On Saturday I woke up and realized that it was my Mother's birthday. Of course I had known that before that morning, but the busy week had let it slip from my mind. When it came back to me, I took a few moments to just think about her. I spent a little more time than usual to consider how old she would be if she were still alive and what she might be doing. I guess I've done that before, but maybe I've not given myself the time to really let it sink in. On Saturday I did. I thought about how it had been twenty one years since I last saw my Mom and I thanked God that most days I can still hear her laugh in my head. Twenty one years is a long time. A long time when you consider all that happens in lifetimes in twenty one years.
I did the math and realized that my mother would have been seventy three on Saturday and thought about how different that is from fifty two. It was a lot to think about. My sister and I, and all of my Mom's friends and family, have done a lot of things since we've seen her. A lot has happened. Of course I've kept her posted and I have a strong sense that she knows the good stuff, the way we all are doing.
I thought about devoting the blog this week to her and I instantly liked the idea. And then I had a little laugh - my Mom never knew about blogs. She was such a writer, I'm sure she would have one today if she were still here! I can just imagine all of the stories she would tell, all of the ways that she would have us all en-rapt and laughing and crying and thinking.
Maybe her story-telling is what I'll tell you most about. There is lots to say about Mary George Dean Murphy; but if I had to describe her in one word, there is no doubt that the word would be storyteller.
I have a sense that those of you who knew her are nodding your heads right about now.
This week I want to tell you some of her stories, and let her tell you some. I want to tell you about how hilarious she was, what a devoted and life-changing teacher she was and I want to tell you about her bravery. I don't want to make her perfect. That would not be fair. I won't tell you that we got along perfectly in all of our twenty seven years together or that my Mom's life was full of bliss. No one's life is perfect and that wouldn't do justice to the many layers that were her life. I remember a conversation I had with my good friend and priest, Martha, just after Mom died. Martha gave me insight about remembering my Mom and she urged me not to do the 'easy thing' and make her perfect in death. That was good advice. Lives are too full of too many different things, and sweeping the hard stuff under the table seems too much like erasing part of the life. My Mom's life was wonderful and hard and complex and interesting and rich and so much more. I can't tell that story in one week, but it will be fun to try. Thanks for coming along on the ride.
I've read that blog posts should be short and concise - excuse me, as I ignore that rule. Today I want to let my Mom tell a story. I want you to meet her (or reunite with her) with her as narrator. Narrator was a role she liked!
Like me, my mother had close relationships with both of her grandmothers and they meant a great deal to her. She often told me about all that she learned from each of them, different things that made her life richer and wiser. Mama Jones, her mother's mother lived in the country and Mama Dean, her father's mother, lived in the city. They couldn't have been any more different.
Mama Dean (the town grandmother) and Mama Jones (the country grandmother)
I knew Mama Dean (the one from the city) and loved her. If I could do her justice, I would write a book about her. She was larger than life and left us with boocoos (did you get that flashback to an earlier post?) of stories. Mom never got to write her story about Mama Dean, and she wanted to. She told me often that she was attempting to come up with the right story, the one that would paint a picture of Mama Dean. She had figured out how to illustrate Mama Jones, but she was working on what to say about her other grandmother.
So, this story is about Mama Jones, her country grandmother. When I came into the picture, Mama Jones was a tiny woman, quiet and very old. My mother could make me see what she had been in life, but I did not witness it myself. My mother told me some of her magic, and I've always been grateful to have this story.
It's long, but I hope you'll find time to read it. I think you'll enjoy it. I imagine that it can be a fun respite from this world to take a few moments and read about another time. Maybe you can wonder about some of the folks in your family who lived before.
Enjoy this gift from my Mom . . .
I stood by her tombstone again after thirty years and remembered how she lay, for months before she died, a tiny ashen husk coiled in the center of the antiseptic white bed of the nursing home. Of course, I knew even then that by her magic she had already gone because I had watched her as she gradually left, and though I didn't understand how, as I never understood how she worked her magic, I knew she had earlier disengaged herself from the body, and it had shriveled up around the vacuum that was left. Now I stood with my two daughters to show them where the husk had been returned to the earth.
