She often calls me by my father’s name, her father’s name, or her little brother’s name (who’s now 95), but I long ago stopped explaining my relationship to her. She loved and loves all those people and that’s good enough.
But what she really looks forward to are those Reese’s Cups. The care providers feed her well, but it’s all healthy fare and mom always had a sweet tooth and a rebellious soul. I smuggle the Reese’s Cups in and we play our game of espionage, keeping the contraband away from the people in white.
I’m not too concerned about the care providers because they’re in on it too. But, to mom, they are the enemy and the Reese’s Cups are small victories.
This piece is about bluegrass mother songs, which I’ll get to, but you just can’t write generically about motherhood. Well, I guess you can, but it annoys the mothers who think their real lives are much more interesting than the fluff most mother songs offer up.
Mom was a sixth-grade school teacher and assistant principal. (The principal might be your pal, but she was my mom.) She did not suffer fools or bad grammar gladly—great attributes for a teacher, but not so much for a preacher’s wife. She loved my father, but she hated being a preacher’s wife almost as much as I hated being a preacher’s kid.
As they both pulled me out from under the bed every Sunday morning to go to church, I always thought I saw a look in her eye that said she would rather join me under the bed and wait for the whole unbearable day to go away.
But she always went—and made sure I went too.
She got her revenge in little ways, though, like the time she made 10 gallons of her famous East Texas chili to feed the congregation when we were all in the basement of the church as a hurricane blew over. Mom made sure she added plenty of beans (which I noticed her chili usually didn’t include). People were braving the 90 mph winds.
That was mom. She always pushed situations to the breaking point, but she herself never broke. I know she did these things just to show the rest of us (men) that she was ten times as strong as any of us, which we all acknowledged openly.
When she retired from teaching in her late sixties, she went back to school and wrote English papers and poetry and would stand up at her typewriter because that’s the way Hemingway did it. “Only lazy people and republicans sit while they’re working,” I can still hear her say—as I sit in front of my laptop.
Part of this was another way of getting back at my dad, who frequently voted Republican, but who liked to stay within earshot because she always made him laugh.
She was a Southern, yellow-dog Democrat—a breed almost extinct now. She grew up under FDR and her own mother marched in 1920 for a woman’s right to vote. Mom did eventually forgive Lincoln and my dad for being Republicans.
I see that I’m switching back and forth between present and past tense when talking about her. She’s still here, but not here, and I know a lot of you have to deal with that with your loved ones.
She has outlived a husband, two daughters, and three sisters. I know she’s ready to go, but her Texas toughness has carried her this far and she doesn’t know any other way but to fight.
About those bluegrass songs. Mom hated bluegrass mother songs because they were always about, well, dead mothers. “Why can’t anyone write a live mother song?” she once asked me after enduring four hours at a Mother’s Day bluegrass festival in which every band drowned the audience in one-after-another dead mother song.
She went on. “And they’re always written and sung by men. I bet women could write better mother songs. Or at least write a few dead father songs!” Again, always a challenge, but I didn’t take her up on it until years later when I wrote a song for her called The Last Yellow Rose.
She liked it but I think she thought it was a bit too sentimental. That is, until I noticed she started wearing a yellow rose all the time with a sign on her wheel chair that said, “Ask Me About My Yellow Rose.”
I think on Mother’s Day it’s okay to give in to the schmaltz.
The Stanley Brothers (personal favorites of mom’s because her maiden name is Stanley), are the undeniable kings of the dead mother song: Memories of Mother, Mother’s Footsteps Guide Me On, Mother No Longer Awaits Me at Home, Vision of Mother, Lonely Tombs, and my favorite, Mother’s Only Sleeping.
Out in the Cold World, which both Monroe and the Stanley Brothers (as Wandering Boy) recorded is one of the few songs from the mother’s perspective and has the great chorus:
Oh, bring back to me, my wandering boy,
For there is no other left to give me joy,
Tell him his mother with faded cheeks and hair,
Is at the old home, awaiting him there.
Guilt is as old as the hills.
Lester Flatt’s Bouquet in Heaven and Curly Seckler and Flatt’s No Mother or Dad is at the top of a lot of people’s list of favorite mother songs.
Of recent songs, Joe Newberry’s I Know Whose Tears on the Gibson Brothers’ Ring the Bell album sounds both fresh and as if it were written 100 years ago. And I love hearing Lou Reid sing Mama.
Other essential Mother’s Day songs include Chris Jones’ A Few Words and, of course, Mama’s Hand by Hazel Dickens.
I know I’m forgetting at least 100 others.
I understand my mother’s point about there needing to be more live mother songs and there should be. But really, when you lose your mother—to death or to the random ravages of dementia—sometimes you just want to listen to the Stanley Brothers and have a good cry.
Like now, as I head out the door with a yellow rose and two Reese’s cups.