Lessons in Survival from My Okie Mom

On the Winter Solstice, Forward

In literary terms, a foreword to a book is usually written by someone other than the author, but I’ve got no time for that, since it’s the shortest day of the year and I’d like to launch this baby before the sun goes down.

In a weird juxtaposition of concepts, I hope the chapters contained in this site, And the Devil Take the Hindmost: Lessons in Survival from My Okie Mom might offer a sliver of light, or at least a little companionship during the remainder what is certain to be a long winter. If you’d rather listen than read, click on the link to the the audio version on SoundCloud.

It’s been a tough year. Not as tough as it’s been on those who’ve lost someone to this miserable virus. God bless them all, right? Here’s to longer days, better days. Today marks the beginning. Peace and love to you all.

Foreword

I bury my face in the bundle of fabric and breathe deeply. Is there a trace of my mother here? Stripes and gingham checks, brushed cotton and denims, floral scraps with pinked edges, a shiny red sateen—bound up by a strip of brown flannel tied in a knot. How I want this wad of material to still carry her scent.

There’s a hair curler on my desk, the brush roller kind.  The kind of curler we used to roll  up our hair with on Saturday and not take it down til Sunday. The kind that old ladies wore to the grocery store.

I sniff that too. The white bristles glisten in the late afternoon sun, as I slowly roll the curler between my fingers and thumbs. I am looking for a strand of her hair. I am thinking that this little curler, which I found in her sewing tin, must have never been used because I can find nary a forensic trace.  And then, the sun reveals an auburn treasure —a hair from her head, still amazingly supple, not brittle. Then I think, “what should I do with it now? Put it in an envelope? Put it under glass? Tape it to my bulletin board or weave it through the bristles of my own hairbrush?” That seems weird. I wind it back.

How pitifully I worship these flecks of her existence, the things I know now, but didn’t acknowledge nor appreciate when it would have made a difference to her…this admission, now, of how she is infused in every cell of my being. All that I am is because of her.  All that I have been able to achieve or endure or bluff my way through, was set by her example. Much of what I have taught my children has been passed down from her, admittedly through the mesh of my own interpretation, but inspired by her rare intellect, her perceptiveness, her sense of fairness and her remarkable humor. Too bad I wasn’t so effusive when she was alive.

Truth is, my mother often annoyed me. The sound of the rubber tip of her cane on the creaking floorboards of this old house…it got on my nerves. Tump, tump, tump, like Captain Hook, she’d make her way down the hall from the guest room to the kitchen, as I remained in bed across the hall, with the covers pulled up to my neck, bloated with some unwarranted resentment, like a full bladder, that nags you to get up and pee.

I lay there, much like I did when I had infants; hoping against hope they would settle back down for just a few more minutes and let me sleep. They didn’t. She wouldn’t. She’d make her way to the coffee pot, her morning ritual a sonata: the squeaking pantry door, the running water, the coffee grinder and the slam of the cupboard once she’d found a cup. She’d be fully caffeinated and ready to share a few anecdotes or assessments of my mothering skills by the time I groaned down the hall, ready to be unmercifully buried in chatter.

The occasions for this morning dread were her visits to Saint Louis, flown in from Albuquerque like a southwestern gift basket full of spicy tidbits from the Land of Enchantment.

Or entrapment, that’s how I largely regard New Mexico now — a mix of painful homesickness and wariness. Her trips to see me were always on my dime, since she lived on a tight budget in her later years. She would come to spend a week with me and my children. I was always glad to see her, don’t get me wrong. I loved my mother very much and so did my kids, but we knew that from touch-down to take off, there’d be at least one knock-down-drag-out in the intervening days. She loved a good fight. I tried to not get my stomach in a knot, commencing with the day of her arrival, but it was like bracing to have your skin chewed off by a ferret, one tiny bite at a time.

She had a way of setting me off from the moment she stepped out of the jetway. Always an entrance, my mother—typically with a warm goodbye and a hug from some random person she’d taken up with on the flight, whom she’d enlightened or entertained.  She was one of those people, you know, the kind of people I rigorously fend off on airplanes by keeping my head down, engaged in some critically important texting, while leaving my briefcase in the middle seat, until the last possible moment, when I concede  that they’re not lying and the flight is actually full. I’m a bitch. I admit it. She was indeed one of those people. No sooner had she and her newfound friend disembarked, than mom would embark on another of her tales of splendor in the skies and how the person sitting next to her had been absolutely captivated.  More like a captive audience. I would hear about said exchange at least seven times during her seven days.

This self-absorption and near endless self-promotion, would build, drip by drip, like a bathroom faucet that drives one to madness, until some barb would drive me right over the edge. You know, things like, “I brought you these pants but I’m not sure you’ll be able to fit into them…”

If I got pissy with her, she’d sometimes pull the classic, “I’m going back home tomorrow” trick. Never did. I called her bluff one time and called Southwest to find out how much it would cost to change her ticket. She looked sufficiently hurt.

