BY JOAN ROBERTSON
“I have lived in the back of a store and a basement: I can live anywhere.”
Mama left behind: Kirby Pines retirement community, her childhood friend Betty Jane, Daddy’s Strickland family, twin poodles Black and Blackie, Kimmie (dogwalker/caregiver/companion), church circle, all the places of the heart, fading in the background, as Deen and David drove her miles away from “home.”
Mama lived the first half of her nineties in a lockdown “memory care unit.” She acknowledged nothing amiss with herself except for the vagaries of the aging body. “The men are here because their wives wanted to get rid of them; they were just so ‘crazy.’” The women escaped general comment. They were a combination of screamers, sleepers, hall-walkers, or pleasant to sit beside at the seven long tables in the main room.
She took an instant disliking to a male nurse but later changed her mind. She resented a female “tech” who “talked back to her,” then left to battle cancer. Amy, mother’s angel, bonded with her that first night, by soothing her to sleep by reading scripture. Amy could jostle Mama out of a bad mood and arrange her hair “just so.” She learned the PROPER way to hang up Mama’s clothes, lay out tomorrow’s outfit, teaming with Deen, my younger sister, and anxious to please. Those two could repeat all Mama’s stories, verbatim, with the intonation and pregnant pauses of the emphatic storyteller that Mama was.
As a gracious hostess Mama kept the conversation going, offered her guests a real Coke (in a green-necked glass bottle) from her “doggie” cooler and a candy from the stash in the top drawer of her bureau. When you walked into her room, you knew it was HER room—not by the room number, or the horrid ID photo plastered outside the door or the seasonal wreath she insisted be hung, several weeks early. HER room had “Claudine” stamped all over it. For starters, she threatened she would move out (read angry outburst) if the staff didn’t remove the hospital curtains which encircle a bed for privacy. Who cares if it is mandated by public health? This was her private room; she paid for it and would furnish it according to her own taste. Away with the blank, black box on the wall staring down at her bed. No TV or electrical panel could remain. How unsightly!
The institutional bedspread would not do. Bring from home the white nylon quilted-top bedspread, with frilly layered side panels; her baby pillow in an embroidered pillow case; a favourite blanket. Above the bed hung a painting of bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, her own creation, a reminder of her birthplace. A purple knitted prayer shawl from the Germantown United Methodist Women was draped over the wheelchair. Beside her bed stood a mahogany chest. Propped on the glass top, a photo of her mother holding her when she was five months old before mother and child knew that the tall, dark, handsome, WWI soldier, husband and father would never hold his baby daughter in his arms. Claude was killed a week before the Armistice. He carried a copy of this photo tucked inside a shirt pocket, placed over his heart. A large framed photo of Claude in uniform, standing forever erect and young, watches over his namesake, Claudine.
On the wall above, there was a shadow-box frame displaying an antique ivory- handled ink pen, given by Claude to the love of his life, Blanche, mother of Claudine. The only gift Claude ever gave his bride as he left for the front. But then again, he gave us Mama!
In front of the windows overlooking a closed-in green space was the French provincial white sofa, bedecked with a white stuffed furry kitten (she paid $35.00 for it, so DON’T. . . sit on it). A small hexagonal coffee table with a marble top required a daily adjustment of a quarter of an inch here or there, at her command.
On the window sill were treasured photographs: my Daddy Leslie who died suddenly at age 51, seen in a church directory photo with Mama and Deen taken just a few weeks before he passed. The twinkle in Daddy’s eyes was absent but his smile keeps pleasing after all these years. A photo of mother with second husband, Howard, dancing at a grandchild’s wedding. Almost twenty-five years with each adored husband, yet nothing can replace that “first love” as both mother and child knew so well. A snapshot of mother, with her miniature black poodles, Black and Blackie, cuddled under each arm. When widowed the second time, she told me: “They give me a reason to get up every morning. You know my two favourite things are pets and babies.” Yes, I thought because they don’t talk back – like I did as a teenager.
Out the window hanging from an oak tree branch was a shiny mandala, twirling in the slightest breeze. It was customary to turn around and pay attention to the sunlight’s dance upon the colours and comment several times during the visit. Near the entry door were photos of the grandchildren (five) and great-grandchildren (eight)…and children’s hand-made pictures for “Mum-Mum.” About the door: Mama claimed her eyesight was failing but her radar for fingerprints never failed. The call for service beckoned.
Hanging on the wall above the “grands” gallery was a large framed sepia photo of an imposing three-storey stone house.
