Mother Mary is eating barbecued brisket with me. It’s a Saturday night. She is seated at the table, her walker sits parked beside her. Her makeup is fixed. Her hair is white with a tinge of blue. She wears pearls.
Pearls. For barbecued brisket.
I first referred to my mother-in-law as “Mother Mary” eons ago, when I was at her house watching a televised baseball game. The reason I called her this was because you don’t want to call your mother-in-law by her first name unless you want to end up in Hell.
I remember the San Francisco Giants were playing the Washington Nationals. My father-in-law and I were watching Barry Bonds at the plate. My father-in-law, Brother Jim, couldn’t stand Barry Bonds.
Brother Jim came from the era when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were household names. A time when all American boys, no matter which state they were from, loved the lanky Yanks.
I should stop here and explain. To me, my father-in-law only ever went by one nickname: “Brother Jim.”
I gave him this title because this is what we fellow Baptists called each other. We reserve the title “brother” for members of the clergy, deacons, elders, or police officers who pull us over.
The joke of course was that Brother Jim Martin was definitely not a clergyman. He used words that could make sailors blush, and he was always deeply concerned about football-game point spreads in a way that made you wonder if more was at stake than simply team pride.
Anyway, Brother Jim looked at Barry Bonds on the screen and said, “I can’t stand this joker!”
And I agreed. Barry Bonds was part of a generation of over-muscled baseball players that almost ruined professional baseball for me.
Not long ago, you’d turn on the television to watch an average game and it looked like a bunch of greased up professional wrestlers were playing wiffle ball against third-graders. You half expected Hulk Hogan to be standing at third base and Lou Ferrigno to be playing shortstop.
My father-in-law scoffed at the TV. “This modern baseball is a load of [use your imagination].”
My mother-in-law was horrified. Her voice rang with the anvil tones of a lifelong Methodist. “Jim, don’t use that foul word.”
He laughed at her and said, “What’re you, my mother? ‘Mother Mary?’”
And the nickname stuck. Later I heard that this nickname went back a lot further. They tell me an employee who worked for my father-in-law used to call Mary this. Still, I take credit for carrying this moniker into the modern century. I’ve never called her anything else.
I’ve always been big on nicknames. I call my family members by nicknames. I nicknamed my three-year-old niece “Uncle Lily” because when she first learned to talk she used to call me Uncle Sean a lot. My other niece, Lucy, is “The Poopfather.”
I started calling my wife “Jay Jay” a long time ago. My sister’s kids took to the name right away. They call her “Aunt Jay Jay,” and as far as I know they don’t even know my wife’s real name. Come to think of it, even I don’t know my wife’s real name, but I’m too embarrassed to ask.
I have nicknames for my dogs, my friends, the IRS, my vehicles, my guitar, and even myself.
But no nickname means as much to me as “Mother Mary.” It’s the magnum opus of nicknames because she is a special person. I have written about her a lot. And I get letters from people asking about her often.
I never knew how interested people were in Mother Mary until I once did a show in Pennsylvania and several people were asking me how Mother Mary was. That same year, I was at a huge book convention in New York City and a man appeared from the shadows and asked, “So, how’s Mother Mary?”
The truth is, Mother Mary is doing pretty good. Sometimes she has a rough time moving around, and she uses oxygen more often than she would like, but she’s great. And I wish I had half the grit she has.
She is every sophisticated woman you’ve ever met. She’s happy. Sturdy. Cheerful. A woman who has eaten the same fatty breakfast for seventy-nine years—eggs, bacon, and a stick of butter—and still has a cholesterol count so low that university scientists are beating down her door.
And she’s got a great sense of humor.
A good example of this would be the time that her caregiver, Robbie, was taking her photograph. At first Mary played it cool. Then suddenly, before the flash went off, she groped her own bosoms and stuck her tongue out at the camera.
And when we all recovered after nearly blacking out from laughter, we all ate some cholesterol together.
Actually, that’s what we’re doing right now by eating this barbecue.
Her nails are painted. Her makeup is flawless. I’ve never met anyone who wears her pearls to eat brisket. She could show June Cleaver a thing or two—such as how to grope her own bosoms.
Mother Mary says to me: “Do you remember when you started calling me Mother Mary?” Then she licks one of her fingers.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“Well, maybe you could write about that some time if you’re ever looking for something to write. I like it when you write about me.”
I do too, Mother Mary.