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The Last Gift From My Mother

May 12, 2013

I suppose that most mothers are different and weird and special only to their own children. When we are small, we tend to regard another’s mothers as simply the person with the flour on her hands when we visit before dinner, or the person who comes into the principal’s office looking harried every time her budding juvenile delinquent has gone and done something again. Other people’s mothers are ordinary people, sort of faceless and nameless, other than “Sally’s mom” or “Mrs. Harris.” Occasionally, someone may have an exceptionally pretty mom, especially if we see her going out looking glamorous in jewelry and beautiful clothes, but for the most part, in our youth, we view moms as just part of the furniture at our friends’ houses.

I think my mother was different enough so that my friends realized it as soon as they reached the age of consciousness, when people with whom we are not directly engaged begin to emerge from the shadows and become slightly more animated than their surroundings. My mother was pretty, funny, and fun, always up for some adventure. She was also canny in the way women are canny when they see a situation they cannot control and find a circuitous way to control it anyway. She was a feminist, a sexist, really who disdained men, but doted on my father because he enthusiastically acknowledge that men are shits. Together, George and Marynell Griffitts harbored the notion that women were better than men, and the world would be better off if women ran things

She died 14 years ago. Of course, I still think of her frequently, perhaps even daily. I still remember exactly the extraordinary color of her eyes and the way they always lit up when she looked at one of her children or grandchildren. I remember the sound of her laugh and what her fried chicken tasted like.

A few years ago, I had an occasion to think of her more often because she suddenly came back to me in an unexpected and delightful, if troublesome way. So like her.

My father was 12 years older than my mother, and she always referred to herself as his “little curly haired darling.” I don’t know if that was a term he had introduced to describe her, or if she made it up to describe herself. At any rate, it was an accurate description. He doted on her and spoiled her in the way uxorious men used to spoil their wives in the days when wives were considered merely extensions of their husbands. He overindulged her and let her be the Queen, running their little fiefdom with absolute authority. If anyone sniggered at his calm acceptance of her control over him and the household, her merely smiled and commented that she was smarter than he was. That wasn’t true, but Daddy had a gift of self-effacement. He hid his intelligence behind a mask of humorous reserve; Mama wore hers like a coal miner wears his headlamp—not with self-conscious hubris, but merely as one of the tools in her arsenal. She just looked bright, with her flashing golden eyes and a face usually pink with laughter or exertion or heat from the kitchen stove or indignation. All kinds of passions were given equal time and consideration, rotating across her features regularly.

She was 54 when Daddy died, still young enough to feel surprised and betrayed at being abandoned by her lover. After his death, she lost all control over herself and the circumstances of her life. She went berserk, and within 6 months began marrying a succession of men, all of whom were supposed to replace the man who had been George Griffitts. None of them lived up to expectations, and so she ditched them one at time, but she never gave up trying. She married two men twice and divorced them both twice. She married one man once and had the marriage annulled shortly after the ink had dried on the marriage license. Five marriages in the course of her widowhood, and she was considering marrying again when she came down with her final illness at age 77.

The man she was married to for the longest stretches was named Louis. He was good looking, younger than she was, financially secure, and generally nice, but he had the unfortunate traits of a jealous streak and of not being George Griffitts. He was doomed from the beginning by either.

A few of years ago, one of Louis’ daughters-in-law called me. Louis had recently died, and his heirs were trying to settle his estate. Apparently, at one time during one of their marriages, Mama and Louis had bought a piece of property together. At their last divorce, Mama sold Louis her interest in the land, but for some unbeknownst reason, she maintained the mineral rights. In a separate document apart from her will, she named me, her youngest daughter, as the heir to those rights. Now that Louis was gone, his heirs wanted to sell the land, but they found this small encumbrance, a gift and a legacy to me from my mother, popping up surprisingly and irritatingly.

The sudden knowledge of this secret, long-hidden gift felt like a hug sent to me across time and distance, and suddenly the room I am in is filled with Mama’s presence. I can feel her, simultaneously sly and straightforward, direct as a man, manipulative as a woman who is repressed but determined, and I wonder why it was the she retained these rights and why she bequeathed them to me. Did she really think there might be gas or gold or oil on the property? Did she do it to get in one last insult to Louis? Did she want to leave a tiny surprise to her daughter to pop up out of the blue as it did?

