Peggy, my younger sister, wept bitterly on her first day of school.
“Honey, don’t worry,” my mother reassured. “You’ll be home before you know it.”
My sister cried louder.
“You’ll love school. You’ll read and color.”
“But you’re so old!” Peggy squalled, tears of shame on her face.
Mom, her hair already turning fine silver by age 40, shut off the spigot: “Do you think these young mothers know how to make volcanoes that explode and really ooze lava? Do they know how to camp and cook outdoors? Do they know how to be room mothers?”
This woman was wise in the ways of motherhood.
She could turn out two dozen fudgy-chocolate brownies and handily kill a copperhead snake in the wooded backyard, bearing her trusty hoe—all within an hour without batting an eye. A lifelong Girl Scout, Mom was an intrepid woodswoman and leader.
Mom transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. Common bread slices became “buttery, buttery toast with cinnamon sugar on top” that enticed sleepyheads out of bed. A pair of scissors magically cut construction papers into paper-doll princesses and castles.
On Saturday nights, the den floor, in the firelight, became the Great Plains, and we were cowboys in our sleeping bags, lulled to sleep by faint mooing of the herd. A floor to be buffed became an Olympic ice rink. With soft rags tied to our feet, we skated, rendering a lovely sheen on the wood floors in the den. We reserved the hallway for speed skating events. From our first day in the world, Mom read to each of us. She spun tales in which a fairy named Mindy Moonbeam took earthbound children on adventures, and dolls and little girls switched places for a day.
She applied creativity as needed. For an eighth-grade science project, Mom (who majored in botany) encouraged my oldest sister, Martha, to use one set of plants as a control group while she talked daily to another group. The objective? To determine whether this cheery attention accelerated their growth.
On another occasion, Mom encouraged the construction of a White House replica by my sister Mary—sugar cube by sugar cube. Maybe all those boxes of Domino Sugar paid off. Mary became a designer.
Mom probably stirred as many recipes for salt maps as she did chocolate chip cookies. However, the greatest headache was Peggy’s overnight re-creation of Roman Empire coinage. For several agonizing hours, she used toothpicks to carve the profiles of Roman emperors on bits of clay. Finally, she fell asleep, her head on the kitchen table. My mother and I soldiered on, carving the tiny heads of Caesars in the hardening coins—well past midnight. I think we skipped Nero.
For years, my mother sewed ensembles for holidays, dance recitals, pageants, and parades. Her designs included a poodle costume, flapper dresses, witch rags, Pilgrim suits, a Mexican peasant skirt, Native American costumes, hippie ensembles, a Japanese geisha kimono (a made-over bathrobe), a Roman toga for Latin club, and outfits for angels, elves, the Holy Family, and one disgruntled Wiseman (Peggy begrudged a boy’s role).
When my sister Martha went mod, Mom followed suit, at least her sewing machine did. But Mom’s greatest triumph may have been two hip pantsuits she dreamed up for Martha’s proms. One was pink-and-gold Paisley and the other lime green with gold-stitched details. With her cropped hair, Martha sported the look of a young starlet at the Cannes film festival.
For the grandchildren, Mom smocked holiday dresses and, continuing a tradition begun in our childhood, gave each one special PJs for Christmas Eve. She also churned out costumes for this generation.
On the road, again . . . and again
Then there were the endless hours she spent in her car. In fact, it seemed she lived in her car. Because of our stair-step ages, she organized carpools to preschool, kindergarten, grammar school, and junior high school.
Mom somehow worked Martha into the timetable for her first year of high school. (Mercifully, my sister drove her own car after her 16th birthday.) Martha ordered the younger urchins to lie on the floorboards so we would not embarrass her as the car rounded the corner of the parking lot. Mom did not question; she just sailed on with cowering passengers. For all I know, Martha may have asked Mom to hunch down, too, at the drop-off point.
At the height of her carpooling career, Mom lived three hours a day in her car. Stoked by Coca-Cola, she scooted us to ballroom, tap dancing, ballet, jazz, art, and piano lessons as well as endless cheerleader practices. At one point, she squeezed my father into the action. Once a week on the way to work, he dropped off Mary and me at the piano teacher’s house at 6:30 a.m. for back-to-back lessons. How Mom talked that woman into a sunrise gig mystified me. Promptly at 7:30 a.m., she raced by and stopped long enough to throw us in the car to make the 8:00 a.m. bell at the junior high.
During the junior high routes, Mom endured hours of backseat chatter about girls’ periods, would-be boyfriends, first kisses (of the most sophisticated passengers), and life’s embarrassing moments in the cafeteria and locker room. We squealed a lot about James Taylor. Mom assumed Sweet Baby James was the unobtainable boyfriend reserved for the homecoming court.
I imagine Bud’s segregated carpools gave her a satisfying, silent break.