We found the grave easily by working out from the whitewashed Primitive Baptist Church into the layers of the cemetery and into the generations of the Joneses like working outward in the ridged trunk of a hardwood from the core. Of course, the oldest layers of the family of Joneses, Dekles and Lees, who intermarried for generations, have no remaining markers, except in pen and ink, which record, along with its share of infamies, several Revolutionary Soldiers. But here at Rosemary Church lay the graves of the Joneses she knew firsthand. Her own Lees and Dekles were buried at the Lake Church, but as a young girl she left that piano-playing Primitive Baptist Church to be counted with her husband's people at Rosemary, the bastion of no-instrument singing and foot washing. Here, the oldest graves of the first layer, nearest the church, marked the lives of Papa Jones's grandparents and the second layer his parents, whom I knew only from old pictures, old stories, and the oldest homeplace, across the branch from Mama Jones's. And in the third layer, we found her grave between the decades-earlier graves of her husband and her son. I missed something I could not name because I did not have it: I wanted a satisfying remnant of her magic.
I hoped to find what I was looking for at the farm I knew to be down a winding washboard dirt road from the church. I insisted on following the old road, insulted that a highway now sliced through the country side, splitting the oldest Jones homeplace from the farmlands Papa Jones's father had given his children. The division of the big Jones farm into smaller Jones farms had never really been a division because it was family: at each farm a brother and his family lived and worked the land, knowing his brothers and sisters and their families surrounded him and his. Now most of the Jones farms had been purchased by newcomers to the land, disconnected from its heritage. Mama Jones's generation, the last to know this unity of family, blessed me with a taste of it in the summers of my childhood, as my parents' generation created lives for themselves away from the farm. My mother, the oldest of Mama Jones's children, went away to school to "finish" and was finished with the farm as well. But she wasn't so finished with it that she didn't develop her own town yard into a legacy of love for the farm and take me back every summer to stay with Mama Jones. I treasured my farm summers because they lived and breathed all the magic my town life never knew.
On this mid-life journey back to childhood, I ached to recapture the magic. The little road from the church too quickly passed the empty little building known simply in my childhood as "the store," where Uncle Bill took me every afternoon for a Red Rock Cola and some talk that still fascinates me even in memory. Unless, of course, he had hands in the field picking cotton or all the tenant families had gathered for a day of putting-in-tobacco. Then I, with my personal pint Mason jar of tea, got to drive the mule-drawn tobacco sled into the fields and take Mama Jones's iced tea to the hands. But on this day of adult anticipation, the distance from the store to the Jones farms, which I remembered as a trip of distance, had shrunk, and the oldest remaining Jones homeplace, Papa Jones's birthplace, was immediately upon us. Basking in my cousin's restoration of the old house for his week-end retreat, I prepared my daughters that when we crossed what I remembered as the mysterious "branch," we would be at Mama Jones's farm, which my mother and her sisters had long since sold to the Hunnicutt neighbor. But the branch was hardly a slope in the land, and immediately on the other side, the highway ripped through my sensibilities as disrespectfully as it ripped through the Jones land, interrupting with a jar the quiet isolation and nestled quality of the farm, which had defined it as a separate state of mind as well as a separate place in the experience of my childhood. I knew Mama Jones could never have lived here like this and was thankful that she left before it happened.
