Tales of Mom

In honor of this day, five Sun writers tell stories of their mothers

Seeing layers in her life

Real Life


MY BROTHER GAVE ME A framed photograph of my mother for my birthday this year, blown up from a black-and-white snapshot that's probably 50 years old. It's the only photo I have of her. She hated having her picture taken, and simply refused to allow it to happen. I suppose she never knew it was shot.

The original photo must have been dark to begin with, and her features are shadowed. But her shape is familiar, small and plump; and she's petting Jack, our Siamese cat, who is lounging in her lap. My brother sits on the floor near her chair. I pore over that picture as though it holds the secrets of the universe.

But then, she always was a mystery to me.

She was a widow with a child when she married my father, and I think she probably only had two more children after 15 years and several miscarriages because that's what women of that era did. I think she loved me well enough, but we were so different we usually irritated each other.

The kitchen was our Switzerland.

I was lucky to be the daughter of a wonderful Southern cook, one who had traveled extensively in France and elsewhere. When your mother whips up a hollandaise sauce every time she serves the family broccoli for supper, you learn not to be afraid in the kitchen. For my wedding cake, she baked four round layers of fruitcake -- a southern tradition -- and had them professionally iced, so it looked like a flavorless white bakery cake on the outside, but inside were dark, moist layers laden with rich fruits, nuts and liquor.

She loved to cook and she loved to entertain in the small college town where my father taught, but I was never sure what she did with the rest of her life, except read and smoke and drink too much. Once, when I was home for a visit, she told me a story that makes me wish now that -- I'm not sure what I wish, but something.

She had been driving back on a country road from the little town where she got her hair done once a week. When she came around a sharp curve, she saw a motorcycle overturned on the side of the road with its driver sprawled beside it. He turned out to be a college student, fatally injured in the accident, and she held him in her arms until he died. It took a long time, or what must have seemed like a long time. There were no cell phones then, of course. Another driver had to find a phone, and it was a while before the ambulance got there.

My mother didn't know the boy; but, naturally, it was a terrible thing to have experienced. Later, when she found out who he was, she wrote a letter to his parents, saying that she had been there when he died and she wanted them to know that he had died instantaneously and hadn't suffered at all.

It's a glimpse of who she really was, like the photograph my brother gave me. Although I don't need the photo. Twenty-seven years after she died, I still can picture her more clearly than most people I've known.


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