Her bible is sitting on my desk. One of many my mother studied. There’s a pair of black-handled scissors laying across it, and a postcard for one of my books. The one book I’ve written that Mama never read. She died before I wrote a single word of it.
One of my kin told me recently that she didn’t like the way we buried Mama. Said it bothered her that I had just poured Mama’s ashes into the hole instead of putting them into an urn and placing that in the ground.
I called Sister Tater and asked her if it had bothered her, the way we’d done it. She said she hadn’t really thought about it. I guess I hadn’t either. It’s not like I knew the protocol for burying a mother, given I’d never done it before.
We put some honeysuckle vines and roses in a hole in the ground, next to my father’s grave, there at that National Cemetery for the war dead. Somebody said a prayer, my brother I think, and then I just opened up that sack of ashes and poured Mama straight into the grave.
“Some of her blew away in the wind,” my kin protested.
“I suppose so,” I replied.
I think sometimes about my own mother burying her mother. She was young then, in her early 20s, when her mama died.
It seems strange to me now how well I remember the day my Granny Ruth died, given how little I was. I wrote about one memory in particular in AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED:
“I don’t remember Mama crying when Granny Ruth died but the day after she gathered together all the pillows in the house and went into the room where her mama’s foot-pedal sewing machine stood silent. Taking a pair of black-handled scissors, she cut open the tops of Granny’s pillows. Aunt Blanche asked Mama what in Jehoshaphat’s name did she think she was doing, cutting up all the pillows like that. Mama answered something about finding a crown inside one of those pillows Granny Ruth fashioned from chicken feathers. I sat on the floor beside her trying to catch flying feathers…”.
My mother never spoke much of her mother. She rarely, if ever, told stories of her mother. Or maybe I was young and didn’t listen when she did tell them. (Hard to imagine given my propensity for eavesdropping from an early age.)
My grandmother was 40 when my mother was born. She’d already birthed five boys and two other girls who died either during childbirth or shortly thereafter. The family lore maintains that by the time my mother came around, Granny Ruth was tired of mothering. (Given the trials my uncles put her through, I can’t say I fault her).
When my mother was in her early teen years, Granny Ruth took a trip to Oregon, where a couple of her boys had moved off to (running from the law is the real reason they left). Granny Ruth stayed gone a good long while. A year or more.
My mother was sent off to Oak Ridge to live with her brother and his wife. To hear my uncle tell it, Mama was a handful. Boy crazy and all that. To hear Mama tell it, her brother and his wife were too strict. It’s very likely that my mother wasn’t any more boy crazy than the next 14-year old girl. My cousin told me that her father – the same man who helped raise Mama – used to follow her around on her dates while carrying a loaded gun. It’s a wonder that my uncle didn’t end up in jail for trying to “protect” those two girls.
When the cancer treatments robbed my mother of her thick head of hair, Mama never let on like it upset her. She rubbed her bald head and said, “I like it. I look like my brothers now.”
The little girl in Mama always idolized her big brothers. The tomboy in her wanted to be them.
When she got grown and gone from Tennessee, my mother hardly ever returned. She said the place just held too many hard memories.
We were different in a lot of ways, my mother and me, but this was perhaps where we differed the most. She was always trying to forget or escape the past and I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life writing down as much of it as I could recall or unearth.
If it happened, as my kin said, that part of Mama blew away in the wind that sunny June day, maybe it’s fitting.
Tennessee never could contain my mother’s nomadic spirit.
Mama always lived in pursuit of the next adventure. She didn’t like looking back.
In the front of my mother’s bible is a poem. It is the only thing written in red ink:
Walk straight on my son,
Do not turn back your head,
Do not look back. You are going
to the land of our Lord.