On the other side of the highway, the land rose slightly again as the little dirt road divided the fields, now strewn with irrigation rigs, foreign again to my memory. By contrast, I was immediately back again with Mama Jones and Uncle Bill on the side porch watching, listening to, and smelling a deluge of rain, sheeting from the porch roof, ending a drought which had threatened the year's crop. Here I learned, as I had no way of learning in town, our vital connection to nature. We sat for hours, Mama Jones "thanking the Lord" and Bill laughing about the rain. Uncle John drove over and ran onto the porch to see what they thought about the rain, and they laughed some more. Uncle Math soon joined us, and they thanked and laughed some more. Totally enraptured with their experience of the gift of rain, I went with the men to "the store" to see 'what they think about this rain.' If they had not kept the door to the store open to watch the rain, the joy would have burst the little building. I wasn't fool enough to mention that in town I had always dreaded rain because it made me stay inside. These people knew, even as my parents and town grandmother did not know, rain's real beauty and power. Now, I pitied the present farmer Hunnicutt in his big new air-conditioned porchless house on the highway, with his push-button irrigation: when it rains, there's nothing God-sent to relish and celebrate.
At the top of the rise in the land, the little road still widened somewhat to become what we called "the lane," and the trees had been left, now nested around spaces where the house and other buildings of my childhood once stood. From one side of the lane, the barns and all their animal mysteries had been sucked away: from the other side, the house, wrapped on three sides with porches and connected with tendril paths to its out-buildings, likewise was sucked away. Getting out of the car, I wondered when I first learned that the word lane was a common noun that other people need too and not the very unique name of this widened spot in Mama Jones's little road. I could not reconcile my memory of the hugeness of the house and the yards with these small spaces and was forced to entertain the idea that perhaps the distances and spaces of my childhood on the farm were partially impressionistic because, indeed, these very trees, still in their remembered patterns, proved the scale was not exceptional. Across one side of the house, invisible now to everyone except me, the fruit trees were in reality still bearing their fruit. Something forced me to pick a few green figs and pears. Now, at last I could envision Mama Jones again in her robust years, her ruddy round face crowned with crisscrossing braids, her apron chicken-blood-smeared. In my mind, I followed her off the back porch, past the smoke-house, almost to the wash-house, and there, next to where the black iron wash-pot had smoked from its wood fire underneath, imagination solidified in the preserved brick and mortar sides of the backyard well. Pulling back the weeds, we read the signed-in-mortar name of the relative who must have built it. The girls were polite at my unexplained lingering.
She and this place were part of each other during the years when her stout soul filled her stout body and her magic dazzled me every June. She had to be magic because she never went to the grocery store, which even my town school teacher grandmother had to do. Mama Jones was above all that - she just worked her sleight of hand. Sleepy though I was, I could not resist the mysteries she performed at daybreak: at the barn, seductively charming her house cow into filling her pail with the day's milk and, at the chicken coup, slipping up under the hens to pull eggs out of nowhere. Detouring by the strawberry garden on the way back to the house, we added dew-twinkling strawberries to the eggs in her apron. At the smoke-house, she sliced off a chunk of bacon and handed it to me to carry. Laden down with our prizes, we arrived at the back kitchen section of the house, and, in just a few more tricks, we sat down to bacon, grits, and eggs, topped off with biscuits and syrup I had just days before watched her get from sugar cane by walking a mule around and around in a circle. My breakfast drink was fresh pink pulpy strawberry milk. Mama Jones didn't have to buy food: she just conjured it up.
Right after breakfast, she put on her print flour sack fabric sun bonnet and I my straw hat, and we picked vegetables from the garden for dinner, always at noon. She terrorized me with her morning sorcery of ringing the chicken's neck: and later at dinner, which, along with meat from the smokehouse, always included either chicken-and-dumplings or fried chicken. I pretended I didn't know what she had done. Immediately after dinner, she bedded me down for a nap because "I would get polio if I didn't rest on hot days," and I yielded because, even though I had been given the town doctor's sugar cube, I was convinced she understood polio in a way he never did.
