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Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother's Day Offering

About a week before my mother died, we were sitting in a catfish restaurant in my hometown of Athens, Alabama. We'd been cooped up together in a motel for more than a week, talking philosophy and waiting for her room at a local nursing home to be ready for her. As we'd said everything we could think of, there was a lull in the conversation.

"I know how many bricks are in the wall behind you," she abruptly spat.

"Excuse me?" I said, bewildered.

"I know how many bricks are in the wall behind you," she repeated. "I also know how many checks are on the tablecloth."

"Okay," I said. I didn't know what else to say.

"638," she said. "That's how many checks."

"Okay," I said again, still stunned.

"I can figure it out," she said. "It's not like Rain Man. If you spill the toothpicks I don't have a clue. But I can work with patterns."

"I can see that," I said.

My mother was a genius, and totally batshit. She was born and raised in the tiny town of Ringgold, Georgia. Her mother - my grandmother - was a typical Appalachian housewife, and despite the weeks and weeks I stayed with her in the summers of my youth I hardly know anything about her. Her name was Georgia Arizona Corey. She could quilt, make biscuits, and believed in Jesus. She married Robert Emmitt Stapp, who did odd jobs and worked in feed stores and tinkered with small engines and didn't like black people. My mother's upbringing was, to say the least, culturally limited.

My mother was the valedictorian of her tiny local high school, and being such she won a scholarship to college. Her father wouldn't let her go. Women were meant to stay home and cook and clean and make babies and believe in Jesus and not like black people.

I have no idea how she and my father met. He was from nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee; I can only assume it was at some tame provincial social affair, or they were introduced by some mutual friend. Dad was in the air force - so he was a ticket the hell out of there.

Dad was stationed to Fairbanks, Alaska when Alaska was still a territory, and I once found the first letter my mother wrote home after she got there. Here's the first paragraph: "Dear Mom. I finally got here! I thought I'd never make it! There's lots of Eskimos and they sure are ugly!"

When my father got out of the Air Force he was hired to work at the Pentagon as a civilian aerial photo interpreter (he was one of the first people to see the photos of the Soviet missiles in Cuba that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis). Once, when they were out shopping, Dad had to drag mom out of a swank Washington D.C. department store because she'd threatened to beat up a lady for wearing high heels with pants.

I was her third child and the only survivor. I always knew I'd had an older brother that only lived three days, but I hadn't known until a year or two ago (my aunt told me) that I'd had an even older sibling that was stillborn. My aunt also told me that mom wanted me so bad that she had herself sewn shut to hold me in 'til I was ready to face the world. Blew my mind. I was born on September 28, 1965; that was also my mother's birthday. She always got me way better gifts than I got her.

I was heavily sheltered and heavily spoiled. I had tons of stuff. I had so many "G.I. Joes" I could have single-handedly invaded Sierra Leone. I had robots and spacemen and knights-in-shining-armor. I had more books that you could possibly imagine. (She abhorred it when I read comic books instead of "real" books.) I had little white three-piece suits that made me look like a miniature snake-handling preacher. My hair was always perfect, and short. I had piano lessons, and swimming lessons. I was smothered in bacon and hamburgers and "yellow cakes with green frosting" (Who knows? I always asked for them. I always got 'em).

Once, when I was four or five years old and she'd been away for a few days, she asked me when she got home if I'd missed her, and I said "No." It crushes me now to think how that must have broken her heart.

Mom was obsessive-compulsive in the days when you didn't even talk about "mental illness" much less actually get any help. She hoarded cat food cans and grease-soaked paper towels and check stubs (the day before she died she could have shown you her tax records from 1947, if she could have found them under all the cat food cans) and old Sears catalogs and shoes and rotten garden hoses and wads of stained aluminum foil and flyswatters. One early November when I was about ten, she "borrowed" my plastic Halloween jack o'lantern candy bucket "for a few days" so that she could drain the dregs out of a shampoo bottle into it. When she died, it was still on the floor behind the toilet.

Mom got breast cancer when I was 11 years old. This was in the days when almost nobody survived, and in Alabama to boot. The doctors told my dad he'd better get ready to raise me himself. She outlived him.

