My sister and I stifled laughter throughout our mother’s funeral. The minister was not trying to be funny. He had scarcely known our mother because she did not like him or his newfangled church policies. At her service he retold stories we’d told him only 48 hours before, and in his folksy manner he inadvertently emphasized the wrong details. The result was comical, so Margaret and I sat in the front row, splitting with hysteria, hoping everyone behind us would mistake our laughter for sobs of grief.
Betty was worth grieving. She was smart and generous, resourceful and frivolous. To her last days she was a madcap dreamer, one whose biggest dream came true when she became a mother after suffering five miscarriages. She relished every minute of raising my sister and me.
She did all sorts of things she wouldn’t have ordinarily enjoyed just because she thought they were important for us. She woke early, though she was naturally a night owl. She cooked breakfast, a meal she despised. She hauled us around near and far, to art classes, play rehearsals, swim meets, sleepovers, birthday parties and math contests. Our lives were her life.
When I was little, weekdays with my mother consisted of picnics in the park, writing books together, and playing “you be the girl, and I’ll be the mama,” which was a game my mother invented mostly to make tidying my room more fun. Around lunchtime on Fridays, when my father came home early from work, Mama packed the car to drive us away for the weekend to my father’s parents’ house on the Spring River in Hardy, Arkansas.
My mother wasn’t outdoorsy, but she was a good sport. While my father fished my mother rode horses with her father-in-law, whom everyone else called Lawyer but we all called Papa. I imagine they talked about Tennyson and Walt Kelly and strategies for gin rummy, as these were things they both treasured. What I know from her telling me is that those days riding through pastures in the cool river air with me nestled in front of her were some of the most peaceful days of her life.
The peace didn’t last. My father’s mother had a stroke when I was five, the year Margaret was born. Grandmother Myrt’s declining health was followed by a series of unexpected turns, all of which forged a fork in our family road that led my father down one path and my mother down another.
For a while after that she was fragile, a frail, weepy, 100-pound mess; but then her innate resolve set in. She started a business; she filed for marital separation; she resolved to keep moving forward for Margaret and me, whatever it took.
In our adolescent and teenage years my sister and I were perfectly awful to our devoted mother. Her commitment never wavered, though I know we tested her will. She waited patiently for us to outgrow our childish ways and reconnect with her on the other side of adulthood, the side where we would become friends.
When I turned 30, unmarried and childless, Mama set aside the idea of grandchildren and instead embraced my decision to adopt a dog. She went with me to puppy school, brought treats when she came to visit, and took care of Ella when I traveled for work. “It’s a good thing I’m your mother,” she said one night when I was away, “because Ella took all your dirty underwear from the laundry basket and made a bed for herself in your living room.”
A few years later, when I was living in Omaha, Mama called to say she had rented a house for the week my sister, who was in medical school, would be on spring break. “I thought we all needed a trip to the beach.” So Margaret and I got in my car and drove from Omaha to Destin, stopping in Memphis on the way to pick up our mother. It was an absurdly planned adventure that was, in fact, exactly what we all needed.
It was our last family vacation together. Eighteen months later, Mama was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and told she had less than six months to live.
Private and reserved, my mother would not have wanted her trials and tribulations with the big C to be told in any detail. She got sick, got better, got sick again, and died. She waved off the six-month death notice and instead stayed almost five years, during which time she welcomed a son-in-law, three real grandchildren, and another grand-dog. From her first diagnosis to her last day, her determination did not falter. Three days before she died my mother dressed in her sparkly finest and went to a neighbor’s Christmas party. The following day she was a bit out of sorts, and then the next in a haze that hospice mistook for morphine overdose. She died 36 hours later in her own bed, Margaret on one side and me on the other.
Ever the believer that life should keep going, Mama decided before she died to donate her remains to a local medical research institute. At the end of her memorial service, absent body and burial, 40 years with my mother was abruptly over. Eight months later I received a notice in the mail that I had a certified package waiting at the post office.
“I have Mama in the car,” I told my sister as I drove out of the parking lot.
“I have Mama in the car, or at least what’s left of her.”
(Pause) “What are you going to do with her?”
