Goodbye, Mamma

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.

Mamma & me, on a visit just before I moved to Zambia.

Mamma & me, on a visit just before I 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.

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Top 10 reasons why my brother would be a better PCV than me

My brother Lee just left Zambia after a brief but fantastic visit. :+) We didn’t go to Victoria Falls or go on safari in one of the country’s wildlife-rich National Parks. We attended no official cultural festivals, saw no waterfalls. Nope, we just spent five days in Mfuba Village, with two days of travel on each side. This is why I love my brother.

Lee with a gaggle of Mfuba's youngest residents.

Lee with a gaggle of Mfuba’s youngest residents.

He was only here for 8.5 days, and almost half that was spent traveling.¬†We’d planned to do a little sight-seeing traveling back from Mfuba to Lusaka. But then, on Day 3 in the vil, Lee asked, “Could we just spend an extra day here?” So we did.

It was really heart-warming to see my neighbors in Mfuba getting along so smashingly with my brother. (And of course he got along best with Obed, the kid who annoys me the most. :+) Kids and adults alike, they freaking loved him, and I’m pretty sure the feeling was mutual. He even helped me out with our GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Club, playing the role of a sugar daddy in our skit to teach them of the dangers of sleeping with men who give them things. (Despite our lesson, as soon as Lee got up to leave the room, they all got up to follow! Possibly the funniest moment of the whole week. :+)

Lee getting into the role of a sugar daddy. Although the girls assured me they'd never follow a REAL sugar daddy, they loved Lee.

Lee getting into the role of a sugar daddy. Although the girls assured me they’d never follow a REAL sugar daddy, they loved Lee.

In this spirit, here are the Top 10 reasons why Lee would make a fantastic PCV:

10) He got the pooping-in-the icimbusu-hole thing down way earlier than I did. Not one turd on the floor!

Me demonstrating how to properly use the icimbusu. Lee insisted on this and other ridiculous photos of me around the house.

Me demonstrating how to properly use the icimbusu. Lee insisted on this and other ridiculous photos of me around the house.


9) He (well, we) had four ubwali meals in four days, with four different families, thus experiencing slimy okra leaves, delicious cassava-leaf ifisashi, good ol’ beans, AND three different types of ubwali in very short order.
8) Straight cassava ubwali was his favorite. (“Aba Bemba!” — “He is a Bemba!” — I told my neighbors.)
7) He was in bed by 7 pm every night, just like most other PCVs I know. Me, I struggle to get to bed before 10.
6) He was far more patient with the kids than I am, endlessly playing games and taking pictures and videos of them.

 

Lee swinging Maria - one of at least a dozen kids with whom he had to repeat this exercise.

Lee swinging Maria – one of at least a dozen kids with whom he had to repeat this exercise.

5) His electronic gadgets were far more exciting than mine.
4) He was much more generous with his stuff and with his food than I am.
3) He picked up on key issues very quickly, such as: why do the churches have metal roofs, but not on the school? And, what can the teachers possibly be teaching that is more important than basic reading and writing?
2) He good-natured-ly put up with the same questions over and over and over again: How can she be your older sister when she is so much smaller than you?! Why are you not married? And, can YOU buy us a metal roof for the school?
1) After four days in Mfuba, he declared that he didn’t really care about seeing the sights outside of the vil and asked, “Can we just stay here one more day?”

Still, he did have his struggles, prompting me to create a second list:

Top 5 reasons my brother would never be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia:
5) He was NOT a fan of harvesting groundnuts for three hours, or of the constant transport of them into the sun and out of the rain for drying purposes. He insisted that we were surely burning more calories in this endeavor than we would ever gain from eating the groundnuts.

Lee and Ba Lister harvesting groundnuts in my field.

Lee and Ba Lister harvesting groundnuts in my field.

4) Upon arriving at a lodge after five nights in the vil, he had a minor break-down over the non-functioning shower.
3) When our second post-village meal in Kasama turned out to be ubwali, he was not pleased.
2) Toward the end of the week, he got a little worn down and compared the kids to time-sucking zombies, intoning, “They’re coming …” every time we had more than 10 minutes to ourselves.
1) He asked way too many questions about things that just have no answer. Like why my well-off neighbors can’t just buy a new rope for their well, to replace the one with all the nails that cut up your hands. In Zambia, some things are simply inexplicable.

Lee teaching some of the boys the "sprinkler" while the rest of us banged on the drums.

Lee teaching some of the boys the “sprinkler” while the rest of us banged on the drums.