One year ago today, at about this time in the afternoon, I was driving north on Highway 49 towards Sharon with the driver’s window down on my truck and Ray Wylie Hubbard blaring on my stereo, singing how we never cut cut loose of our rock n’ roll ways. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and it was hard to drive, but I grew up driving that road and as long as I could avoid the tractors I probably wouldn’t roll up on anything too quick for me to deal with it.
I had spent the day saying goodbye to my mother, talking with my sister, my father and my aunt about what was going to happen the next few days, and finally telling her that she could let go anytime, that she could go now. In that last moment we had together, she opened her eyes, and in a voice stronger than she’d had all day, she said “Let’s go. Where are we going?”
That was my mother’s mantra for many years – “Let’s go.” If there was a defining characteristic of my mother for most of my life, it was motion. She hated to sit still, and it didn’t matter the destination, she was ready to go. And wherever she decided to go, she went. And whatever she decided to do, she did.
Sometimes people ask me how I’ve managed to do the things I’ve done in my life. I’ve worn a lot of hats – million-dollar salesman, manager, award-winning designer, theatre owner, stage director, actor, poet, spoken word performer, blogger, poker journalist, novelist, short story writer, husband. Sometimes folks ask me how I manage to fit that into 42 years, and I usually tell them that “I’m too stupid to fail.”
That’s a lie.
I accomplish things because I watched my mother accomplish things she wasn’t supposed to accomplish. I succeed because I have no concept of failure, because I grew up watching an extraordinary woman decide on something, and do it. I never heard her ask if anybody thought she could do it. I sure as hell never heard her ask anyone’s permission. I just watched her, time and time again, decide that something needed to be done, or that she wanted to do something, and then watched her bend the universe to her will until it happened.
I was in second grade the first time I saw my mother do what she wasn’t supposed to do. My elementary school was short on substitute teachers, and with her youngest child (me) out of the house, Mama decided that she would be a sub. One problem – to be a substitute teacher in Sharon, SC in 1980 required either a high school diploma or a GED, neither of which my mother had. She had dropped out of high school in tenth grade to help raise her 11 younger siblings in a household with an alcoholic father. So she didn’t have the paperwork required to babysit a bunch of rowdy eight or ten-year-olds, according to the rules.
So my mother went to night school at York Tech and got her GED. I think she was forty-eight when she got it. Then she went to the schoolhouse and signed up to be a substitute. I loved and hated when my mother worked at the school. I loved it because I didn’t have to ride the bus, but I hated it when she was my sub, because I couldn’t get away with shit, my mama was watching.
A few years later, she decided that smocking looked pretty and she wanted to try it. So she bought the pleating machine and learned to smock, then went around to craft shows selling handmade baby bones and dresses. A few months ago, one of my nieces found her baptism dress that Mama smocked for her, and her daughter wore it to be baptized. Mama would have approved. That’s a picture of my great-niece Emily in her mother’s baptism gown over to the left.
After I got done with elementary school, Mama decided she was done with substitute teaching and wanted to make extra money as a substitute mail carrier. Now that she had her GED, all she had to do was take the Civil Service Exam and pass it, and then she could work one or two days a week delivering mail.
She passed on her first try, and soon her red and white pickup was bouncing all around the roads of Western York County delivering mail.
Always involved in the church, she served multiple terms as a deacon, often at the same time that my father was serving as an elder of the church. She served at least two terms as Chair of the Board of Deacons, and spearheaded efforts for our church to acquire its first church van and to install a wheelchair lift to the sanctuary. She wasn’t alone in working on all these things, of course, but I don’t think I exaggerate much when I say they wouldn’t have happened nearly as quickly without her. Later in life, in her late sixties, the Deacons of the church asked her to come back and serve one last term. The church had a new pastor, and needed some institutional memory. She went back, and served one year as Chair before passing that torch on to a younger man, one I’d grown up with in church youth groups and Sunday school.
That last run on the Board of Deacons was the end of her service life, as the dementia started to take hold pretty severely not long after that. Eventually she couldn’t drive anymore, and her travels were over as well, as her own brain turned traitor and locked her alternately in confusion and the past. The last few years and after her passing we would find things wrapped up with little notes telling us what they are and where they came from. She knew what was coming as her mind betrayed her, she’d seen her own mother suffer from dementia and finally succumb.
But until that time when her body and mind turned on her, she was a remarkable woman. She helped raise eleven siblings, almost all of them at some point either living with my parents when things got too bad at home, or just working for my father in his peach shed or chicken farm. She raised four children, none of whom ended up in prison and all of whom lived to adulthood no matter how stupid we were (and a couple of us set that bar pretty high). She helped raise six grandchildren, none moreso than my youngest niece, who was her sidekick for years.
She was a pillar of the community, one of the women leading the fire department fundraisers whenever someone lost their house to fire, or got cancer, or just needed help. She was part of the grapevine, the Western York County Trinity of Miss Tot, Miss Faye and Miss Frances. If you wanted news to get out, you only had to call one of those three women and everyone who needed to hear it would know. She sold Tupperware, held toy parties, ran a booth at a flea market on weekends when I was at college, and taught me everything I know about sales and selling. She never met a stranger, and could sell ice cream to Eskimos. She was a square dancer, a rose gardener, a seamstress, ran a fabric store out of a converted peach packing shed, held out a helping hand to a local drunk and gave him work fixing up our roof and outbuilding when he needed it, and wasn’t afraid to be the first one on the scene at a fire or traffic accident.
She was raised in the Depression, and only ate her meat well done. She had a sharp tongue, and would peel the skin off your ass with a word if she needed to. She was a teetotaler, the child of an alcoholic, and judgmental as hell. She taught me at a young age not to say the “n” word, and to treat people right no matter what the color of their skin. She taught my sister how to make the world’s best fried chicken and rice and gravy, and taught my oldest niece how to make the world’s best banana pudding. And I will whip the ass of any man who challenges that fact.
She taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I did.
A year ago this coming Monday, I was finishing my morning shower at Dragon Con, getting ready to hit the last day of the show. I didn’t have any panels, so I was just gonna take it easy, see a few friends and get on the road early. My roommates knew what was going on back home, and we’d been waiting all weekend for “the call.” As I dried my hair and turned off the water, I felt it. I felt something change, and I realized that somehow, she had known how important that weekend was to my career, and she’d held on for me. And I felt her go. I shed a few tears in the bathroom, then stepped out and started getting dressed. Before I even got my socks on, my phone rang.