In her demanding “trucking” years, my mother scotch-taped to the kitchen wall more than a dozen index cards—with destinations, dates, passengers’ names, mothers’ names, and phone numbers intricately scrawled on them.
She usually showed up on the right day, at the right time, except when she mixed up a junior high route with an elementary school loop, which left us pouting by the flagpole a few times.
Mom managed the household finances and did the heavy driving on trips to Florida. (Dad arrived a day later and departed a day early. Work? Really?) She piloted a station wagon loaded with five children, a dog, and two cats plus a sailboat strapped on top and a U-Haul filled with bicycles, beach balls, and inner tubes.
Perhaps burning all that tread made Mom crave a snatch of solitude. She usually found it in the shower whereas most people escaped with television.
Popular culture held no interest for her. Soap operas annoyed her. For years, my mother thought Linda Ronstadt was one of our friends at college because we talked about her incessantly. She admonished us to bring Linda home for dinner. To do otherwise would have been unwelcoming.
After Daddy took Mom to see Deliverance, she never darkened the door of a theater. The word pig took on a distinctive meaning for quite some time.
She played the game with the big boys
Her affability around men stemmed from years of playing sandlot baseball in a neighborhood of boys as well as excelling at basketball, swimming, diving, tennis, and field hockey.
Mom earned the nickname “Bunny” because of her constant hopping up and down as a toddler. She strode like an athlete.
Not one of us matched her as a jock, though we engaged in enough team sports to learn the value of collaborating in a group. (That prepared me for endless meetings and office politics at work.)
Mom cared little about fripperies. She was the only woman enrolled in the community auto-repair class and often ducked under the hood of her car with the mechanic. She dickered for and sold all her own cars.
As the first woman to chair a number of committees dominated by men, Mom coached and played as the situation warranted. When she cracked the church’s glass ceiling—chairman of the board—she was not above instructing, most politely, some executives to sit down and hush up during meetings. When one stormed out because he did not get his way on a vote, she waved her ballpoint pen at him and sweetly said, “You get back in your chair and finish your job.” He skulked back.
In her own way, Mom was tough. Indeed, her protective maternal instinct had its own flavor. When a hulking football player bullied my brother in junior high, she went into action. As my uncle’s sparring partner in childhood, she had picked up a notion or two about boxing. There we found her in the kitchen, dancing and jabbing around my brother (who stood still and ignored her) while keeping her left fist protectively in front of her face. (Bud worked it out his own way. With a preference for brains over brawn, he rerouted his daily routine until his adversary lost interest.)
Yet Mom was soft. Any of us could call in the night and suddenly be pulled safely to her, warm against her flannel nightgown. My mother stayed until a tear-stained face relaxed and sleep stealthily offered comfort.
When Uncle Francis suffered a stroke in California, she left for a month. At night, each of us clutched one of her nightgowns—lightly scented with talcum powder, Paquins hand cream, and Mentholatum.
Southern Gothic was an everyday affair
Mom accepted life as it played out. Her uncle, Colonel Francis Marion Brannan, lived with us for a time. . Although fading away, he maintained the decorum of an officer and a gentleman. He thought my father was a general; my mother, a sergeant; and the children, privates. (Later she would joke about never getting the promotion she deserved.)
Even as he faded away, Uncle Francis did not forget the decorum demanded of an officer and a gentleman. After the Colonel spent the morning reading the newspaper upside down and marching the German shepherd up and down the street, Mom served lunch in the dining room. She set the table with fine silver, china, and crystal. However, that did not stop him from complaining when she ladled a bowlful of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup garnished with saltines.
“Sergeant, the service has deteriorated abominably,” the Colonel declared.
She just laughed to herself and then seriously promised to speak to the “mess” about its egregious failing.
My mother faced most challenges with aplomb. Even when Peggy and her toddler friend Katie flushed some rubber training pants down the toilet and my father dragged home a Roto-Rooter to solve the problem, my mother cracked up. There she was, with all five children, in the backyard, in deepest, darkest night, in a drizzling rain, holding hoses while my father barked commands down the line to “Move up!” or “Go back!” She smiled a little harder after Peggy and her little playmate put an extremely soiled diaper in the dryer—and hit the start button.
Mom faced life serenely. When words and names were slipping away to dementia, I wondered how she felt. She took my hand and gently said, “I must accept it.” It was her bravest moment.
How do you describe in a few pages someone who gave you life? Does our own aging smudge memory? Nonetheless, my clearest image is my mother’s crescent-shaped blue eyes—dancing and twinkling while we taste freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and sip from tall, cool glasses of milk and chat about the day’s events.
I feel her gathering me onto her lap because the boy I love broke up with me. I hear the mellow bell ringing in the backyard and her voice at twilight calling us to come in for supper—the long vowels, the soft southern r’s, and the momentary lapse in names until she calls for the baby, too: “Martha! Bud! Mary! Cathy! Mar—, Cath—, Peggy!”
Her love did not overlook. Not one of us. Not once.