Enduring the nap meant fishing at the pond. Near the pond, she bent to pick a watermelon and roll it into the muddy water. After we caught our supper, and we always did, I took the fish, and she took the watermelon back to the house. But at the pond, she stupefied me with psychic predictions. Once as I mimicked Bill's rod and reel style with my pole and line, she said simply, "You are going to get the fish hook caught in your finger." When I did, it confirmed my notion that she sensed everything. Another day, she snapped me up and said, "Run up to the house if you want to go to the store with Bill because he'll be home from the tobacco market by the time you get there, and he won't want to wait." Dashing as fast as I could, I wasn't the least surprised to hear him blow the horn just as I rounded the house. I accepted without even its due mystique her telepathy for Bill's coming home from town, but I was stunned the afternoon she said, "Run to the house fast and wash your face and hands good before your mama and daddy get there, and don't talk like the tenants or your daddy won't let you stay another week." They arrived just as I wiped my face dry. Now, Bill just came from Metter, but how could she know about people coming two hours from Douglas? Years later, my mother tried to explain to me that Mama Jones was so in tune to the quietness of the place that she could hear an automobile as soon as it turned down her little road a mile away from the pond at Uncle Math's in one direction or "the store" in the other direction, and knowing no one came on that road unless they were coming to her house, she was always ready for the one she expected before he got to the house. But I knew she was simply magic: it couldn't be explained.
While I spent most days with Mama Jones, my brother spent them with Bill, and I joined them late in the afternoon to go for the Red Rock Cola at the store. If our cousins were also visiting, Bill always found a late afternoon adventure for the "biggest" girls and the two boys, sometimes swimming at Jones Bridge. At "first-dark," Bill would throw us a bar of soap, saying, "Maybe Mama Jones won't make you bathe at home." Usually she did, but occasionally she let us slide, warning me not to tell my daddy.
My Mom and her brother, Grady (Grady and his wife, June, retired and moved back to the area where June grew up and where Mama Jones' farm was)
At supper, always at "dark-thirty," I couldn't drink strawberry or nutmeg milk because "if you mix milk and fish you will become deathly sick." I certainly never tried it even at home in town because I knew she knew. While she fried the fish, Bill would take some of the fried corn meal patties she fried with the fish and throw them out to the dogs, yelling my benefit, "Hush, Puppy!" Later, I was amazed that other people also called these hushpuppies. For the last trick of the night before she tucked me into a feather bed, the magician materialized a cobbler of fruit, only this afternoon hanging from trees in the side orchard, topped with cream I had watched her get from a cow.
. . . . . With my figs and pears from another life, I felt unjustified standing any longer at the well, and I loaded my daughters of my present life into the car and left again catching a glimpse high in a tree of one climbing orange ell-shaped flower, a 30 ear perennial from those that had grown up the porch posts, gatherings of color and sound, hummingbirds hovering around. We left by taking the little road in the direction opposite our coming and passed the pond. Thank God Mr. Hunnicutt kept it. Near it, a tenant house, not immaculately vacuumed away, tumbled in of its own accord, and a distinct smell from the mingling of past winters' smoke embedded in the pine walls and the sweat of the tenants' work, came back to me as I drove away from the arm.
I knew exactly when Mama Jones began to disengage herself from her body -- when my mother and her sisters moved her from this farm. In the few years she lived in their homes, I watched her spirit gradually withdraw and her body shrivel in its absence. When she became blind and could no longer mover of her own accord, I knew that there was nothing she wanted see and nowhere she wanted to go and that she had simply abandoned the trappings and escaped. The little shriveled shell in the last months at the nursing home showed no sign of her essence at all: she simply was not there. This farm was the only place she had been completely present.
Mama Jones and Papa Jones on their honeymoon on Tybee Island
I drove on by way of Jones bridge, remembering that she told me Papa Jones had stopped the horse and buggy here after their wedding, on the way to their home, which he had built and prepared for her, and asked if he might presume to kiss her now that they were man and wife. Now, at this point, the new highway had taken in the little road, and a new "Jones Bridge" sign marked the new impersonal concrete bridge. Happy that the name had been preserved, I thought again of the little well still standing and prayed that Mr. Hunnicutt would let it stand.