Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mama's Giant Leap

(Footprint on the moon, July 1969. Photo from NASA. Click to enlarge.)

I can tell you in detail what I was doing this morning 40 years ago. It's the recent Moon Landing anniversary, and other hallmarks, which make it possible to be so precise. Plus my freaky memory, of course.

The previous Christmas, we had returned from a year in Aracaju, Brazil to spend holidays with family in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma before leaving for another year on my father's overseas contract, this second year to be in Singapore. The week between Christmas and New Year was spent in Stoneburg, Texas, where my mother (and many generations before her) had grown up, in the home of her adoptive mother, my grandmother Zura. Zura was in her 80s by that time, living alone in a crumbling farmhouse, and I think that is the reason my mother decided we -- her, me and my little brother Bill -- would stay in Stoneburg through the spring semester while Daddy went on to Singapore, taking his time in finding us a place to live.

Staying with my grandmother was not a good idea. She was hard to get along with and her house, for example, had no hot water. My parents were lucky to discover that a house kept by the local school for teachers was not occupied that semester, and its fence actually abutted my grandmother's land. In fact, she and her husband had built it as two-room cabin during the early 1900s. It had been modernized and expanded, now with three bedrooms and most conveniences. Daddy bought a load of cheap furniture with his overseas bonus, we moved in, and he happily took off for Singapore.

I was not happy with this plan, although I wasn't looking forward to going to Singapore, either. I thought Stoneburg was a hick town and at age 13 I was sick of hearing from every stranger I met that I was the spitting image of my mother. But that school and that place turned out to save my life and shape me inexpressibly. I had deep roots there I'd never really felt before -- a lot of the kids in school were distant cousins. There were a few extraordinary teachers, and the school was so tiny -- an average of 8 students per class -- that teacher attention was very available.

In my 8th grade class, that first day, I met a fat boy with yellow hair and light blue eyes who introduced himself as Loren. It turned out, not only were we related, but his mother has been my mother's best friend all through school, and his grandfather Tobe had been my grandfather Bill's best friend all their lives, including through World War I. Loren and I were basheert. By April, he had confessed to me that he thought he was gay, and I had confessed back to him that I only liked girls. We promised to stick by each other, marrying each other for cover if we had to.

A month before the end of school, I came home one day and, sitting on the counter of that rent house while Mama did dishes, I asked her if there wasn't a way we could stay in Stoneburg so I could go all the way through high school there. I pointed out moving around during high school had really messed up my older brother, and this way she could be close to her mother. Since that high school was also where Mama had graduated valedictorian, and her mother ditto before that, she wanted to give me, her beloved daughter, an equal chance.

But not going to Singapore at all was not something my father would tolerate. It would mean divorce. It would meant splitting up our family. I didn't know that when I asked it. I didn't know it until only ten years ago, and I found it out accidentally in a conversation with Daddy, who never put the pieces together for himself. Just as well.

Mama decided to stay in Stoneburg. I was thrilled, and as soon as school was out, I began spending much of each day at Bowie Lake with Loren and other friends. I had a crush on a girl who was giving me signals back. (She eventually became my first lover, but that's another story.) Mama was told by the school she had to move out of that rent house, and the only other dwelling available for rent in Stoneburg was the old Holihan place, barely habitable. It had one bathroom, accessible through what would be Bill's bedroom, and all its water came from a windmill. Which meant if the wind didn't blow (which it often does not during Texas summers), we'd run out of water. There was no heating, not an issue at the moment but a real problem come winter. There was also no air conditioning. But it was in Stoneburg, and that's all I cared about.

Mama had been hoarding the bonus money Daddy left with her for the spring and our travel to Singapore. She hired some teenaged boys to move our furniture, spent days cleaning up the empty old house, and shelled out for a window unit to go in her room at the front, which was really the living room. Our TV was a used 10-inch black and white, and our car was a rattletrap aged Buick meant to last us only a few months.

