Sunday, May 11, 2014

in mother words

a few weeks ago we had a wedding. my nephew, Sam, married the girl of his dreams in a beautiful, sweet ceremony followed by pictures and lots of music and dancing. the evening did not end with the fact of my mother in a viking hat, but that was part of it. this, from a woman who keeps her linens pressed and her bed made in crisp hospital corners. (i will blame her temporary debauchery on my nephew, who was her date for the evening, but maybe she is more like me than i imagined.)

i'll spare her and you with picture, because my mother is a woman of substance and  decorum. though i can't help but think that my father was laughing in the margins somewhere, marveling at the beautiful woman who for moment, claimed the girl he probably once knew. 

it's mother's day. a day fraught with expectation and much joy and sometimes disappointment for what is expected and not delivered. i have thought much about my mother today, though i was not with her, wondering if we as children delivered what she had hoped (meaning that my father had read her mind.) i remember mother's day azaleas that still bloom in the yard where she no longer lives, trips to Farbers for nightgowns and petitcoats, some of which she probably still has. she was always thankful, happy, gracious. was she ever disappointed? I never knew it.

(for the record, my own children did just fine.)

i wish i were more like my mother every day.

i have found myself today wishing i had been a better mother. had been wise and quiet like my own mother, (and yes, you can read that as i was fumbling and screaming much of the time), had everything in order so that (to this day) i can go into her closet and find exactly what she needs. 

my own children will not be able to do that. they will find files of papers they don't understand and an underwear drawer they will (i hope) just toss to the curb. my mother would be mortified at both of these facts.

more than 10 years ago i published a little book about mothering, knowing even then, as a mother of a college and a high school student, i knew pretty much nothing about how to do it. or do it right. it seemed like i was making the whole thing up as i went along... because by then, new problems experiences were presenting themselves to me at a swift pace. i couldn't help but think back to a time when all things seemed so foreign, so scary and yet, so simple...that time when you are just beginning to be a parent... maybe the mothers of you out there will find a bit of yourselves in this. i wish (both) of my children would read it. 


When I gave birth to my daughter on a frigid morning in December almost 20 years ago, I thought that meant I had become a mother. A baby to rock and coo to, that’s what I’d wanted for so long. But it wasn’t until a few days later that my transformation occurred. It happened when my own mother, who’d come to take care of us for awhile, walked out my front door with my husband and said: “Give her a bath while I’m gone.”

Now you have to know my mother to understand the power of these words. Take a bath, she was always telling me while growing up, and make it scalding. It’ll serve to scrub away whatever ails you, be it headache, splinter or broken heart.
She’d been right, of course. I’d even followed her advice not four days before. Tired of being swollen and perpetually in wait, I lowered my nine-months’ pregnant body into a scalding tub and sat, knowing this was exactly what my mother would advise me to do. And believe me, it soon cured what ailed me and my baby. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, the baby who would be named Meredith told me it was time to come into the world.

A week later, when Mama handed my daughter over to me before heading out the door, she knew full well that “Give her a bath” was code for me — her own baby girl — instructing me to take my place among the mothers of  my family. It was time, not to take the bath, but give it.

Of course I resisted. I’d watched her give Meredith a bath on the giant sponge on my tiny bathroom counter, but aside from wringing a dripping washcloth over her squirming body, I’d never been in charge. I had no idea how much baby bath to use or if I should wash her hair. Where would I put her while the water was heating up? What if it got too hot? How would I, with only two hands between me, find all the soiled places between her folds, hold her slick form without dropping her on the floor?

I heard the door slam behind me and pondered all these things in my heart. Then at stared at the pink form in my arms, realizing for the very first time, that my mother would be going home soon, and this baby was mine to keep.
As I remember this, I think about the time we’d been studying the Chinese culture in 6th grade, and I asked my mother if I could take one of her china bowls for show and tell.

“Only if you don’t break it,” she said to me. So I wrapped it carefully in newspaper, put it in a paper grocery bag and set out. That afternoon I triumphantly walked the mile home, juggling my mother’s bowl and an armful of books. I made it all the way to the back door, then paused, the books and the bowl in one arm, trying to open the door handle. Need I say more?  If I couldn’t be trusted with a china bowl, how on earth could I be trusted with a baby?