Mom had my whole life planned and I didn't follow the program. She always told me that the Army wouldn't suit me and I went and got an ROTC scholarship anyway. When I realized my mistake and managed to extract myself from the military so that I could play guitar for a living, she called me a "quitter." I was supposed to marry some pom-pom girl with a baby-blue ribbon in her hair and a Laura Ashley dress and we'd have twin boys named "Corey" and "Kelly." It must have been an ugly shock when I showed up with an ex-hippie artist fourteen years my senior with a ten-year-old daughter in tow.

Mom and dad's dreams didn't come true. I don't know why. They just fell apart. I barely remember screaming at them to stop screaming at each other, then I got caught up in the clothesline. Dad waited until I was eighteen to file for divorce, so they wouldn't be able to fight over me. That was nice of him. Then the stresses of the divorce and mom's incessant fighting over her "rights" and her "stuff" plus the pain of loving another married woman who couldn't return his love without destroying her family got to him and he got colon cancer and died. When I told mom he was gone, she started crying and I was too clueless to understand why. That's how nasty it had been.

Mom checked herself into the nursing home. She'd fought the cancer for almost eighteen years and probably knew the party was about over but she said it was "just for rehab" until she could get herself together. I went back home to help her out in that last couple of weeks when she broke the news about her literally mind-boggling mathematical abilities. After she got settled, I came back to New Mexico for a week or so. I got a call that she was "not good" and we were driving all night to get back to Alabama when I stopped to call and check on her. She was gone. Some of her friends who were just as crazy and a lot more mean-spirited than she didn't want me to come to the funeral but I sat in the back anyway. She donated her body to science, which is pretty cool considering she survived stage four breast cancer for eighteen years. There's no grave.

Given how she was denied every single damn thing that would have fulfilled her, I can understand why she lost her mind. I understand why she had to hold on to all that stuff, since the cosmos wouldn't let her hold on to much of anything else. I wish we'd gotten along better. I probably should have been nicer about it. I guess when I argued for my own fulfillment all she could see was the long line of crushing denials in her life, and that would probably get under a person's skin. Maybe if she'd fought even harder and lived a little longer we could have seen eye-to-eye, but she obviously couldn't wait forever for me to get Zen about it all.

Hers was a hard-fought life, and if I'm even remotely honest, I'm still not sure that I truly miss her, just like when I was four or five. She was a tough person to take, especially on a daily basis; though I know she dearly loved me, it was pretty hard to breathe in there and her love came at a price. Still, every time I examine my own obsessions and compulsions I have her to thank for who I am, good and bad. My books, my strange housekeeping habits, my love of cats, and even my own art are all traceable back to her. I wrote this song for her years ago, and even though she hated my singing I'm glad she got to hear it (though I never told her it was about her):

AFRAID OF RAIN         by Chipper Thompson

Don't be scared to look out your picture window the sparrows ain't afraid of rain
The flowers and the trees neither sow nor reap, it's alright to release your pain
Lift up your eyes unto the hills from whence cometh your strength
I know a little fear may always remain but there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

You used to always make me wash my hands all the time when I was a child
But you ain't washed your hands in the last twenty years ain't it time to leave this dirt behind
You got so much trouble bottled up inside, an' you're heavy-laden with all that pride
The flood can wash away the corruption in your veins so there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

Well, we both know what makes your garden grow so let's get rid of all of these weeds
The music in your soul is worth a pot of gold so open you mouth and sing
Now it's okay if you prefer the sun, but when clouds come try not to run
If you always hide you'll never break your chains an' there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

Lord, I know that you're tired of hurting so lay down an' rest your weary head
The misty Blue Ridge Mountains open their arms so lay down and make the hills your bed
You will be delivered from the gathering storm and the hollers an' trees will keep you warm
Look around you, child, ain't no need to complain an' there ain't no need to be afraid of rain 

Dorothy Louise Stapp Thompson
September 28, 1925(?) - September 20, 1994

I love you Mom, just the way you are.
Happy Mother's Day

P.S. I finally got the pom-pom girl!


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