Mother Dear

Her voice was like cold lemonade poured from a pitcher on the hottest of summer days — rushing with sweetness, refreshing, thick and soothing, promising blessings not at all diminished by a sudden, biting sharpness that cut through the sugar but made it no less sweet. She was born and raised in North Little Rock, Arkansas; when I was young, my grandmother’s speech was a wonder to me, her accent both mysterious and comforting to a girl from the desert Southwest. Deeper than most Southern women’s honeyed drawl, Mother Dear’s voice was rich and billowing, comforting like down gathered into a worn blanket, but clear and purposeful, not hesitating, not coy; for all its accented Southernness, its timbre was not that of a pampered antebellum lady. My grandmother had a woman’s voice, not at all masculine, yet without the cloying, alto sweetness of the Southern debutante.

Hers was the voice of a strong woman. When she died twelve years ago this week, though, it was long gone, a casualty of age, heart failure, and the undefined, strength-sapping respiratory problems of the elderly. My mother and I had flown to Little Rock when my aunts agreed it was time — time to say goodbye while she was still alive; time, perhaps, to plan the funeral we somehow knew would come within days of our arrival. I had seen her only a few times since my marriage in 1984; by the mid-90s, I had two children with whom cross-country travel was difficult. The last couple of times I saw her were on my visits home to Tucson, visits coordinated so that Tucson became the halfway-point between North Little Rock, Arkansas, and Monroe, Washington. But by the time my youngest son was born in 1993, she wasn’t able to travel; as a stay-at-home mom whose husband’s business was struggling then, I couldn’t, either. Mother Dear saw Anthony last when he was two; she never got to see Jonah. She exists for my sons as a respected but remote memory — the grandmother with the accent, the grandmother who taught Mom how to fish, the grandmother who had a potato-sized chunk of an actual meteorite on her bookcase, who once shot a prowler, who lived in the house with all the trees, Emma’s mom who ended phone conversations with “y’all be good now. Be sweet.” She existed, to them, as a character in the story of my life — fascinating, but a fixture in my life and not theirs.

That’s one of the great griefs I feel — my sons never got to know their maternal grandmother, and they won’t know their aunts, their grandmother Emma’s sisters. They know that Rosemary and Ann love them; they knew that Mother Dear did, and they see my mother fairly often and experience her love regularly. But all they know of my grandmother were stories of the walloping joy I’d feel when Mother Dear would get off the plane in Tucson, unpack her powders, creams, and colognes in my bedroom, settle into her “pedal pusher” slacks and sensible blouse and, for two weeks, infuse our home with warmth and affection and laughter, not to mention the knee-weakening delight of Crisco-fried chicken. She slept with me in my old bed, which belonged to my other grandmother. I used to wonder if Grandma’s feelings were hurt by that, and yet her comforting bulk and the softly faded scent of Mother Dear’s powder and cold cream as she slept next to me assured me that, at least for that night, there would be no conflict, no anger, no unease anywhere in the world. I used to pray fervent, confessional Catholic-girl prayers that the two weeks would go by slowly, drawn out, I hoped, because I’d promised God I’d be good. It was never long enough.

Every other year, we’d drive from Tucson to North Little Rock, and without question my happiest memories were when we swung into the driveway at 1224 W. Long 17th Street, tumbling out of the car amidst a flurry of aunts, uncles, and cousins. The summer humidity, the smell of grass, the towering pecan trees and the odd little squirrels who populated them was a wonderland to me, filled with the people I loved most. My aunts doted on me, and I worshiped them. Their beauty seemed to increase every time I saw them — Anne, with her soft skin and a dimpled smile that flooded my heart with love; Rosemary, funny and sassy, treated me, her stringy-haired, gawky niece, like a queen. My cousins hovered around us and planned adventures designed solely, it seemed, to drive Mother Dear crazy. We played kickball, chased squirrels, fished in the lake for catfish the size of housecats, drank Orange Crush ’til we were sick, and ate all manner of fried things. The adults drank beer and talked; we eavesdropped, conspired, manipulated and finagled privileges unknown to us at home but overflowing at Mother Dear’s.

Her house was a simple, two-bedroom wood-frame house with a porch and screened doors whose swinging and rattling sounded so comforting that, even now, I refuse to let Jeff replace the one leading from our kitchen to the side yard. No one in Tucson has wood-frame houses; I thought that living in something other than cinderblock or stucco made you rich, and it wasn’t until high school that I realized that Mother Dear had very little at all. But she took her Catholicism seriously and adored her family; she indulged us as if she were rich, and her home was always open, her kitchen redolent with the aroma of something fried, something baked, something in the oven or on the stove. That little house was, for me, a castle, a mansion, and a hidden retreat, and it took me awhile to realize that the woman who lived in it, not its size or accouterments, made it that way.

Sometime this spring or early summer, I’ll fly to Little Rock to visit my aunts. The house is no longer in the family; the cousins are scattered. The neighborhood has changed. I hope some other kids are playing kickball in that back yard, and I hope no one has fixed the creaking old screen door. I don’t know if I’ll drive over to see the house. I’ll wish I were 10 again, and I’ll feel much older than almost 50. Rosemary and Anne will still be beautiful, their voices like a symphony and their embraces like a sanctuary. I’ll hate saying goodbye to them and I’ll weep remembering when I said goodbye to Mother Dear. These women are part of the foundation of my life, and I pray that I honor them by building on it a home that my children and theirs see the same way I saw Mother Dear’s.

Mother Dear’s home was the best place in the whole world to me, and someday she and I will be together in a heavenly dwelling of everlasting peace and joy, full of every good thing. I spend hours and hours every week studying the Bible and reading books on theology; I’ve preached and pastored and taught Scripture to scores of people. But my theology of heaven is simple.

It will be, for eternity, the feeling of joy at the sound of tires crunching over a gravel driveway and the screen door flinging open as we pull into Mother Dear’s place. Someday I’ll “pull into Heaven,” and she’ll be there, arms open, eyes twinkling, and I’ll remember those few times when I was given a glimpse of the joy of Heaven, seen through a small, simple house and a precious, simple woman who loved God and loved me.

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