Mama’s been gone for six years now. It was her last minor act of cruelty that she managed to die just a few weeks before Mother’s Day.
(Note to mourners: Going to Applebee’s for lunch on Mother’s Day isn’t a good idea if you’re trying not to think about your recently-departed mom.)
I’m recalling a Mother’s Day in the 80s when I didn’t have much money but I wanted to send her at least a card. Not wanting to take even the tiniest chance of the card not reaching her in time, I paid what at the time was an astronomical eight or ten dollars to send it to her via Express Mail.
Back then the postal authorities were apparently more rigid about requiring a signature for such things, so when Mama got home on Friday afternoon she found only a slip indicating the attempted delivery of something. She got back in her car and drove to the post office on Perrin Beitel.
To hear the story retold later, that Friday was the end of the worst week of her life. Between evil kids and eviler administrators it had been five nightmarish school days in which every calamity short of bubonic plague had befallen her, and she was never more glad to pull into her driveway and be home.
But an Express Mail slip…well, that must mean something important! It was only the anticipation of a Super Special Gift that supplied her with sufficient energy to drive the 265 miles from her house in Live Oak to the post office ALL THE WAY over on Perrin Beitel.
Did she happen to mention that this was Rush Hour and the post office would close at 5pm? She didn’t? Well, it was and it would.
The post office, by the way, was closed on Saturdays so OF COURSE she had to go right away. You know, in order to spare ME the disappointment of my gift not reaching her before Mother’s Day. Mama was considerate that way.
Arriving at the post office mere seconds before they locked the doors, she discovered that she was at the end of a line of 86 people, and she reached the counter at approximately 9:30pm.
Finally, though, she held in her hands the package! The package containing something marvelous was in her lap as she sat in her car in the parking lot of the post office on Perrin Beitel. Curious that it was flat, which ruled out perfume or apparel, except possibly for a scarf. I had bought her scarves before so maybe this was a beautiful silk scarf.
Gingerly she opened the envelope, only to see…another envelope? What ho! But there are plenty of SUPER SPECIAL things that could arrive in an envelope so she wasn’t worried. After all, THIS envelope had arrived via Express Mail, and Express Mail is only for important things, such as Treasury certificates and large checks from Publishers Clearing House. Express Mail envelopes might also contain restaurant or spa gift certificates. Wouldn’t one of THOSE be nice!
This was the moment! After admiring the better-than-usual cursive with which I had written “Mama,” she turned the envelope over, inserted a finger delicately into the corner, and slipped open the flap.
She withdrew the card and beheld the message of love, warmth and eternal appreciation on its front. And then she opened the card.
Two days later, when I called her on the telephone, I was giddy with the expectation of Mama’s delight over my extreme thoughtfulness. “What a wonderful son I’ve raised who would go to such lengths and expense to be sure that I received his affectionate greeting in time for Mother’s Day,” is what I expected to hear.
That is not what I heard.
“Happy Mother’s Day!”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Did you get my card?”
“Yes, I got it. When I got home on Friday there was a slip from the mailman, so I had to get back in my car and drive all the way over to the post office on Perrin Beitel. The traffic was terrible.”
“But you got the card?”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes, it was very nice but I kind of wish I didn’t have to drive all the way over there when it was just a card. Why did you send it Express Mail?”
“Because I wanted to make sure you got it in time for Mother’s Day!”
“Next time you don’t need to send it Express Mail.”
This was not the first time I had heard “Thanks but no thanks” from Mama. In the period between about 1968 and 1975, Daddy and I would shop for Mama’s birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas gifts together. There was a beautiful set of mixing bowls. There were the razor-sharp steak knives. There was a West Bend countertop rotisserie. The Kitchen Magician gave us the most pleasure, knowing how much Mama would love making cole slaw when it only required a few turns of its Comfort-Grip handle.
It was probably on Christmas afternoon of 1975 that Mama emerged from the kitchen, sat down on the sofa, and said ruefully, “You know, do me a favor and don’t get me any more kitchen things as gifts. I know you mean well but they make me think that all I do is cook.”
“Oh,” said Daddy and I in unison. But she wasn’t finished.
“And no more soap. When I get soap I think it’s a message that I’m not clean enough.”
And with that she stood up and went back into the kitchen to baste the turkey.
For all of Mama’s quirks – quirks that I’ve passed many hours discussing with psychotherapists in three states – she gave me things and taught me things that enriched my childhood and helped me to ripen into a not-completely-monstrous adult.
She helped me learn all of the state capitals by the time I entered fourth grade. She indulged my budding interest in cooking. She taught me the importance of standing up for myself when wrong is done to me. I call on that one a lot.
She took me on more trips than I can count. From Houston we drove to California, Florida and Washington DC. There was the overnight trip with her own mother to Brackettville to see where John Wayne made his Alamo movie. We went to Europe when I was 11 and again when I was 16. Travel is a gift and Mama was good at sharing it.
I consider myself lucky to have settled into a peaceful place where my memory of Mama is concerned. She was really something.