Hurricane Ivan was trying to suck the Gulf Coast off the map. Our family was holed up in a little house in the woods. The power was out. It was night. My mother-in-law, Mary, and I were drinking coffee in the dark kitchen, listening to destruction happen outside.
“Do you hear that noise?” I said. “It sounds like a freight train.”
Mary took a sip of coffee. “Probably just tornadoes.”
“Yep. That’s what everyone on the Weather Channel always says after a tornado, they say it sounds like a train.”
Now I was freaking out. “You really think a tornado is out there?”
Mary shook her head. “No. I said tornadoes. With an S.”
The rain was horsewhipping the house. You could hear windows groan beneath the weird air pressure. The roadways were flooded.
I checked my hands. I was trembling like Barney Fife at a bank stickup.
“Are you scared?” she asked.
She smiled. “Don’t be.”
“What about you? Aren’t you worried?”
“Me?” She shrugged, then raised her coffee mug in full salute. “My cup runneth over.”
The house shook with thunder. Pictures fell from walls. The lightning flashes outside were now set to “disco strobe” mode.
“Try to calm down,” said my mother-in-law, the woman who had, perhaps, the most soothing Alabamian voice I ever heard. She began to tell a story:
“When I was a girl,” she said, “I once had this little duck. Daddy gave her to me. He let me keep her outside in the shed with his minnow tanks. I named her Gertrude.
“Oh, I loved her. She was such a cute thing, so sweet. White feathers, yellow bill. She’d waddle around and eat bugs, sometimes she ate frogs, she made me so happy.”
Lightning. A heavy crash outside. My heart was pounding in my neck.
“Anyway, I’d sell Gertrude’s eggs. Duck eggs went for a lotta money ‘cause they’re so rich and good for baking. Everyone paid top dollar for them, I made big bucks.”
“How old were you?”
“Hmmm. Let’s see. The War had just ended, so I guess I was five.”
She cradled her mug and stared deep into it.
“I loved to watch Gertrude fly. She’d get a running start and, whoosh! Up and away. Daddy would say, ‘One day that duck’s gonna fly off and leave you,’ but she never did. She always came back.”
The ceiling creaked. It sounded like our roof was being peeled open like the lid to a Pringles can.
“Well, one day I was coming home from school and I saw Mother sitting on the steps, wringing her hands, and I could tell she had some bad news.”
“Uh-oh,” I said.
Mary nodded. “Mother said earlier that day there were some men at the hardware store, two hunters, they’d just finished bird hunting, and had their hunting gear still in their trucks.”
“When those men walked outta the store, they saw Gertrude flying over the hardware store, they rushed to their trucks, got their guns, and shot her.”
I interjected. “I’m sorry. But is this supposed to be making me feel better?”
“Oh, I cried. It was awful. And would you believe those hunters even got their pictures made in the newspaper, and…”
“Because, frankly, I’m not feeling very uplifted.”
“…They made the front page, like they were heroes. They held my poor duck by its feet, and the headline was something like: ‘Hunters Snag Duck in Downtown Brewton.’ Broke my little heart. All I did was cry.”
“I hope you never tell this story to children.”
“Anyway, that night, we had some company over for dinner, Miss Henrietta’s twins—they were my good friends. And for supper Daddy brought out a big steaming silver platter and put it on the table…”
“Alright, I think we’re done here.”
“…And after the twins started eating, I said, ‘Omigosh! We’re eating Gertrude!’ And the twins started gagging and ralphing everywhere.”
I buried my face in my hands.
“But hey,” she said, “do you want to know something?”
“Not really. No.”
“Gertrude tasted delicious. I went back for seconds.”
I stared incredulously at my mother-in-law who was smiling. And while I appreciated this woman’s effort to make me feel better, she had in fact told one of the most disturbing old-lady stories I’d ever heard, with no discernible takeaway moral.
I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. Which made her start laughing. Which made us both laugh so hard that we couldn’t catch our breath, and I somehow forgot all about being afraid.
Today, a lifetime later, I crept into Mary’s bedroom to find her sleeping. Her hospice nurse was making notes on a clipboard. I stood at Mary’s bedside and retold the entire story. When I finished, her weary eyes eased open. She looked at me. She lightly held my hand, and she smiled before falling back into a deep sleep.
Well. Now my cup runneth over, too.
Debbie g - August 2, 2021 7:07 am
How can you cry and laugh at the same time I believe you are right. Our cups runneth over love to all
oldlibrariansshelf - August 2, 2021 7:12 am
Wow! Just wow.