So, Mama, Bill and I watched the Moon Landing in the old Holihan house, volume up loud to compete with the shuddering air conditioner, huddled together on her bed despite the heat because it was so incredible, so impossible. Mama cried and cried.

But the other reason I wanted my body in contact with her is that she had been complaining of chest pain for almost a month. She said it was indigestion, and she was not eating regular meals with us. She looked pale and seemed to often have trouble breathing. I was starting to get scared. She wouldn't go to the doctor, said it would pass. What I didn't know is that we only had enough money to last, sorta, through the end of August. In August she'd have to tell Daddy we weren't coming to Singapore at all, not just staying in Stoneburg for the summer but permanently. She'd have to tell him she was leaving him.

The previous November, the Beatles had released their White Album. I couldn't afford to buy a copy, but I had borrowed it from one of my new friends and played it incessantly. Unless you were a teenager during that time, I don't believe you can comprehend the revolution each new Beatles release caused in our collective and individual psyches.

I was especially mesmerized by "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" because there were lines in it (a mistake which was retained by John Lennon) hinting at gender role reversal. You know: "Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face" while "Molly has the children lend a hand." There were worlds of possibility in that simple flip.

So, on this morning 40 years ago, I was sitting in my hot bedroom, also at the front of house, with broken windows covered by cardboard and holding only a bed and dresser, listening to my record player (on the dresser) scratch out "La-la-la-la life goes on." Mama knocked at my door and came in with her hands held behind her back. I grinned at her, turning down (but not off) the music. I'd been expecting her ever since I woke up. It was my 14th birthday.

But her face looked ashamed, underneath the grin. She started with telling me what a blessing I was to her, how my birth had been her reason for existence. I liked hearing it, but I began getting scared again. Then she said there was no money for presents. She would make me a chocolate cake --

I interrupted to tell her, as I had other times in my life, that I didn't care about presents, what mattered was being with the people I loved. (My g*d, how true that has become, now that I don't have any of them any more.) I got up and went to her, hugging her. I wanted to stop the pain I saw on her face, and I didn't know how.

She pulled from behind her several books of S&H Green Stamps, 11 and a half, to be exact. She'd been saving them ever since we got back from Brazil, only shopping at stores that gave them out free with a purchase. She told me there was some neat stuff in the S&H catalogue and I could order anything I wanted, 11 books was a decent amount.

She and I both knew she was lying. The stuff in their catalogues was mostly poor people crap, or for grandmothers, and 11 books would not get much. Maybe a mass-cast plaster statue of the Pieta, or a plastic tablecloth in a flower print. But I made a production over the stamp books, thanking her and hugging her repeatedly. She cried then, and even now, it fucking kills me to remember the look on her face. If there is one moment in time I could go back and erase, that might be it. Erase it from her memory, not mine. Her humiliation was (and remains) unbearable.

Working class and poor kids will do almost anything to rescue their parents' dignity. That's why we have such a headwind against us, dealing with generations of conservative hate among the lower classes: To acknowledge your parents were dupes and dead wrong about most of that they taught you, it's asking someone to betray family. Often family that's no longer around.

I stayed home from the lake that day, looking through the catalogue and watching soap operas with Mama on her bed. I eventually ordered a card table, which I said I needed to write on in privacy. And, in fact, I did write on it, all throughout high school.

The next week, school started. Bill and I had no new clothes, and last year's notebooks, but I acted like it didn't matter to keep Mama from feeling bad. (It did matter: Starting your freshman year, even in that forgiving school, wearing a dress from last spring that was too small -- it was tough. Nobody said anything, which made it worse.)

After dropping me and Bill off, Mama drove ten miles into Bowie and finally went to the old drunkard doctor who, with his brother, also a drunk doctor, offered the only medical care in half the county. He was sober enough to immediately call an ambulance and had her rushed to the hospital. She'd had a massive coronary at least six weeks before and was now in the process of dying.

