Friday, December 13, 2013

Remembering The Woman Who Defined Ma

Eight years ago today my Ma Mary, who had been sick for much of the summer but rallied in the fall, got up, had breakfast and coffee, and sat down in her recliner with her husband of more than 60 years in his chair next to her. They were going to go lie down again, but she wanted to catch her breath.

She'd had surgery and was dealing with the effects of Type II diabetes and glaucoma. She was worried that she was having trouble getting around on her walker and didn't want to get to the point that she couldn't.

A few minutes later Pa looked at her and she was gone. He later told the preacher, "She was just smiling cause she knew she'd beat me."

Like she tried to do most of her life, Ma managed to get away without a lot of fanfare. Always in the background of family pictures, unless you snuck up on her or corralled her, Ma didn't want the spotlight. Losing her, however, took the nucleus out of our family so while she never looked to be in the center of it all, she was exactly that.

When I was growing up, Pa and Ma lived across the rural road from us. Pa was the easy one; Ma a bit tougher (gee, that sounds familiar). He would take us to the store for chocolate milk and goodies. Ma was always busy cooking, cleaning, working in her garden (where we loved to run the rows of towering corn), sewing shirts at her textile plant job. She made my dolls the most awesome clothes and salvaged my much beloved "Susie" doll when her body rotted after years of loving and neglect. The dog that was set out nearby and that we claimed chose to live at her house with her dog.

As we grew up, it was always Ma who would give you the unvarnished truth, whether you wanted it or not. You couldn't pull things over on Ma, and she was far less trusting than Pa. She was always the family's best cook and in many ways most progressive thinker. She had the first color TV, the first artificial Christmas tree. We never left her house hungry and she made the world's best mashed potatoes, stewed beef, chicken and dumplings and chocolate pies. If she had none of those things on hand, she would always offer you a cheese sandwich and my lasting love of pimento cheese sandwiches, grilled and dripping, comes from her. Her chocolate pie recipe is a family treasure.

There were probably many times during my younger years when she wasn't my favorite grandparent. The truth isn't always what you want to hear. There were probably times I avoided talking to her so I wouldn't get a good dose of it.

Yet, when I became an adult (not a magical number but a state of maturity), I would have to say it was Ma I looked up to the most. Ma was the one I wanted to sit with and talk to. Ma was the one with the best hugs, the best ear for listening, the best things to share.

I'd give about anything for one of those good, soft hugs now. I'd love to sit with her and catch up on everything she's missed. I'd love to spin her a tale about my week and watch her smile and listen to her laugh. I'd love to hold her hands again.

When she died, Pa's heart, like the center of our family, was gone as well. There was nothing we could do to pull his interest back to our world. He woke at night to hear her call and see visions of angels and Mary. I didn't wake, but I dreamed of her regularly. Neither of us really believed they were dreams, because in them, I knew she was gone. Once she had my dog, Lucy, who had died a few years earlier and who adored my grandparents, with her. I remember hugging the dog and wanting to hug Ma.

Shortly before Pa died just under 11 months later (the day before my birthday), Pa fell and was hospitalized and largely unconscious. I stopped having any "dreams" about Ma and haven't had one since. Somehow, I think, she was waiting on him.

So when I became a grandmother, although my name was supposed to be Mimi, I considered it nothing short of an honor that E1 chose, simply out of the blue, to call me Ma. (No one had selected that title so no one had been referred to by that name.) It was like a gift had been handed to me. I got to be Ma, with all luggage and honor that came with it.

While my ma didn't have the freedom to keep me (she still had a "real" job when I was small), she was always willing to have little people around when my children were born. I'm betting they found the same no nonsense Ma I did, and I'm afraid my little people are dealing with the same.

I hope that if I'm not always their favorite grandparent (and Lord knows when Papi comes home, I'm apparently not) that I can give them the same gifts Ma gave me. I hope I can fill their hearts with love and memories, their tummies with recipes they'll want to pass on, their heads with honest advice even when they don't want to hear it.

Every time one of them randomly spouts "Ma, I love you," my heart just about breaks with joy, especially when we're doing something as random as loading the car to go to church and I feel like I've not been the ideal Ma because of some disagreement earlier in the day. I hope I was able to give Ma Mary that same joy, and a part of me know that I, my brother, and my cousins all did.

So, although I cannot hug or converse with Ma any more, she's not gone. She's still in my heart and a very important part of the Ma I am every day. That's who I want to be to my little Es. The person that, when I'm gone, they remember with the love and gratitude I feel for her even today.

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