By Bob Litton
Well, it is “Mother’s Day” here in the U.S., and I wonder how many celebrate it. Most of us love or loved our mothers, some of us had difficult relations with our mothers, and others of us either abused our mothers or they abused us, maybe even murdered some of their children. And almost every year in the past, some columnists criticized “Mother’s Day” as being too inclusive, often reminding their readers that Adolph Hitler had a mother, too.
As for me, I wish I could get my mother out of my head, Actually, I wish I could get my whole family out of my head, including my father and my two brothers. Should I include my only sister in that, even though she died nearly two years before I was born and so I never knew her? Yet, she still hovers there almost as palpable as the others because I was supposed to be a reincarnation of her, and part of my craziness is derived from the realization that my not being her was a disappointment to my parents.
“Out of my head,” I say to them. “Shoo!” But they remain, ghostly, like some giant unsolvable puzzle which I spend too much time and emotional energy trying to figure out. For, you see, they each and every one (excluding my sister) did good things for me and bad things to me. Superficially, I suppose, I attribute the impulse to write a few of my stories and poems to the ongoing, subliminal effort to seek reasonable causations in these memories or, failing that, to cast them into the nether world, never to return. But they do.
One such literary piece, a poem titled “The Widow’s Pique”, which I never published, despite some admirable lines, is in fact marred by Part I in which I painted my father too light and by Part II in which I painted my mother too dark.
But I am supposed to be concentrating on Mother here. Let me get back to her now.
The truth, as I concluded a few years ago, is that Mother was a so-so mother, and I was a so-so son. She only slapped me once, after I had accidently locked the bathroom door. (I wonder now how that can be done from the outside.) I do not recall her every spanking me, although my memory of childhood is not at all complete. She raised me practically single-handedly into my teen years, since she and Father divorced while I was still a child. Although I mostly did not trouble her, I realized only recently that my being under her wing all those years hindered any romancing she might have desired. She did find one man, however, when I was a junior in high school; and, since he and I could not get along, she decided I should leave. “Here’s twenty dollars,” she said, as she was shutting the door behind me. “Get some shoes.”
Oh, but the years of my childhood were much brighter. During my grade school years, Mother worked as a silk finisher in a dress factory called Lorch’s in downtown Dallas. I would go there sometimes after school, and we would eat supper at a nearby cafeteria. Afterwards, we would stop in a hole-in-the-wall book and magazine store. One could trade comics there — two of yours for one of theirs — or buy them outright. Mother might also buy me a book suitable for my age level. The place was full of real treats. Then, if Christmas was soon, we would stand in front of the Sanger Brothers department store and look at the mechanized Santa and his elves making their hammering motions amid the cotton snow.
Speaking of Santa, I played that role in our school’s second grade class play. Mother was a seamstress as well as a presser, so she made my red costume and pieced together a cotton beard for me. Since she had to work, however, she could not attend the play.
As for cooking, Mother did not have time to do much of that. Before she left for work, though, she would leave in the ice box an “egg nog” — just a mixture of milk and egg with perhaps some sugar or spice in it — for me to drink as breakfast. On Sundays, she always fried chicken and mashed potatoes that were tasty. She also made a mean peach or apricot fried pie. And one special treat was an ice box pie dish made with sweetened condensed milk and I don’t know what else; she placed small vanilla cookies around the edge. Neither of us could get enough of that.
Mother made most of my clothes during those years. Moreover, knowing what a fan I was of Gene Autry, either she or “Pappy” (as I called my father) bought me a leather chap and vest set. Another, related, gift was a guitar with Gene Autry’s signature printed on its body.
Once, when I had contracted measles and our apartment was quarantined, Mother brought me some children’s record albums: Erroll Flynn’s The Three Musketeers, Walt Disney’s Mickey and the Bean Stalk, a Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd story, and a Bozo the Clown record (which I could not stand, although I never told Mother that, because I have clown phobia). My playmate from across the street stuck his face up against our screen window one day and, when Mother warned him to stand further away or he might get measles, he said, “I want to get measles! I want some records, too!”
I cannot recall ever having any desire to help Mother in her struggle to make a living. I do remember one time when I saw her lying, fully clothed across her bed, counting a bunch of paper stubs. I asked her what she was doing. “Counting up my piece work earnings,” she said.
But, I did find some employment, first as an underage sacker in the local supermarket. One day soon after I got that job, I ran a basket into a poor lady’s heel and she yelped with pain. That same day I returned home with excruciating pain in my own feet because I had worn my Indian moccasins. I quit that job.
Next, I took up delivering the Dallas Times Herald to homes in our neighborhood. Those were the days when a boy could stretch his canvas bag, filled with rolled newspapers, over the front fender of his bicycle and then toss them into yards or onto porches as he rode down the street. The only bad aspects of such a job were trying to catch people at home so payment could be collected, and the size of the Sunday paper — about twice the size of the daily issues. Also, the Herald’s home delivery on Sunday was early in the morning: I needed Mother to get up about 4 a.m. and drive me around so I could throw the heavy papers. Naturally, that was a high price to pay on Mother’s part.
Still, although I was employed in those ways and in couple of others during my early teen years, I do not recall ever thinking, “I need to do this to help Mother.”
Mother had a bit of wanderlust in her…which I believe I have inherited. I am not sure why she was that way. I know she had a healthy family life during her own childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, even though she eloped with my father. During my fifteenth year, however, she took off by herself for Colorado. I do not know what she expected would become of me: that Pappy and my brothers would look after me, I suppose. She did retain ownership of her small house in Dallas, and I stayed there and in one brother’s apartment at different times.
Either at Mother’s urging or my own (again faulty memory here) I joined her in Colorado, where she was working as a cook in a Grand Lake café, up in the mountains. I worked as a dishwasher in the same café, but after a month or so I grew tired of it and wanted to return to Dallas. Mother, likewise, wanted to leave. However, she did not want to return to Dallas. “Here, Bobby,” she said at the bus station, handing me a ticket and some money, “I don’t want to go to Dallas. I’m going to Arizona.” Mother worked at a dude ranch near Phoenix for about a year, then she returned home.
That brings me back to where I started this reminiscence, where she met the new man in her life and kicked me out. She and her husband moved to California for a short while, then they returned to Dallas. Although I was largely out of Mother’s life by this time, we nevertheless stayed connected; during the last year of my high school career she sent me $50 a month from California, which I used to pay rent for a room.
I and my brothers all had our different problems with Mother, but we also recognized her many years of struggle to survive and the fact that she succeeded in doing so, if only on a very modest scale. We attended to her during the few days she was in the ICU unit at a hospital near her home. She died there in 1994, age 84. As she had requested, she was cremated just as Pappy and my two brothers have been…and as I wish to be. Now she and the others of my immediate family float around in my brain like gossamer that breaks when you try to grab it; all of them, ghosts.
Since Mother’s death, I have often chided myself for not having asked her some basic questions about our family history and psyches. It is strange how those questions can fail to appear until it is too late to get answers.