We had solemnly agreed we weren’t going to cry that day. Mama and I promised each other this. We even shook on it.
I was not yet a man, but I would be married within 48 hours, so I was close to being one. It was my final day at home. I had packed the last of my belongings in cardboard boxes and was moving into a rat-trap apartment where my future wife and I would live after the honeymoon.
My old bedroom looked vacant. The walls were bare. And this was feeling weird.
No more poster of John Wayne hanging over my bed. No more desk with my manual typewriter. No more piles of dirty clothes awaiting the laundry fairy.
It must have been odd for my mother, too. Her hardest years of single-motherhood were over. No more overflowing dirty dishes. No more annoying sounds of her son practicing guitar during the wee hours. No more stocking a refrigerator that always teetered on emptiness because of a certain young man who ate everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.
My leaving also meant there would be no more moments of minor disappointment caused by a wayward son. No longer would I come home late on an occasional Saturday night with my head down and beer on my breath. No longer would she stand in the hallway, showing disapproval. No more mending my slacks before Sunday morning services, then shoving me out the door to repent for last Saturday night.
No more suppers at her table.
I loaded the last box into my truck and it all felt so final. We stood in the driveway staring at each other. We were two adults now.
“It’s only a ten-minute drive,” I said. “Our apartment isn’t far.”
She smiled. Brave face. This woman who had survived her troubled husband’s reckless death. This woman who held a Bachelor of Science, but also cleaned houses, and worked shifts at Chick-fil-A, manning deep-fryers and telling lunchtime customers it was a pleasure to serve them. Who crocheted scarves, hats, and mittens at Christmastime. Who always had a book in her hand.
She straightened my collar and said, “Yes, I know you won’t be far. But it feels far.”
We remained strong. Which was quite unlike us. But then, there was that solemn agreement.
Even so, it was difficult to hold a stiff upper lip because if there is one thing she passed down to me, it is the gift of tears.
My mother cried easily. All it took was a small thing to set her off. Her tears were never bitter. Her tears were spent on joy, tenderness, and affection. They were honest tears. Not sour ones. She’d had enough of those.
Whenever she cried, her face would turn plum-colored and she would remove her glasses. Because what followed was a municipal dam explosion. It was never light weeping. We do not lightly weep in my family. We snort. We honk. We blow our noses on our shirttails.
Some mothers taught their boys how to iron their own shirts. Others taught their children which side of the plate the fork goes on. Mine taught me to cry openly at “Little House on the Prairie” when Mary Ingalls loses her eyesight.
Don’t misunderstand me. Mama did not believe in whining. Nor did she believe in shedding tears after lost baseball games. My mother taught me how to cry during benchmark moments of life. At weddings, memorials, graduations, and during the throes of rib-cracking laughter.
This is because she saw beauty in life, in poetry, in the Psalms, in cheap romance novels, and in Paul Newman. She believed in rescuing strays. And she saw eternal value in classic movies like “Doctor Zhivago,” “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” and “Lilies of the Field,” which is her favorite.
But that day we held our saltwater. Solemn agreements are not to be broken among solemn people. We remained stoic. There would be no snotty noses, no big scene. Just goodbyes.
My God. This was goodbye.
I slammed the tailgate to my truck. I had all my boxes. I had my typewriter. I had the tweed jacket which once belonged to my father. She wanted me to have that.
It’s funny. After he died, people used to call her strong. But I never understood it. Because I was like all children: charmingly ignorant, and a little selfish.
How is it that we can know so little about ourselves, and even less about our parents? How is it that the children of politicians don’t know their parents are famous? How is it that some kids grow up impoverished and never know they were poor until years later? How could the child of a strong woman not know of her endurance?
But watching her, there in that driveway, while my truck idled, and her son was about to leave home to go play Grown-Ups, I did see it. The strength.
“I’d better get going,” I said.
“Yes, you’d better.”
“This is so weird, leaving.”
“I’ll miss you, Mama.”
We were both treading on thin ice now.
“I’ll miss you, too. Every day.”
“But I’ll still come around.”
She smiled. “Of course you will.”
“And things won’t really be that different, you know.”
She didn’t answer that one.
We moved forward to embrace. And I fell into a rabbit hole of the human mind. I saw our shared history flickering on my brain’s silver screen. Our difficult lives. Our young laughter. Our mistakes. The black cloud of heaviness that nearly swallowed us after my father’s end. The way she muscled our family through hell without retreating an inch. Always moving forward. Always onward. Always fighting. Always cheerful. Always.
And in that average driveway, on an average afternoon, we broke our solemn agreement.
Happy birthday, Mama.