...that was the belief I held until I was seven years old. My mother never washed her hands because my mother was not dirty. No way. She was a perfect supernatural being, on the same astral plane as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. It was my neighbor, Margaret Veal, who shattered my cherished myth. Isn't there always a kid who serves as the Neighborhood Myth Shatterer?
Margaret was the kind of kid who loved to instruct the more sheltered among us in the ways of the world. She knew about Kotex and how babies are born (from their mother's navels, of course) and how to pronounce "deviled ham." She called it "d'villed." I found her rather sophisticated, but that afternoon, when she said, out of the blue, shifting the miniature pots on the stovetop of my Deluxe Dream Kitchen, "Now your mother has to wash her hands before she cooks supper because she could get germs on the bread," I flat out denied it.
"MY MOTHER DOES NOT WASH HER HANDS. MY MOTHER IS NOT DIRTY."
Later that evening, as I observed Mama placing pieces of flour-coated chicken into the hot oil of her electric skillet, I casually said, "Margaret is so stupid. She said you wash your hands before you cook supper."
"Well, San, of course I wash my hands before I cook supper."
Say it ain't so.
I grew up with a mother who poured her energies into raising my sisters and me, a mother who enjoyed mothering and passed on that legacy. Although she worked jobs in various locations in the years before I was born--in the catalog office of Montgomery Ward in Chicago, for example, then later, of all places, a chocolate factory in Georgia--she settled into life as that fairly common presence of the 50s and 60s, a stay-at-home mom. My sisters and I never rode the school bus. Mama picked us up. We never ate the disgusting cafeteria food. Mama packed a balanced, flavorful lunch for us. At home we seldom had any food from a can. Mama cooked garden-fresh green beans and cream corn in the summer and in the winter, we ate the corn and the peas she had "put up" (frozen) in the summer.
She was a "room mother" at school, which meant she provided coconut-embellished chocolate oatmeal drops for parties, and we got to eat the leftovers. At church she was elected to the office of congregational secretary, which meant we always had a stock of communion crackers in the bottom drawer of our mahogany china cabinet. That my mother was entrusted with the solemn duty of purchasing the symbolic body of Christ, by the case, from The Baptist Bookstore, I took as clear evidence of her supernatural status.
Yes, those crackers were off limits as snacks. And yet I recall stealing into the dining room, sliding open the drawer, rummaging around for an opened box, and peeling back the wax wrapper. As I nibbled on one (or two) communion wafers, I recited in my mind Proverbs 9:17. Stolen waters are sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.
Bennie and I are flying to Alabama tomorrow morning. Sunday will be the first Mother's Day I have spent with Mama in...well...I don't remember how long. I visited her last May, but that visit was timed to coincide with her cancer surgery and recovery. Actually, I may have arrived on Mother's Day, but I arrived at night, and on the eve of major surgery, so that doesn't quite count, does it? I would love to take my mother out to dinner on Sunday, for the entire family to gather around a big table and laugh over excellent barbecue, but that won't happen. Mama is severely disabled with arthritis now, and car trips, even short ones, are an ordeal for her.
It's disconcerting the way life has a way of circling back. The mother who helped me learn to walk now needs considerable help in getting around herself. Even so, that mother from way back when, who held me lightly, balancing my small upright body over my grandmother's lawn, who coaxed me to take my first steps, continues to wish me well and egg me on. And that young and beautiful vessel of energy who never washed her hands in her ever-so-lovely flawlessness? She lives forever within.
To this day, I cherish her. When I'm feeling unsuccessful or dirty or unloved, I only have to call on the Perfect Mother Within and I feel lovable and successful and very, very clean. I'm one of the fortunate ones: I had a mother who loved me so much I believed she was God. And in her way, she was. She taught me how to love, and in my book, that's worthy of worship. That's worthy of eating a little stolen bread in secret, savoring the taste of unconditional love.
Saturday I had the pleasure of bringing a new painting to the gallery, one I'd labored over, and selling it within a few hours. And Sunday I had the sublime satisfaction of reporting the incident with pride to Mama. She was just as excited as the day I brought home my first hideous homemade Christmas ornament assembled from Styrofoam and toothpicks. (It looked a little like a Sputnik.) I may have honed my technique a bit, but my mother's enthusiasm for all things made by her children never changes.
I love you Mama! I always will.