Issue 7 - Fall 2013
  • She taught me that a good mother learns the names of wild flowers, boils bones off chickens while pretending not to hear her husband take that razor strop to her little ones. She taught me to place all my secrets in a box and glue it shut, and how to be silent in the midst of chaos. She taught me to dust and clean, vacuum and wash, sew and cook, and she taught me how to aim a rifle and shoot an alligator in the front yard. She taught me to listen to the man of the house, do whatever he says, and keep his secrets. To keep her children obedient with stern glances and swift swats on the butt. Not to look at her children when they tell her about their school day, not to respond when they draw a picture for her, to scold them when they do not sit quietly at the dinner table or in church, to never leave the table until everyone has finished eating. She taught me to not trust anyone outside of our family. She tried to teach me to never smile.

    I saw her cry only once. At dinner, between the pork roast and mashed potatoes, my older brother told her that she was not a good mother. Her hands covered her entire head, and when the sounds came out, she left the table and ran down the long and narrow hall to her bed. Daddy took my brother into the bathroom with his razor strop. My brother cried.

  • We were Southern Baptists. At church my mother was respected. She was good at serving others. I thought it was this sincere effort to serve that accounted for her unwillingness to laugh at my father’s jokes on our family vacations. I thought it was her Puritan or Calvinistic heritage that accounted for her not showing affection to my father.

    At church, she organized food drives and the clothes closet. She delivered clothes to Cubans who’d come to Florida during the second exodus. At home, the silence—hers—felt like rage. At home, her husband sat in his chair, called for another pack of cigarettes.

    I learned of her surgery a week before it was scheduled, which was also the first time any of my siblings or I learned she had colon cancer. She had begun to bleed three years earlier, but chose to tell no one, not even a doctor. For three years she kept cancer a secret from us all.

    We were used to this. Only after my father had been dead for eight years, safely beneath dirt, his body finally only bones, unable to force her into silence any longer, only then did she tell  ............

  • me she had lived, for thirty years, with a man who did not love her. Only then did she tell me about his duplicitous life.

    She was tall–six feet–and strong. Each summer we visited an old fort–each one boasted of imprisoning Geronimo. At Fort Pickens, one summer, in one of Geronimo’s cells, Daddy told her to put a brick in her purse for the fireplace he was going to build in the big house. She refused to steal in front of her children. He carried it, like all his secrets, himself. He put it on his head, beneath his fishing hat.

    She kept order in our house. On Mondays, she vacuumed all five bedrooms, the living room, game room, and music room. Every day she washed several loads of laundry, hung them out to dry in the Florida sun. Inside each dresser she arranged clothes: underwear and socks in the top drawer, nightgowns in the second, shirts folded in the next, then pants and shorts.

    She sat on a sea wall in 1954, a year before she married Daddy. Someone took her picture and on it she wrote a message: “Hi Eddie, come sit with me.” She did not know that she would spend thirty years waiting for Eddie to come home from weekends of  ............

  • drinking, spending her money, being with men. In 1954, she was thin and happy. Her shorts were rolled up to the top of her thighs. She missed her Eddie then, and she wanted to marry him–her hands braced at her thighs, warm on cement.

    But Eddie, my father, did not know how to love her. She had not known what to expect. He left her alone with her six children every weekend. He punished her children for being children. He died at fifty three after he’d taken out three mortgages on the house, sold it, and bought a small house that she did not like.

    When I look at the photo now, and see her on that seawall smiling for her Eddie, the waves in her hair melting into the ocean, I realize that my father turned my mother into stone. She left me a pearl necklace, a pin with her initials on it, and her journal. She wrote:

    It seems I just keep waiting for the door to open. The time will come. I must be ready to go, ready to stay, wherever the lord leads. Some see clearly what they are to do. Me, I just keep waiting....

  • Mother and I did not know how to talk to each other until a year before her death. Her face had been a rigid wall for thirty years. She never once told me she loved me; never hugged me. In that last year, we began exchanging letters—she at some church camp; me at home, working. I asked her why she’d always seemed so unhappy. I boldly asked if my father was unfaithful.

    She gradually told me of secrets she’d kept for him, the life she’d lived without any confidant, a life she did not want, but felt trapped by her belief that God must have wanted her with this man. And she was afraid her husband would take her children from her. She had no job skills and felt too old to start a career.

    In her letters I keep looking for clues to who she might have been without her Eddie. In the last letter she wrote to me, she apologized:

    My first daughter, how much I loved you the first time I saw you. You were so sweet, with all that black hair.... How sweet you were, never any trouble. You were such a help as the others came along, at home and with their school work. Now I  ............

  • wish I could have done more for you. Forgive me my shortcomings.

    Sometimes I try to imagine she is still alive, and that we have become old friends: I invite her to my house where I, too, have learned to keep a flower garden. We walk through the yard while she tells me the names of the Florida wild flowers she loved. We talk about the violets, the jasmine, and we listen to the sound of the whippoorwill in the trees across the pond.

    In her last journals, she wanted to hope, but she did not know what to hope for: My own immortality will reside in the memories of the loved one left behind. I believe that I will die with–

    The entry ends there.

    At Christmas, weeks after her surgery, she no longer knew me. Her cancer had spread from her colon to her liver, lungs, bones, and brain. She raised her head a couple of times. When she stopped talking about playing with her sister Jenny, we buried her in the only dress she’d owned, in the black dirt, beneath an oak—next to Daddy. We stood at dawn, drenched with dew, silent.

  • Though she did not know how to leave my father, she gave her children the freedom to play, and sent us often into the woods near our house. She woke each morning, in our house, before anyone else to drink hot tea, alone. In those moments, she must have been deciding if staying with this man was the best choice for her and her children. Or maybe she was just trying to feel a pinch of happiness.

    A few months after she died, her mother told me that when she was a girl, she liked to come home from school, take a bedroll from her room, stop in the kitchen for an apple and some bread, disappear into the woods behind the house, and stay there until dark.

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