"Tell me this one, Momma": Each snapshot revealed something new about who we were

When I found out what happened to Mother that hot summer day so long ago, I knew I'd never really know her at all

Published March 21, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-12065p1.html'>Ioannis Ioannou</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Ioannis Ioannou via Shutterstock)

Dad’s tone was businesslike. “They’ve moved your mother to the ICU. They don’t know why she’s going downhill so fast.”

My father couldn’t have called at a more depressing time. I was watching my impractical dream of being a writer turn to dust: I was in Minnesota trying to salvage the novel on which I had worked for five years. I had just lost my big time New York agent. She kept the book for a year, then told me, “Publishers are wary of taking a book from a white author that has so many black story lines. Now if you change your name to Fannie Lou Hamer, I could sell it in five minutes.”

The news had thrown me back into my father’s “factory mentality.” He once asked how much I would make per word as a writer. I didn’t have the heart to calculate the price per word, but I figured that my unpublished novel had cost me over $2 million so far in lost revenue from my former business. All told, it would probably have covered the cost of buying enough copies to make it into a bestseller.

Before Dad’s call, I knew that Mom had gone in for an operation for her back, but now he told me that her lungs were filling with fluid. Something may have gone wrong with the anesthesia. “You know how weak her lungs are.”

What I wanted to say was, “I bet living 50 years in close quarters with a chain smoker couldn’t have helped much.” But I didn’t.

“Sounds like I should come down.”

“Well, it’s up to you. Come if you want to.”

Not You need to be here, or Your mother needs you here, or, for God’s sake not, I need you here. My father and I routinely communicate like poker players, keeping our hearts as close as our cards.

“Do you think I should come down?” I asked, trying to force him to say it, that he needed me there.

“Do you have the time?” he asked. “She’ll understand if you’re too busy.” The sad thing was, he wasn’t being sarcastic. Work obligations always trump family.

“No, I don’t have anything scheduled that can’t be moved.” I didn’t have anything scheduled for the next 40 years, but I wasn’t telling him that.

“Well, come if you think you should,” he said, but quickly added, “but I don’t want to tell you to come down and then have her get well by the time you get here. I just don’t want to tell you one way or the other. You have to decide.” He refused to sway me. He wouldn’t have it on his hands.

“I’ll catch the next flight,” I said, making the choice that both of us knew I would all along.

“I’m sure your mother will appreciate it, whichever way it goes.”

I hung up, feeling like I had just gotten off a conference call with a lawyer. It was easier to approach the situation as a scheduling issue rather than as a trip that could be my last chance to see my mother alive.

When I arrived at Forrest County General, my younger brother and my father were in the waiting room. That morning, when the attendants came to my mother’s room to take her for X-rays, they found her sprawled unconscious on the floor. She had somehow managed to get out of bed and fallen. When my brother asked her why she hadn’t buzzed for assistance, all she would say was that she wanted “to fix her face.” She had been trying to get to her makeup kit. They figured she must have been delirious.

After shaking hands with my father, I took a chair close by and carefully observed him. Before you engage with my father, it’s wise to calibrate his mood, which could range from mildly controlling to tyrannically oppressive. Yet, tonight, something was different. My father had always been in charge, but here in the waiting room he was as close to passive as I had ever seen him. For one of the first times in his adult life, he was watching everything with keen interest, but not exerting authority over any of it. My brother David had assumed the lead role, and next to him, my father seemed small and submissive.

Dad politely asked the nurse if we could go into my mother’s room. The nurse brushed him off, somewhat heartlessly I thought. I held my breath, waiting for Dad to shame her out of the helping profession. He acquiesced. But my brother took off after the nurse and told her, not asked her, that we were going to see Mother now.

Mom had lost a lot of weight and appeared frail, as if she would snap in my arms if I hugged her. She was breathing oxygen through a tube in her nose. Her hair, always kept perfectly in place, was flat in spots and tangled in others. Her lips were dry and chapped. There was a lot of purple bruising on her arm where she had fallen. She was only semi-conscious, but still she recognized me.