In the shadow of WWII, while my Daddy was in service, Mama and I, an infant, lived with my maternal grandmother, Nannie, in the backroom of a dress shop named after my mother, Claudine’s Dress Shop. There were no windows, only a screen door with a hook latch which opened into the alley to let fresh air in at night. Due to my frequent bouts with childhood diseases – chicken pox, measles – Nannie had to close the store and post a “Quarantined” sign. Without consulting my mother, Nannie went to the bank and announced that she had bought a big house with many rooms on Vinton Avenue. Mama almost fainted: “We can’t afford a house that big” and Nannie exclaimed: “CLAUDINE, we can’t afford a small one!”
With dimes, Nannie made a down payment. With the certitude of her “still small voice” she communicated to the banker that housing was at a premium in Memphis, that young women flocked to Memphis to be near their sweethearts in Millington, a nearby military base, and rental housing was the answer. She would be landlady and Joan would have a home.
On our last visit, our son, Mark, accompanied us, to Mama’s delight. Entering her room, we embraced each other with hugs and kisses. “Ohh Joan, Ohh John, Ohh, Mark,” and tears of joy would flow. We did all the usual things: barbeque at the home of my niece, with Deen’s grandchildren running all over in glee, leaving the lockdown unit to wheel Mama down to eat in the white-table-cloth dining hall, visiting in her room, listening to the same stories told as if for the first time. Taking her out for chicken n’ dumplings; rolling her out into the courtyard to see the leaves turn, watch the birds and feel the autumn breeze.
We took leave of Mama for a few days driving to Memphis. Before we left, we asked her if there was anything she needed.“Yes, I need colouring books, a set of watercolours, and markers. I want to paint in MY room alone.” Deen remarked: “She has never asked to do this before.” “ Crafts were for ‘first-graders’ “was Mother’s initial response to craft time. Later, as she warmed to the idea, she kept the coordinator busy with her projects. Mama was full of surprises. She painted blue birds and yellow birds and exclaimed how bright the colours were. Her senses seemed heightened, and her pleasure in creating was evident. When we returned she said: “It was so lonely when you all left.” She wanted us to notice her bulletin board hanging on the wall behind the door.
As we bade farewell to return to Canada, I had a deep sense of peace as we encircled Mama, holding hands in prayer. I planted no seeds of promise for a spring return, as the farewell was more in keeping with harvest. She shared her mantra: ”through laughter and tears, I’ve had a wonderful life.” “I love you” whispered across the room.
I can still see the image of her shadowed profile against the natural light of the window as we turned to go. She did not look after us but stared straight ahead.
There was no sadness leaving her. Was I letting go, accepting her impending death coupled with a sense that she too shared that unspoken acceptance? And yet weeks later when the phone rang, I was unprepared to hear these words: “Your mother died this morning.”
I understood backwards. We had asked her when we returned from Memphis,” Do you want more paints?” Mama had declared: “No, it is finished. ”Her farewell message was on that bulletin board. There were BIRDS – blue birds, yellow birds – about to take flight.
I was four years old again, playing the 78 RPM record for the umpteenth time with Mama nearby.
“Zippity-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay , my oh, my what a wonderful day. Plenty of sunshine. Plenty of rain, Zippity-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay.”
“Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder”—the bluebird of happiness, that ancient symbol of cheer and hope.
And Judy Garland singing: “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly—if happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, then why, oh why can’t I?”
Multicoloured thumb tacks secured the word ENTHUSIASM, in large, cut-out letters pinned with precision on an upward angle. Did she know herself to be possessed by God’s essence, inspired? Was this the key to her approach to life? Enthusiasm: a positive feeling of wanting to push ahead with something.
Mother’s last act on this earth was to roll her wheelchair down to the nurses’ station. “Why is the TV moved out of our main room? There are seven tables of us folks who watch that TV everyday. No, I don’t want a TV in my room! I want to be with my friends.” Armoured in her red Christmas cardigan sweater, adorned with her poodles, Black and Blackie, she protested, and her heart just stopped beating.
Joan Robertson: A Tennessee gal marries a Texas guy and lives happily in SOUTHERN Ontario. The church and university have shaped her life– as a woman, wife, mother, grandmother and proud Canadian!
As an educator and retired United Church of Canada minister, Joan is learning to hone her writing skills thanks to a fast– writing group and the encouragement of a memoir writing group – “Wild Pearls”.
Joan is a 2015 SHORT WORKS PRIZE winner: The Gillett Prize for writing.