|Mama Darlin' and her four critters, as she'd call us|
My mother isn't just extraordinary because she at one time herded children safely with her wherever she went. She's an incredible woman, because she told my dad she wanted no offspring when they first met and yet when she and Dad built their family, she became known to her children as "Saint Mommy" for her sweet, selfless spirit and her gentle words and touch. She's amazing, because as a teenager most thought of her as a hothouse flower, beautiful but not inclined toward outdoor adventures. Yet when we moved to the South, she would spend years of her life hiking through the hills and hollows of Middle Tennessee in order to help provide for the family. She knelt in the dirt to dig valuable roots (ginseng, goldenseal) and rolled grapevine and briar wreaths against her stomach beneath the hardwood trees. She wore flannel as if it were the only natural choice for a lovely woman and carried hand sewn jean sacks with her cold lunch and water bottle slung across her body. What's remarkable is that she enjoyed the experience, relishing not only the exercise and being in nature but the time spent with her husband.
I knew as a child that my mom was beautiful, that she was kind and optimistic. But I must admit I did not realize how resilient she was, how determined, how intelligent, how centered she was until I started to bushwhack my way through life with my own little ones in tow. With each baby I welcomed into my arms and life, the horizon of my understanding expanded until it richly glowed with revelations about motherhood and about Mama Darlin's saintlike attributes.
I have a memory to share. It is not what you would expect, but it is a powerful memory about a Mother's Day a long time ago. First let me say that I do remember occasions when I made cards and paper flowers for Mama at school. I remember times when Annie and Vinca prepared Mama a humble breakfast, and Nate and I clumsily took it to her. There were years when we plucked a profusion of tiger lilys from the creek bank to bring her. I can also still see the sewing basket with roses on the fabric that I insisted on getting her for a gift one year despite the fact that she rarely found time to sew, saving the jean sacks for work. But the memory that is most powerful is also sad, and it recalls a time when we kids neglected to show our mother how much we loved and appreciated her.
That Mother's Day was not what it should have been from the beginning. Our family was struggling financially, and we all were suffering from malaise because of the stress and uncertainty. Dad left early that Sunday to work in the fields of a neighbor, Mr. Wellins, in order to bring in more money. The house was quiet.
We kids kept mostly to our rooms. I laid on the floor in Annie's and my bedroom with sheets of paper spread around me, trying half-heartedly to write a poem for my mother or at least draw a picture. As I balled up rejected attempts at a gift and threw them into the corner, I should have realized I was already way behind the game. Still, being late with a gift is a far better thing than giving none at all, especially when the gift is meant for the most important woman in the world.
The next afternoon I remember vividly, painfully clear. We kids got off the bus to begin a hot, dusty walk down the lane toward home, and Dad pulled up in the car. We were surprised to see him but grateful to have a ride and to skip the exercise. The stern expression on our dad's face should have warned us that something was amiss, but we climbed in with barely a word of greeting and slumped into our respective places on the worn vinyl.
Dad didn't say hello to us either, and he drove very slowly. We had just passed the large beautifully-branching tree at the crest of the hill above the creek when he said suddenly:
"Your mother cried all morning."
I tensed. All of us sat up, apathy gone, no longer bored or disinterested.
"She said none of you did anything for her yesterday," said Dad. "You didn't even wish her a happy Mother's Day."
It was then that I got that burning feeling in my gut, that horrible reaction that is caused by fear - the horror of having done (or not done) what can't be changed, can't be undone or taken back. It's an emotional nausea that roils through one's insides.
The four of us stammered in turns, attempting to come up with an explanation, an excuse. I lamely uttered the fact that I had tried to make something, but it hadn't come out right. Dad was silent, the expression on his face unalterable rebuke. I remember we were passing the creek, that peaceful beautiful stream, when we began to break down one by one with the intense remorse, some of us sobbing loudly.
As we passed the cornfield and approached the turn of the driveway, Dad cut quietly through all the tears, "You're going to apologize to your mother. And you're going to make it up to her. I don't know how you can, but you will."
We tumbled out of the car when it stopped by our little square home. We tore through the front door in a pack and stormed our mother as she stood in the kitchen, hugging her, crying, apologizing continually, and professing our love for her. She held us and received it all with grace.
And that is so like her sweet nature.
But I am still sad to think there ever was a time when I forgot to say, "Mama Darlin', I love you."