For so many, Mother’s Day is just another small holiday to celebrate with cards and gifts, but most women would prefer a few moments of undivided time with their children than any gift money could buy. I often work on Saturdays, so last year while seeing patients the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I arrived at the home of an elderly lady I had been seeing for months. I usually saved her visit for the end of the day so I could stay a while and visit after finishing her therapy. I knocked then let myself in as I always did since she was unable to get from the hospital bed in her living room to the front door. Two large arrangements decorated the dining table, a stark contrast against the dark paneled walls in the dimly lit room. The flowers were from her children—an arrangement from each of them. My patient wasn’t feeling well, so we did only a few exercises before I sat on the floor beside her bed and leaned against the heavy, leather chair that was, as usual, occupied by a scrappy, mixed breed dog of some sort. We spoke of the usual things at first—the weather and her favorite TV show, Bonanza. Then, I asked if she would tell me about her mother and share some childhood memories with me. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, there was a spark of life I’d not seen there before. She told me about her “mammy”, who smelled like Chanel No. 5 and oil paints on damp canvas boards. I heard about her parents’ love story and a privileged childhood in a large family—one who gathered around the table for meals and spent summer vacations traveling to places I’ve only read about in books. Then, she told of another love story—one that made her pause often and stare past me as she visited memories too tender to share. A happy couple posed from behind a dusty glass frame on the wall beside the hospital bed. The black and white photo could not conceal the sparkle in the young lady’s eyes. The same eyes continued to stare past me now as the room fell silent. I took her small hand with both of mine and squeezed.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “for this gift—for listening. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten one so nice.”
“But look at those beautiful arrangements.” I pointed to the table in the next room, but she just shook her head.
“Beautiful, yes, but no different than every other arrangement I’ve ever gotten. And a stranger delivered them from the flower shop. I’d rather one of my children show up empty handed than a stranger with a dozen roses.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and I would give a year of my life for just one hour of sitting with my mother or grandmothers like this again.”
“I know you would,” she replied. “Tell me what you miss the most. Let’s give them the gift of remembering today.”
I miss so many things about my mother, but it’s the small things-those often taken for granted until they are gone-that I miss the most. The sound of her voice saying my name. Hearing my own voice saying, “Mama”. She had a sweet voice that was a snapshot of her essence, and she always held back in a crowd yet drew people in. Mama loved to laugh and surrounded herself with friends who brought out her playful side. She didn’t keep a large circle of friends but, instead, pulled those she called “friend” close and nurtured her relationships with them. I would love to have known what it felt like to be pulled into her tight circle—that place where I could see past “mama” to “Marcia”, but she was gone before I reached the age when this was likely to happen. I missed something amazing, and I know this is true because all who called her “friend” still call her “best friend” to this day, even though their time without her has now surpassed the amount of time they had with her.
As a child, it was like magic to watch Mama transform from “mother” to “daughter” when we reached that small white house in the woods, surrounded by hydrangeas and cedar trees. She was Mama in the car, cigarette hanging loosely from her fingers as she sang softly along with the radio. When we’d reach Stuttgart, her home town and that magical place in Arkansas that was, to us, summer vacations and holidays but to her still “home”, Mama would sit up a little straighter and begin pointing out landmarks to her childhood memories. We already knew most of them since we heard the stories any time she could talk Daddy into making a loop through town. Still, Vicki, Lori, and I would cross our fingers in the back seat, hoping Daddy would turn left instead of following the railroad tracks out of town and to the rocky back road to Mamaw and Papaw’s house. I remember what it felt like to turn onto that gravel road—a right turn then immediately over the tracks. Music from the car radio was drowned out by the popping and dragging of rocks underneath the car until we made the right turn for the home stretch. The rocks turned to dust and hung in a thick, brown cloud behind the car. When we finally turned into the driveway, Mama’s excitement from the front seat was tangible, contagious. “Mama” became “daughter” as our grandparents took her again into the fold. For the next few days, she was different. Her childlike voice became even sweeter when she talked with her daddy, and her timid nature was replaced with the confidence of a woman secure in her position as “only daughter” to doting parents and “beloved sister” to her three brothers.
I used to watch Mama with my grandmother, Vera, and wonder, again, if the friendship between them happened to every mother and daughter at a certain age. They laughed at the same things and each knew what the other needed before she had a chance to voice it. They were playful together and even more playful when my aunts were also with them—calling each other by nicknames and turning a simple dinner preparation into a party that ebbed and flowed with the cadence of each new song drifting from the small brown clock radio on the kitchen table. The best way to describe my grandmother would be to take everything that Mama was and turn it inside out. Vera was vivacious and forever young as her body moved to the beat of a song and her mind drifted often to dreams just on the outer borders of her reality. She spoke what was on her mind and carried herself with confidence. She was tanned legs that ended in bare feet and painted toe nails. She was always put together and kept her home the same way. On the surface, she was smoothed out and tucked in, but beneath, she was a free spirit and often unpredictable. In many ways, I related to her more than I did Mama or anyone else, except for one special lady who I also called Mamaw—my daddy’s mother.
My grandmother, Vira, was a blueprint for what I would one day become. I’m not an exact replica of her because she was certainly an original. The similarities were there, however, in the fine corners and slopes of the early framework. Then, as maturity put its finishing touches on me, I could look at Mamaw Vira and see myself. This wasn’t a physical resemblance but a spiritual one that allowed us to both perceive the world and express ourselves in the same way. Vira didn’t just live life. She experienced it, receiving each day as a new adventure, a venue to play in, or a new story to write. Thoughts flowed through her pen onto the page, arranging themselves into stanzas, lyrical snapshots of her past and descriptive illustrations of her future dreams. She had a huge presence about her, and, though she loved being with people, she wasn’t afraid to be alone. Playing had nothing to do with age because age was of no concern to her. One of the greatest gifts I have given my children is permission to play at any age. I was given the same gift by Daddy, who received it from my grandmother, as did all of his siblings. Vira found ways to enjoy all of life’s little moments and knew how to bask in the afterglow of them, filling the pages of her notebooks and the hearts of all who would relive the moments through her words.
It was getting dark by the time I told my sweet patient goodbye and started my drive home. I’d always enjoyed the long drive home for the time it gave me to think about the day. I thought about each blessing I was able to give and all that I’d gotten in return. I pondered the things that didn’t quite work for my patients and how I could improve on them next time. On this day, however, I thought only about my last patient and wondered what Mother’s Day would look like for her this year. Would she be alone with her memories? No, I decided. She could never be alone with them, any more than I could have been alone on that drive home. Once again, I’d gone into a home to serve and left with as much as I’d given. She’d invited me to share memories, to give my mother and grandmothers the gift of remembering, but she’d known all along that I would be the one receiving that gift. It would be the last evening I’d sit on the floor beside that hospital bed, scrappy dog breathing down my neck, telling stories and listening. My friend no longer needs me to listen—she is with those who put that sparkle in her eyes. My gift to her this year is remembering, and once again, I will get as much from it as I give.