I thought about not giving her a bath at all and just saying I did. I mean, she looked clean enough to me. But after 20 years of living under the roof of the master of bath giving, I knew full well she’d find me out.

Poor Meredith. I tried to be gentle. Her wide eyes watched as I tested the water and soaped the soft cloth. She was tiny, slippery, not six pounds, but to me she weighed 16. I was as careful as I knew to be, and after a minute or two, my heart slowed a little, and I began singing to her, marveling at the very idea that this tiny form was so much a part of me.

When my mother came home that afternoon, Meredith was not only clean but fed and burped, and I’d finally begun my journey as her mother.

Soon enough, though, you learn that when you are out in the world with your new baby, everyone becomes your mother. They are well-meaning when they tell you you’re holding her the wrong way, offer advice on how to properly burp her or what to do if she won’t stop crying. Sometimes their advice is worth keeping.

I learned this lesson on my first trip out of the house with Meredith when we paid our first visit to the pediatrician office, where the waiting room is command central for mothers who claim to know more about how to raise a baby than the mother sitting next to them.

This was January, middle Georgia, and though that part of the south is known more for its gentle winters, 1984 began as the year before it had ended, biting cold and blustery.

I had dressed Meredith for her first outing, first in t-shirt and diapers, then in tiny white tights and pink sailor dress. Next came a hooded sweater and socks. After that, a quilted snowsuit that was so big her feet didn’t reach the toes. Then came a blue toboggan, bought when we thought sure she’d be a boy. The final layer was made up of two, mind you, two soft blankets.

So tightly-bound was she that you could barely see her tiny face. Her body wouldn’t bend in the car seat, not doubt, since she’d doubled her weight in the 10 minutes it took me to dress her. Never mind. My baby would not be catching cold in this weather.
When I reached the doctor’s office, the nurses gathered around to see her. I beamed, at this most perfect creature I’d created, almost by myself.

“Take some of these covers off this baby,” said one of them, surely a mother of 10. Could she tell that I’d been at it less than two weeks?

I stood back, mortified, as she began to peel the layers away from my newborn, revealing the face of a child who has loved hot weather ever since.
 “Always be sure that you give her space to breathe, ” the nurse told me.

(If I’d tried to take Meredith out of the house when my mother was still visiting, not doubt she would have been the one to give me this advice. I related this story to my sister, and she admitted that though her daughter was born in the middle of August, the first time she took her outside, she wrapped her accordingly. My mother, who was a witness to this folly, was quick to remove the layers from my niece, lest she have a heat stroke. )

Give her a bath, give her room to breathe. I think of my own mother, and how many times she bathed me, not only in scalding water to scrub my ills away, but in the love she showered me with while I was growing up. I had no other model and surely I didn’t need one. She gave me room to breathe too, to learn the ropes without her looking over my shoulder every minute.

When I look back on these almost 20 years of being a mother myself, I know I’ve tried to follow these two rules. Meredith knows all about the power of the hot bath, and though she may think I’ve suffocated her with my questions about her life, I hope she can appreciate those times when I’ve given her some needed air, allowing her to shape her own future the way she feels is right.

There may be times for each of us, when as daughters, we are asked to mother our mothers. When my turn comes for that, I hope I can heed my own advice, for even mothers sometimes need to be bathed, not only with water, but in love and understanding. And I can tell you for sure, we will never outgrow our need for space to breathe.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

4-20-14, a personal tale

hey daddy.

sometimes it seems like it was just last thursday that i picked up the phone and there you were on the other end of the line, brightly talking and saying how you were doing pretty good and glad to be coming home. only it was not last thursday but a year from last thursday that we had that last phone conversation.

it was the next day, in fact, that we had our last face-to-face talk. you lay there in your bed in your most comfortable pajamas and told me quite emphatically that my hands were cold. i tried to warm them, and as the hours went by and everybody crowded by your side, it was a sweet, holy moment, all of us there with you.

sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes like 10 years and other times like the long year it has been, since you last spoke to me. for awhile there, after we lost you, i'd go back into my email and read your last written message to me, looking for more meaning in it than was already plain to see. by then you couldn't really write letters anymore... your thoughts were too jumbled, so i hold this one close, what you wrote to me about something i had posted on this blog.

