A Eulogy for My Mother

ALW-Mother-Eulogy-BlogInstead of regaling people with charming anecdotes about my childhood (dancing to “I’m a Little Teapot” in the living room) or relaying repetitive accolades (“Your mother was one of the most influential people in my life.”) about how precious my mother was—and she was dear—when giving her eulogy on February 23, I instead read three passages I dug out of one of my “memory boxes” while crying and packing my suitcase for Mississippi after my sister Ann phoned to say, “This is the call you never want to get.” Bits and pieces from a long life well lived that illustrate, better than a hundred family snapshots, what made Martha Lee Lyles Wilson (1922-2016) such a remarkable woman.

One was a quote she included in a birthday card she sent me; another was a passage she wrote on a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper; and the third was a quote she cut out from a magazine. In short, these snippets reveal how my mother made her way in the world, and how she inspired those around her to follow her lead as best we are able:

“Those people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who lived their lives like the stars of heaven and the lilies in the field, perfect, simply, and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold us.”—Oswald Chambers

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”—John Wesley

“But where do I start? The world is so vast; I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is very large; I better start with my town—but my town, too, is large. I had better start with my street. No, my family. Oh well, never mind. I shall start with myself.”—Elie Wiesel

I don’t know if the quotes she clung to are punctuated or even worded exactly as they appeared in print, and to me it doesn’t matter. The philosophies are clear, and they now have a permanent place in my heart, right alongside my mother.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Obituary for Martha Lee Lyles Wilson

 

Childhood Crockery {Or, How I Cleaned Out My Pantry and Connected With An Old Friend}

IMG_4415I ate a lot of leftovers out of this dish as child. Creamed potatoes on one side, black-eyed peas on the other. Cheese grits and fried okra. Maybe corn pudding and salmon croquettes, if Mom was feeling adventurous.

I pull it out from the back of the pantry as I make attempts to shed my home—and thereby my self—of items (attachments?) I no longer need. I am listening to Joan Armatrading. In an instant I begin to cry.

“Show some emotion, put expression in your eyes” she sings. “Light up if you’re feeling happy, but if it’s bad then let those tears roll down.” And so I do, as I make my way off the stepladder, fearful I might fall because I am breaking down on an otherwise lovely, sunny day on which I do not have a care in the world besides losing ten pounds and a leak in the guest bathroom.

The dish–which I took when my sisters and I divvied up the spoils from our childhood home after Daddy died and Mother moved to a retirement community–takes me back to my childhood, a precious time that I thought everyone else enjoyed until I grew up and met folks who didn’t so much revere their parents as despise them; people who couldn’t look back fondly on late afternoons spent running behind the bug spray truck because they were too busy trying to dodge what happened at night in their homes; friends who wouldn’t dream of honoring their past and instead had to bury it deep and hard.

The song takes me back to my days at Millsaps College, a place—and a people—that saved me after a disastrous freshman year at Ole Miss. It is one of those tunes that transports me across state lines and through decades with such speed and force and accuracy that I would swear I am altered physically. Hearing this song on this day makes me think of certain people, one in particular: a high-school and college classmate I haven’t seen in twenty-five years.

Now that I am in my fifties, I try to follow my gut immediately instead of taking time to “mull it over” or “weigh my options” or “worry how it might look.” So I Google this person and find his work email address. I fire one off, telling him that I saw this piece of crockery from my childhood while listening to Joan Armatrading and it made me think of him, of the times we spent together with like-minded folks, how I always knew, even back in high school, that he was one of the few who understood. I knew he could take it, that it wouldn’t freak him out. He emailed back within half an hour and we reconnected, just for a few minutes. It is enough.

For a while longer, at least, the dish, and the memories, remain in place.

I heard Joan Armatrading live once, in New Orleans. I can see her now, belting it out, moving me to tears. That was then, and this is now.

Keeping Kin

StPetersCemetry“I’m Earl’s youngest.”

I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.

My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.

Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.

St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.

“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.

“Thank you,” I said.

My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.

When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.

On Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.

Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.

Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.

“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.

“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”

When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.

Father Knows Best {Remembering Earl}

ERWBefore my father died in 2000, he bestowed a lot of advice on me. Much of it helpful: “Just get enough education so you can support yourself,” after I dropped out of law school following a dismal semester that I don’t mind sacrificing on the altar of fading memory. “You need to read as widely as you can,” when I looked at him with exasperation as he handed the teenage me copies of Scientific American, The Wilson Quarterly (no relation!), and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some of it practical: “Be sure to keep at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your car at all times,” upon meeting me by the side of the road, my car on empty. “Preferably half a tank.” And, “If you marry a jerk and I’m not around to help you, don’t stay in a bad situation,” as he bemoaned my singlehood. I married at age 41, two years after Daddy’s death. My husband, Precious, and I celebrate our twelfth anniversary today.

A bit of it subjective: “It’s not appropriate to put ketchup on steak.” I promise I don’t anymore, but I think I was about ten at the time and not yet schooled in the fine art of dining out anywhere other than Morrison’s Cafeteria. And, “Don’t ever wear that tie-dye shirt with that skirt again. It upsets your mother.” I must have been in my hippie period. Oh wait. I still have that shirt…

In the end, some of the best advice my father gave me, through example and instruction, can be summed up in two takeaways: keep your own counsel, and “to those whom much is given, much will be expected.”

One of my sisters said to me just this week, “I wish Daddy were here, so I could get his take on something.” I’ve thought the same thing over the years, wondering what he might say to me when presented with this situation or that problem. I can’t know, of course, but I think it would go something like this: “Trust yourself.” And so I do.

Stealing My Neighbor’s Daffodils

IMG_3425When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.

“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”

“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”

Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.

The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.

The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?

Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.

“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.

“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.

Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.

Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.

Christmas Past

IMG_3294What the ornaments hanging on this wreath lack in finesse they make up for in memory, and tradition, and family. Like when my father was still alive, his arm wrapped around whichever of his three daughters happened to be within reach. When my mother didn’t have a diagnosis of dementia, and we painted wooden cutouts shaped like snowmen and Santas. When my sisters and I were young. These ornaments are as much a part of me as my green eyes and my tendency toward impatience. I pack them up with a heart made full by tenderness for what was, gratitude for this present moment, and acceptance of what will be.