Ten years ago today September 17, 2005, my mother passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. She was 71 and I was 38. Although it may sound cliche, I really do think about her every day. This personal essay is one way I can keep her memory alive.
When I was in about 6th grade, the age of my middle daughter is now, I went through a period of insomnia. Not every night, but quiet frequently, I would lie awake in my small daybed and just listen to the night sounds. In the summer, I would count as far as I could until the air conditioning kicked on. Periodically, I could hear the ching ching of YoYo’s collar as she shifted positions or shook her itchy Golden Retriever ears. In the fall, when we opened our windows to let in the Miami breezes—coolish and lacking humidity—I could hear all the outside noises—neighborhood cats fighting or opossums walking under my window, which sound just like a man’s gait. So, I would oscillate between terror and boredom, and just lie there and wish myself to sleep. When I could not take it anymore, I would tip toe into my parents’ room, avoiding the creaky spot next to their closet, and whisper in my mother’s ear. “Mom, I can’t sleep.” Her answer was the same every time, “Go back and say the Rosary.” When I said I already did that, she would say, “Well, do it again.” Never, not once in my memory, did my mom scoot over and let me lie with her. In our house that was just never done. Unlike the nightly bed hopping that happens in my grown up house.
Nope. My mother was too practical for such frivolity. It never bothered me because I was never knew anything different. Having my own children who keep invading my bed, I can’t help but feel she missed out on some sweet bonding time at the risk of setting rigid boundaries. Most mornings, however, I think she was a genius and I wish she were here to slap some sense into me.
My mom was good at that. It was in her genes. My mama was a no-nonsense girl from Frankfort, Kentucky who survived ten house floods from a swollen Kentucky River before she was even 18. She was a child born in the 30s from a broken home, and was raised the last of six hooligans single-handedly by her mother, Gram, in a one-bedroom house on Logan Street. Back in the 30’s it was unusual to have divorced parents, but it never seemed to affect my mom.
As the baby, my mama got the nickname Tootie, and it stuck until her dying day. Only state and federal government and the saintly nuns at Good Shepherd Catholic School called her by her birth name, Mary Margaret. As the baby of six in a one-bedroom house, she learned to sleep anywhere and pull her weight, without complaint or argument. Chores, homework, and mass on Sunday were the three mandatory elements in her life. My mama learned her Baltimore Catholic catechism, manners, and how to harmonize to the “Ave Maria” from the nuns at Good Shepherd Catholic School. But, she learned her culinary skills from her own fine Southern mama. Mama could fry chicken better that the Colonel himself and make a Caesar salad that even Brutus would eat.