Sunday, April 5, 2009


My mom was a quirky, gentle, funny soul who loved birds and flowers and rocks and trees. When she died we divvied up the rocks she'd polished so everybody would have a little bowlful to remember her by. We interred her ashes in a beautiful wooden box with an elaborate carving of a tree on the lid, and each of us added something to the grave - a rock, a feather, a flower - so she'd have those things close to her while she slept.

When we were small she liked to cuddle us and kiss the backs of our necks and call us 'Dolly.'

She loved to read to us - in particular, I remember my sisters and I gathered around her, snuffling and sighing as she read us The Yearling, and The Red Pony, and Old Yeller. (Always with the dead pets. She loved a good tear-jerker.)

"Don't wish your life away," she used to say. Good advice.

She loved Red Skelton and Jack Benny - and she was right to. When I see those scratchy black and white clips of them now, I laugh out loud and I probably sound just like her.

She loved mysteries and biographies and science fiction. In fact, she introduced me to the sci-fi/fantasy world, first with The Hobbit, and later with Stranger in a Strange Land.

She taught fourth grade. On her fiftieth birthday, she asked her class how old they thought she was. "One hundred," one kid said.

She liked to make jam, and she wasn't afraid to experiment. One year she decided to use up some vodka that had somehow ended up in her cupboard (the provenance of that vodka is a mystery in itself) by adding it to some strawberry jam. She thought it might give the jam an extra bite, like strawberries in champagne or oranges drizzled with triple sec. What she learned was that the vodka separates and forms a pool on top of the wax used to seal the jar. So, she sat down and drank those little pools off the tops of her jam jars. Cracking herself up the whole time.

Her brothers used to tie her up and make her eat cold gravy. They thought she was too scrawny, which, in fact, she was. When she met my dad, she was 5'3" tall, and weighed 88 pounds. Later, of course, she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition; later still, Type I diabetes. Treating these illnesses allowed her to gain a bit of weight - at one point in her life, she attained the enormous bulk of 125 pounds! The operative word here, obviously, is bit.

The memory of the cold gravy incidents always made her laugh, although not as hard, she said, as she laughed while they were happening. She and her brothers and sisters got up to a certain amount of mischief. Once, she said, they stood at the top of the very steep and narrow staircase which led to the second floor of their farmhouse, and tossed a large cardboard box down the stairs. "Ow, ow, ow," they yelled as the thing banged and thumped its way to the bottom. Poor Grandma came running. "You kids," I can hear her saying. "You kids get on out of here, now."

Mom grew up on a farm in Iowa during the Great Depression. She liked to tell us about the radio Grandpa hooked up to the windmill used to pump water from the well. The kids would gather around to listen to whatever was the radio drama of the day, and it all worked fine until the wind died. They missed the conclusions to many stories.

My parents met in a lecture hall at the University of Iowa - McBride Auditorium. Seating was alphabetical, so Geneva McBride got the seat next to Gordon McCallum. (The fact that my mom and the auditorium shared a name always struck me as equal parts peculiar and cosmic.) Their first date was on St. Patrick's Day. They were married three and a half months later, on July 3rd, 1948. My sisters and I joined them in rapid succession: Steph in June of 1949, me in May of 1950, and Susan in August of 1951. Dave arrived in October of 1953, and Duncan brought up the rear in December of 1961. We were a clan.

My parents were married for just shy of 59 years, and that's a good run by anybody's standards.

Mom died two years ago today. I still miss her; I suppose I always will. But thank goodness she taught me to love literature, birds and flowers, rocks and trees, and that laughter is the best medicine of all. I'll think of her today and pretty soon, I'll be laughing.


Other Lisa said...

What a lovely tribute! Of course you also provided my morning dose o' tears, but in a good way.

McMama said...

Thanks, Lisa. I shed a few, too, while I was writing it. But I love thinking about her sitting in the kitchen, sipping the vodka off the tops of her jelly jars.

There, see? Now I'm laughing again.


McMama said...

McMama...that was PERFECT. xoxo ED

Jennifer said...'s ME, not YOU! Damn the luck....

~Sia McKye~ said...

Oh Cathy, what wonderful memories! You gave us such a lovely character sketch of your mom. I just love her quirks and sense of humor. My mom loved Frank Yerby and we did read more than one tear-jerker. Can I say, I hate them--I never wanted to see Old Yeller have to be put down, The Yearling die or the Stienbecks pony die. I was always mad as hell when they killed off the animals. You know me and pets, I'm always crushed when they die.

I hope my son has as many nice things to say about me as you do your wonderful mom. So long as the memories are so strong, her personality good and bad so well defined, she's never forgotten, and THAT is the tribute to a wonderful woman.

McMama said...

Thanks, Jen. And I knew it was you, because I knew it wasn't me...

Sia, it's good to remember, I think. I sometimes lose whole days to old picture albums. As to the dead pets - I'm with you, sister. So was my mom, so it wasn't the death of the pets that she liked. I suspect it was the fact that they weren't her pets, so she could have a good cry without suffering any actual loss. :-)