Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Carol D O'Dell - MOTHERING MOTHER: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

By Carol D. O’Dell


The first time I saw Mama, I was four years old. I stood on the sidewalk of my grandmother’s Daytona Beach boarding house and watched Mama’s long legs emerge from the shadows of a shiny black Cadillac and her blue high heels press the pavement. As she stood she kept rising and rising, her bright red hair teased and piled high on top of her head.
Mama looked at me and my sister Rosie and Grandma Stella like we needed her help and she had arrived from Atlanta just in time to rescue us from our pitiful lives. She walked right up to Grandma Stella and shook her hand hard and fast.
"It’s nice to meet you, I’m Noveline DeVault."
Grown-ups crowded around us, gawking like it was all some show. I knew this woman had come to get me. I knew this was goodbye to my sister and my Grandma. Mama leaned down and her eyes gestured to my little brown tweed suitcase that Rosie and Grandma helped me pack.
"You can leave that here. I’ll buy you all new clothes and toys." She sounded so bossy. I set it down on the pavement.
Someone must have told me Mama was coming to get me because I cut my hair the night before. Picked up my bangs in one big fistful and whacked them off, then snipped at bits of the rest. I’m not sure whether I cut my hair to make myself prettier—so they’d like me—or uglier, so they wouldn’t. I don’t recall feeling one way or the other. Just flat. Mama said I didn’t even cry.
Mama was big—five feet eleven and a half, she said, but I swear she was over six feet and just wouldn’t admit it. She scared everybody, she was so big. She had giant hands. She called them her piano hands. Mama walked through the house like somebody was chasing her, her long arms swinging, the house jolting with each step. Daddy would grab her in mid-stride and pull her down, smashing the newspaper on his lap.
"Willie, stop that." Mama put up a little fight, and then they’d both laugh and talk real low and soft to each other so I couldn’t hear. For them to be so different, they actually got along most of the time. She wasn’t the same with him as she was with me, though. She couldn’t slap him around. At night, they’d talk and talk and talk, and I’d have to holler out from my bedroom at one o’clock in the morning.
"Some of us have go to school, you know.”
Mama was as loud as Daddy was quiet. "You got to be bold for the Lord," she’d shout in her sermons. She was an ordained minister of the Assembly of God churches.
Just my luck to get adopted by a preacher woman.
Mama said God saved her at twenty-two. “God doesn’t un-call you once you’re called, so I’m going to keep on preaching ‘til I collapse or the good Lord Himself comes down and takes over.” She’d throw her hands on her hips while everyone laughed and shouted, "Hallelujah!" You’d about jump out of your seat if you weren’t expecting it, but I came to expect just about anything from her. She’d stand there, hands on her hips, watching the congregation, smiling, her cheeks like little round apples.
When I was good, Mama used to say it was because I came from good stock, that my birth mother was a college graduate. When I was bad, she’d say it was because my mother was crazy and my daddy was a drunk.
Daddy retired from General Motors when I turned six. Said he didn’t want to miss any of my childhood.
I think he forgot Mama would be there too. He said he’d go crazy if he didn’t get to doing something other than fulfilling her every wish, so he started building this garage; his second home, is what he called it. He was down there all the time and I didn’t blame him one bit.
They had this whole routine: she fixed breakfast around ten, they ate and then Daddy watched The Price is Right until eleven, hollering out the prices like he was right there in the audience. Then he headed down to the garage for some peace and quiet.
Mama thought everybody else lived their lives just waiting to do something for her. She couldn’t leave me or Daddy alone.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop," she said.
Daddy was strong too; I didn’t care if he was old. I liked to put my finger in the crook of his arm in church so he’d tighten up his muscle. Even through his suit, I couldn’t get my finger back out.
Daddy was quiet and almost sad, but not quite. I thought of asking him what it was that haunted him, but I didn’t.
“Carol, come to the hospital.”
I knew from Mama’s voice, the exhaustion, and the flat lack of hope, that Daddy had had another heart attack. This was his fourth: the one he had when I was thirteen, and two in the three years I had been married. It happened in the middle of the night. He grabbed Mama’s hand and clutched so tight she thought her bones would break.
I raced to the hospital, hoping and praying I would make it in time. Being newly married and having two young daughters had left me with little time to sit outside on warm summer nights and talk to him the way I had as a child. I wanted to make up for that lost time. I needed a good, long conversation about the stars, sitting next to Daddy, his legs crossed in the too-small lawn chair, both of us falling quiet, thinking.
Mama and I sat with Daddy in the drab hospital room day after day, waiting for the doctors to decide what to do. We knew we didn’t have much longer.
"You’ve brought so much to your Daddy’s life. From the very moment we got you, his face lit up every time he said, ‘my little girl.’ ”
Mama looked so small. Her hair was still mostly red, but it had lost its sheen and most of its height.
