21 April 2014
My mamma died early this morning. Or late last night, as I’m seven time zones and many hours away.
I always knew this was a possibility. Mamma (pronounced “Memmaw,” with a southern drawl, or grandma for all you non-Appalachian folks) turned 80 last year – eight months after I’d moved to Zambia.
In January I got word that she was sick and in the hospital. I talked with her on Skype and tried to convince myself that she’d be around another year. I knew it was a lie.
I won’t be going back for the funeral. Three days of travel, and she won’t be there anyway.
Instead I’ll be here in Mfuba, thinking about all those great Mamma-isms, like, “I feel like everybody ate!” “Lord have mercy!” and “Can’t never did do nothin’!”
That last one will always stick with me. I like to think these words of wisdom from Mamma helped shape me and my, “I can do anything” (aka stubborn) attitude. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated that phrase – to others and to myself – over the years.
It’s my hope that at least something of her rubbed off on me.
Mamma was one tough lady. She moved from east Tennessee to Detroit with my grandfather (that’s Pappa) when she was just 15. (Yes, 15. They got married VERY young.) She worked a full-time job while raising two kids in the 1950s – long before working moms were common. She kept the whole family in line with a combination of shrewd financial skills, Southern Baptist faith, hard work, and a lot of love.
Growing up, I was closer to her than to my own parents – or to any adult for that matter – and I gleefully spent many a night sleeping over at Mamma and Pappa’s house.
Mamma took no crap from anyone, and I vividly remember the one and only time she raised her voice at me, using the word “hell.” I was shocked and horrified and never did that again! But normally she didn’t HAVE to raise her voice – the desire not to disappoint her was enough.
There was a sense of peace and calm that pervaded her house – kept just interesting enough by my late Pappa’s tales of ghosts that would be awakened by noisy grandchildren and watermelons that would grow out of your ears if you ate those black seeds.
Like the thick down “comforter” we got to sleep under at Mamma and Pappa’s house, there was an warm, easy feeling about just being in Mamma’s presence. It was she who taught me to sew and cross-stitch, to make gingerbread houses out of graham crackers and Christmas ornaments out of just about anything. She who never tired of braiding my hair in my favorite style: two french braids, one on each side of my head. She who painstakingly decorated individualized cakes for her six grandkids’ birthdays – making out of icing dolls or typewriters or sports cars or whatever else we requested each year. She who instilled in me key components of the moral compass that guides me to this day.
I went to church with Mamma every Sunday of my childhood, and though I quit religion a long time ago, she never judged me for it. I told her that the mountains and forests were my church, and she wholeheartedly accepted that, telling me these were all God’s creation.
Mamma was a pragmatic Christian, telling me on several occasions, “I’m voting Democrat, but don’t tell your Pappa.” Upon learning that one of her grandkids was gay, she paused only a split second before saying, “He’s my grandson, and I love him.”
She accepted, too, that I was nowhere near the family-oriented homebody she was – and that all my wandering was just something I needed to do. I imagine she thought of it something like this: “Theresa may be crazy, but she’s my granddaughter, and I love her.”
I love you, too, Mamma.