Mama

 

 

 

We buried my mom late in the afternoon, next to where we put my dad 28 years ago. It was warm enough that the gnats were out in south Georgia. We had driven down to the cemetery in Brunswick from the funeral in Jesup, about 45 miles, and the whole way, oncoming traffic pulled over in respect. By the time we got out of the car they had already set out the casket. Under the closed lid my mom was wearing a lavender pantsuit. It was the first time she’d ever worn it. It had always been too small for her. But then she got sick, and then she died, and now it fit.

At the graveside a few folks got up and said nice things, and the man from the funeral home read the 23rd Psalm, and we stood around and talked for a little while. We didn’t wait to see them lower her into the ground. I didn’t want that memory. I have so many good memories about my mama, Virginia Tomlinson, and I want to keep those at the front of the line.

Let me tell you one or two.

I’m a little kid, maybe 6 or 7, and the family has gathered over at our house on St. Simons Island. We’re singing hymns around a tape recorder. Lord, I wish I still had those tapes. My brother, Ronald, is the best singer in the family, so my mom sang harmony — I don’t know if she was any good, but she sounded good to me back then. The song I remember most was Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” Forty years later I went to a Jason Isbell concert and the opening act was Holly Williams, Hank’s granddaughter. She sang “I Saw the Light” and it just about broke me. All of a sudden I was a little boy again, sitting at the kitchen table, enraptured by my mama’s voice.

I’m older, maybe 13 or 14, and I am growing my hair out in a desperate attempt to be cool. I’m a fat kid with acne and crooked teeth, but I have thick hair, and I think maybe it will grow long and straight like a rock star’s, and then I will have a chance with girls. Instead it gets to my ears and flares out sideways, and on top it puffs up like an old lady’s beehive. I get dandruff that covers my shoulders like sea salt. I’m a mess. I’m whining about it one night, because teenagers whine, when my mom says “Let me wash it, then.” So we clear off the kitchen counter and I lay on my back where the dish drainer normally goes and I hang my head over the sink, and my mom washes my hair for what seems like an hour. The dandruff doesn’t go away. No girls magically appear. But somehow I feel better, because my mama did what she could.

I am 29, and I have throat cancer. I have to have surgery, and I don’t know if I’m going to come out of it with a voice. I spend 16 nights in the hospital in Charlotte. My mom, who’s 60 by this point, spends those nights in a chair next to my bed. She leaves only to eat, to use the bathroom, and to smoke. I end up with a weak, raspy voice, but — thank God and modern medicine — a voice. They wheel me out the front door on leaving day, but we can’t leave right away. All the people from the smoking area around the corner come around to hug Mama’s neck and meet her boy. She had collected a dozen friends.

I am 54, leaning toward her in her hospital bed. This is January, a week or two before she died, and she can’t hear what I’m saying. I’ve got that soft voice, and she’s 85 and left her one working hearing aid back at the nursing home. I keep trying to talk to her and she keeps cocking her head, not understanding, and finally I break down in anger and frustration and grief. She is dying. We all know it. But she reaches out and comforts me. She says how she wishes she had been able to do more for her children, had been able to take us more places, but there was never enough money, and she always had to work.

I don’t want to argue with her, and she can’t hear me anyway. But in my mind I say: No. You don’t understand. You did everything. You’re doing it right now.

 

*****

 

The way she always told the story, she was 12 when she had to take over the household. Her sister, my Aunt Mae, remembers it being even before that. Either way, when they were little girls, their mother took ill — she was paralyzed on one side for the rest of her life. My mom was one of seven, but the older girls were already married and out of the house. Their dad wasn’t around much, and when he was, he drank or ran off with what little money they had. They were Yarbroughs and they were sharecroppers, picking cotton on another man’s land. They moved from shack to shack, one step ahead of the rent. It fell to my mom to hold the broken family together.

She woke up before dawn and made three pans of biscuits for breakfast, then put on a big pot of beans or peas to simmer on the wood stove for lunch and supper. Then she went out in the fields to pick cotton with the rest of the family from daylight to dark. At the end of the day she cleaned up and washed clothes. Then she did it again, year after year after year.

