Mama

We are listening to a song wafting from the television. “Steal away, steal away home,” she sings along. Her voice is weak. She motions for me to come closer to the side of the hospital bed stationed in the middle of her family room. “You know,” she confides, “those words had more than one meaning in slavery days.”

The words to “Steal Away” were written down by James Weldon Johnson in his Book of Negro Spirituals published in1925. “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here. My Lord, he calls me, he calls me by the thunder, the trumpet sounds within-a my soul….”

“My grandfather was born in slavery,” says Mama, as I am permitted to call her now. Her only son has been my partner in life for over 40 years. At age 96 she is in “home hospice care.” Not long ago people would have said she is “on her death bed.”

She does not call it her death bed. Each morning of “comfort care” she smiles and says, “I am so glad I woke up today.” She points to the window, to a sparrow or a wren—she is not quite sure—sailing through the carport toward the nest it is building in the crepe myrtle. Visitors come and she rallies, despite having not eaten for six weeks, living on sips of water and soothing ice chips. Her kidneys are slowly failing.

Mama asks me to adjust her silk scarf, wrapped around her head washerwoman style and thanks me with a sweet smile. Her faithful wig is too uncomfortable; her natural hairline has receded regally far above her brows. She smiles again as I struggle with tying the knot just so.

“I can’t tell you what year my grandfather was born; I don’t think we ever knew. I remember him telling me about working in the cotton field and being whipped along with the mule next to him,” Mama says. She smiles, pleased that she has not forgotten. “I remember him telling me how lucky I was to go to school. He couldn’t write, and he said he wanted to learn so he could write a letter to his sweetheart. That was the only reason.”

Cora Lee Locke was born March 9, 1923, on a farm near Vidalia, Georgia, the second oldest of eight children, delivered at home by her grandmother.

“I hated to see mama’s stomach get big,” she laughs. “I knew that meant another child for me to take care of. You see, the older ones had to take care of the little ones, and we also had our regular work to do.” She smiles again and whispers, “Where are my teeth?”— her bridge. “Safe and sound in the bathroom beside you,” I assure her. “Good,” she says “because they cost quite a bit of money.”

Mama was a pioneer African-American woman in the nursing profession, a Registered Nurse in the class of 1946 from the Grady School of Nursing in Georgia. In the 1940s Grady was one of only three Georgia schools (of fourteen) that enrolled “colored” students.

When I ask her how she traveled from Vidalia to Atlanta to attend nursing school, she says “first by bus to Columbus and then we waited for another bus. Long waits. The bus stopped,” she says, “and the driver said, ‘No niggers on this bus,’ and took off.” The word slices like a knife across my face. She closes her eyes, and I understand that she has trusted me with that word, with the truth of her experience.

I say nothing. There is nothing to be said. It is what happened, and it explains in some way the protection she and her husband lavished on their children, naïve as they were walking into a candy store and being told to leave because “your money is no good here.”

“Oh, when I returned home with a nursing degree what a fuss they made,” she tells me. “My mother was so proud. She told one and then the next one, oh my daughter graduated from nursing school. It was a small town, and it was a big party welcomed me home.”

“It’s hard work, living this long,” Mama says after we hug her into the wheelchair and sit with her on the patio in the carport. “I’m tired. I think I’m ready to go back into the house,” she says as the sparrow swoops past, nest-building.

Days go by, a week, two weeks. With a smile and a whispered “Thank you” she receives ice chips as daily we change her bedding and I adjust her headscarf. She turns up her nose at food. It makes her feel nauseated; her failing body cannot take it. Three weeks, four weeks, then six then eight, and her visiting nurses call her “a fighter.”

Mama does not care about eating, music, Bible verses; just the visitors, for whom she rallies and smiles through her slow and steady withdrawal. People advise us to tell her it is “okay to let go,” but the words seem wrong.

The weeks pass. I turn gospel music on again, not for her but for me. Perhaps it will help. I switch to R&B and that seems to soothe better. Mama is pleased by the birdlike angelic voice of Deniece Williams who has “just got to be free.”

Mama remembers those popular songs and then her days of farm labor in Georgia, before she escaped to nursing school and then to marriage and then to a mid-century modern brick home in a subdivision in Ettrick, Virginia, across the tracks from all-white Colonial Heights and across the Appomattox River from Petersburg with its white population largely disappeared. She felt she had arrived: “This is the house my husband gave me, and this is where I want to remain.”

She is getting her wish, her hospital bed set up in the family room, surrounded by souvenirs of family and professional achievement and community service, all above the built-in wall stereo and intercom, which must have been the height of technology in the 1960s. She has tried to reamin in those days, to ground herself, even after Rosalyn her youngest child died in 1967 and her husband Earl died in 1968 and then daughter Linda two years ago when Mama was 94. She has not updated her Caloric kitchen; the oven and one of the gas burners on the range top do not work. She has surrounded herself with plaques and photos of herself: Zion’s Mother of the Year 1998, founding member of the Eta Eta Chapter of the Chi Eta Phi Nursing Sorority…. She prizes a dish hanging behind her bed that says: “This is my house and I do as I darn well please.”

Mama asks if she can go to her own bedroom, but now she is too weak to stand, although she holds her arms out to try. It is no use, and she collapses back into the pillows.

Mama was a string saver. Waste not, want not. In these last weeks, I busy myself organizing closets full of clothes and hats, papers and documents, a suitcase full of her son’s school records. We discover a two-page diary entry that she wrote not so very long ago:

“Memories in my lonely room you haunt me! I’m getting ready for bed. I’ve had no one to talk with me today; I just kept as busy as possible and watched television—oh, and on my patio. I sat for about two hours. Read the newspaper, watched the traffic to and fro to Virginia State University. The backyard has very good scenery: birds, squirrels, rabbits, and sometimes strange animals. My big trees give a lot of shade to the back patio. I have all the equipment for a barbecue; no one to reciprocate to me! But they will come to the cookout, then forget to invite me to theirs, so I’ve limited my cookouts! I cook in and eat out there by myself, or eat the food my daughter cooks for me.

“I once would cry when I spent a day without anyone to talk with. Now it has been so often that I’m finding other entertainments.

“Once upon a time Old Betsy and I would take a ride out or go to an eating place for lunch or dinner. But Old Betsy has started to take me and put me down, so I don’t trust HER! Another car? No! at this age. I’m not sure it would be wise for me to spend money for another car at the age of 90+ years. A chauffeur costs as much as the car!”

In her diary, she often goes back to childhood, the neighborhood where the strongest memories live. In another long recollection, she wrote about those early struggles to leave Vidalia after “a nephew asked me why we were so POOR!

As I walk past her bed with a load of laundry, she awakens suddenly and says, “Did it rain yet?”

I kiss her forehead and she scratches her nose. “You know what an itchy nose means, don’t you?” I ask. She shakes her head no. “It means you are going to kiss a fool.” She smiles as I plant a kiss on her forehead.

It rained on the day she died quietly while I was by her bedside looking through her motley collection of books. It rained and there was thunder, and it was the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and later the fireworks began, exploding color and light across the sky above her house.

July 2019

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