Motherless

Monday morning. I had just begun to shift from weekend to work mode when my parents’ home number appeared in the Caller-ID display box on the black phone in my cube.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

“Hello?” I answered, cheerful yet quiet.

“Where’s the body?” Mommy asked someone in the background.

AhâÂ?¦my quirky mother, Thelma O’Neal Dobbins. Only she would unwittingly start a conversation that way. Obviously her own mother – my beloved “Gran Ruby” – had ended her battle with diabetes and old age. I figured Mommy was calling to give me the news.

“Hel-lo-o?” I sang, ready to offer my mother the same solace I did six years before, when her father died. Lived a long lifeâÂ?¦Not suffering anymoreâÂ?¦ I was totally prepared.

“Yeah, Paula? Your Mommy died last night.” For those words, I was totally unprepared.

“What?”

Not the mama! Not the mama!
“Your Mommy died.” Suddenly I heard the difference in their voices. I was talking to my mother’s sister, not my mother. And she was telling me something I could barely comprehend.

“How?” my cool collectiveness dissolved into a whining falsetto.

“Heart attack. In her sleep,” she said, spitting out the facts with the staccato of a seasoned crime detective. “Let me know what you all are gonna do.”

I hung up and dialed my husband Chris’ extension. When it rolled to his second line, I jogged up a flight of stairs to his cubicle. Taking one look at my distraught face, Chris said through the receiver, “I’ll call you back.”

“My mother diedâÂ?¦” I broke down, covering my mouth with the palm of my hand. My other hand flew to my belly and I bent over like one of those men in old-time footage taking a cannonball in the midsection.

“I’m coming, Mommy.”
We rushed to our house to book flights to Chicago and pack bags. Staring at my mother’s picture on the wall, I promised, “I’m coming, Mommy.”

The futility of rushing to the dead didn’t escape me, until I realized it was the living I was really swarming to. The first thing my father said to me was, “We need you.”

It felt strange to be greeted in my childhood home by Daddy and my relatives, but no Mommy. The person I was most like – flesh of her flesh – whose voice and signature I could emulate to a tee, the one I even chewed like, had disappeared into ether.

Where did you go, my lovely?
After Mommy’s body was lowered into the ground and my aunt wailed with grief, we all went home. A few days later, I called my mother’s phone just to savor her voice on the outgoing message. Six years after her death, I signed my name on a list for a Grief Recovery workshop, wherein I unearthed a lot of the pain that her death – and life – caused.

It’s so easy to focus on the negative. Yes, the things Mommy did wrong could fill a tome (check your local bookstores circa 2008 for my scathing memoir). But for now I will focus on the positive things she passed on to me during her 68 years on this planet.

Like how she taught me the 23rd Psalm. Or how she read The Night Before Christmas with such animated glee, it rivaled any modern day Pixar picture.

Da French Mule of the World
Perpetually stooped over wiping crumbs and dog hair off the floor, Mommy was a natural born cleaner. Strong with muscular mounds astride her shoulder blades, she didn’t think twice about mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when Daddy slacked off.

Not just a workhorse, my mother was smart too – interpreting a French phrase or two while being a taskmaster for proper English. Just let a participle dangle from my lips or a negative double up in my mouth, Mommy quickly corrected it – much to my preteen chagrin and adult delight.

I catch glimpses of her now and again, in the nappy silver hairline of a woman at church, or in certain mannerisms my son displays. They are messages from beyond, like the shooting star I saw soon after Mommy’s death. And the song that came to life on the radio back then, the chorus of which had swirled around in my brain beforehand for days:Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½”All right now, baby it’s all right now.”

Paula Neal Mooney is editor-in-chief of Real Moms magazine.

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