My mother taught her children to think about other people first… We never left home on an overnight trip without making sure the house was spotless and that our beds were made. “What if we were in a wreck?” she’d ask. “We wouldn’t want someone else to have to clean up our mess.” “But Mom,” I’d once pled, “someone’s going to have to clean my guts up off the side of the road…” That was not a proper response.
Mom always thought about other people and their feelings. When I was in the third grade and we were living in Petersburg, she scolded my bother and me for calling a kid in the neighborhood “Tommy Two-names.” I think Bubba, who lived next door and was two years older than me, came up with the name when he realized that Tommy’s last name was different than the name that was on his mailbox. We didn’t know too many kids from divorced parents in 1966; that would all change before I got out of high school. Mom also scolded us neighborhood kids for picking on Bubba and Denise’s older sister, who was mentally challenged. “How would you feel if that was you?” she’d ask us.
Shortly after moving to Wilmington at the beginning of my fourth year in school, I came home acting tough repeating what all my friends were saying about a young African-American girl in our class. She was the only one of her race in the class. It had been raining that day and instead of going out for PE, they’d taught us how to square dance. No one wanted to be her partner. Referring to her as my friends did, using the N word; Mom got angry and told me that I better never use that word in her house again. I can assure you I abided by her command. She also told me that I had better be willing to dance with the girl the next time around. Then the question came, “How would you feel if you were her?” “How would you feel if you were the only white boy in the class?”
And there was the time another kid and I got into an argument. I don’t remember what it was about, but I can remember where we were in the backyard. David had wanted a chemistry set for Christmas and didn’t get it. Now, that little fact had nothing to do with our argument. Going for the jugular and not knowing anything about ad hominem fallacies, I threw this at David and struck a nerve. My mother, who was hanging out clothes, heard me and immediately called me into the house for a lecture. I started to defend myself, saying I was only telling the truth. She started off with the question, “how would you feel.” Then she went on to point out that whether or not it was the truth, the truth had nothing to do with my motives, that I was just being mean! I think it was then that I learned that when someone says, “I’m just telling the truth,” you better get ready to pull the dagger out of your back. When my mom was finally done with me, she sent me back out to apologize.
Of course, there was another question my mother would often ask, “why couldn’t be like so and so.” Generally this was an attempt prod me into doing better. I can’t say it worked and instead it did what I suppose most mothers do well, caused guilt. Most often, she’d compare me to one of my cousins, all of whom seemed to do well in high school. On other occasions it was Homer, a member of my scout troop who seemed to want to get every merit badge in the book (when I was in my 20s, I told my mom that it was through the generosity of Homer that I had my first encounter with girlie magazines and marijuana). At other times, generally when I was acting up, she would want to know if I’d committed my deed if the “preacher’s daughters” were watching (sometimes they were). Even though I made it to adulthood with a boat load of guilt, I know my mother was just at her wits-end, wondering how to raise us kids.
A few days after graduating from high school, I discovered a letter my mom had placed for me in a book that I was reading. It was handwritten and six pages long . She'd written it right after my graduation, while I was out partying. Mom recalled holding me as a baby and about how proud she was of me. This was a message I’d hear more of as I entered adulthood. My mom became my greatest cheerleader and encourager. She’d copy articles that I had published and disturb them to friends. She’d also call and discuss my work at great lengths. But then, the phone conversations became shorter and she’d start repeating herself over and over again. She stopped bragging about things I’ve done and would be surprised if I mentioned an accomplishment… It’s becoming more evident that there are times she’s doesn’t even know to whom she’s talking.
It’ll be three years this summer since my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I miss my Mom…. I know she won’t remember that I called earlier, but then she seemed surprised to learn it was Mother’s Day and has probably already forgotten that too.