My mother died just before her 59th birthday and my 30th. She had been ill for a year, taking her sweet time dying in one sense and going far too soon in another. But for the doctors’ mistakes, she might have lived many more years. There you have it, though; we lost her, and with her died any hope of my truly understanding which parts of her dwell in me.
I can infer some of my heritage, especially the physical. I have her eyebrows, her hair, and her physique. Though my face bears the stamp of my Irish father, I see my mother in the curve of my shoulders, and the round of my belly, and the slant of my bosom. I did not get her brown eyes, or her Syrian nose, but I have the slender firm shape of her calves, tortured only by the intervention of my nasty virus. Perhaps my body blends my parents, though if you knew her, you could see the look of her in the tilt of my mouth and the set of my jaw.
Like my mother, I can’t stand tight clothing, or sweaty blouses, or wearing anything more than once. She came home from work every evening already shed of her bra, from which she could extricate herself at a red light with perfect aplomb. I completely relate to that need. She would cross the living room, move through the hallway, and take a shower before saying hello or starting dinner. Then she’d pad around the house in my grandmother’s flowered house-coat, perhaps the very one which currently hangs in my tiny bathroom.
But most of all, a lot of what I believe comes from my mother. The fierceness of her loyalty for those whom she loved dances in the fibers of my being. I trust long and without hesitation. I flinch just as wretchedly with any betrayal. Like my mother, I speak my mind in clear unrelenting tones, where others might steadfastly cling to silence. I understand, at the ripe age of 62, that sometimes not speaking might serve me. However, even my willingness to crouch within diplomacy fades under a direct question. “If you don’t want to know, don’t ask.”
My mother would give a person every benefit of the doubt right up until that person plunged a knife in the back of someone under my mother’s protection. My little brother Steve came home from first grade complaining about a bully. He also had brought his class picture. My mother studied it for a few minutes, then asked him, “Who’s this well-fed, jolly-looking boy?” On being told that the child was the very one who had been pushing Steve down on the playground, my mother snapped, “You mean this fat little kid is the bully boy?” Of all my mother’s faux paus, that seemed the most cruel, and the most like her at the same time.
My mother protested the war in Vietnam. She readied cash and a backpack for my brother Kevin to escape to Canada on learning of his low draft number. She made a bumper sticker protesting the conflict and endured the scoldings of the Personnel Office for her government job. She talked to her children about abortion, and prejudice, and the need to help those less fortunate than we were. We gave our pennies to the mission collection even though we had little enough at home. I once saw my mother literally crying over spilled milk, on her hands and knees amidst the broken glass of a milk bottle, trying to salvage the puddle by using a straw.
Stories of my mother pepper the pages of my blogs, this one and the weekly Musings which I circulated for eight years, and which now await my careful editing. I read paragraph after paragraph, marveling at my mother’s stamina and resourcefulness. She fed ten people with one chicken (two halves of the back; two each of the breast, wings, thighs, and drumsticks). When I came home from eighth grade complaining that my Dress-Up Day clothes embarrassed me, she found some money to buy me a pant’s suit. I never told her that the girls ridiculed me. “Yesterday’s Style”, they called it, but I wore it with pride.
She treated my acne, my hurt feelings, my sunburn, and the agony of both my first menstrual cramps and my first miscarriage. She learned to drive at 40, got two of my brothers out of jail, and organized camping trips to Meramec State Park. One time she came out of the breakfast room where she had been agonizing over bills. She said to my older brothers and me that she had kept wincing because we were playing music too loud. “I told myself, ‘Lucy, don’t get upset, they could be out robbing banks.'” She laughed a little ruefully then, before continuing. “And then I looked at my bank balance and said, ‘What’s wrong with those kids, they could be out robbing banks!”
And yet, once a teller gave her $200.00 extra when cashing her paycheck, and she drove all the way back to the bank to return it. “I just kept thinking of that poor clerk, having to account for the shortage,” she told us.
I’ve read that women whose husbands abuse them often suffer the judgment of their children for not getting the kids to safety. My mother did not leave my father, but she did take us out of harm’s way many times. We walked the streets of Jennings singing church hymns, often with coats over our pajamas. My mother would send one of the older children to peer in the windows to see if my father had gone to sleep, waiting for a safe moment to bundle us back in bed. Small comfort, perhaps; but it was a different time. She did as much as she thought she could.
I knew I had my mother’s love, but I didn’t get far enough in life before she died to earn her approval. I’ve started and stopped so many endeavors in my life, often puzzled over whether my mother would agree with my plans. She would be sad about my divorces, I think; and understanding of my financial struggles. She’d fully support my work with children. After all, this is a woman who wanted to be buried in the unbaptized baby section of a local Catholic cemetery. “Those children need a mother,” she told me once, bending over to take a wax-paper rubbing of one of the little angels’ headstones.