Now, more than a decade after her death, I feel guilty about every petty swipe I ever took at her. I would give my left pinky finger to be standing at the airport right now, ready to hug her and kiss her sweet cheek, smack dab on the liver spot I always told her would look better if she’d cover it with make-up.

The things we don’t understand when our mothers are still with us—the sobering reality of taking another step forward on the cake walk of life, the elder now gone, no human shield, no barricade nor buffer between us and our turn at mortality and no fucking cake. Death of a parent makes each of our birthdays a marker against how long they made it.

The things we don’t fully comprehend in the lessons they taught us; big things, little things —like being honest, having fortitude, not being a liar or a drunk or a cheat. Things like folding the towels with the single edge to the outside of the stack, taking time to look up a word we’re unfamiliar with or how to make a radish rose.

The things we don’t hear in the advice they offer; ears closed to the wisdom repeated over time, in so many plain-speak nuggets, so many as to render them mere pebbles against the deafening landslide of our vanity or self-righteousness. Ahhh but, there’s gold in those nuggets, pure gold.

My mother, Beverly G. Garcia, who always insisted on the “G.” in the middle, so as not to confuse her with any other Beverly Garcia in the world, had a repertoire of sayings that she would pluck at appropriate moments, delivered with precision timing and ruthless consistency over the course of my life. Timing and consistency, that was the key. It’s not like she said, “to thine own self be true” when I was three months old, or “let the world take a spin, Jean” when I was six. Ever the shrewd poker player, Beverly G. Garcia knew exactly when to dispense these maxims to hedge against her own mortality. They stuck. She walked away a winner.

And so did I. From my mother, with whom I’d settled my differences before she passed, and from a loving God who gave me the grace to realize it, I’m the beneficiary of her uncommon, common sense.

Her practicality; her resourcefulness; resiliency, her belief that tomorrow’s another day with another chance —all of the behaviors that she modeled for me have shored me up during the dark months of this brutal pandemic–along with, not insignificantly, the sayings that provided the soundtrack to her life. And now, mine.

Just yesterday, after I had struggled mightily with the brake on my riding mower, after the repairman had parked it in the driveway and set the brake too hard, I railed to my daughter, “you’d have to be Man Mountain Dean to release that brake!”  And exactly who is Man Mountain Dean? Well, he was wrestler in the 1930s. I didn’t know that until I Googled it. I’ve inherited quite a library of her old sayings, and I suppose I could Google the hell out of all of them. But I think instead, I’ll simply repeat them. I believe that was the point.

Because, who else could tell her stories? Who else but the only daughter, to pass down what is at turns, as unique as a fingerprint and then, as universal as heartache and wholly bound to journeying through this life on earth as a female? Who else to share her lessons in survival, that are just as relevant today as they were upon her first oration, or her last? Who else but the woman I have become?

I am recycled content, man—a bundle of material myself; some fine, some ragged, some rich, some thin, bound with the durability of the most failsafe knot ever tied by any Boy Scout or longshoreman in the whole world, my mother. My mother, the binder, the strength, the assurance, and the source of ageless wisdom.

In these days of mass-minutia-communication, when everything is saved, backed up by some mega-trillion-gigabyte cloud, when only a microscopic portion of that data is worth a damn; when important words fall by the wayside or disbursed like so many particulates in a meteor shower of pure crap, some things are actually worth saving.

I pick up where she left off. I share with you here, a few of the lessons she taught me. How well did I learn them? Sometimes the hard way and sometimes not at all. Much of the behavior I’ve fashioned after my mother is innate. We innocents, we know not the ways in which we are imprinted, good or bad.  Does that mean I was brainwashed? Probably.13:52 13:58  Does it mean I always conformed to her wishes or followed her advice? Hell no.

Because I also inherited her defiance. So often, in the countless recitations of the events, decisions, heroics, and transgressions that molded and propelled my mother’s life, she would often close her stories with this:

“And the devil take the hindmost.”

She said it so emphatically, with such conviction, capped off by a dramatic flick of her wrist, that her intent was clear: “I did what I had to do and everyone else be damned.” Normally, she would invoke this weathered trope at the end of a tale about leaving some good-for-nothin’ man, (she was married four times) but sometimes she’d apply it to other head-strong decisions, financial, geographical, or biological –she had five children, two of whom didn’t come from any of her husbands.

“And the devil take the hindmost!”

I comfort myself by thinking that her interpretation of “every man for himself” carved out and exception for her offspring. Something like… “and the devil take the hindmost….except for my kids, they’re coming with me.”

But then, maybe not. Maybe she really meant it.

“I did what I had to do to survive.”

End of story. No apologies.

She has been gone for more 14 years now. I remain a work in progress. I tend to be too accommodating. I tend to worry about what people think of me. I tend to apologize too often. Maybe what my therapist told me years ago, still holds:

“What you learn first, you learn best.”

But, I hope it’s her self-preservation.  Maybe that’s the greatest gift she ever gave me.

Christmas, 1960

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