I walked into the house unannounced. The door was unlocked. Nobody answered the doorbell so I let myself in.
I was young, six-two, awkward, freckles, shaggy hair, telephone-pole legs, and size-13 clown shoes. In a word, I was “gawky.”
In this world you had your handsome guys who were going places; guys who came from generations of good breeding, with investment portfolios. And then you had guys like me. Our family heirloom salad bowls all said “Cool Whip” on the sides.
I announced myself to the empty house. “Hello? Anybody home?”
I was here to Meet the Parents, and I was nervous. I had been dating this girl for a little while. We were at the phase where family introductions were a necessity. I felt like I was going to puke.
An older woman came from around the corner to greet me. Dark brown hair. Chocolate eyes. Early 60s.
“Are you Sean?” she said.
I swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m Mary. Jamie’s mother.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Mary.”
I could tell by the look on the woman’s face that I was under inspection. Which is a brutalizing process for a young man. I stood naked before these two exacting eyes.
I shoved my hands into my pockets while she evaluated the boy who was dating her daughter. I half expected her to inspect my teeth.
“Sean,” she said, tapping her chin. “Such an interesting name.”
“No, ma’am. Baptist. But I drink a little.”
“Well, we’ve heard a lot about you.”
Uh-oh. God knows what they had heard. Because I had nothing going for me. A high-school dropout. A string of failed jobs. I’d done everything from construction to scooping ice cream. What pittance I had in savings was wadded in an Altoid tin beneath my mattress. I would later spend it all on an engagement ring. I was—I hate to keep pointing this out—not a prize catch.
A mutual smile passed between us.
“Sean,” she muttered, trying the word on for size.
The hallway clock ticked.
The woman flashed another grin and said, “Would you like something to eat, Sean? Jamie will be downstairs in a few minutes.”
“No, thanks.” I wasn’t hungry. I’d already eaten breakfast.
“Of course he wants something to eat!” came the booming voice of her father from the kitchen.
Case closed. No more discussion.
I was manhandled into an open galley that was filled with steaming stockpots, sizzling skillets, and rising biscuits. It wasn’t even noon yet.
“Sit,” said the woman. “Eat.”
This was not a suggestion.
I was the only person in the dining room, and yet I was fed within an inch of my life. They gave me a plate heaped with butter beans, squash casserole, pot roast, tomato chutney, creamed corn, rice and gravy, cheese grits, sliced raw tomatoes, cucumbers doused in vinegar, and sweet potatoes.
The chocolate-eyed woman sat across from me, not eating, but urging me to keep shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth.
“So you met Jamie at church?” she asked.
My mouth was full. “Yes’m.”
“She tells me you’re a musician?”
Another nod. I was on thin ice here. It is a well known fact that a musician without a girlfriend or a van is homeless. Not exactly bring-home-boyfriend material.
“Where do you work?”
“I’m currently between careers, ma’am.” This sounded a lot better than saying “I live with my mom.”
“Who do you root for in college football?”
“I roll with the Tide, ma’am.”
“Have you been baptized by immersion?”
“Convicted of any crimes?”
“Full-coverage or liability?”
And that’s how it happened. We laughed a lot. We talked. We told stories. We ate dessert together. We must have reclined at that table for an hour before her daughter came downstairs.
And I fell in love with this family. It was one of my brightest days. Because, you see, I didn’t have much family.
I was the son of a man who committed suicide. Suicide tends to rip a family asunder. I spent my youth eating suppers before a television set watching “Family Feud” reruns and envying the happy contestants.
My three-person family didn’t have big meals. Our Christmases were ten-minute affairs. Our Thanksgivings were spent at Cracker Barrel. No relatives called to wish me a happy birthday. No man called me son. Sometimes I wondered if anyone cared whether I was alive.
But here. At this table. All of a sudden I had an instant family. Just add water. This woman with the chocolate eyes, sitting across from me. To her I was somebody. To her I mattered.
When I finished eating, I asked, “So what should I call you, ma’am?”
She shrugged. “Whatever you want.”
It was a spur-of-the moment remark. It’s funny how things said in passing can sometimes stick with you. “How about Mother Mary?” I said.
She liked this very much.
Over the decades, I would never call her anything else. And as she lies on her sickbed today, it touches me to hear hospice nurses and caregivers refer to her by the same title.