Monday, June 4, 2012

the glory and the power of it

my grandfather sold cars for over 50 years but he didn't believe in power windows. they would break too easily, he was sure, so i'm pretty sure as long as he was selling my parents cars, the windows had to be cranked down by hand. imagine. 

one summer night when i was 9 or so, Mary Wallace, my friend Lydia's mother, drove up in the driveway to show us her new car. and oldsmobile. plush seats, FM radio (Bigdaddy didn't believe in that either,) and windows that moved up and down as if by magic. 

'let's go for a ride!' she said giggling, her eyes as wide as her grin. we piled in and off we went, no doubt rolling the windows down and up in the summer air so much so that they might have broken. but they didn't.

Lydia's mother was fun like that. giggling at us girls as we made onion soup on her front porch from wild onions that grew in the yard, played dress up in her shoes. (we piled the onions in a tin bucket along with dirt and water and left our concoction on the front porch — which nobody ever used — to rot in the spring sun.) giggled as we created beauty parlors on her side porch, ate Oreos in her kitchen (no more than two.) crafted barbie doll houses with wall-to-wall carpet, new in the 70s don't you know, from scraps scavenged from her new house. the only thing that would warrant her ire was if we woke the baby. and there were always babies in the house.

birthdays at her house might mean traveling 40 miles to be on television... Lydia's birthday is in November, and so backyard parties like the rest of us had in summer were out of the question. in my memory, we rode across the miles for what felt like a day, then we marched behind WITN-Y the Marching Hobo, watching ourselves on the black and white screen, LIVE. now THAT was a party.

in first grade, she visited our classroom toting a harpsichord, then sat down with it in her lap and made music, playing the songs from our music book. whose mother could do that?  i can see her fingers now, picking out the songs, her voice taking on the words like a bird singing on the clearest of days. the very idea that mothers could be something other than mothers changed me. i didn't imagine that as work, but joy.

she called me su-su. i don't cotton to nicknames, but this one made me feel as if i were part of her brood. she sang at my wedding, my favorite hymn. "Lord of all hopefulness, lord of all calm, whose trust ever childlike, whose presence is balm..."

betty jean, left, with mary wallace
i remember standing there at the chancel steps as she sang the words i had so often sung to myself in the dark when i felt alone. in her voice, the words were balm to a nervous bride. she had known me all my life, and here she was, singing at my wedding. calming me, just because she was there.

Mary Wallace sang for countless brides, including her own daughter... and it was always an event. not to mention funerals— sending her husband off to heaven with a personal rendition of the Lord's Prayer.

she wrote me letters as i grew older, when i wrote stories she liked, and i still have one or two notes i cherish. she was proud of me, of who i had become. i could recognize her handwriting as if it were my own mother's. 

mary wallace, left, sending sparkles
three years ago, she came to my daughter's wedding. fitting, since my child had been in her daughter's wedding some years before. she stayed to the end, lighting sparklers and cheering the newlyweds on. i could not have had this special day without her. there Lydia is, too, in the checked dress in the picture there, celebrating with her mother as we sent the Pea off with her Prince. 

a couple of years ago i came home one day to a message on my answering machine. 'don't you call me back,' she said, but don't you dare take me off your Christmas card list!' (we routinely lampoon the standard holiday newsletter, and she loved the humor of it, knowing about my family, keeping up.) and i have kept her on my list, still.

this year, i won't get to. she died on Friday, and yesterday, we said goodbye.

if funerals can be great, this was. favorite hymns, stories that made everyone laugh and cry a little, and in the end, her own voice. the voice that celebrated and soothed so many, did all this and more for all of us gathered, once again to grieve for her. there she was, singing the Lord's Prayer, all the glory and the power of it, forever. and we were all blessed by it.

Lydia is not the crier i am. get up and get going, she would often say to me when i faltered. but yesterday, i had the chance to hold her up a little. after the service she looked at me with red eyes and said: "Mama would probably be upset with me, but i had to hear her voice in church one last time."

upset? i doubt it. just filled with joy to have a few last words for her brood.



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