“Johnny,” she said, brightening a bit. She lifted her hand for a moment before letting it drop again to the bed.

I held her hand and kissed her damp forehead. “Hello, Momma. They say you’ve had a pretty rough time of it.”

She shook her head, then a frown crossed her face. “There was something I wanted to tell you,” she said. “I forgot what.” Speaking was hard for her.

“It can wait,” I said. “There’s plenty of time. I’m staying till you get well.”

Again she shook her head as if frustrated by the sluggishness of her thoughts. “Oh! I know!” she said in a rushed whisper.

I looked into her washed out eyes. They were the weakest shade of blue I could ever remember them being, like the last remnant of morning sky, just before being bleached out by the heat of the day.

“Johnny, when you go to the house tonight, bring back the sack that’s under my bed.”

“What’s in the sack, Momma?”

“You’ll see. I want you to have something that I made myself. But it’s not finished, so don’t look. I want it with me. I don’t want it to get lost.”

I promised her that I would. She seemed satisfied and closed her eyes.

* * *

Back at the house, Dad and I sat out on the porch. It was late. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. I noticed he had switched from Salem to a tiny brown cigar. The smell, even outside, was awful, but he claimed he smoked less.

“How do you think she looks?” he asked. If this were anyone but my father, I would have sworn he was asking for reassurance.

I told him the truth. “She looks bad. Real bad.”

He grimaced as if I had intentionally tried to hurt him.

“How do you think she looks, Dad?”

He was no longer facing me. “I thought maybe she looked a little better,” he said. “Of course you haven’t been here. Probably hard for you to tell.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s it.” I wasn’t going to burst his bubble. “What’s with the sack under the bed? Was that the drugs talking?”

“No. She said she wanted to leave you something you could remember her by. She’s been embroidering you a tablecloth. Been on it for over a year. Napkins, too. She’s nearly done. Don’t tell her I told you.”

My mother now has severe arthritis in the fingers of both hands. There passed a long silence between my father and me.

It occurred to me that I much preferred sitting in silence with my father than speaking with him. I felt closer to him when I wasn’t struggling to decide what a normal son might say to a normal father. I liked it best when no words were expected. Together we looked into the clear night sky. The stars were bright pinpoints.

After a long while I finally spoke it aloud even though I knew I shouldn’t. It broke the rules. “I don’t want her to die, Daddy. I’m scared she might.”

Dad jerked up in his chair and shot me a startled look. “You can’t let yourself think like that, son. No sense in getting emotional,” he said. “That’s not going to help.”

His eyes glistened in the dim porch light. “But Dad,” I said, “it’s you that’s crying. Don’t you even know it?”

He reached up and touched his face. No, he hadn’t, and it seemed to scare the hell out of him. He awkwardly said goodnight and went to bed.

I sat up for a while in the den. All was quiet, except for the steady ticking of a clock somewhere in the room. The den, like the rest of the house, was decorated with Mom’s arts and crafts projects. She lived to clip articles out of Redbook or McCall’s or Good Housekeeping on how to make some god-awful decorative piece that she could proudly display. On the coffee table sat a 2-foot-high pyramid made of a dozen Styrofoam balls. The surface of each ball was completely covered with row after row of lima beans, glued on and then spray-painted gold. I was being watched over by half a dozen angels on the mantel made from handkerchiefs stuffed with cotton balls, shirtsleeve buttons for eyes, supported on stands made of Popsicle sticks. I wondered, if she hadn’t been raised dirt poor and had gotten more than a high school education, would she have become a professional artist? She certainly had the inclination.

Mom got a raw deal, I thought to myself. She was the only one in the family who understood my need to write. She had taken the poem I read in high school and had given it a place of honor in the scrapbook. It was then she told me that she had been her high school’s poet as well. “But I wasn’t any good,” she said, embarrassed. “You are. You should write if that’s what you want.” It struck me how little her opinion had mattered when I was a teenager and how much it mattered now.

