A Miracle Maker
We Got Married
Preface & Reader Response
It is a minutely modulated smile that can be broad-cheeked and nearly dimpled or so thin and elusive as to leave the impression of slight approval, timid expectancy, exquisite delight, or seasoned scepticism.
Point of Honor on the Home Front
JUST A GIRL
by Jerry Murley
Great history is not just the compelling description of great events and influential people. Interesting history is the accurate, full-bodied portrayal of people and how they are accidentally ground down and lifted up by huge systems, petty tyrants, benefactors, and personal integrity. The longer I live in rural America, the closer I come to those who lived before 1949.
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There's a local story of a neighbor in his late 70s who offended another man in his late 30s with an off-hand remark suggesting that the younger man was a mere boy. The younger man quickly bristled at the gibe and puffed out his chest, exclaiming, "I'm no boy, I'm a man." At which assertion, the older man laughed heartily. Later in his own defense, having sensed that he had injured his young neighbor's pride, the older man confided that he himself was just a boy and hoped to remain one. Now, at 90 years old, neighbors occasionally remind the older gentleman that he is just a boy.
Did you ever have one of those energy- and joy-filled days when you had a renewed bounce in your stride and, though much older, you felt very much like a young person. You felt on top of the world. And then you walked outside and on the sidewalk you passed a young person who looked at you as if you were old. Youth sometimes just doesn't get it – where is the sense of illusion that even the ancients could imagine and analyze in their philosophies. So deluded and self-absorbed are the young that they fail to see the kid clothed in the wrinkled costume of an aging parent, neighbor or co-worker.
* * *
I have often viewed my mother as just a girl. I did in my twenties and I do many years later. Not until recently did I view her with the added qualities of a country girl, having for the first time seen some old photos of her when she was barely out of high school.
One cannot begin to understand my mother without a glimpse at her perspective on the Great Depression and her childhood and adolescent experiences. She is the youngest of six with one older brother. When my mother started school at the beginning of the Depression, she recalls being embarrassed by the clothes that she wore to school, and she still feels that her teacher and peers were not as thoughtful as they might have been about her circumstances in life. All the children in her family had care of their own clothing for school. Her's were hand-me-downs from her siblings, including her older brother's tennis shoes. She had one dress that she tried to keep clean for everyday wear. To this day, she is unsettled by memories of wearing the same dress to school every day. A bout of scarlet fever in the first grade set her back a year in school.
My mother's English-Irish, mostly Irish, father was a railroad man who worked the night shift; eventually he became yard master for the Frisco railroad line where he worked until his early 70s. When growing up, my mother, her brother and four sisters would spend their days outside with the chickens, cows, horse and gardening until her father went to work. He worked seven days a week. Then they would come inside and listen to the radio. Her primary male role model was her live-in Scotch-Welsh maternal grandfather, who was chief bookkeeper at Goldsmith's in Memphis. The three men slept in one room and the six women slept in the other. After her last sister left home to marry at 16, her grandfather, whom she loved dearly, was her primary companion. When she was 13, he died, and she her mother and her father moved from rural Whitehaven to East Memphis near Messick High School. My mother adored her mother. Her mother died from complications following a ruptured appendix when my mother was 15. The sudden loss in a three-day period of her beautiful and affectionate mother was the blow of a lifetime. To this day my mother regrets that her mother never met my father; she thinks they both were two of a rare breed in terms of kindness, gentleness, and open, sunny personality.
Mom lived with her pipe-smoking, suspendered, loving but strict father until just after he remarried when she was 19, during her senior year in high school. For over three years, she spent nights alone at home while her father was at work. He left for work right after supper. When my father and my mother started dating, my father had to wait outside in the car while my mother got ready, and when they returned, he would sit in the car until the lights went out in her bedroom and he knew that she was tucked in safely.
Her new stepmother was unsupportive, to say the least, and tended to smother my mother's teenage need to get out and socialize. Her stepmother was quite content to have my mother continue in her role as household maid. My mother escaped to live a year with her sister in Whitehaven until she married my dad. For that year she also attended business school.
To fully fathom my mother, one must imagine those personal losses and privations, and the lingering apprehension of their return – all projected over a lifetime. These were the lessons, the scars, left on a generation and never fully erased by modified conditions, modern material acquisitions, and technological advances. Her worry about want and mishap seemed insatiable until it was tempered somewhat by faith, by prayer, by life with my father, and by the experience of parenting, grandparenting, aging, and the attainment of undreamed-of material comforts in post-World War II America as a working member of a relatively prosperous American middle class.
* * *
It is an odd sensation when an older child realizes that a parent has significant stature – that others admire one's parent for subtle, intrinsic qualities that a child is slow to realize. That's not to say that my mother is tall; it is to say that she stands out in a way that is grand without being theatrical. When I look back on 8mm home movies and photos of my mother from the 1950s, she reminds me most of a movie star, like a young Elizabeth Taylor: elegant and beautiful. But there is much more to the grandeur in terms of my mother's contributions to our family's way of life.
