For two days I've been in my mother's house. I tend to imagine through her eyes, project what I believe she felt about any number of things. In the morning, I can almost hear the rhythmic scrape of her hard-bottomed slippers as she made her way from bedroom to kitchen. Until the end, she made morning coffee and two meals a day and kept up with housework and obligations. She attended Willing Workers meetings, weekly shopping excursions, and events at Lily of the Valley Baptist Church.
Her drawers and cabinets explode with decades of cotton, silk and wool. Folded, rolled, tucked and arranged reminders of trends and must-haves from the 1960s to her final acquisitions in the winter of 2015. I know the ways of her pantries and closets as surely as I know my own. I know the satisfaction she felt when solving the problems of space and logistics—like fitting 10 pairs of bedroom shoes in a small plastic container beneath her bed. It is hard to fathom that none of it is hers any longer. My self-proclaimed mission is to somehow, within this space, honor Odessa’s memory while transforming it into my own getaway or haven or whatever I need it to be. I know there is no need to cling to the status quo because Odessa was not sentimental. I learned this through decades of casual conversations and most recently when I retrieved her own mother’s crippled oak table from a yard sale. As I struggled to get it in her shed, she queried, “Why are you keeping this broken table?”
“It’s Mama’s,” I replied.
She rolled her eyes. “So what? What you gonna do with it?”
Holding on and reaching back was not her way. Odessa did not believe in stagnation or a slipping down life. Renewal, renovation and restoration resided in her soul like an institutional blueprint. We were very different, but being different doesn't mean you don't understand someone. Knowing her ways has freed me to wear my grief like a loose and gauzy garment. Something barely there, but that covers me just the same. For these four months, it is as if my brain has been engulfed by her aura. I interpret from her point of view, hear her responses at random moments. Through it all, my intention has been to extend her strength and common sense—her legacy to her only child.
I will always remember the time she made a supposedly off-handed comment: “People talk about love, always talk about loving a child. But the important thing is that you’ve got to raise ‘em.” At the time it seemed a harsh take on one of life’s more tender milestones. But now that she is gone, and I am comfortably middle-aged, I know that her parenting perspective was by far her most loving gesture towards me. Her “raising” was a steady (and often annoying) perpetuation of life lessons:
- Put that back where you got it from.
- Cook, and clean as you go.
- Think before buying things you already have, and don’t want everything you see.
- Save some money.
- Relax and have a good time.
- Finish what you start, and pay attention as you do it.
- Get a routine.
- Use what you have to get it done. (With it being whatever task is absolutely necessary to tackle at the moment.)
Her lessons have anchored me solidly in a mindset designed to get me through. Because when life brings what it does, you still have to get up and earn a living, muster up enough energy to get through the day, and put your hands on the matches and candles when the power goes out after dark.
So as I hunker down in Odessa’s house to sort through her things and get organized, to sift through my mind to get back to creative writing, and to get my bearings as a grown woman whose mother is now in spirit, I am heartened. I say heartened because of these facts:
1) Mom was able to put a load of wash in the machine minutes before going to the hospital with only two more days to live.
2) With pulmonary disease that required nighttime oxygen, she still kept her driveway and back porch swept. And while air was progressively squeezed from her lungs, her strongest complaint was, “I seem to be getting short of breath.”
3) She kept her affairs in such order that I was able to locate any one piece of information related to her business transactions spanning a period of 50 years-- in a matter of hours.
I can say without a daughter’s sentimentality that I have a deep and unquestioned respect for the kind of woman that she was. She was not a doting, helicopter parent. She always expected that I had enough marbles to figure out life for myself, on my own terms. I think that was because she was unapologetically herself—warts and all. She lived on her own terms, and adhered to personal agreements made with her own Higher Power.
I suppose her absolute perfect gift to me was her model of being incredibly strong and authentic. She did not contort herself to please others or cull favor. She stiffened her spine to galvanize and use her resources in ways that let her live the way she wanted to. She rarely sought consensus or wasted time wondering. She learned early to know her own mind. And God help me, if I can do the same, I believe I will die content—as I believe she did.