Again I noticed the ticking of the clock and looked to see that it was 3 a.m. But I’d never seen that particular clock before. Its face seemed to be made out of … what? A phonograph record? I got up to examine it.

I was right. It was an old LP fitted with a tiny motor, three golden hands, and numbers glued on for the hours. Another art project. When I looked closer, I recognized the record. It was Bert Kaempfert’s "Afrikaan Beat."

Now, sleep deprived, I allowed the memory of a woman who had once been my mother to slowly emerge. She is young and beautiful, full of life. She wears a beautiful red sateen dress with a short vest she was so proud of. In my memory, she carefully drops that very record onto the turntable of the new Magnavox. She twirls around to me and grins. She is holding out both arms. I take her hand with my left and place my right awkwardly at her waist. She lays a palm gently on my shoulder. That was the day I asked Barbara Miller out for my first-ever date. My mother and Bert Kaemphert patiently teach the bossa nova.

These memories, the softer ones, are stored in a hard-to-get-to place in my heart. I’ve convinced myself that if I indulge those maverick moments of kindness, I will lose my balance. I will be sucked back into the familiar arms, not of a loving mother, but of a cold, sinking depression. I will convince myself that the little I received was all that I deserved. But tonight the memories are coming with such clarity that I can’t fight them.

There was a time before the drinking and the pills. In that time, she and I are still the best of friends. We collect SH Green Stamps. We make peanut butter cookies and tell each other jokes. And after Dad has fallen asleep in his chair, I bring her the old brown shoebox stuffed full of dozens and dozens of black-and-white photos of grown-ups in ancient dress, children more stern than their years warrant, unpainted houses, newly acquired cars and several mules.

I pull out a photo and hand it to my mother. “Tell me this one, Momma.”

She begins. “This here is your great-great aunt …” and she lets the stories fly.

When my mother narrated a snapshot she didn’t just say who was in it. Each photo was a vital thread in an intricate web of stories that revealed the essence of who we were, indeed, why we were. Depression-era, dirt-farm poverty, then the first family automobile, shiny and new; skeletal, half-starved girls who later show up beautiful and buxom, with beauty parlor perms. There was direction to our story, and it leaned toward hope. No single event was so burdensome or shameful that it could not be redeemed.

* * *

Two photos of my mother had always amazed me, one of her as a 12-year-old girl, looking malnourished, stooped and on the verge of giving up the fight to live. In the other, taken only three years later, she is beautiful, sassy, flirty. She had decided she wasn’t going to be ugly anymore. “I made myself a promise, Johnny. I would never take another bad picture again.”

Sitting there alone in their den, I laughed aloud. That’s why she was trying to get out of bed. They were coming to take her for X-rays. No way was my mother going to let them take a picture of her looking ugly.

The next day the pulmonologist called my brother, my father and me into a small conference room and showed us the X-rays. He was very worried and strongly recommended that we put Mother on a ventilator. We agreed.

But no one had spoken to Mother about it.

“No!” Her shout was barely above a whisper, but you knew she meant it. She pulled her shoulders back defiantly. “I don’t want it!”

David and I told her how the upside outweighed the downside. The pulmonologist spoke at length. Dad hung back by the entrance, nodding.

“Everybody I ever knew that went on one of those things never came off,” she said, gasping for breath. “Those things are a death sentence.”

She insisted that she would get well on her own and to stop pushing her to do something she was damn well set against. Even in her weakened state, it was the strongest, most in charge, the most direct I had ever seen her. She was fierce.

And in that moment I gained a glimpse of who my mother really was. All this time I had believed my father to be the strong one, the one who was always in charge. But I had it backward. Watching mother fight for her life and seeing Dad lost and confused, I knew for certain that, without ever verbalizing it, they had struck a deal. My mother would let my father, who had come from a hard-drinking, violent family, have what he had never had, a sense that he was in control, that he was the strong one.

