You probably don’t know my mama. But I kind of wish you did. Mama retired from her job last week. She recently turned seventy-five, and is very anxious about starting this new chapter in her life. Mama has always been nervous about change. And this is a huge change, so it is understandable.
Mama’s department at work held a retirement party for her and gave her a plaque and a watch. Mama had been looking forward to the party since she first decided to retire. She had even picked out what she was gonna wear a couple of months ago. She looked pretty – she has always looked good in purple. I attended her party and, as I looked around at the people expressing their good wishes, I couldn’t help but think that they don’t know mama like I do. Some of them only know her from working with her the last few years. And there is so much more to her than what they may see now – this woman at seventy-five.
I have always loved my mama, but until the last few years, she and I weren’t very close. I had always been a daddy’s girl. As bad as I know it sounds, I was proud of the fact that I was more like my daddy than like her. But as I’m getting older, I’m starting to look at things differently. I don’t ever remember mama singing or dancing or being silly. That was daddy. But as I think back over mama’s life so far, I realize I would be lucky to have some of the strengths she has.
Mama lost her mother when she was eighteen, and left the cotton fields of Tennessee right out of high school to work as a secretary for the FBI in Washington, D.C. She fell in love and married my daddy, even though they had only known each other a couple of months. She lived first in Virginia and then in Florida while daddy was still in the navy so she could see him when the aircraft carrier he served on came to port. She didn’t know anyone, was away from her family and friends, and spent her days basically trying to survive and waiting for daddy’s ship to come home.
Mama and daddy lived first in Texas and then in Tennessee once daddy got out of the navy. They tried to have children and she had two miscarriages before finally having twins. She has said that God gave her two babies for the two that she lost. Daddy struggled finding a job, and there were times that mama didn’t eat all day so that she could feed us. She said the house she and daddy lived in when we were little didn’t have any heat. She would bundle my brother and I up and walk us down the road to her sister’s house to play during the day because Aunt Willie Mae’s house had a heater. She said we just snuggled under quilts at night to keep warm.
Daddy found a job delivering milk and things got a little better. When I was three, I remember going to my granddaddy’s farm with mama to pick cotton. She was pregnant with my little brother. My twin brother and I started out thinking it was fun to pick cotton. But it didn’t take long before the cotton bolls started hurting our hands, and we started whining and crying. Mama ended up dragging us on the cotton sack down the rows while she continued to pick cotton. Six months pregnant. I can’t even imagine.
A few years later, daddy moved our family back to Texas. Once again, mama found herself away from all her friends and family. But she made the best of it. She and daddy made new friends at church, and things were good. They were happy. At least for many years.
It came as a shock when daddy had an affair with mama’s best friend and left. Mama went to church one Sunday morning. Daddy said he didn’t feel well and was going to stay home. Mama came back from church to find daddy gone. He had left a note. She had no idea – didn’t see it coming. She lost her husband and her best friend at the same moment. I was married, pregnant, and living in Dallas at the time. I wasn’t sure that mama was going to make it. There were many times when she wasn’t sure that she was going to make it. And yet she survived.
Mama had stayed home to raise her children while she was married to daddy. Only my little brother was still living at home when daddy left. Mama ended up working three jobs to get by. Probably as much because she didn’t know what to do with herself as because she needed the money. It was a way to take her mind off of things.
Many years passed, but mama fell in love again and got married. She and James celebrated their one-year anniversary the year that he died. They had worked together. James came into her office to give her a kiss and said he would see her at lunch. He walked out to the back dock of the building and died. That was it. No warning at all. All of a sudden, the man she loved was gone. Mama stayed with me for a while after that – she didn’t want to be by herself. Taylor Belle was a baby at the time, and mama spent hours laying in the floor with her and reading her books. And mama got through it in time. Not over it, but through it. To this day, she still goes out to James’ grave to take flowers, pull weeds and keep it looking nice.
While I was growing up, it seemed like mama was always on one kind of a diet or another. After James died, she found comfort in food and gained a lot of weight. To the point that it wasn’t healthy. As the years went by, she decided that she didn’t want to be overweight any longer. So she joined Weight Watchers and started walking every day. She lost over one hundred pounds. Today, she is still walking, although her pace is much slower, but she has kept the weight off. It’s now hard to imagine that she ever weighed so much.
Mama got married again a few years after James died. It is not the same kind of love as she had with daddy and James. It is probably more of companionship. And yet, I believe she does love him. And it makes me feel better that she is not alone.
Mama has never really been an optimistic person. She has always worried. About everything. But she has never been a complainer. She would say that she has had a good life so far. And she has. Despite the heartbreaks she has been through. Mama is a strong woman. She is a survivor. She makes me proud to be her daughter.
I don’t know what this new chapter of mama’s life is going to be like or what challenges it will hold. What I do know is that we will get through it. Together. And I am a better person for knowing this woman who is my mama. I wish you could know her as I have.