In the preceding essay I referred to my mother as Mom, a term which I now realize may be somewhat misleading because it conjures up an image of warmth, affection, nurturing and compassion. This is not to say that my mother was in any way lacking in these fine traits. But in addition to an abiding maternal love she also had certain qualities that a hard upbringing had instilled. Her father, a railroad worker, had died in the 1919 influenza epidemic when she was very young. Her widowed mother had been forced to fend for herself and two children as best she could, a daunting prospect for a largely uneducated female single parent making her way in a rough railroad settlement in an isolated section of the Western North Carolina mountains. My grandmother's troubles were worsened when, soon after the death of her husband, her house caught fire and burned to the ground, nearly causing the death of her son, my uncle, who, by necessity, she had left unattended while out shopping for groceries. She made her way by working as a maid in a hotel, as a domestic and washerwoman, and as a cook in the kitchen of an Episcopal missionary school for the children of needy mountaineers.
Nor was this all. That part of Southern Appalachia, because of its remoteness, had traditionally been populated by feudists, moonshiners and bushwhackers; and early in the twentieth century it not only still harbored dangerous men but, by virtue of its rugged terrain, was often subject to extremely violent weather and severe flooding. This combination of threats had its impact on my grandmother; to the end of her life she feared thunderstorms and the prospect of lawlessness, indeed any sort of perceived danger, in a way that I, a child growing up in a tamer time and place, thought morbid and senseless. But over the years I have come to understand that, to her, such dangers had once been very real and deserving of her fear; time had not erased them, and could not.
Oddly, though, my mother had emerged from this same fraught background with what seemed to me a relentlessly sunny disposition that posed a sharp contrast with my grandmother's dreads and fears. Looking back on her optimism I have often called her a Pollyanna. She seemed to have believed from her earliest years that the world was a bright and promising place and that its dangers were few and could be defeated simply by smiling and believing always in the best outcomes. To this day I cannot understand how she developed and clung to this philosophy, so at variance with her own experience and that of my grandmother. But she did. And a concomitant of that belief was a sort of brusque confidence that if one made up one's mind to accomplish a thing, one was bound to succeed at it. That attitude, coupled with hard work and determination, would always result in good outcomes.
Though this philosophy was a confident and inspiring one, there was also a hard edge to it. My sister, when she was a college student majoring in piano, was preparing for a graduation recital she mentioned that she intended to use sheet music to play the most difficult pieces she had chosen. My mother responded, "No daughter of mine is going to perform a recital reading sheet music"--a baleful declaration, it seems to me now. Likewise, we children were always instructed to behave like small angels both in church and in the community, lest we reflect badly on our father, the minister. Thus it seemed that the survival of his ministry, and of our well-being as a family, depended on the excellence of our behavior. And on our talents. My sister being a pianist in whom my mother could take pride, I was appointed to take voice lessons so that I might stand gloriously in the choir stall and sing solos. I still cringe at the thought of those poor parishioners forced to listen, Sunday after Sunday, to my tremulous screeching.
Still today it is difficult for me to admit, even to myself, that my mother might have been so nakedly ambitious. When I search for the reasons for her ambition, I can't help going back in thought to the poverty and humiliation that must have attended her childhood, and to the shame she may have felt growing up in so constricted and demeaning an environment, without a father, and with a mother who was, in effect, a servant. How much more wonderful to have become the wife of a minister of the Gospel and the mother of two dutiful, talented, college-educated children? People who came to know her always remarked what a great lady she was. She knew everything about etiquette, art, interior decoration, decorum, fashion, all the finer things of life. How had she learned all these things, coming up as she had, in such constricted circumstances? I don't know. I'll never know. But I'm eternally grateful. If not for her, I would never have become a writer. She loved books and caused me to love them and want to write them.
Still, I did not, and do not today, call my mother Mom, though for some reason I used that term in the first installment of this post. I called her Mother. I still do. And that is a term of respect. But it also, I think, sets a certain distance between us. There is a mystery here too, that I have never solved. How could this determinedly positive, ambitious, accomplished and confident woman have emerged from such a deprived and difficult life experience? How could she, during World War Two, have balanced her buoyant optimism against the horrors we contemplated every morning over the newspaper's headlines? How could she insist that good would always triumph over evil? And how then did I become the person I am, infatuated with military affairs and with wars, violence and perversity, writing not about the Prince of Peace but about the worst of human behavior so often overcoming the best?
TO BE CONTINUED