In return, my father gave her what she had hungered for since before that pitiful farmyard picture was taken. Namely, to be treated with dignity and respect, like she was somebody special. Mom’s drunken escapades, the ones I hated so much, were not spontaneous, unpredictable sprees. They had been strategic. Each incident had been preceded by some act of disrespect on my father’s part. As soon as he broke the contract, she went out and showed him who was really in control.

I had only understood these two people as parents, which in the scheme of things, is not knowing much about somebody at all.

* * *

Mother did as she said she was going to do, she recovered. No one could explain how, no more than they could explain why she had become deathly ill in the first place. Pretty soon Dad was his old bossy self and Mom resumed her “dance of the ditzes.”

* * *

My novel was finally published, only after I took my ex-agent’s advice. I changed my name. Well, actually, I didn’t need to. I queried the novel under the name on my birth certificate—Johnnie Johnson. In the biographical information, I made sure to keep my identity both gender- and race-neutral.

My agent had been right. After sending it out to several publishers myself, I received four requests. One was ready to sign without any rewrites. Of course, I told them the truth when they called, that I was a white male, but by that time it didn’t matter. They had read the novel and liked it.

I felt vindicated when the first national review declared, “Odell, an African American, is the rare writer on race who allows for a range of responses--and for the possibility of change.” I really hated to alert them to their mistake as to my race. Whether the reviewer was right or not in her estimation, it was the best compliment she could have paid.

A couple of months after the novel was published, I drove Mom to the museum in Jackson to see the traveling exhibit from Versailles. She held out for an hour before we had to take a rest in the museum cafe. She feels sophisticated now that I have introduced her to cafe lattes and she orders one with an obvious sense of accomplishment.

She took a sip, set her cup down and said in a surprised tone, “Why, I haven’t thought of that in years!”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading your book again. I keep having these memories about growing up. Things I guess I’d just put out of my head.”

“Like what?”

“You know the girl you wrote about and what you said about her life on the farm? I just remembered something that happened to me when I was about her age.”

My mother went on to tell me about a summer afternoon in the 1940s. Her father has just come home, drunk. He calls the whole family together in the yard. He takes great pains to line them up against the side of the barn, from the smallest to the tallest. They think maybe he’s going to take their picture. And sometimes he’s been known to bring presents of candy and fruit back from town to hand out to them, so everybody is giddy with excitement. Even though, this time, he seems drunker than usual.

He tells them not to move and then disappears. He returns holding his shotgun. He announces that he is going to kill them all one by one. Nobody moves.

Unsteadily, he raises the gun and aims at the smallest boy. Just that moment his wife races from out of nowhere, screaming, tugs down on the barrel. He hits her in the face, knocking her to the ground. He aims again.

My mother related this story to me in a calm, casual voice, as if she was telling me how to make a banana pudding or naming relatives in an old photo. I, on the other hand, sat horrified.

She took another sip of her latte. “You know, Johnny,” she continued, almost as an afterthought, “if a neighbor hadn’t rode up at that very moment, I do believe he would have killed us every one.” She smiled sweetly.

All I could think was, there is not enough time in the world for me to know who you are. I will never know what it took for you to get here, to this place, today. I will never know what price you paid for survival. I’ll never know the bargains you struck, the close calls you had, the secret oaths that you swore. I’ll never know what you had to forget.

Perhaps I can never forgive you for your abandonment, the things I know for sure, but also, I will have to admit this: What I don’t know about you is bigger than the universe. Whatever it took for you to survive, whatever that twisted resolve to stay alive called upon you to do, God bless you for that.

By Jonathan Odell

Jonathan Odell is the author of "The Healing" and, most recently, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League," a novel that was inspired in part by his mother, one of many ill-suited 1950s housewives. Born in Mississippi, he currently lives in Minneapolis, where he is at work on a memoir and another novel.

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