“He’d brag to his buddies out at the plant, tell them all the cute things you said. They started kidding him at work, nicknamed him ‘Papa.’ ” She smiled and I let her tell me her stories.
“When we went places and people asked him if you were his granddaughter, he’d grin and say, ‘No, my daughter.’ They’d marvel and say, ‘What a man!’ ”
I settled in the chair opposite her.
Our eyes locked over Daddy, struggling to breathe. Congestive heart failure filled his lungs with fluid. He lay motionless and sedated between us, covered with a thin sheet and thermal blanket. Mama and I could barely move, each of us taking turns sitting up with him. Sleep deprivation left us washed out and limp.
Mama reminded me that tomorrow, November 4, was my adoption day. I hadn’t thought about it, but we celebrated every year like an extra birthday.
“Do you remember that day in the judge’s chambers?”
I walked back through that door to the warm wood walls and rows and rows of leather-bound books.
“I dressed you in that little red corduroy jumper you loved so much with your little black patent leather shoes and lacey socks. You could always talk like you were an adult. You walked into the judge’s office and looked around like you owned the place. You climbed right into your Daddy’s lap and asked the judge if he had any paper and pencils—so that you could draw. You were always drawing.”
I remembered. The judge had winked at me.
“‘Are you up for the task of raising a child?’ he asked Daddy. ‘Oh yes, sir,’ we told him—by then you had already been with us six months. Nothing could have separated us.”
She pulled her sweater back over her bare shoulder.
“The first time you called me Mama, I think I cried.” She folded her arms and curled her legs to one side of the chair.
“You had been with us several months and never referred to me in any way whatsoever. I was starting to get a little worried. One day, you were in the breakfast room and I was in the kitchen and I heard this tiny little voice say, ‘Mama, can I have another piece of toast?’ ” She paused. “That was the best day of my life.” I watched her turn towards me, take a deep breath and close her eyes.
I realized, perhaps for the first time in a long time, that I loved her.
I turned towards Daddy, the mound of his body under the sheet and thin blanket, and I began to doze, dreaming about the times when he would come home from work and I would hide and wait for him to find me.
“Where’s my little sweety-pie? I know she’s hiding. Could she be under the table? Behind the couch? In the closet?” He started the game even before he got his coat off.
I giggle, giving myself away, and in my dream I am four.
“Is she in the pantry? Is my little sweety-pie behind the door?”
I opened my eyes and looked at Mama. A loose strand of hair fell from her French twist, her teased front collapsing. I noticed the gray hairs in with the red ones, hanging in her eyes. She let them, too tired to care.
“I don’t know why the Lord allows us to be separated from each other in our old age. It seems cruel to spend a whole lifetime together only to be torn apart when we need each other the most. I don’t understand.” She got up and tucked the blanket under his chin, running her fingers through his hair.
“At least I have the assurance we’ll be together again.”
I drove home sometime after midnight and kissed my girls’ soft cheeks while they slept. My arms ached to scoop them up and rock them on that black, rainy night. I’d caught only snippets of them these past few weeks. I needed to do mommy things—take them to the park and feel my hand on their backs as I pushed them on the swing. I rubbed their chubby fingers until they stirred and left before I woke them.
I stripped down and crawled into bed beside Phillip. He held a pillow in his arms where I was supposed to be. I kissed his back and neck until he woke and turned over, whispering inaudible words as he drew me to him. We made love, silent, with our eyes closed. I drifted off to sleep, only to wake to the telephone.
“This is the nurse on sixth tower. Your father’s had another heart attack.”
Phillip drove me to the hospital, our girls asleep in their car seats, their heads drooped to one side. I pulled the visor down and looked at their cherub faces in the mirror.
They probably won’t even remember their Papa.
The world blurred. Every streetlamp, every lighted billboard zoomed by, and I noticed each one as if important.
I prayed for time.
Daddy sat on the side of the bed; his thin hospital gown did little good to cover this massive man. He glanced at me as I entered, then looked down to the floor. His hands, on his knees, braced his body.
The oxygen cord wrapped over Daddy’s ears and into his nostrils, irritating him. He adjusted it again and again. I couldn’t believe that after yet another massive heart attack he could still be sitting up.
Phillip stepped in front of me and held my mother in his arms. I knelt in front of Daddy, afraid to touch him and break the immense concentration he needed to control the pain.
“I want ya’ll… to promise me one thing,” he said with ragged breath. “I want you to promise… me… to be good… and… take care of… each other. Promise.”

Carol D. O'DellAuthor, Mothering Mother
Kunati Publishing
April 2007 release
ISBN-13: 978-1-60164-003-1

1 comment:

Marty Aftewicz said...

Carol provides excellent insight into the challenges of a modern caregiver. The extended lifespan enabled by medical advancements has created a family environment that has never existed for previous generations. Carol's approach to diagnosis and recommendations allows a little bit of humor into a serious situation.