Susan Corbin - August 2, 2021 7:14 am
I so enjoy your stories about Mary. Wish I’d known her.
mizliz225 - August 2, 2021 7:43 am
😔😩😥💕💕😌💖. Miss Mary has blessed you deeply, Sean, and all of us, your readers… especially me. Thank you. 💕💕💕🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
Julie B - August 2, 2021 7:49 am
Each night I wait for the latest to see how Mother Mary is doing today. I know she is not long with us. I remember what the “watch” was like when my own dear mother was on Hospice. My heart goes out to Jamie and yourself and prayers for angel’s wings for Mary herself. Keep us posted. We are waiting with you.
Susan - August 2, 2021 10:00 am
What a great story, Sean. You and Mother Mary are blessed to have each other. You have such a special relationship. Thank you for sharing it with us. Continuing to pray for you and your family.
Ed (Bear) - August 2, 2021 10:15 am
Mary is easy to love. For me, her time with Gertrude and Gertrude’s untimely demise and subsequent feeding sounds like a Disney movie with a National Lampoon twist. Maybe Mary was explaining in that recounting of Gertrude about how certain life experiences can prepare us for life-threatening “storms”. Mary swallowed her grief but kept her sense of humor!
Harriet - August 2, 2021 11:19 am
I know what you mean by “disturbing old-lady stories”!
Lol. Ohhh Mother Mary. Tell her the “internet people” are with her.
Teresa Brooks - August 2, 2021 11:49 am
She sounds like a wonderful southern woman.
Jan - August 2, 2021 12:04 pm
Thank you for sharing Mother Mary with us… What a wonderful woman and a truly special person. I am honored to know her. Prayers continue for you all!
Margaret Cade - August 2, 2021 12:07 pm
Simply beautiful. What special memories Mother Mary has left you. May God give you all peace as you continue to sit by her bedside and await her going to her forever home. 🙏🙏❤️
Joan Moore - August 2, 2021 12:12 pm
Praying for this beautiful, remarkable woman who has been such a great blessing for you and Jamie.Tell her how much you love her each chance you can,it will comfort you later.
Lucinda Harding - August 2, 2021 12:14 pm
You are blessed to have these special memories and we are fortunate that you have gifted us with them through your writing. Thank you for letting us love Mother Mary too. 🙏🏼
D Moore - August 2, 2021 12:58 pm
It is well with her soul. The choir of Angel’s is awaiting her.
Thank you for sharing her with us.
Hug for Jamie too.
Dean - August 2, 2021 12:15 pm
Great column as always
Suzi - August 2, 2021 12:23 pm
I hold my breath each time I open your posts, not wanting Mother Mary to leave. But there will always be MM stories, tell them all, least you forget.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 2, 2021 12:41 pm
Wendy - August 2, 2021 12:42 pm
Oh that made me laugh! What wonderful way to start the day!!!
Karen - August 2, 2021 12:48 pm
Mother Mary and you all are in my prayers. She is leaving you with so many treasured memories. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.
Kate - August 2, 2021 12:53 pm
When my daughter was small, we often visited with very special, older friends who were rural farm people. They always raised two hogs and named them after the gentlemen who sold them the hogs. One was named Mr. Taylor. So … when my daughter was 4 or 5 she was spending the day with them and I called to check on her and she was having dinner. I asked what they were having for dinner and she said enthusiastically, “we are having Mr. Taylor”. I was at first horrified and then I burst out laughing. I love the innocence and simplicity of children.
Daisy - August 2, 2021 12:55 pm
Harriet – never realized we were the “internet people”. Couldn’t help but laugh
John - August 2, 2021 1:08 pm
I second Suzi’s comment! Keep telling us Mother Mary stories. They make us laugh and cry at the same time. Bless her. And you and Jamie. Your column makes my day every day.
margefromnaturesgift - August 2, 2021 1:17 pm
Sean, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your mother in laws final days with us… even the Gertrude story.
This is such an intensely personal story, yet one we all walk, in one form or another.
Marge Clark - August 2, 2021 1:20 pm
Sean, thank you for sharing Mother Mary’s last days with us. This is such a personal time, yet one that, in one way or another, we all share. Thank you.
Lynn - August 2, 2021 1:22 pm
This made me laugh, too. Thank you for sharing your memories.
Mackie Jordan - August 2, 2021 1:35 pm
What a good man and son-in-law you are!
SidC - August 2, 2021 1:46 pm
Presently I’m sitting at my father’s bedside waiting for him to be taken back for surgery. We realize he has a less than a 50/50 chance of coming through today. The past week has been a roller coaster of emotions to say the least. Reading about Miss Mary and your time at her side, it feels we are in the same room, filled with love and compassion. Thanks for sharing this intimate time with us.
Bob - August 2, 2021 5:09 pm
SidC – God Bless and His will be done today!
