mama’s ways

Mama had a story for virtually everything she owned and she owned a lot, especially small trinkets – little dishes, interesting forks, sweet cups made from a variety of jars, and cloth napkins – such a variety of cloth napkins. She liked to call the trinkets “borrowed memories.”

She was a self-made success, but always said, “Ain’t nobody ever make themselves. Every person you meet, makes you, so mind your company.” Of course she’d never speak like that in public, but her country roots would reach out when we were cuddled on the couch with hot tea or snuggling close in bed with books and storytelling.

I knew from a young age that there was no love lost by the time my dad and she divorced, but they kept up what she called “good business relations” and, though she seemed to always be off to somewhere for work on the days I was not with her, she would finagle and negotiate to make sure she was rarely out of town when I was with her. Once I was in junior high, on the nights she expected to fly in late, there would be a knock on the door about 6:30 in the evening with a delivery of food already paid and generously tipped. Sometimes she would be on the other side of the knock, having scored an earlier surprise flight, dressed in simple, but elegant traveling clothes – arms open for a hug. On the surprise nights, we’d go get gorgeous salads at the vegetarian spot down the road. It was a place forgotten by time. The menu had barely changed since the 1970s. In the early 00s there was a kitchen fire and the original kitschy decor was updated to early 90s California beach cottage. Nothing moved very fast there – she said that’s why she liked it. It was the one place we had no trinket from – “It’s too much like home.”

Mama had rules about her collecting habit. Nothing with a price tag.

Nothing worth more than $10, except chain hotel accessories, because “chains are a racket.”

Nothing with an imprint. If you couldn’t recall the item’s story without a prompt it wasn’t memorable enough to add to the collection.

After her trips, we’d stay late giggling as she recounted the characters of her recent trip and stories about the piece or two she had found to add to our collections. I would share what was new in my circle of friends or parts of songs I was writing. I was enveloped in her warmth and the world didn’t need to be bigger. I knew there was pain and poverty in the world. Children going without, families fighting, and people being spiteful and small hearted. It was a world not too far away and every week I had a little bit of it in my life, but with Mama, that wasn’t her way.

She had struggled and fought and negotiated and built our world to reflect a simple warmth and grace. We had friends and strangers coming through to share meals and art nearly every week and sometimes a few times in a week. There was always enough food for another friend and she had never met a stranger. She told me, “There’s enough struggle and hard work waiting out there for you, no reason for me to teach you pain. From me, you have love and space and support.”

Work was rarely spoken of in any extended fashion, though she was up, dressed, and taking coffee in her office before I woke. She’d take a break to have breakfast with me and make my lunch, but as I was walked out the door she’d be shifting gears to handle a client’s call. Occasionally, she’d spew a rant of frustration over a particularly inefficient process or a difficult client she had to deal with, but would stop herself and apologize for bringing drudgery into our haven. I learned early not to ask for more. If I did her sweetness would clip itself and she’d nearly bark, “Just work! Why would I want to bore you or bring that office energy into our home?” Never mind the fact that she’d vented about it with great dramatic flair or that she was at work, in our home, by 6am every morning. After nearly every rant, a few days or a week would pass and she would bubble up over dinner, “Remember how angry I was about work stuff a while back?” She would never name the problem, just call it “work stuff” and say how she had “faced the fight,” or “fed them honey,” or simply “it’s amazing what a clear line of communication will solve.”

Her ability to manifest ideas and plans into reality was astonishing. She would make statements and objects would appear. One Christmas, we were to go out to our family’s land to help my grandmother decorate her home for the holidays. This included cutting down a tree and fighting it into a stand. It was an annual, dreaded saga for my Mama. My grandmother had a particularly ridiculous plan for her tree that year and about two hours before we were to leave Mama declared, “What we need; we need, a damn tree ready to go for her.” She then sent me to take the trash to the dumpster where I found a perfect 3’ tall tree, already in a stand. I gleefully brought it back inside and announced, “I found a tree!” She beamed at me and said, “Well, of course you did and it’s perfect.”

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