She got married as a teenager, had two children, made it out of the fields. That marriage didn’t last. She started working at a seafood packing plant that sent a bus to Jesup every day to take workers down to St. Simons. At SeaPak, she met my dad. They got married in 1963 and bought a little house for $50 a month and had me. My mom worked the line at the seafood plant. When she came home every day, the first thing she did was strip off her white polyester uniform. It smelled like shrimp.

She quit school after one day of fourth grade. But growing up she spent every free moment reading hand-me-down comic books. She remembered reading Superman, and I can only imagine how much of a blessing it was to be lifted out of a shotgun house with pasteboard over the walls and be transported to Metropolis. She never stopped reading. Until the last few months of her life she read romance novels by the bushel. The library in Jesup has a few racks of paperbacks that you can swap out — you don’t even need a library card — and she would drop off the ones she had read and fill up two tote bags with new ones.

And you wonder why I work with words for a living.

She got injured on the job at SeaPak — a rack of frozen food fell on her and messed up the nerves in her neck and shoulder. But after a few years, when my dad got sick and couldn’t work anymore, she found a job as a waitress at a hotel restaurant that became a Denny’s. It was at one of the I-95 exits in Brunswick, so they got lots of travelers. One couple from up north got to know Mama and started stopping by every time they went to Florida and back. If she wasn’t there, they’d call her at the house and she’d come down to have a cup of coffee with them. She kept in touch with them for years, long after she retired and they stopped traveling.

When she was working there, she’d come home exhausted and hand me her apron. Her tips would be stuffed in the pockets. I’d roll the change and count out the bills and she might let me skim a few bucks off the top. When I went off to college, and called home asking for money, sometimes I’d get an envelope with a stack of $1 bills. I thought of those hard-earned dollars a lot in her later years, when I saw her bent-back thumbs, and the shoulder that never quit hurting no matter how much we rubbed it.

She would rest a little bit then get up and take care of the house or go outside and hoe the weeds in our big garden. Then she would make supper. My dad and I pitched in but she toted most of the load. I have never known anyone else who worked harder, for longer, than my mom. Part of the reason she worked like that is so I wouldn’t have to. As she got older, and one of us kids would send her money or buy her something, she always said we didn’t need to do it. We never could convince her that we were trying to pay her back, and no matter what we did, we would never square the debt.

*****

She started smoking when she was a teenager, maybe before, because just about everybody back then smoked and nobody knew any better. It was her one and only addiction. She paid no attention when the rest of us begged her to stop. She wrote letters to the editor of the Jesup paper telling people to leave smokers alone. She smoked maybe 60 years, until she went into the hospital for bleeding ulcers, stayed a week, and had lost the craving when she came out. She didn’t trust it — she kept her last carton of Raleighs around the house for a month. When she still didn’t want one, she went to the store and got her money back.

But of course smoking got her, just like it got my dad. She developed COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She had to wear an oxygen tube hooked to a big tank in the living room, or a portable tank when she left the house. Even with the oxygen, if she walked down the hall to the bathroom, when she got back she was bone tired. Her lungs gave out a little more each day, a slow and relentless chokehold. By the end she had all kinds of other problems — kidney failure, a urinary tract infection that kept coming back — but smoking killed her. If I got to choose how people spent the afterlife, I’d put every tobacco executive in a hard hospital chair and make them watch smokers die, one by one, for eternity.

My mom would be mad at me saying that. She taught me to be kind.

She did have strong opinions. If bacon wasn’t crispy, it might as well be raw. There was never a better TV show than “Perry Mason,” although “Dancing With the Stars” made a strong late run. Alan Jackson was country music. Taylor Swift was most definitely not.

She cooked in classic Southern style — the base of her food pyramid was butter and bacon grease. Her work is reflected in the overhanging guts of most everyone in our family. My wife, who’s from Wisconsin and grew up with vegetables that tasted like vegetables, once tried Mama’s stewed squash. “That’s SO good,” Alix said. “How do you make it?” “Well,” Mama said, “you start with a piece of ham … ”

Cornbread was her masterpiece. I have never had better. When I was a kid she made it in a cast-iron skillet, as flat and crunchy as Fritos. But as she got older she made it in muffin pans, never using a recipe, never checking the clock. When would it be ready? When it’s done. After she got sick my wife made some for Mama, and it was good, but not quite right. Alix described how she did it. Mama told her to add one step: Just before it’s done, drizzle a little more grease on top. It was fantastic. But still, somehow, not as fantastic as the cornbread from Mama’s hands.

