(That's Mama in the middle, 1949)Yes, 55 years ago today, Mama was killed by a drunk driver. I was 14.
Here is a chapter from my book, "Sink Drinkin'"
Happy Mother's Day - I Remember Mama
How do you remember your mother? What did you call her? What did she call you? So many unanswered questions. So many puzzles.
Mama was a special girl. In her youth, she was a tomboy, and they actually called her "Willie" after her father. I'm told it was an old southern custom to name girls for their fathers. Mama was the fourth and last child, the baby of the family. And she was the star. She and her brother Gene were the closest of siblings. So close in fact, that Gene became her father when Mama's dad died. He actually became her legal guardian. And they adored each other. Truly.
Mama was athletic, she played tennis and swam in college at Wesleyan. She was president of the Athletic Club. And she was a pianist and studied with "Papa Maerz" who was a descendent pupil of Franz Liszt, no small feat. And Mama was faithful to her piano all her life. She practiced her scales and techniques every day. My earliest memory of her is sitting beside the piano while she played. She would turn and sing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" to me and make silly cartoon faces while she sang. It never ceased to thrill me. Mama was responsible for the Community Concert Association being formed in our town, and she was also responsible for hiring Frank Marynell to come there and be band director and she lead the campaign to buy instruments and uniforms for the SHS band.
Of course I wanted to play and she wanted me to play. And I've done pretty well at the keyboard myself through the years and always marveled that I inherited her talent even though I was adopted. She taught me to read music and it's in my baby book (which she kept like a religion) that I read notes and could match them on the piano at age 4.
Mama always wanted another child besides me, but that never happened. She wanted a little girl. Wonder if I became that little girl for her? I don't wonder. I probably did. I'll never forget when she caught me one day wearing her dress and squeezed into her high heels shoes. She cried all night and was even crying the next morning at the breakfast table. Suddenly, she said, "You did that because you wanted to be like me, didn't you?" No, but I grabbed at the excuse she had presented me with and said, "Yes, Mama." And that got me out of that situation.
She didn't like the fact that I was probably gay. She never really admitted it. She would catch me at times doing things that were sissy and she would call me "Miss Wall" in derision. She was of another generation and sexuality was never mentioned anywhere. Later, I had an analyst tell my father that I was effeminate because of my large size, that it was how I managed my huge frame, my physicality. Oh well, somebody was always looking for an excuse.
I was always older than my years, I think that's common with children of alcoholics. I knew things at 10 that most kids don't learn until their 40's. I saw physical violence perpetrated on a defenseless woman at the tender age of 3 - it is my earliest memory of Mama: wearing pink fuzzy mules in the hall outside my bedroom. She was crying and Daddy was beating the living hell out of her (and she always stood there and took it) and I was crawling on the floor hitting his leg to get him to stop. I learned early not to like physical violence, especially to women. He would beat her black and blue, especially on Saturday nights, and she would get up the next morning and put heavy makeup on her face and go right to the Baptist Church and play that organ in front of everyone. She never missed a Sunday. And it was actually the church, or her duty to it, that killed her.
It was a bright May Saturday and we had filled the swimming pool for the summer and I was in the water the minute I got out of bed. And by lunch time, a group of friends were there enjoying the water and having a blast. I distinctly remember Mildred Mayo driving up in the driveway to pick up her daughter Arie. Mildred came over to the swimming pool and spoke to me. She glanced over to the side of the house and noticed a trellis with sweetheart roses growing on it. And she said to me, "Miriam (Mama's name) won't mind if I clip one of these white roses to wear at church tomorrow, will she?" I said, "Go right ahead" I was still in the water. I can still see Mildred holding the white rose she had clipped and saying to me, "You wear a white rose when your mother has passed away." I looked over to make sure there was a red rose for me to wear on my lapel the next day at church.
At sundown, I got out of the pool and went into the house and decided that Mame was late so I would fry up some hamburgers and some french friends. And I started the process in the kitchen. Daddy was drunk and sitting on the back porch (what we called our family room) and was watching Perry Como Show. Johnny Mathis was singing his latest hit, "The Twelfth of Never" with the word "until the twelfth of never, I'll still be loving you." That is emblazoned in my mind because a car pulled up in the driveway and two of our best friends came into the back porch. I walked in the room to greet them and as they came in the door, Frank Marynell said, "Benie, Miriam is dead. She's been killed in a car wreck." I'll never forget my reaction: I had a spatula in my hand and I thought, "Oh, we'll need one less burger." I didn't cry and I didn't realized what had happened for about a year, actually. Shock does funny things to our brains, I guess.
It wasn't long before people started arriving at the house. That ritual that goes on in every southern death - people just show up. And I all of a sudden became the Hostess of the House, it was surreal behavior, but there it was.
It wasn't long before the doctor arrived, Pete Newsome. He came in and I was standing there among a group of people and he burst into tears and said, "I've seen Mama, she's dead."
They took me out of that house and to the McElrath's where my next memory is being at the top of their staircase with about 20 of my friends sitting below me offering consolation and on the stereo was playing the Everly Brothers singing "Dream dream dream, when I want you - all I do is dream." And that song has always been in my brain that I they were singing to me about Mama. If I wanted her I could dream.
The next day was Sunday and Mary Grace and Tarver came and got me and put me in the car and we drove around during the church hours. The service from the Methodist Church was broadcast on the local radio station and I remember the minister announcing Mama's death to the congregation and hearing people scream out "Oh No".
By the time I got back home, the out of town family began arriving. My uncle arrived with a state trooper car because he was the Attorney General of Georgia and always traveled that way. The family gathered outside and I noticed they were all getting into cars going somewhere. My father's business partner came and pulled me by the arm and said, "Come on boy, we're going to the funeral home." And I said, "I'm not going to any funeral home." And he kept pulling me until my uncle Gene, the Atty Gen. yelled out "Leave him alone, he doesn't want to go. I will stay here with him." Gene always looked out for me and became like a father to me for the rest of his life.
It was not long before I left the house again for another drive with someone and when I returned I walked into the kitchen and look into the dining room and there, to my horror, the dining room table had been removed and in its place was Mama's casket! Being Hostess of the House and much older than my years, I went and found my father and a said loudly, "What is that doing here?" And in his drunken stupor her criend, "She was coming home and I wanted her to be here with me."
That facts were that Mama had gotten up on Saturday morning and driven to Macon to buy a piano for a Sunday School room at her church. I had gone to town early to avoid the rush at the barber shop and she had left without me. On her way home she rounded a bend in the road and hit a truck load of pigs. Her Cadillac smashed up under the truck and Mama was beheaded and when they found her part of her body was even in the back seat of the car. How do I know this? Someone told me that. Why, I'll never know.
I didn't go home that night before the funeral. I came back to dress for the service and as I walked out of my room I can still see them carrying Mama's casket out the front door. As we drove to the church, I noticed that the entire town had shut down. Businesses were closed and at the church were both sections of my 8th grade glass in attendance. Three preachers conducted the service and one of Mama's best friends and students played the organ.
I was in a stupor and just stared at the casket. We went to the cemetery and that's when I cried, but only a little and to my self. My Aunt Julia stayed with the casket until it was lowered into the ground. I went home and the dining table has been replaced and the food was laid out along with Mama's best silverware. All I could think of was "These forks need to be lined up before anybody gets here to eat. And on the stove a pot boiled over and Aunt Julia, running into the kitchen to turn it off saying "Miriam would die if she saw this!" And I said quietly to myself, "She did."