Karen Snyder - August 2, 2021 2:04 pm
What a delight it is to know, even a little bit, this wonderful lady. We keep vigil with you.🧡
Janet W. - August 2, 2021 2:07 pm
I love your writing, always, but these stories about Mother Mary are some of your very best. My mother passed away earlier this year, so these are especially poignant.
Julie - August 2, 2021 3:18 pm
Thank you for sharing this precious soul with us! I have lived the hospice wait with my sweet Daddy in 2018 and y’all have my prayers.
Please tell Mother Mary “the internet people” love her and some of us are praying her Home.
Suellen - August 2, 2021 3:27 pm
If that was one of my family members I’d be wondering if there really was a Gertrude or if they had just concocted the story to calm my fears. Either way it has a great punchline and I’m so glad you had someone in your life like that. Praying for all of you as you wait and remember.
Christina - August 2, 2021 3:44 pm
This is so classic Mother Mary! Her humor makes all of our cups runneth over.
Trudy Gale - August 2, 2021 4:04 pm
Sean, a friend just started sending me your stories. My mother, Mary, passed away at my home under hospice care on July 25. She lived with me the last four years. I’d like to think that I cared for her the way your wife has been caring for your mother-in-law. Today’s story touched me about the duck. See, my name is Trudy, a nickname for Gertrude, although, thankfully my parents didn’t name me Gertrude.
Thanks for sharing your stories. They have been a comfort.
Linda Moon - August 2, 2021 4:32 pm
Laughter is a good medicine. I would’ve loved to laugh with Mother Mary back in 2004 after the hurricane had passed…not during it! What a gift you are for her…to bring a smile to her there at the bedside. And what a gift for us who have been here reading about Mother Mary’s passage, on her way to Another Place.
Irma Turnipseed - August 2, 2021 4:39 pm
Sean, like a lot of your stories, your daily coverage of Miss Mary’s final days causes me to both laugh and cry. I didn’t want to wait until she meets Jesus and then say, “I’m so sorry for your loss”, I’d rather spend a moment with you now. I want to say how proud I am of you for allowing such a generous spot in your heart for Mary. I too, loved my in-laws like my own parents. Now they are all four gone and I miss them dearly. Like you, I love thinking back on trips we made, things we did together, and just remembering in general the relationship I had with each one. Soon you will miss her presence but you’ll still be warmed by all the sweet memories you have of her. And… no doubt, I’ll be warmed by them too. 🥲
Bob - August 2, 2021 5:06 pm
I’ll never eat duck again! Point well taken. Thanks.
Judy Broussard - August 2, 2021 5:43 pm
God bless Mrs Mary
Tracy D - August 2, 2021 6:14 pm
Sean, you get me every.darn.time! Beautiful story ❤
Peggy ALEXANDER - August 2, 2021 6:27 pm
Duck Dressing is THE BEST. My grandmother made it.
Bill Harris - August 2, 2021 6:38 pm
I know that all I say is, “ thank you Sean “ but I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
Dianne - August 2, 2021 6:50 pm
What wonderful memories of a wonderful woman you share with all of us, and how blessed you were to have her for your mother-in-law. Thank you for sharing.
Jeremy - August 2, 2021 6:53 pm
I do hope, when my time comes, that I have the presence of mind to recall your series on your monther-in-law.
Kim R - August 2, 2021 7:15 pm
Oh me….my mother died just a month ago, and I was sitting beside her. I can so relate to your words these last weeks. Her breaths were coming 30 seconds apart at the end and we thought every one was the last. The nurse told us that hearing is the last sense to go so we told her over and over that we loved her.
I am so thankful for you, your wife, and sweet mother Mary that you continue to talk to her. She is listening. God bless you all.
Josie McCamish - August 2, 2021 7:49 pm
Verna Kays - August 3, 2021 5:39 am
Dear Sean,I LOVED THIS STORY!!!!!!😘
Linda Holmes - August 3, 2021 4:16 pm
Never, not ever, stop telling your stories. This one is a beaut. Thanks for sharing.
Dawn - August 3, 2021 4:33 pm
Indeed it does, Sean!
Anne M Robinson - August 3, 2021 6:28 pm
Sometime it is hard to leave comments. Sometime my eyes are filled with lakes of water running down my face. SO I am backtracking. I do it often, all over blog land. I sure hope it is not against their rules! Somehow I Knew Mary was going to tell us Gertrude was a tasy treat. Oh I love her stories. Keep ’em coming my friend, keep ’em coming.
terric - August 4, 2021 11:45 pm
I can just hear Mother Mary telling the story in her soft southern voice. God bless you all ❤️.
Debbie Moser - August 5, 2021 9:48 am
I love that you read or told Mother Mary this story…you told her to not be afraid, she heard your heart❤️
Carol M - August 9, 2021 8:01 pm
I don’t know what to say to these writings recently. You take me in to the depths of my heart with each one.