A neighbor woman was standing in front of the school when I got out. She told me Mama was in the hospital with a heart attack and my Aunt Sarah had been called. Aunt Sarah was Mama's older sister, lived in Dallas, and she was figuring out a way to track down Daddy. The neighbor woman said me and Bill were to stay with them until Daddy got back, and there was no use for us to go visit Mama because she was unconscious and in the ICU. They wouldn't let us kids in.

I slept in a twin bed that night with this kind woman's 10-year-old daughter while Bill was put on the couch. I'd rather have shared the couch with Bill. We were both scared mute. The next morning, we were given breakfast and driven to school, where everybody was very nice and didn't have any reassurance that could penetrate.

Aunt Sarah didn't drive, and her husband, my Uncle Stuart, was a traveling salesman currently out on the road. She had a daughter at home, my cousin four months older than me, and a grown daughter already married. Still, somehow, Aunt Sarah got from Dallas to Bowie that day, and she told the neighbor lady to bring us to the hospital no matter what once school was over.

It was a tiny hospital. The waiting room was only an alcove with a single couch, no TV. Aunt Sarah apologized to Bill, whom she adored, that he was too little to possibly go in and see Mama. She promised we'd be back soon. She hooked her arm through mine and began pulling me down the hall.

I was terrified to see Mama, honestly. Aunt Sarah whispered to me "Let me handle this" and added "She's not waking up. She's going to die if she doesn't wake up." Nurses tried to stop us but Aunt Sarah literally pushed them aside like a blocker and shoved me ahead of her into the room where Mama lay. Mama was grey as ship paint, her mouth gaping open, her eyes closed. There was no door to shut out the nurses, but they gave up and said only "Five minutes."

Aunt Sarah took my hand and put it on Mama's hand, below the vicious-looking IV. Mama was cold and clammy. I wanted to pull away. Aunt Sarah leaned in to Mama's face and said coaxingly "Mary Jo? Jo, Margaret's here. Margaret needs you, Jo. Wake up and look at Margaret." She motioned me in, and I imitated her, saying hoarsely "Mama? I'm here. I love you."

Be damned if her eyes didn't flutter open. She looked horrible, unfocused, in pain, but she said my name and then asked after Bill. I told her where we were staying, that we were just fine (lie, lie, lie), and at that point nurses flooded in, realizing she'd regained consciousness. We were pushed out of the room, Aunt Sarah yelling over her shoulder "Hang on, Jo, I'll bring her back tomorrow." Triumphantly, we returned to Bill and Aunt Sarah pounded my back with a clenched fist, saying in a grim whisper "I knew it would work. I knew you could do it." Then she began crying, something we'd never seen her do before. I had no clue what to do except sit beside Bill and tell him Daddy would be home soon.

As if that was going to help. Mama was the one who kept everything going.

But two days later, Daddy was back, and in the meantime, Mama had started to rally. Aunt Sarah got me in for daily visits, more or less living at the hospital, I guess. The doctor told Daddy he couldn't move us around any more or it would kill Mama, and I think Aunt Sarah plus Uncle Stuart (who arrived by the weekend) backed that up. Daddy sold his small amount of company stock when he gave notice and bought us a house trailer, which we parked on family land in Stoneburg. And I finished high school there. Despite Daddy's fury at having lost his chance to leave us all behind, despite Mama having two more heart attacks, despite coming out with a terrible, abusive lover -- despite all that, those years in Stoneburg were the making of me.

When Mama finally died, 14 years later, I sat next to Aunt Sarah at the funeral, my arm locked through hers again, counting on her to keep me from dying of a broken heart. After it was over, back at the house, she put one hand on each of my shoulders and, looking intently into my eyes, she said "I'm your momma now."

There is no substitute for the loss of a mother like mine. But I accepted Aunt Sarah's offer as very much the next best thing, and I leaned on her non-stop until she died on 16 July 1999. I miss her, like Mama, every day. Especially this unendingly hot, painful summer.

Lalalala, life goes on.

(No video, only stills of the Beatles, but the song is the point anyhow.)