Lest one be fooled by the sweet, smooth, controlled purr of her voice on the telephone or in polite company, one should know that when my mother suited up for work as a business representative for the telephone company (or was tired from the daily grind of work for Ms Bell), you did not want to be on the receiving end of her withering disapproval and unwavering convictions. At those times, she was less one of those mild-mannered, reading-chair suburban housewives in the 1950s family TV series and more of the hard-charging, frontier working mom, leading and defending a family and its way of life. Then the relentless panther emerged from the girl, as she became the straight-shootin' gal in no mood to be trifled with. If she could have been put on the telephone with one of the petty dictators that have plagued the world stage from time to time, the dictator would have given up quickly without sanctions or invasion and his tail handed to him discreetly but completely.
For many long years, my mother has idolized my father and has been actively protective of his image. Yet she could work vigorously on my father until a project was done to her satisfaction. Her elegant bones; her porcelain skin; her stylishly, fully coiffed hair; her sometimes enigmatic smile; and her attentive but shy Irish eyes with ever a hint of twinkle – all suit her voice as the occasion demands. When peeved, she can even come close to being steely, but she is unable to hold that pose for long. Sometimes there is a very thin line between a person seeming hard and seeming hurt.
Speaking of that smile, I see her's, in concert with her eyes, as being no one-dimensional smile. It is a minutely modulated smile that can be broad-cheeked and nearly dimpled or so thin and elusive as to leave the impression of slight approval, timid expectancy, exquisite delight, or seasoned scepticism. Along with my mother's voice and smile – two of the leading members in the cast of her face and personality – her fine brow and eyes express a subtle, Shakespearean range of meaning and effect. But for the most part, especially when she is engaged with her children and grandchildren, these features are unmistakably attentive and bright.
This is all to say that my mother is not and never was some delicate Southern belle. She worked throughout the prime of her adult life. When it comes to defending her children and grandchildren, watch out. She is fearless and goes on the attack without reluctance. She can be the fox and talk quietly, but persistently, to sharp effect. And she can be direct and savage to a perceived assailant, including witless bureaucrats and corporate toadies who serve merely to deter and deflect inquiries and complaints. She gave not a few corporate bullies what-for over the telephone. Most of the time the poor recipient mightily deserved the full treatment, though it was served without her raising her voice or using loose language.
Mom even indulged and protected my friends. There may be an allegiance that we all owe to corporate, community and state custom, rules and laws that are meant to achieve general good, but for my mother, I have little doubt that family ties trumped everything else. She knew where to quietly and wisely draw the line, and where to bend the rules of thumb for common decency.
* * *
There was apparently no end to the mischievousness she would correct but tolerate, at least once, from her son. With the deserved reprimand dispensed, she would send a quick flash of smile at the end of an novel episode or confrontation, signaling the all-clear. In this regard, I saw reminders of her in the indulgent mothers I witnessed in Italy who winked behind the backs of their young boys as they simultaneously publicly scolded the youthful offenders and handed them a sweet and a loving pat.
She was a perfect foil for my collegiate intellectual sparring and sophomoric pretensions and challenges to authority. There were plenty of mannerisms, worries, sayings, and pronunciations that I could needle her about with the reckless abandon of an ungrateful young man armed with a few college courses in psychology and countless lamentable mannerisms, worries, and mispronunciations of his own.
Ever a vigilant guardian of the cleanliness and orderliness of her home turf – and a stickler for respectful observance of her household policies – my mother's home has always been open to her family and to our friends. There are times when she needs a traffic light in the hallways and a reservation desk for visitors at the front door. In truth, one of her chief weaknesses is an irrepressible inclination to be too giving. I think giving helps salve the sting that remains long after those days of want during the Depression and after losing her grandfather and her mother as a teenager.
Mom's a laugher – more a giggler – with a wicked, knowing smile. She is a natural audience for my dad, her children, her grandchildren, and their various performing friends. She is among the few in our family who does not strain to be a comedian or a vaudeville entertainer at home. She is the necessary audience to the audience whose winks and suppressed laughter amplifies the enjoyment of the others. Her's is the third layer of perspective that envelops the entire scene and gives it longevity.
Possessing a gentle balance of forwardness and reserve in most social encounters, she never pushes for center stage like the other performers in the family. But in the days before her retirement, when we all lived together and the week's work wore on her composure, her very obviously wounded feelings sometimes put her very much at the forefront of family focus. She has occasionally evinced a little uncertainty about our abiding love, respect and gratefulness. But she could and should be assured that she is usually a great comfort to be with and talk to in times of trouble and joy. She would never think of her progeny as dull or lacking in any regard, but rather would tend to blame herself for occasions that did not live up to an ideal – the 1950s fiction – of familial bliss.