'One of your best...........from your favorite reader.....wth love.  gvbsr'  


this weekend we have marked many things. meredith and james have been married for five years. FIVE. what a joy it is for them and for our family to see how happy they are together. she is still the city girl you proclaimed her to be at 3 months old. we doubt, sadly, she will ever leave it. but knowing they are so happy together softens that sadness. she and james will be a great couple, no matter where they are.

after supper last night we facetimed with pamela, mama and hooks, something you knew very little about last year, but we do a lot now. in fact, you may remember that you talked to hooks and meredith and maybe kendall, too, that last day on Facetime, which made them feel like they were there, in the room with you.

FaceTime keeps us connected though we are often states apart. i wish we'd had it in when i lived in georgia, so i could have seen your face when i talked to you. but i do have your letters.

our favorite facetime time now is with gracie, because she is always happy and waving. when you left us she was but a bit of a thing, and now she has teeth and is talking about what the dog-bird-cat can say. laura gray is growing up, too, and so much the big sister to vance, who seems like the happiest part of you, which is wonderful. cole of course, is the star of every family show, and he loves his little cousins so much.

today we were in our favorite town — the one you always said you wanted to leave, but in the end, where you chose to come back to. and we were there because of you, to celebrate Easter, and to remember where we were on 4-20-13.

no more perfect day than this, the day of Jesus' resurrection, to take a moment to ponder about your own.

we gathered in church with mama on the pew you shared with her for so long after we left home. (we filled three pews, thank you very much.) and afterward met up with you at the cemetery. kip brought the circus peanuts and i brought the orange slices, a communion of sorts with your offspring and your favorite treats. your children read at thing or two (gra even wrote a prayer in the best baptist tradition) and we did it (mostly) without tears. mama had a few, but on days like this, she is a sailboat without her tiller. though there are so many of us trying to direct her way, we are not the same as you there, holding onto her elbow as she crosses the street.

we have been crying a little bit, remembering the day last year, which is really ok because you cried a few times in your life, too. and our crying is because we miss your very being, and your being witness to all that won't stay still in our family... and there is a lot. 

sam & lindsay are getting married on saturday, and kip has become chief resident... he obviously is as smart, though more outgoing than you...  meredith and james have new jobs and promotions, kendall and matt have a new house, and jay and john both have great jobs in new cities. graham has built that shed to house the saw you gave him... oh, and he brought a special young woman to share this day with him today. (she helped him paint the shed, if that tells you something about her.)

we picnicked at your favorite place — the bird farm — introducing cole to a baby duck and gracie to a hundred parakeets in every color of the sky. cole petted the duckling, and gracie even tried to pull the tail of a parakeet when it landed on her stroller. a full flock of them landed on my arm and in my hair and tried to eat my shoes. 

our picnic was fried chicken from hardees and mama's potato salad, pamela's chocolate chip cookies and hooks's brownies. graham brought your favorite deviled eggs, and we talked about the fact that you would only eat the yolks. there are three left, the three you would have eaten if you'd been able to. sam brought the humor, and kip wore his gvb tie clip. all your boys were dashing today.

all your number ones were there, including jimmy, marti and rick (in no particular order) but we were missing meredith & james & lindsay, kendall, matt, laura gray & vance, jay and john, but they were all there with us really, just as you were.

at the end of our meal, mama stepped in to say what you would have... thanks for coming... and that looking around, there is STILL not an ugly one in the bunch. i honestly don't know how in the world that has happened.

on friday, we will be together again, to celebrate sam and lindsay and their marriage, and we can't wait for that. you will be happy to know that mama will be wearing beige, and PINK, and she will look beautiful in both. 

Daddy, our family is growing and changing and that's exactly what a family is supposed to do. you and mama set us in motion all those years ago, and we have never really stopped. and of course, all the additions add so much color to our beige. 

today pamula read something you left for us to find in your desk, which talked about how whenever we really need you, you will be nearby. you were there today. we felt it.
i read parts of a letter you wrote to me in 1979, when you talked about how you would one day be someone's ancestor, and that your only hope of eternal life, really, was through your children and grandchildren.

well, i'd say you have it. that on this day of the resurrection of our Lord, you have yourself eternal life for sure, through not only what was promised by God to all of us, but through all of us gathered there, and those who couldn't be with us but who love you even though you are not physically here. 

i hope you can know, somehow, that we will, each one, as your descendants, do all that you have hoped for us. and we will do you proud.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.