I used to stare at those hands. They were knobby and weak from arthritis. She had done the work of a hundred normal human beings with those hands. But somehow her fingernails were always smooth and elegant.

They looked that way the last time I saw her, there at the funeral home, when I reached down to touch her hands, and they were cold.

 

*****

In her last few years my mom gained a cult following on Facebook. She didn’t really understand computers. When we first got her one, and she and I were emailing back and forth, she didn’t know how to create an email but she knew how to respond to one. So every email she sent me contained every email we had ever sent to each other. The subject line was always Re: re: re: re: re: re: re:, on into infinity.

When we signed her up for Facebook, she didn’t know everybody could view her posts. Plus she would write everything in all caps so she could see it better. So we’d open up Facebook one day and, for all 2 billion Facebook users to read, there’d be something like TOMMY AND ALIX JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW I WENT TO THE DOCTOR FOR MY BLADDER INFECTION.

We got her to stop posting medical updates, but she loved Facebook for getting in touch with distant family, wishing everyone happy birthdays, and sometimes noting that her younger son had not called her on Saturday like he said he would. My friends got a kick out of that. And you can bet I picked up the phone.

Mama loved the holidays, and after a while she decided to love all the holidays at once. When Alix and I were dating, and I was bringing her home for the first time, I looked over at her a few miles from the house and said: I need to tell you something. My mom likes to decorate for the holidays.

Great! Alix said.

You don’t understand, I said. She REALLY likes to decorate for the holidays.

It was late summer, maybe early fall, and as we pulled into the driveway there were big plastic Easter eggs hanging from the trees. Wooden reindeer grazed in the yard. Two ceramic jack-o’-lanterns bracketed the front steps. Mama especially loved the jack-o’-lanterns because, after Halloween, you could turn them so the back side was facing out and they were good to go for Thanksgiving.

She loved Christmas the most. For years she kept an artificial Christmas tree in the corner of the living room all year long. She’d dress it up depending on the time of the year — flowers for Easter, flags for the Fourth of July. She strung icicle lights inside and out. She had an inflatable menagerie, including a huge brown creature that might have been a reindeer but also could have been a moose. The last couple of years she lived at home, she bought laser lights that covered the side of her trailer with red and green dots.

The rest of us always thought she went overboard. But toward the end I wondered if she felt like a theme park operator who builds new rides to make sure customers keep coming. It’s hard to get a scattered family together. A lot of us are married now, and we have obligations to our spouses’ families, too. We don’t always get together on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day — it’s whatever day everyone can be there. And no matter what day it was, almost to the end, my mom cooked enough for an army battalion and decorated her modest place until it glittered. She always had to work to get what she wanted. And the one thing she wanted most was her family around, children laughing, everybody with full bellies, trading stories, staying as long as they could before they had to go home.

*****

We left the cemetery and drove back to Jesup, faster this time, no procession. Ed, my brother-in-law, had arranged for us to have the back room of the Western Sizzlin. They had a buffet of our favorite things — fried chicken, blackeyed peas, turnip greens, you get the idea. For dessert Ed had soft-serve vanilla ice cream studded with strips of fatback, in case any of us were not clear we were in south Georgia.

There were maybe 15 of us at the long table, comparing hairlines, catching up on the kids’ ball teams, giving my niece and her fiancé grief about their wedding. We talked about others no longer with us — especially my sister, Brenda, my mom’s only daughter. She died on Christmas Eve three years ago and Mama never got over it.