“I don’t know, probably let her ride around with me for a while.”
For almost a year, Betty rode in the back of my Passat wagon, wedged between the chairs we took to baseball games and the portable air compressor my uncle gave me for Christmas. When it was just the two of us in the car, I would tell her stories about the children or about the house, or just ramble and babble about things I knew she’d be anxious to learn if she were really still around.
The following summer my husband, children and I took a long road trip, and Betty had to move from the car to the shelf in the laundry room. Still in her cardboard box with the paper tape intact, she had the perfect bird’s-eye view of our daily comings and goings. I thought, somewhat guiltily, how much she would have enjoyed watching our ordinary days and that I should have done more to involve her instead of waiting for special occasions. I’d wanted to impress her with my mastery of Christmas and birthday parties. I understood, too late, that she would have preferred a more frequent, less contrived weeknight bowl of soup or Saturday morning coffee.
More time passed, and Mama was joined on her shelf by her grand-dog Ella, in a smaller box, whom we agreed could keep my mother company again until we had a better plan.
Then one night my sister called. “I know what to do with Mama,” she said. “She needs to go to Hardy.”
My father, an only child, inherited the Hardy house when his parents died. He kept it for a few years then sold it to a doctor friend when he and my mother divorced. The doctor friend thought he might retire there until he realized he might be happier retiring in Colorado, so he sold the property to a retired FBI agent. The agent made many improvements and enjoyed his retirement home. After his wife died, he sold the property to a young couple who had met on a blind date 10 years earlier. I know that’s how they met, Dave and Mary, because I introduced them.
They had no idea their quiet river house had any connection to me when they bought it. A stray comment Mary made during a catch-up lunch when I moved back to Memphis brought the thread full circle. My mother loved this strange, uniquely Memphis turn of events. We talked about taking her to see the house and the river again, but her failing health wouldn’t allow it.
When I called, somewhat awkwardly, to ask Dave and Mary if we could scatter my mother’s remains in the horse pastures, they agreed without hesitation. The challenge was getting my sister to Memphis.
The following January our stepmother died. Margaret and I once again sat on the front row of a chapel stifling laughter as a different well-intentioned minister tried to eulogize a woman he’d never met. At the end of that service Margaret turned to me and said, “It’s time to lay Betty to rest.”
We left the next morning, car stocked with a picnic, a couple of extra coats, and the still-pristine cardboard box with the brown paper tape and certified mail label.
Three hours later we sat on the deck overlooking the river, ate cheese and crackers, reminisced about our childhood and drank a toast to the woman who always saw us, and the world, through rose-colored glasses. Enjoying this quiet time together, we neglected to watch the clock. We realized, in a panic, that we had less than 20 minutes to complete our task and get back on the road or Margaret would miss her flight home.
We threw the picnic supplies in the car, retrieved the cardboard box and headed to the horse pastures. We opened the box to find inside a pretty brass container, sealed at every seam.
“Oh, hell no; we did not come all the way up here just to take her back home,” Margaret said.
“Mama, please forgive me,” I said to the sky, as I banged the edge of the box on a nearby rock. No luck. I banged harder. The seals held.
We raced back to the house to find tools. The shed was locked. Violating the hospitality of our kind friends, we frantically searched every drawer and closet for either a hammer or a key to the tool shed. The minutes flew by. We finally located the key (cleverly labeled “shed,” as I recall) and found a pry bar. Far past gentle reverence, we banged and poked and pried that damn box with all our might until finally a side seam gave way. We tore back up the hill, scattered the ashes among the tall grasses and fallen logs, said a last farewell, and jumped in the car to speed home.
Finally, we felt closure, a proper madcap ending to Betty’s madcap life. As with many endings, though, a small postscript followed.
Three years after we scattered Betty in the quiet pasture, my friend Elizabeth died. Elizabeth’s ashes were placed in our family church’s new columbarium, lodged in the wall that once framed a picture of my mother and me, years earlier, on my high school graduation day. Looking at the names etched in stone I realized that no tangible sign marked my mother’s life, other than Margaret and me and the couple of books she wrote.
We lay her body to rest; we carry her spirit forward.