Once, in kindergarten, I drew a crayon picture of me with my parents. I was small, as I should be at 5. In the drawing, Daddy was a little taller than me. He looked like he could be my brother. Mama towered over both of us, hands on hips, like a stick-figure Amazon woman.
It could have meant that Mama was more important to me. But I think that by drawing her that large, I was showing her inner strength—and the power she had over our family.
Larger than life, in black and white
If you plotted Mama’s life on a map, the area would be a circle of not quite 8 miles in diameter. She was born in the same Pacific Northwest town she died in, in a house just three miles from the cemetery where she now rests. But though she was disinclined to stray very far in a physical sense, as I got older, she took great delight in helping me see beyond my home, school and neighborhood: discussing politics, religion and philosophy, asking me questions to make me think and even playing devil’s advocate to get me to defend my position.
And yet for all of that, she saw her own world in black and white. Mixed feelings were not possible for her. You were a friend or you were an enemy. You were right or you were wrong. You were going to heaven or The Other Place, which, like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, she couldn’t even name. She called it “H-E-double hockey sticks.”
As a child, I learned that Mama’s rule was never questioned. I also knew to pay close attention to her moods because they could change without notice. Though most kids learn to postpone a special request until their parent is in a good mood, my radar was far more sensitive than that. I avoided her entirely when she had a case of “the nerves,” as Daddy explained it, heading straight for my room—or farther away, to the woods beyond our house.
Daddy summed it up perfectly one day when he said,
“If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
A walking contradiction
They say that the best characters in a novel or memoir provide contrast, conflict and contradictions. Mama was all three. Her religion—and by extension, ours— said it was wrong for a girl to go to a dance, watch a movie or kiss a boy. Yet guns were okay and even necessary, to fend off intruders— and the government, if they tried to take away our rights.
So, while Mama sent me outside to weed the garden as punishment for seeing Goldfinger, the latest James Bond movie, she found it morally acceptable to shoot intruders with a gun or defend the government’s right to execute people.
Having come of age in the Great Depression, she worshipped Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a three-term Democrat. He was a savior to her, watching out for the common people, getting everyone back to work like he did. In fact, a large portrait of FDR occupied a place of honor on our living room wall, black crepe paper still hung around the frame as if he had died just yesterday.
And yet, she voted for Richard Nixon in 1960 because JFK, though he was a Democrat, was Catholic, which in Mama’e eyes, made him too dangerous a person to occupy the White House. I never quite understood it, but it was something about not letting the Pope call the shots.
In writing a book, it is important not to make one of the supporting characters so interesting that she takes the spotlight away from the main character. This is a challenge as I write my memoir, Out Tonight, because Mama could take up most of the space in a room. She shaped my values and worldview early on, which created conflict for me later when a huge life event of my own forced me to rethink everything I thought I knew about love and life. In the end, I am forced to decide which set of values are really mine.
Happy birthday, Mama
Mama was a remarkable person: bright, conflicted, and stubborn, but underneath that was a steely strength and determination to overcome the emotionally devastating events of her childhood. And, yes, she was a master storyteller.
Mama would have been 89 today.
Happy birthday, Mama. May I tell your story—our story— as well as you would have.