My mother agonized over my sorrows, but secretly, without my knowing. Outwardly, she would spur me to rise above whatever troubled me. One time she visited me in South St. Louis when I’d gotten food poisoning. When she arrived, I was standing on my balcony hollering at a group of noisy children in the street. Their voices had carried through the open windows of my unairconditioned apartment where I had been trying to rest. She stood beneath me, listening, then leaned back to call to me. “For heaven’s sake, they are just children. Take your grumpy self inside and leave them alone.” She stunned the kids into a moment of silence, then threw a smile over her shoulder at them as she entered my building. The sounds of their chortlng followed her to the second floor.
Whatever else my mother would have thought of what I’ve made of my life, I do not doubt that one accomplishment would gain her unconditional endorsement. She would completely approve of my son. His tenacity, his gentleness, his social consciousness, and his political acumen would all make my mother smile with the contentment of a woman who sees her legacy unfolding. She would admire his writing and the conviction with which he speaks of his beliefs. His tendency to scold his mother’s occasional lapses would prompt her to raise one eyebrow and laugh. “He’s my grandson, all right,” she would observe; and she would not be wrong.
That my son never got to meet my mother seems so terrible, so cruel. He reminds me more and more of her. I can picture them in league with one another. They’d walk the line together. It would be so grand.
A few days before my mother died, I had an afternoon of bedside duty with her. The cancer had claimed her bones and her brain. Her pituitary gland had failed. We had to coax her to take water and medication when there wasn’t a nurse around for injections. I liquefied the pills and put them in a dropper which I held to her mouth. I stroked her throat and said, “Swallow, Mama, swallow”, over and over. “Swallow, Mama. Swallow, now, swallow.”
Suddenly, her cloudy eyes focused, and she fixed them on my face. “I am still your mother,” she snapped. “Don’t patronize me.”
I could only stutter in reply, “Yes, ma’am”, in the instant before her eyes blurred again. They were the last clear words I ever heard her say.
Once in a while, I find myself thinking about calling my mother to tell her something. Invariably, I remember a phone call we had when I still lived in St. Louis. My apartment telephone had a very long cord, and I was wandering around the kitchen as we talked. After a while, I got bored, but once my mother started on a subject, you couldn’t really interrupt her. I looked back and saw that my cat had gotten a hold of the telephone cord and was twisting it in his paws. “Mom, I gotta go,” I exclaimed. “The cat’s on the wire.” I hung up the phone, relieved to have found a marginally plausible excuse. A few minutes later, she rang again. “I assume you’re having barbecued cat for dinner, then?” she asked. Ever after that, when one of us needed to get off the phone, we’d just say, “Cat’s on the wire,” and we’d both laugh.
Nobody sang like my mother, or danced like her, or held a crying child quite the way she could. I tried. I read the same stories to my son that my mother read to me. I made her Schmarren for Patrick, and sang the Christopher Robin songs which she invented. I put candy in his shoes on St. Nicholas Day which was her tradition. I hung Christmas stockings and rang her dinner bell. I tried to channel her strength and her tenderness. I tried to show my son the world through a daughter’s eyes.
On Mother’s Day, we would buy a single gardenia for my mother at the florist near Corpus Christi Church in Jennings. We would take care to do what she wanted all day, and to behave like the good Christians which we knew she wanted us to be. She always told us that when we walked down the street, she wanted people to look at us and say, “See those Corleys. How they loved one another.” Whatever we were the rest of the year, however we acted, whatever we lacked or failed to do, on Mother’s Day, we set it all aside.
Just before one of my mother’s cancer-related surgeries, the eight of us gathered at her bed. The doctors had gone through informed consent, with my mother waving her hand in my direction and telling them to let her lawyer daughter read it. They were about to wheel her out of the room, when she stopped the orderly. She gestured for us to come closer. She had something to say.
“From this day forward,” she told us, “My word is law.” Her deep chuckle lingered in the room as they pushed her down the hall.
If there is a heaven, I have no doubt that my mother occupies her own corner. She has gathered all the children around her, especially her granddaughter Rachel. She has my brother Stephen at hand, and so many others. She reads stories, and skips, and plays music, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Willie Nelson, Anthony Newley, and “Peter and the Wolf”. She will have a garden. She will walk among the flowers and vegetables, wearing a denim wrap-around skirt and a head scarf, carrying a basket. She’ll rise early, call out to my father, and take her cup of coffee out to a celestial porch. Her endless, radiant smile will warm the heart and calm the fears of even The Littlest Angel.
It’s the twelfth day of the fifty-third month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
LUCILLE JOHANNA LYONS CORLEY
10 SEPTEMBER 1926 — 21 AUGUST 1985
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY TO ALL, FROM LUCY CORLEY’S YOUNGEST DAUGHTER