My mother died little more than a week ago. I am still nibbling at the edges of what that really means. I thought I was handling it all so well until I counted the number of days I have been in my pajamas. The same .. pajamas.
I can’t say that I’ve been pretending to be okay with her leaving. I really am. She was almost ninety and had finally, only six months ago, lost the fire that most of us expected to burn until the end.
When my dad died more than ten years ago, it threw my world into a spin rivaled by the scariest carnival ride. It wasn’t like my dad’s death was unexpected. He was 85, had a pacemaker, and had outlived all of the males in his family by almost 20 years. He was the next to the last child born to a woman who died of stroke complications in her mid-forties.
When my dad turned 55, I started preparing myself for how I would manage without him. He was a huge force in my life. I felt complete and total acceptance from him. He was the only male that I knew I could trust with my heart. That deception or betrayal or even doubt was not a possibility. I felt a kinship with my dad that I didn’t have with another living soul.
My mother was another story. And, not to paint an ugly, unwarranted picture, she scared me at times. In all fairness, I know that she loved me almost to excess, so that wasn’t it. I just knew that she came with experiences in life that made her kind of extreme on all levels.
There is a picture of my mother and she’s probably about eight. She’s skinny and brown. Her face is contorted as she’s staring into the sun. She wears a perfect China doll bob haircut, (and I’ve often wondered who cut it.) She’s holding a bunch of huge turnips – clearly proud at their size – posing for the camera, recording this agricultural victory for all subsequent generations to applaud.
The Turnip Queen.
She did not have an easy life. Her mother married at fourteen and had the first of ten babies at sixteen. In the next twenty one years, she would bear nine more babies and bury three of them. Before my grandmother was forty, she had suffered more pain than many do in a lifetime. But, in her generation, it was probably little more than expected. Life was hard.
My mother, the last baby, arrived in 1925. And my grand mother told my mother that she, Lela Mae, was really the only baby she ever really wanted. My first response to my mother telling me that was, “Mama Neal probably said that to all her babies.” Then I gave it more thought. “You were the only baby I ever really wanted.” And I knew that, given the lack of birth control, given the hard scrabble existence, given the wars and diseases of the time .. every act of love between she and my grandfather was tainted with so much fear. Fear of another child to feed, fear of sickness. So, perhaps it’s possible that at age 36, she had enough peace and had raised six, healthy children that, and that maybe, this time, she could be happier about what might be her last time to feel life within.
I know my mom wasn’t treated like the prize she was. She, like most of her generation, was expected to get up and do the work she was told to do, without question. It wasn’t abuse, it was just the way things were done. She talked about walking behind her father in the cold and wet, retrieving the ducks he’d shot. She talked about driving wagons from place to place on the property and the one time it was overloaded and broke in two. She talked about being asleep, warm in her bed when fisherman would arrive in the early dawn, and being told to get up and make breakfast for everybody.
She begged to go to school early, anxious to learn. And, in doing so, graduated early from high school. But what was her life to be after high school? Surely there was no money or even whispered wishes for something more. Her parents expected that she, the last of their children, would remain at home and care for them in their aged years. My grandmother was younger than I am now when my mother was eighteen.
But after decades of hard work, no air conditioning, no real medical care, hauling wood and water, making meals daily from basic ingredients and all those babies, my grand parents thought their elder years would be softened by the presence and administrations of my mother
At some point, my grandfather had debilitating strokes that left him completely dependent on my grandmother and mother, other aunts, uncles and cousins – for the most basic needs we all share.
But my mother had wings and one day, I’m sure after much fighting and crying and raging and hearts breaking, she flew away to become what she would be.
Knowing her level of loyalty and her dedication to family, I can only be in awe of the courage this took.
The turnip queen flew the coop. She went off to the big city to get an education and life beyond the Dolen gravel pits. She lived in a boarding house owned by a lady that I called “Aunt Winnie” as a child even though we were no relation. No blood relation, but clearly, Aunt Winnie was one of those special people that God places in all our lives that serve as guideposts, wells of wisdom and encouragement angels.
My parents married in 1947.
Her parents did not attend.
She was on her own and thriving and considering how things might have turned out, they should have been on their knees, thanking God – but they weren’t.
The turnip queen moved on.
Two years into her marriage, she gave birth to my brother. He was a beautiful baby, perfect in every way. She had her little home, her new marriage and a precious little one of her own. But there were still chains on her heart that drew her home to her bitter parents.
Even after I came along, and even as a child, I observed that every time more than three siblings or two and Mama Neal were ever under the same roof, sparks flew. Doors slammed, voices raised and somebody ended up crying. I always wondered what they were all so mad about.
I still do.
The turnip queen was the last one standing.
Mama lived mostly with me the last ten years of her life. It wasn’t something I planned, thought about or even lightly considered. Two weeks before my dad passed away I had gotten married to the kindest, gentlest man. We had been together for eight years as a couple and in that time he had managed to blur all the lines of hurt, betrayal, guilt and resentment two failed marriages and nearly a decade of being alone had carved in my heart.
I was eager to have this new life for myself but it wasn’t to be. Well, at least not the way I expected it to be.
Life got more complicated and, as usually happens in times of chaos, God, in his infinite ability to change things up, added fuel to the fire.
I lost my dad.
I moved in with my grieving mother.
I found out I was to be a grandmother myself.
It was a lot. But now I know that every single event in life that seems to be the one that will break your heart in so many pieces it could never be whole again .. is the time that God is growing you. Growing you to be the biggest, best turnip in the garden.
Over the next ten years a lot would happen. It was, after all, L.I.F.E. Babies, marriages, family feuds, hard work, disappointments, joy, victory, grief, health crises, more babies, more joy.
Through it all I had my unwavering network of loved ones, friends and even strangers I had never met, to lift me up and get me through it all. And I had my mama.
Always, always, always, there was the turnip queen.
Until last week.
These waters are new and uncharted. They are murky and cold and it’s possible that beyond this place, there be dragons. I am just getting used to the fact that now it is ME who is the old one. That I am the one that will give giant kisses, warm hugs and love all the boo boos away.
The turnip queen left quite large shoes to fill.
I pray God gives me everything I need to do the job just half as well. I do know this, despite the fact that I feel like an orphan of the Universe, I know that isn’t true. I know that even though she’s not here to get crumbs in my butter or mix up the salad forks with the dinner ones, that even though there’s no one telling me (in detail) to do something I’ve already accomplished, even though there’s no one here that says, “It’ll be okay, baby”; I know it will.
The turnip queen lives in Heaven now. But even that infinite distance between us is an illusion. Even though in my mind’s eye, she is thirty five and gorgeous, completely healthy with eyes glowing, full of love for my daddy who sits beside her in a Heavenly garden full of light and beauty, even though I can’t see her, feel her, or smell her Elizabeth Taylor “Passion” perfume.. (actually that is kind of a good thing) .. she’s here.
Because I know that every time I taste the sweetness of my grand babies kisses, roll out my chicken and dumplings or state the obvious to my now grown children, I know that Her Royal Highness, The Queen of Turnip, lives on.
I think it’s only fair that, if I have her feet on the ends of my legs, and if it’s her words that come flying out of my mouth without hesitation (or forethought), it’s only fair that I have her title.
So pass the scepter. And you can call me “Queen”. Carry on ..