On my fiftieth birthday I visited Mother at her nursing home, thinking about my own mortality. Mother was hunched in her old brown recliner by the window staring at a sharp blue September sky. Her shiny, swollen brownish-red ulcerated legs and feet were sprawled out on the raised footrest.
“It’s my birthday, today!” I said. “Did you know that?” Slowly she raised one arthritic finger and pointed to a large drugstore calendar on the peeling plastered wall. Big X’s were marked on every day through yesterday’s date, September 18th. She kept her finger deliberately pointing until I had gotten the message.
“Do you know how old I am?” I asked. Frowning, she rolled her eyes upward. She was seventy-eight. I waited.
“No . . . I don’t.”
“Guess!” I said, like her little girl.
Wrinkling her brow with scrutiny she shook her head. “You’ll have to tell me,” she said.
“Really, Shug? Fifty?”
“Mother, do you remember that party you gave me for my fourth birthday?” It was 1940, the only big party I’d ever had in my life.
“Oh, yes.” Her watery red-rimmed eyes brightened. “I invited all the children in the neighborhood. I wanted all of you to be posed holding a flag. They kept wavin’ the flags so much, I had to take ’em all up. Miz Espinoza fixed your hair and even painted your nails. “Yes,” I mused, recalling how somber I looked in that picture.
“Listen to what I wrote today!” said Mother, fishing a notepad from the wide pocket of her sleeveless cotton print dress. On the pocket she’d had someone embroider her initials M.A.D. for Margaret Ashurst DeLoach, her third husband’s last name.
She read, “How would you like to be the first member of the Crazy Club?” Before I could reply, she said, “You can’t, I’M the first member!!” We laughed together.
She continued, “In twenty-five words or less, tell me why you think I’m crazy.”
Again, before I could remark, she said, “Thank you, I’m now President!”
We laughed again, then our conversation meandered, and suddenly I heard myself say, “You know, Mother, I think you were the perfect Mother for me,” and as I said it, I burst into tears and fell to my knees with years of bottled up emotion.
“I don’t know how to help you,” I said, “tell me what to do.”
I put my head in her lap, sobbing as I’d never done before. My heart broke open with remorse. Tears soaked into her thin sleeveless print dress. I felt the passive purr of her breathing, the warmth of her thigh and her familiar Mother smell underneath talcum powder.
She didn’t comfort me, nor cry herself, nor caress me. I wanted her to put her arthritic hand on my head, like Jesus, and absolve me of my suffering, saying,‘Go child, live your life. You deserve it. I want you to! It’s O.K. I’ll tough it out.’ My hand rested on the dry skin of her bare arm, and that seemed to be enough contact for us.
Finally, she said, “You can be a member of the Crazy Club!”
Startled, I looked up at her tired, old green eyes as she smiled a toothless grin and we both laughed, and it seemed just like old times. And now I’m soglad I said that to Mother, and that she heard it. I think about that all the time now, and I’m still surprised that I meant itwhen I said she was the perfect mother for me. I’ve come to realize that uttering those words was a moment of grace. And you don’t get many of those. Mother died on my birthday in 1991.
I had a private memorial service for her with her grandsons and a few people who knew her. After sharing some stories, I said to the group, “When Mother was sixty, she got a tape recorder. One day she made a broadcast to entertain her unseen audience with a few songs, some poems and her clocks chiming. I can’t think of a better tribute to Mother than to have her perform at her own funeral.” And I pressed PLAY!
Excerpt from Girdled and Gloved: From Radio to YouTube © 2014. It’s available at the Athens Library gift shop, Normal Books, and Amazon.com.
Chip McDaniel is a self-taught musician, songwriter, composer, photographer, graphic artist, and poet.