We’ve sat in that same back room many a time, had hundreds of family dinners at one house or another. Mama was always at the center of it — striking up a friendship with a waitress, taking a teasing and giving one back, filling up on onion rings and coffee. She always did the most work and gave the most love. It hurts me to know that I can’t call her up on Saturdays anymore. It breaks my heart that she won’t get to see my first book come out. (She read an early draft. She said I cussed too much.) There will be countless moments where I will wish I knew what she thought, or just wish I could see her face crinkle up when she laughs. None of us have enough time with the people we love.

But when we gathered that day, after the funeral, my mom was still with us. She was there in the way we hugged when we parted, and the way she taught us to live. She’ll be with all of us for a long, long time.

 

 

— TT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 thoughts on “Mama”

  1. Sniff. Such nice remembrances. A think your kindness and sharing her with friends, old and new, on Facebook was part of your paying her back.

  2. God bless you as you learn to live without your Mom It’s been 10 years since I lost my Mother and I still wish I could call and talk about things going on in my life. She was a hard worker and did without to give to us. She gave more love to us even when we didn’t deserve love. I wish I could go back and thank her for all the things I took granted and tell her one more time how much I love her ❤️

  3. Tears, good story, felt the love, like Lewis Grizzard in a serious mood. Destined to make his mama proud. Love and hugs going your way.

  4. Hi tommy. I have admired you from afar for many years. I’m a writer myself and have loved your profiles in the Charlotte paper. The stories about your mother have been particularly poingnant. We have a shared history at the Augusta papers. I was there before you by a couple of years. Thank you for sharing your stories. They are rich and powerful
    Susan Byrum Rountree. Raleigh via Scotland Neck.

  5. So beautiful, Tommy. I only wish I’d met her…bet we’d have ended up friends. I’m sorry for your loss and do hope you’ll always feel her with you.

    Is your book published? What is the title?

    1. Constance, it’s called “The Elephant In the Room.” No publication date yet. But I’ll let everyone know when I know. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. What a beautiful story. You will always have memories of your wonderful Mom. I can’t wait to read your book when it comes out as I have always loved your stories.

  7. Tommy, what a great remembrance to obviously a Great Woman. I am a Native Charlottean and read your stuff for years and feel like I know you, but after reading this well maybe now I “understand why”. I have two great parents that live next door to me and they are in their 70’s and my relationship with my mother is very similar to yours. There stories not too different. When I was a young chap I was not as appreciative as I should have been, I wish I could go back in time. Your Mom showed you the way, I can only imagine the loss you feel, but she lives in you and in your work. What a wonderful tribute to her.

  8. What is it about the South & writers! Ga. boys like U & LEWIS pull st the heartstrings & nail the bullseye. As U especially always do, u help us all 2 recall special people we’ve known, loved, who shaped us, as your sweet Mama. The love she had for U & your reciprocity will live on N your memories & your talent. May U continue 2 share with your adoring & expanding audience.

  9. You have left me in a puddle of tears. Your mama’s story and yours are so similar to the story that I can share, and mamma’s passing affected me in such a reality….Thank you for bringing to mind …

  10. I almost didn’t read this because I figured you’d break my heart. But then I remembered that your writing always has warmth. Maybe kindness is a better word. You have such talent and I’ve always admired your work. May your memories of your mama be a comfort in the times to come.

  11. A beautiful remembrance of your mother! While reading this, one could feel the love shared. Many of us were quite blessed to have had such loving and caring mothers. From your description of yours, it sounds like she ranked quite highly in this regard.

  12. Thank you for writing this, Tommy. An amazing piece. You and I are the same age. That age where loss seems to come all to frequently. I lost my mom in 2009 to a brain tumor – complications of lung cancer. I’d sentence those damned tobacco execs to the same punishment – no one should die that death. Mom and I didn’t always get along; sometimes, I didn’t like her very much, but I always loved her. She grew up an orphan – her dad dropped her, her sister and two brothers off at Barium Springs’ Home for Children in the 1940s. Mom’s mom had died when mom was three. That summer, they came back to NC for ‘vacation’ and to visit relatives. On the way back home to MD, they stopped at Barium and he told them he could no longer take care of them – that they would have to live here now. I don’t think any of them ever stopped thinking or wishing that he would, one day, come back for them, but he didn’t. Momma grew up there, graduated from high school and then married my dad. When they got married, she couldn’t cook. Well – she could cook for 400 – but not for two. Thankfully my dad’s mom was an amazing southern cook – much like your mom – and so my mom learned to cook from my grandmother – and boy, could she cook. I think back to how hard it must have been for my mom to raise two successful children, without any real ‘parenting’ skills of her own. Sure, they had rules and regulations at the orphanage, but you do have to wonder what kind of parents they were. I lost my dad in 2017 – and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, too. We grew much closer as the years passed, and he was sick for several years as his health declined – much the same as your mom’s. We knew the end was coming, but we weren’t prepared for it when it happened. And it does leave a gigantic hole in your life. Will keep you in my thoughts.

