The seafood joint is busy. There are people everywhere. We are waiting for a table. It’s Mother Mary’s 78th birthday.
The place is overrun with beach tourists. These are typical American families. Families with husbands who drive hundreds of miles in minivans, with screaming children, angry wives, incontinent dogs, and moderately Satanic mothers-in-law.
Studies have proven that mothers-in-law are the leading cause of beer among North American males who own minivans.
But not my mother-in-law.
I’m lucky, I guess. She’s different. She hails from Brewton, Alabama, and she is more sophisticated than a napkin ring. She’s the sort who wears pearls to check her mailbox.
She is in good spirits tonight. Her hair is fixed, her makeup is perfect, her walker has just been WD-Fortied. Her hearing aid batteries are brand new.
Our waitress is named Andrea, I happen to know her. She is a good woman. When Mother Mary sees Andrea coming, she tells my wife, “Jamie, I want to order the alligator.”
But it’s hard to hear in this loud room. Jamie asks: “What’d you say, Mother?”
Mary adjusts her hearing aid. “Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said, ‘What was that you said, Mother?’”
Mary smiles. “I said, ‘Say that again, Jamie, I couldn’t hear you.’”
“I KNOW that’s what you said, Mother, I wasn’t asking you about that.”
“It’s time to order food.”
“You did what?”
“MOTHER, ARE YOU GOING TO ORDER SOMETHING TO EAT?”
“My feet? They hurt something awful, I believe it’s time for a little toenail trim.”
“EAT! EAT! MOTHER!”
Andrea, I’ll have a beer please.
We start with an appetizer of alligator. Mother Mary loves alligator. She takes a bite and says, “You know, alligators eat so many humans, isn’t it empowering to eat one of them for a change?”
“Empowering. Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“I said: ‘YES MA’AM.’”
“Man? Where? What man?”
Another beer, Andrea.
Anyway, Mother Mary has stories to accompany our alligator fare:
“I ever tell you about when my daddy bought a baby gator? I named the gator Ed Lee. He was a good pet. Mean, but good.”
She went on to say that one January morning they discovered Ed Lee was frozen stiff and not breathing. So, Mary’s mother placed him in a shoebox and buried Ed Lee in the backyard.
“A few days later,” says Mary, “Daddy asked me where Ed Lee was, so I told him what happened.”
“That gator wasn’t dead,” her father explained. “Alligators hibernate in January.”
Mother Mary laughs at her story, then takes another empowering bite of gator.
Andrea comes to our table. She is carrying a full tray. She places enormous platters before us. The hush puppies are as big as baseballs. We eat. We laugh. A good time is had by all.
After supper, Andrea brings a slice of key lime pie for dessert. She stabs a candle in the top. She lights it. We sing “Happy Birthday.”
When we finish, Mother Mary says, “I Suwannee, we forgot to say grace.”
Thus, while a candle burns, I do the honors.
“Dear Lord,” I begin. “Thank you for Mother Mary, and for her seventy-eighth birthday. Thank you that she is healthy, happy, and has such low cholesterol.
“I’m grateful for her hugs, for her conversation, and kindness. I am grateful to have once lived in her home, just above her bedroom. I am even grateful, Lord, for the days when she watched HGTV at volumes that made the house vibrate like a sub-atomic nuclear testing facility.
“Mother Mary is one of the sweetest women I know, and I feel thankful to be called her son-in-law—no, not thankful. Lucky.
“May Heaven give Mother Mary many happy years. May she know that when she made me a part of her family, she changed me my life forever. Amen.”
Silence falls over the table.
Mother Mary finally breaks the stillness by speaking directly into her daughter’s ear.
She says, “What’n the hell did he just say?”
Happy birthday, Mother Mary.