Southern Legitimacy Statement:
Born in Richmond, VA, I’ve made it my forever home. My paternal grandpa was a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay, and to this day, I’m a seafood snob. I married an ex-Amishman to whom all things Southern have to be carefully explained. He doesn’t hold chairs for ladies or scurry to open doors. But he is a fine gentleman nevertheless. I’m most proud to say that I survived teaching middle school English for eighteen years.
Grief defined my childhood. I didn’t know the word then for the sickness that sat in the pit of my stomach or the fever that sweated out onto the bedsheets. I didn’t know that the last time I would see my mama was when the men opened the back doors of the ambulance—red lights flashing—and slid the stretcher inside. Nor did I know I was supposed to cry.
Until that day, death hadn’t been part of my short life. I was six years old, all four of my grandparents were still alive, as was my dog. We were a family—my older brother, my infant sister, mama, daddy, and I. My memories from that time would forever be a child’s story—hopscotch and crayons, puppies and chickens in the back yard, trips to the river, and church on Sunday. My world was a lovely painting, a well-tended garden, and I felt loved.
Suddenly, though, everything collapsed into darkness in the June sunshine. My mama died. It was as though I was playing “Ring around the rosy, all fall down.” I plunged into a dizzy abyss, untethered and scared. And no one told me that I had come to the end of my childhood.
We slugged through that first summer. Daddy still went to work every day, but when he came home, he slumped into his chair, read the paper, and then went to bed. It seemed I had lost him, too, as he retreated into some shadowy place all his own. My brother went inside himself to live with his anger. In the 1950s, day care meant someone in the family stepped in, so my baby sister went to live with our aunt. I froze. We became a family of three. We circled each other like strangers. Our little house seemed to close in on us as we stepped around the silence. There were no support groups or child psychologists, and the grown-ups just didn’t know what to say to the children. So they said nothing.
The ruthless heat of that southern summer yielded only thick, gummy oxygen that never seemed to be enough to fill up my lungs. Neighbor women came and went each day—some washed and hung sheets on the line, some made lunch for me and my brother, others took phone messages for daddy. I did child’s work. I found a few mementos in a dresser drawer, and I pieced together the things my mama had touched or worn—her opal ring, a black and white checked compact, three small elephant bells, a beaded evening bag, a watch. No one told me where she carried the evening bag or why she collected elephant bells. In my child’s mind, though, I created a story of mama dancing around a ballroom, the tiny evening bag swinging from her wrist. Later I added to my collection a sliver of granite from her tombstone that I chipped off on one of the many trips to the cemetery. I made these trinkets my own, gifts from my mama, and I kept them like a secret.
Many years would pass before I would begin to understand the trauma a child suffers when a parent dies. Eventually, I cried. . . when my cat died, when I watched the movie, “Beaches,” when I had my own baby. It seemed, however, that the tears were more for me than for mama. With each tear shed, I realized I was finally learning how to grieve.
Many pages of my childhood were left blank, uncolored. But eventually, healing stepped in. It doesn’t announce itself when it comes into one’s life. It just arrives quietly over time, pays short visits, often when least expected. And it never promises to stay.
Though many years have passed, goodbyes are still hard for me. In the part of my child’s mind that I brought along into adulthood, I sometimes see a flashing red light and like whiplash, I’m back in my yard by the little white house. I gasp and think—for a moment—that going away can still mean never coming back. But I’ve learned how to comfort myself, thanks to help from others and the understanding that comes with living. The little treasure chest I created all those years ago helps too. The gifts mama left me still sit in my dresser drawer. Sometimes I take them out, and I light the candle I keep beside the elephant bells. It’s my secret ritual that I think mama would like.