  13. Tommy those were beautiful words of love for your mother. She was a mama who love you unconditionally and would be proud of you. Thank you for sharing your love for your mama. She will be forever in your heart.🙏🏽

  14. Tommy, As I read your story about your Mom, I was in awe of your ability to just put on paper the story of hardship, perseverance, endurance, commitment, love and joy… that was your Mom.
    It brought back to mind the admiration and love that Don had for ‘Uncle Tommy ‘n Aunt Virginia’. Many times we would stop by and sit on the sofa in their living room and enjoy hearing the stories that our questions would bring to their mind. I could relate to them and their memories. You see, my mother’s family was also sharecroppers! They lived in Arkansas along the St. Francis River. Before we moved from the hills of Tennessee when I was 11 yrs. old, I had spent many weeks during the hot summer months picking cotton.
    Your Parents were originals… willing to share the bounty from the ‘Fruit of their Labor”. Their ‘Backyard Garden’ surpassed any other I had seen. It was lush in every way, prolific in producing the most beautiful veggies ever. Our freezer was filled with everything that would freeze. As we ate our meals, we told of the gardeners that grew those peas, corn, string beans, greens… well you get the idea.
    Don and I would swing by Denny’s Restaurant just to see your Mom and enjoy lunch served with that genuine smile/laughter. It made our day and I felt like it had made her day more special too. She sure loved Don, and clearly showed it… …
    Yeah, I was a mixed bag of emotions as I read your story! I experienced much sorrow for the loss of the treasure that she was. I teared up and cried at the hardship she endured as a child and how she responded with loving care for her family… though a child herself. I laughed at her ‘holiday spirit’ and the decorating she continued to do. My Mom loved Christmas the most, instilling in all her children that same love and spirit to be together and celebrate. She died at 76 less than 2 weeks before Christmas in 1994.
    Our memories of our Mothers will always be “Precious Memories” that live as long as we breathe! My Mom’s singing voice was much like mine, ‘Alto’! Hers was a strong voice and when I hear some of the old Hymns… I can hear her voice loud ‘n clear in my memory.
    We are today, what we are because of the experiences of our lifetime. Our Mom’s didn’t have a cushy life style and not a spoiled bone in their body. However, they became among the strongest and most loving and dedicated group of women ever.
    I love and miss your Mom…
    My Aunt Virginia… and Uncle Tommy too… ( Big Tom ) !!!

  15. Thank you, Tommy, for sharing Mama with us. Thank you, for digging down deep within yourself to bring up such sacred moments that bonded the two of you, and sharing them with us. What a wonderful mother – and also a wonderful son, to recognize all of who she was.
    I’m glad to know that you recognize her presence still within you, despite her having left her body. That’s as good as it gets…

  16. Tommy, I’m so sorry for your loss. I am almost 8 years PM (Post Mama) and your words made me weep. You and I both were blessed with mamas that would do anything for their “young uns”. I understand the “stage” you’re at right now. My mama had told me that when her mama was dying in the hospital- she looked over at mama and said- “You look cold.” Mamas worrying about their babies even in their worst times. When my mama was in the hospital I prayed to God she wouldn’t ask me if I was cold. A year after her passing I still would reach for the phone wanting to tell her something. The first spring after her death- I picked strawberries, came home and made a cobbler- her favorite. My first taste- and I broke down in tears, it felt like she was sitting beside me. Hugs and prayers to you and your family- the tears will lessen over time but yes, your mama will always be near. Always.

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