On the phone yesterday my son said, Be sure to watch the mail, and just like that — BAM — I remembered once again that Mother’s Day has rolled around for the 31st time since my mother died on 21 August 1985.
To anyone whose mother passed away more recently, I wish I could say that eventually you stop mourning. You don’t. I still move towards the phone to call her though not as often. Every decision I make must be held against the Lucy Corley ruler. Luckily I have her values instilled in me if not actually imprinted on my DNA. Even when I make a choice that I know would send her eyebrows skyward, I do a jig to induce her imaginary image to giggle. I get that from her: once I start laughing, you’re forgiven.
Mother memories flood into my mind this morning. I recall again the wistfulness with which she raised her wedding dress to show her father as she said that she wished one of her daughters could wear it. I argued with her later about what she meant — was she accusing me of not being tiny enough or not qualifying for a white wedding? She shrugged, the only answer that I needed.
She spoke her mind, did Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley. One time she told a woman that her mother should have had an abortion. The woman had shushed my mother during church, when my mother turned to me, then 17, to comment on Father O’Fallon’s stand on birth control. On another occasion, she herself leaned down to quiet two women at Powell Hall during a classical performance. Later they explained that they were reviewers trying to help each other keep track of the pieces. She gave her classic shoulder lift and looked heavenward. God forbid that anyone should interrupt Dvorak.
My mother picketed the convent when they fired me for being the sister of hippies, and made her own bumper stickers to protest the war during the late 1960s. “Vietnam. . . Laos. . . Cambodia. . . But I have FOUR sons!” She got a scolding from the HR person at County Hospital where she worked for driving a political pronouncement onto government property. She told them that her First Amendment rights protected her. They let her be.
She once returned extra cash that a bank teller had dispensed at the drive-up window. I needed that money, she disclosed. I was tempted but I thought about her job and went back. Ambivalence dripped from her voice. At thirteen, I learned the value of honesty from that episode.
My mother nurtured every creature that crossed her path and a few which she gathered around her with deliberateness. Her eight children, her alcoholic husband, other people’s teenagers, every plant that grew in her garden. She brought meat from our grocery store to the housekeepers at the hospital who didn’t have cars or markets with quality food. They thanked her with tins of welfare butter, perhaps realizing that she struggled just as much as they did.
I remember one time when my mother out-right discouraged a dream of mine. At eight or nine, I asked for dance lessons. She sat me down at the breakfast room table. My baby girl, she whispered, before launching into an explanation of why crippled legs can never glide across a stage beneath a tutu. I didn’t understand. Shame burned my face. I gleaned from her speech that I did not meet some standard. I pushed the chair back and ran into the sunroom, throwing myself on my bed and burying my face to sob. My mother followed, sitting on the bed beside me, patting me on the back. I fell asleep to the sound of her comforting voice.
Years later my mother steered me away from trying to write for a living so I applied to Master’s degree programs. When I floundered along the way, she listened to my rants and rationalizations. She bought my first suit when I neared the conclusion of law school and paid for a plane ticket to New Orleans so I could try to get a job there. The firm at which I interviewed had no intention of hiring me, something that my mother probably predicted before I left. She let me fail on my own. She remained silent on the telephone line as I vented about their callousness. She had no words but murmured something soft towards the end of my lament.
The elephant in any discussion of my mother centers on the chaos in our home in which, it must be said, she was complicit. We now understand family violence but in the era of my mother’s marriage, it had no name. As a Catholic convert, my mother would not have dreamed of divorce, though my father’s brother got her a legal separation so she could be the recipient of my father’s monthly checks from his share of Grandma Corley’s estate. We had no other money. Uncle Bob used his law license to protect his sister-in-law. She held him in high regard ever after, as did I when I started practicing and realized what that meant.
My parents came to visit me in Kansas City in 1984, shortly before my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I took them to Stroud’s. Mom wanted to buy a T-Shirt for my brother Kevin. I re-read the Stroud’s motto — “We Choke Our Own Chickens” — and chided my father for his snickering. My mother had no clue what double entendre hid in the slogan until I told her. All the better, she declared. Kevin will love it! In some box in the basement I have a picture of my brother opening that gift on Christmas. The broad grin on his face attests to the accuracy of my mother’s prediction.
Mother died six years before my son’s birth. He never got to know her brand of relentless hopefulness, her wicked sense of humor, or her daunting liberalness. He missed the fury of her stern face, the warmth of her throaty laugh, and the wild enthusiasm of her make-shift New Year’s bashes with their pots and pans, popcorn, and kitchen-burner-S’Mores. He never walked in her garden on a sun-kissed summer morning, listening to her identify the butterflies and the plants to which they flitted. As much as I miss her, even more do I lament Patrick’s loss of her presence.
I don’t look like my mother except in the shape of my body, the natural color of my curls, and the curve of my right eyebrow. She had the brown-hued stamp of her Syrian father while I wear the pug-nose Irishness of mine. But I think I have her heart. If I could call myself half the woman that my mother was, I would gladly lay down and die tomorrow, satisfied that I did not walk this earth in vain.
With my mother dead and my son in Chicago, I have no plans for tomorrow. So I will sit on my porch with a cup of tea in the gentle air of early morning. Later I will walk down the driveway to water the flowers on the little peninsula, with its fledgling volunteer mimosa and the struggling female holly. I’ll sit on the decrepit park bench which my son gave me for Mother’s Day two decades ago with the help of a neighbor. As the shadows fall around me, I will listen to the robin’s evening call.
Just now, I heard a bobwhite, whose song I would not recognize if my mother had not taught me about the birds of North America. I close my eyes. I smile. Perhaps I am my mother’s daughter after all.