lot. She demanded good table manners, correct grammar, and thank-you notes. Like babies of her own, she spoiled our dogs and let the parakeet sit on the side of our cereal bowls. She worked hard her entire life and never complained about it, ever.
When I was a little girl, I studied everything about her. I knew which costume jewelry she wore with her outfits, and I watched her roll her hair with the dexterity of a master hairdresser. I wanted to walk like her and sound the way she sounded when she laughed over her coffee cup. My sister, Elizabeth, two-years younger than me and a talented impersonator from an early age, was able to hold a No. 2 pencil exactly the way my mother held a cigarette as we practiced speaking like grownups. That was her best maneuver when we played dress-up, borrowing my mother’s bras and stuffing them with socks. Dot, as everyone called her, was our first glamour idol. David had never demonstrated more than a polite, distant interest in my mother’s family. Never saying it out loud, he tried to distance himself from them. They were rough-hewn and not of his ilk, he thought. Dot never complained in front of us about his lack of interest in Papaw but, even as a child, it seemed to me that her sincere interest in his parents made for a rather lopsided arrangement.
She would load the younger three of us in the car at least twice a year and drive to the Farm for a long weekend with Papaw. From Memphis to northern Alabama, it was a hot ride in the un-airconditioned summer heat. The interstate system did not provide a straight shot, so it was a six-hour drive. Bobby, by that time, had absolutely no desire to go with us. He considered the younger three of us something similar to an insect infestation.
At the Farm, we would pick flowers and climb fruit trees, can food to leave with Papaw, and clean his little tin-roofed house. The stifling heat was made worse by the windows painted and nailed shut. He was always sure someone would break in and steal the few belongings he had. Most of all, we thought the outhouse behind his little home was just too much for our sophisticated Memphis sensibilities. The floor of his house was covered in old, curling sheet linoleum. Dot would have the little kitchen operating like a factory. With pots boiling and soap suds everywhere, she would fill a bucket with hot water and mop that linoleum floor with focused determination. Papaw’s house was heated by a coal-burning stove sitting in the main room, so he was constantly tracking black coal dust through the entire house. Dot tried to eradicate every speck of dust, finally giving up if she could at least see the pattern in the linoleum. There were pictures of Lura and other family members mixed with Papaw's old campaign photos of politicians, framed and proudly displayed on an antique sideboard. We would use rolls of paper towels scrubbing the face of those photos and everything else in that room for him until they shone.
It was the most boring place in the world sometimes as I grew older, but there are days when I would give anything to be able to go back and sit on the front porch with him again, listening to the choir at the church up the road practice on a summer night. Papaw would sit outside on the front porch in the dark, shelling beans or shucking corn with his big rough hands, and tell my mother that Lura had come back to sit on the side of the bed and talk to him at night. Dot called him “Daddy” and looked after him like he was her own child, sending him to bed when he started falling asleep in his chair. At the end of the long weekend, we’d get back on the road for the six-hour drive home, waving goodbye to Papaw and blowing kisses out the windows of the car."