Perhaps a position of conflicting tendencies that is hardest for a parent to maintain – and hardest for an observer to explain – is that of the empathetic and apprehensive parent who yet urges a child to seek and accept challenges. My mother is very tender-hearted, yet she refrained, perhaps with support from my father, from interfering in my life disproportionately. She usually joined the program in encouraging travel and new, more demanding ventures. After my wife and I surprised her with an announcement of our secret marriage, she claimed that my wife had been the woman that she had chosen for me all along, but that she had not said anything for fear of turning me against the idea. All she could do was pray, she said with a smile.
Mother and I would easily cry together. She made the act of weeping seem a supremely noble reaction to the injustices and travails that befell others and ourselves. To see a tear in her eyes or hear a touch of trembling vulnerability in her voice put me perilously close to a sympathetic duet. Many times the verging group cry would be forestalled by our laughter at being so affected by watching some trivial scene in a TV drama. Even later in life, her voice remains strong as always with only an occasional tinge of vibrato when shaken by some health setback or prospective misfortune in her household.
As I grew older, when my son was achieving surprising feats in high school, college, and beyond, my mother was the one person, other than my wife, with whom I most looked forward to sharing the happy news. She was the one person, save my wife, who would abandon all worry and match me in full gratitude for his fortune and amazement and enjoyment of his accomplishments, thus doubling my pleasure and making it last that much longer.
* * *
I was taught in few words to define and defend my space without violating that of others. It is a nuanced but clear code that would be extremely difficult to abide by had it not been modeled for so long, so consistently, and with such easy charm by my parents, day in and day out. Hateful speech, rude shouting, obstructionism, and greedy competition are so foreign to our notion of honor and fairness that we find ourselves in alien territory given the distorted prominence of contrary characteristics and shameless dishonesty in our public life today – where wise and powerful and influential men and women, before a needy nation, do not gravely repeat again and again that this sort of ugliness is wrong – flat wrong – and that it will not be accepted or tolerated in public life – ever.
With age, my mother makes more frequent, intense expressions of love and respect to those in her life and prayers daily. Years after retirement, when health, family, and faith consume the most important parts of her day, my mother has taken to seeking out family and those loved by our family with articulate expressions of appreciation and esteem. These communications come in the form of cards and letters. But most interestingly, they come in the form of uncharacteristic phone calls having no apparent practical purpose at all. Thus, she has come full circle with the use of the telephone. What once was a strictly practical tool for conducting business is now a delicate instrument with which she steps forward with a thought-out, precisely phrased, grateful embrace. The transmissions contain the same careful and steady voice as before but with the single aim of serving and giving, pure and simple. The voice doesn't say, "I am here" or "do it my way." It says, "You are appreciated and adored for who you are." It says, "You are a gift beyond imagination – a talisman of comfort and peace that staves off want and fear." Thrust beyond a life of vague material dread into a life of trust and confidence in simple personal goodness and divine providence, she steps beyond the persona of the daily provider, entertainer and hostess with a philosophy that fuses and binds the bashful, hopeful girl with the wise, humble and generous matriarch.
* * *
Today, few would pick my mother from a line-up of mature women as a member of her actual age group. That has always been the case. Somehow she has conspired to partner with her genes, my father, and her habits to stay youthful and attractive. To me, my parents are still kids at 80 and beyond. I suppose that is why in their first ten or twenty years of marriage, they always teamed to work with young adults in church. It always caused me silent consternation that they quickly befriended every single acquaintance to whom I introduced them.
My mother has been a steady helpmate and equal to my father for over sixty years. She has worked with my dad on any number of projects during their lives together. They organized church gatherings and large young-adult church activities in their thirties. They hosted my band for four or five years in their late thirties. They shared landscaping projects and did some gardening in their forties. And by their fifties, sixties and seventies, they worked daily with grandchildren and weekly on patio adornment; and they assisted me at times with outdoor work on my modest country estate. They say that their main project now is visiting doctors and the pharmacy.
One would think that age, some skin-cancer removal here and there, and a bout of facial shingles at 81 would scar the countenance of my mother's beauty. But they have utterly failed to do so.
I never really conceived of my mother as being particularly stoical. For one reason, an injury to anyone in the family would be felt most by her. For another, she was never one to suffer the blows of an indifferent modern world without a look, a comment, or an occasional protest. She endures the eventual and the actual knocks of life through her trust in her faith, a strength that is also part self-respect and part plain duty to family.
Yes, at nearly 82 there is yet the vulnerable girl in my mother. She is yet the suitable companion with whom one can relax and while away a hot Saturday afternoon; she is ever the sympathetic ear, listening to her family members in times of trouble. Even with her experience, she keeps the kid's sly smile alive. That is the sentient but hopeful kid which all of us, in our various ways, seek to sustain with a touch of adaptability, courage, humor and grace.