I had no plans to write anything about Mama today. But I knew it was going to be a rough day. Today, December 30th, marks the 1 year anniversary of Mama’s death. I’m not going to be hung up on that date every year. What matters to us most, or what should, is the life of a person who means so much to us, not the date they left us. If anything, celebrate their birthday. Which, of course, I’m sure I’ll do next May. But today is significant, if for no other reason than it’s been a year since Mama died. The first year is the hardest, they say, and I believe this officially marks the last of “the firsts”. And, well, it’s hard to believe that it’s been a year. It almost seems like it just happened to me.
Like I said, I had no plans to write anything today. I’m sure my family and friends are tired of hearing me groan about Mama’s absence. I’m not the first son to lose his mother, and I certainly won’t be the last. But like all of us, I prefer to think that my mother was special, and that somehow my own tragedy is more profound than the losses of other people. We are all, perhaps, forgiven for that one conceit. We may be just another of the billions of people throughout human history to lose our mothers, but each of us have only had one mother, and she was unique in all of creation. We should mourn that loss. However many mothers may be out there, like blades of grass on an infinite plain, this one blade of grass belonged to us, and there will never be another like ours.
I woke up this morning thinking about Mama. I did a few chores, then went and sat out on the porch in the cold to smoke my last cigarette. I’ve been smoking for the past month or so, a habit I picked up again only for the holidays. Mama wouldn’t like it. And as I sat there this morning, talking to her memory and puffing away, I promised her it would be my last. From there, I came back inside and stood in the kitchen for a few moments, wondering what to do with myself and pondering what might come of this day. Our resident misfit, our cat Sabella, sat at my feet and stared at me the whole time. She knew something is up with me today. And while not exactly lingering, she seemed to be keeping an eye upon me.
As I stood there in the kitchen, a plastic figurine I have of the Pillsbury Doughboy fell from the shelf onto the kitchen floor. How that happened I don’t know. While certainly not secured, it had never fallen before – much less fallen with no one touching it. I picked it up and looked it over with a smile. Mama gave that to me, and it’s always been in my kitchen wherever I’ve lived. As I looked at it, I could almost hear Mama’s voice say, “That looks kind of like me, don’t it?” I grinned, and knew then that however much I might want to put it off, and however much I might like to avoid the trouble of doing so, there was really only one way to honor Mama. The unexpected appearance of the Pillsbury Doughboy seemed to push me over the line I was hesitating at. And so it was that I decided to make biscuits and gravy.
You likely didn’t know my mother. Her cooking was well regarded back home in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. It’s one of the many things she was known for. Especially her biscuits. But if you ever ate breakfast at Peggy’s Restaurant, you probably know that her breakfast gravy was highly regarded, too. Given that I’m going back on the Atkins diet after New Year’s, I figured this might be my last chance at biscuits and gravy for awhile. And since I’ve hoped to feel Mama’s presence today, it made sense to start off the day in the kitchen.
I won’t bore you with details. I made biscuits and gravy. And I ate biscuits and gravy, on a cafe plate from Peggy’s Restaurant. I thought a lot of Mama. Just as I’m doing now. Just as I’ll be doing all day.
But like I said, I hadn’t intended to write anything. If anything led me to write, it was a phone call from my cousin, Teresa Hicks. She just called to check in with me, and said she knew I’d be having a hard time of it today. I was touched just that she called, knowing that a lot of people in my family won’t even remember that this is the 1 year anniversary of Mama’s death, much less care enough to call and check in on me. That’s not good or bad. It just is. But Teresa always tries to make sure I’m alright. I guess maybe it stems from all those times she babysat with me when I was a kid. Maybe old habits die hard.
Teresa is the reason I’m writing this. She told me a story. I didn’t realize how much that one simple story meant to me until I tried to tell it to Victoria, and wound up with my arms wrapped around her and tears streaming down my face. That story is what I wanted to share here.
Teresa has some neighbors who are friendly, if not friends. They come over at Christmas because Teresa and Richard buy gifts for their kids. Long story short, those kids lost their grandmother back in August. Teresa was sitting in a rocking chair and one of the little girls came by, and sort of lingered. Teresa, being the blessed soul that she is, sensed that maybe the little girl wanted to get into her lap, so she offered it up. The girl accepted. As they sat there together, the little girl wiggled in close to Teresa, and Teresa started rocking. She asked the little girl if she liked to rock, and the girl, with her eyes closed, nodded.
“I miss rocking with Nana,” she said.
That really touched Teresa. And the story really touched me. That simple, precious moment was probably more of a gift to Teresa than it already obviously was to that little girl. Teresa told me that story, and shared what a blessing it was to her for that little girl to be able to close her eyes and feel herself rocking with her grandmother again. And as Teresa pointed out, aren’t we all like that little girl? However much time goes past, isn’t there always some part of ourselves that just wants to cuddle up with our parents and grandparents again? Those wonderful souls who have been lost to our every day lives, but who still live on so vibrantly in our hearts? Don’t we all just want to snuggled up with them again?
I cried when I told Victoria that story. I didn’t want to, but had no way to stop it. I told her that unimaginable time a year ago today when I finally reached Charlotte, North Carolina and found myself sitting beside Mama’s body in that hospital room. It wasn’t Mama’s face I spent so much time staring at (though I did look at her face and try to burn it into my memory). No, I sat there for the longest time, holding, and looking at, Mama’s hand. How familiar was that hand? How many times had it touched my face? How many lives had been touched by those pudgy fingers? How soft and delicate had that skin always been?
In some way, I think that’s why I started cooking. While Mama’s gone and will never come this way again, there are times when I’m standing in the kitchen, kneading biscuit dough or making gravy, and I’ll look down and watch my Mama’s hands doing the work. Sometimes when I’m cooking, I see Mama’s hands. I never feel closer to her than I do in the kitchen. And maybe that’s the reason I keep going back. Maybe that’s me trying to crawl into my Mama’s lap where I can rock myself to sleep.
All I know is that a year ago a kind, decent soul left us. That she is still so fondly and vividly remembered by so many people is a testament to the life that she lived. And while I may fall far short of her example, I’ve at least found some small way to remember her on occasion. And if that comes in the form of biscuits and gravy, that makes sense to me. And it would to you, too, if you really knew Peggy Chaney.
There’s nothing else to be said here. The sad moments of this day have already come and gone. For the rest of today I intend to smile, and think of all the goodness that Mama brought to the world. She was such a sweet, innocent soul, that we can’t help but smile when we remember her pure spirit.
I’ll close with a funny story that Teresa told me. It’s one I’ve heard before, but one which sums up Mama’s sweet spirit so well. One year on Mama’s birthday, when I was still a small child, they gave Mama birthday card that read, “Only a virgin can open this birthday card”. Of course, it was made in such a way that no one could open it. They said that Mama tried and tried to get that card open, and then she look at her sister, Lucille, with a startled look on her face that seemed to say, “How did it know?” They laughed and laughed about that. So much so that, as they walked to church that morning, Lucille had to stop every little bit because she would think about Mama trying to open that birthday card and start laughing again.
When I think of Mama, it is with the joy of such moments in my heart, and with a smile on my face. That purity of spirit, that hint of innocence, never left Mama. We would all do well to follow her example, and never lose that sense of marvel at the world that we all had when we were children. Just as it came to me this morning, as I looked at the Pillsbury Doughboy and heard my Mama giggle, “That looks kind of like me, don’t it?”
I miss you Mama. I miss you so much. But I’m smiling. Where you’re concerned, I’ll always be smiling. That’s just how you made me feel.