And what should I do about it? My first impulse was simply to sign away the rights. Louis’ children were in the depths of grief —why make their lives even more difficult by hoarding this tiny consideration? After all, Mama could have done this just to needle Louis. I can see the possibility. There is no need to carry the battle to his children. Mineral rights are essentially worthless unless something of value is actually found on the property, and I think such a find is unlikely. So why would I saddle Louis’ children with a sticking point when they try to sell, and why would I want to keep a legal right in property several hundred miles away? It sounds like the makings of a future headache.

But something gave me pause. The joy that I felt when I was reminded of how much I was cherished by both my parents made me realize that love sustains itself forever, and that little reminder is precious to me. You can tuck love away into a memory, but now and again, something will dislodge it from its hidden place, and you can see it vivid and in full flower, blossoming in your heart is if it were May and the glories of the earth jump up and shout, “Surprise! I never left the room! I was just playing peek-a-boo!” Maybe I should not mindlessly give away what my mother so carefully wrapped up and handed to me. What was she thinking? What should I do?

My first thought was that I needed to speak to my sister, Rebekah. I know she would have a strong opinion about it, one way or another, but which way I could not venture to guess. That thought sent another jolt—Becky had been gone for 5 years at that time, and I was even more painfully aware of how bereft I am without the wisdom of both these remarkable women. My life has been shaped by their presence and their influences, and I feel crippled without their counsel. I will have to spend the rest of my life without the hope of knowing the discernment of their hearts and without sharing my own with them.

So I called upon others—the women I have known and trusted for years and who I have blithely called “friends” without really recognizing the full meaning of the term. Now I am aware of how much friends stand in as sisters and how much I rely on their love and their wisdom to help me in times of pain or trouble—or joy. I realize they stand in as mothers, too, using their own love and the resources they have so carefully cultivated and stored up over the years to give those they care about the best advice they have. I suddenly feel inundated with love from these surrogate mothers and sisters, and from my biological mother and sister, and I am humbled and thankful for what they offer.

And they have given good advice, as I knew they would, advice that came from different places in their hearts and minds and which gave me different paradigms from which to examine the problem. I think the best advice I got was from Pabby, my friend from long ago when I lived in Baton Rouge. “Listen to your mother,” she said, and her words pierced me with their practical wisdom. Others reminded me that mineral rights are not as much of an encumbrance on the sale of land as I had thought they might be. And that I should never discard a gift, especially one given with such deliberate care. Everyone had some kernel that I listened to and am grateful for. And they made me even more grateful for the simple fact of friendship.

So I decided what to do. I would not relinquish the mineral rights if it is at all possible. If Louis’ heirs want to sell the property, they can do so with transferring the rights to the buyer. This is most likely the last obvious message of love I shall ever receive from Marynell, and I don’t want to let it dissipate. That message can be passed along to others in the long line of mothers and daughters that are here now and those yet to come. It would be silly and fruitless to pass the rights, worthless in any material sense, to my children and grandchildren in general. This would just leave a muddle of spit interest down through the generations. But I do hope to leave a tiny legacy of love and a miniature portrait of my mother’s character to someone who can claim it as her own.

I intend to try to see that the youngest daughter of the family receives these mineral rights, and the accompanying hug and beam of love that shines from Marynell down through her daughter and granddaughter and great granddaughter and great-great granddaughter. Mary Elizabeth is my daughter. If she has a girl child, or two or more, I intend to give the rights to the youngest. If Mary Elizabeth does not have any girls, the rights will pass to the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of Rebekah. For a time, the rights were to pass to my niece Britt’s daughter, Elsa, but since then, Rebekah’s youngest daughter Sarah has had a baby girl, so aptly named Marinella. At this time, Marinella is the heir to this gift handed down from her grandmother Marynell. If Sarah or Mary Elizabeth come though and give me another grandniece or a granddaughter, that claim will shift to one of them.

It is my hope that this wish is honored through the generations, in direct line, if possible, to nieces or cousins if not, not because I hope to pass along anything of material value to the daughters and granddaughters of the future, but because I want a little girl who doesn’t know me, who doesn’t know Marynell, who may feel small and insignificant next to her big sister(s) and brother(s) or cousins, to feel a special touch from someone who thought of her and loved her and hoped for her generations before she was even conceived. The fact that no one knows what treasure may be there is important. I want her to dream about the possibilities that arise when she knows that she, and she alone owns all the gold and silver and precious gems that may lie beneath the land once owned by her grandmother generations back. And I hope that knowing she is loved and remembered by strangers from long ago makes her aware of the treasure pulsing beneath her own skin.  

photo.JPGMarynell, on her 70th birthday
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One Comment
  1. beautifully written

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