Friday, May 9, 2014

Remembering Mother



                                   MOTHER -- BORN TO BLOOM
                         Willa McElhannon Lucas, 1973

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Reprinted from my tribute in The Hanford (California) Sentinel, front page, Sunday, May 8, 1994.
 
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On the sidewalk in front of the grocery store sat a row of big pots stuffed with zinnias in bloom. By the time I put three of the pots into a shopping cart there was barely enough room for milk and bread.

I didn’t care. I just wanted to rush home, set those pots against the weathered wood fence in the back yard and wait for summer. My kind of flowers zinnias are – sturdy and stubborn and born to bloom.

My mother loved zinnias, too, and probably for the same reason. As a gardener, her tender loving care was lavished on vegetables she could put on the table. The flowers she planted had to make it on their own.

Mother had a good singing voice and a flair for painting with watercolors, but by the time she was married the Great Depression of the 1930s had set in. Through those rock-hard times and the world war that followed, she taught school and raised five kids. Her creativity went into mothering, not only her own brood but the hundreds of children who passed through her classrooms.

 As hard times hung on, both of my parents taught school wherever they could. When the Depression bottomed out we were so deep in the Oklahoma woods that our nearest neighbors lived in a log cabin with dirt floors. We had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no telephone and almost no money in the sock.

Our health care provider was Doctor Mom. Sore throats she swabbed with a sticky mix of glycerin and iodine. Stuffy chests she smeared with Vicks salve and covered with warm flannel cloths. For cuts and miscellaneous punctures she kept a bucket of coal oil. Burned into my memory is the image of a tow-headed little brother sitting with one foot in a bucket of coal oil after he stepped on a nail.

How we survived is anybody’s guess. God’s grace? Good genes? Dumb luck? Probably all of those, pulled together by Mother’s determination.

My parents were well into their sixties when they divorced. Mother moved to Texas, got a teaching job and kicked up her heels a little. After a lifetime of pinching pennies, she stocked her closet with high-heeled shoes and party dresses and enrolled at a dance studio. She didn’t need lessons as much as she needed to dance. It was one last chance to be belle of the ball.

Shortly before she retired at 75, we flew off together for a two-week tour of Portugal and Spain. I was carrying a tape recorder to tape fado music in Lisbon and flamenco music in Seville. Back home, we played the tapes. Long stretches of music had been obliterated by the sound of Mother’s voice.

Her intentions were always good and if her action sometimes seemed screwy, they made perfect sense to her.

In her eighties, she liked to read the daily paper with a pair of scissors at hand. As she read, she cut out the stories she thought were worth saving and put them on a stack of clippings beside her chair. When the paper had more holes than a sieve, she folded it up and laid it at the door of the apartment across the hall.

Her neighbor, she said, was a poor boy who couldn’t afford a subscription. The poor boy picked up the papers without ever complaining and did God-knows-what with them. In the safety of his apartment, maybe he laughed himself silly.

A few years after Mother died, I got a tape cassette in the mail from my sister Beth, who had moved from Alaska to Oklahoma. Her note said she found it when she was unpacking boxes. I popped it into a tape player and was stunned to hear the sounds of a long-forgotten morning.

There we were, Mother and I, nattering on about our trip to Spain in an oral letter to Beth. Nothing momentous, just chitchat as Mother packed her bags to go back to Texas. In the background a Mitch Miller record was playing and she began to hum along with Mitch, a few notes before the tape recordcr clicked off.

Of such is the stuff of life – careless hours and forgotten days, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, a moment preserved that turns up again when we least expect it.

Mother was a pistol, as they used to say in our neck of the woods. She wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t even close. But she had passion, and a fierceness of will that reverberates yet in the lives she shaped.

Like zinnias splashing color against a weathered wood fence, she was sturdy and stubborn and born to bloom.

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The McElhannon Girls – Wetumka, Oklahoma about 1915 (wild guess). At left, my mother, Willa McElhannon. Seated, my Aunt Velma McElhannon. Their friends are identified on the back of the photo as Pauline Swingle and Jessie Bolen.

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