I Remember Mama
By Billie Marie Zal
Born “Beatrice Thelma Wells,” on a cold March day in 1896, Mama entered this world as a privileged child.
Her daddy was “Billy Wells,” a railroad engineer for the Missouri Pacific Line out of Springfield, Missouri. Her mother, “Delpha Guilliams,” was a lady of tremendous grace and intelligence. She had even taught school, something unheard of in that age.
Mama’s home was beautiful; a large white house with an attic where she spent much of her time, alone. Her sister, “Kitty,” was six years her senior and she spoiled Mama rotten. This might account for Mama’s volatile personality, but one of our aged aunts, a sister to my maternal grandmother, told us that Mama threw “fits” whenever she didn’t get exactly what she wanted . . . even at the tender age of two or three.
Mama and her family had a well ordered life until she was eight years old. They had their own horse and buggy, and a man to drive the girls to school in the buggy. Mama hated that horse; and he hated her. He never cut up, until she stepped foot into the buggy, and then it was “up and away.”
Her mother was a splendid equestrian. I have photos of her, sitting straight and beautiful on that “ornery” horse that Mama despised. Even though I never knew her, she had a calm exterior that nothing could ruffle. She was always quiet, Mama said, even when she corrected her girls.
They had one more occupant in their large home, a house maid. She was a young woman, and Mama dearly loved her. The home was a haven for Mama, where there was order and good manners. My grandmother always addressed her husband as “Mr. Wells.”
Mama began to hate her daddy early on. He was a dashing man, dark and handsome, and people loved him wherever he went. Mama had the habit of sleeping with her mother when her dad was making a run on the train. But when he came home Mama was ousted, and he took over her life. She had to sleep in her own room, and she was jealous of all the attention her daddy got from her mother. There was no one to tell her that this was a normal reaction of a small child; her jealousy was normal.
And so, on a dark rainy night when there was a “run-away train” her dad was caught between the engine and a baggage car and both legs were severed. He could have lived in our day; but he bled to death before anyone could get to him with life saving equipment.
From that moment on, Mama’s world changed. She had hated her daddy, she told me, and once she “wished he would die.” When the news came, that he had been killed, Mama drew a circle around her heart and refused to let anyone in. It was dangerous to care about people, to have emotions.
But she kept the one emotion which would give her security from the hurts she felt: ANGER.
Once her daddy died there were financial problems. Her mother was often duped by people who told her (without proof) that “Billy” owed them money. Being of noble character, she readily paid them.
In the meantime, Mama’s world gradually fell into the normal pace of life. She and Kitty attended school, they were able to keep the race horse and the buggy, and except for her Mother’s grief at losing her husband who was only thirty eight years old, life was good.
Then tragedy struck again. Her sister, Kitty, had gone to work as a secretary to help pay the bills. But suddenly, she took gravely ill and was rushed to the hospital. Mama often told me of the start terror that gripped her heart at the news. She was so afraid that her beloved sister would die. But Kitty seemed to be improving and Mama visited her on that last day.
She told me, “Billie, she looked so well and so radiant. I believed that God had heard my prayers and had healed her, and I was so happy that I skipped all the way home.” They had one of the very first telephones in Springfield, and when she entered the house the phone was ringing. It was someone at the hospital. Kitty had just died.
I can actually feel the shock myself, that mama felt at such news. It couldn’t have been real. Her sister was only 16 or so, and how can someone that young just die? But when they brought Kitty home and she lay there in her casket surrounded by the most beautiful flowers, Mama knew. Now she was alone.
But tragedy would strike again one more time. And this time there would be no healing. When Mama had married Daddy and my sister was just three months old, she took her to visit her maternal grandmother. Mama had a tremendous dependence upon her mom, and she came back more assured that life would be good again.
But after she got home there was a telegram waiting for her. It simply read: “Your mother is dead. Died in her sleep.” I believe this is the moment when Mama decided that she would never love again. She would never give herself to anyone. She would withdraw within herself and be safe.
Poor Daddy, I am sure he had a time with her. She confided in me once about how she felt. “I wanted to die, too, when Mama died,” she said. “I stopped eating and although Kathleen (my sister) was nursing there just wasn’t any milk there for her. Then one day I looked down at your sister. Her fingers were so tiny and thin, and she was losing ground. And then I suddenly remembered: this child was mine. I was her mother, and she needed for me to live, just as I had wanted my mother to live. So I decided to live,” she said.
It was as simple as that. Mama’s will had taken over and with a will like hers, she did whatever she wanted to do. My sister thrived and changed into a gorgeous baby girl.
It’s unfortunate in a way that I was ever born; at least that’s what Mama told me. She didn’t want anymore children and made certain that it didn’t happen. But three years and nine months after my sister was born, I arrived on the scene.
I was totally unwanted and as she put it, “I don’t know how you got here . . . you weren’t supposed to be born.” It was a chilling word and I lived with it all of my life. I still do. We all want to be wanted. Mama would eventually say, “But after you were born you were wanted . . . you were the most beautiful baby, and everyone came to see you.” Somehow, this reassurance did nothing to make me feel of value. The fact remained, in my subconscious: I wasn’t suppose to be here.
I remember now, the times we had with mama. She was the driving force in our family. We lived in an apartment/hotel in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and she was the hub of the wheel of occupants in that building. She kept things going. She taught me that I couldn’t have my way; she made me aware of the fact that if we sin, we pay. My sister and I loved that hotel. We played out on the roof of the adjoining building. We hung out of the windows, enjoying the city sounds.
When we had to move to south Arkansas all of us were disappointed. Mama, as always, took over the adventure. Daddy had a huge “touring car” which made us look rich (which we were not), and Mama was sure that “hijackers” would try to stop us and kill us on the road. She lived with the fear that nothing would last. We would all be dead. Our bodies would never be found.
While she made these dramatic statements, I hovered on the back floor of that enormous car and prayed, “I love Jesus, I love Mary, I love everyone in heaven.” When we finally arrived safely in “Smackover, Arkansas,” I was sure that my prayers had gotten us there in spite of Mama’s doubts.
But that town was one big caldron of mud, and dirt, and “oil men” talking about the “big one that just came in.” At that time Smackover was the largest oil field in the country. Daddy went to work at an oil refinery. Our home was situated in a small row of “company houses” which had been erected between TWO refineries.
The night we arrived at the house I saw Mama pinching her lip so I got ready for the outburst. And it happened: “Why in the Name of God did you bring us to this horrible place?” she screamed at Daddy. He had learned not to listen so he went about his work of setting up cots for us until the furniture got there.
I must admit my heart broke when I realized that THIS THING was home. There were three rooms, in a straight row, which meant that the bathroom had to be a part of the “middle room” since there was no place else to put it. The yard was bare dirt, the walls were a dreary grey. But Daddy had a twinkle in his eyes so I knew “everything one day would be alright.”
And it was. Our yard became a little “Eden,” with Daddy’s green thumb planting everything we loved: Zinnias, Dahlias, lilies, Nastursiums, Honeysuckle, petunias . . . and Daddy made us a fish pond which was one of my favorite things. Kathleen and I went to school, joined the band, I sang with the Girls’ Trio, in the Glee Club, and we knew that Mama had accepted this tiny home and had done the best she could with her beautiful woolen rugs, her fancy four poster bed, and she even managed to get us a piano.
I try to visualize how Mama felt there. She never joined the Bridge clubs, and had no time to spare for hobbies. She helped Daddy grow our garden, cooked three meals a day, canned wild fruit and made jelly. I can see her, in that dark little kitchen with the temperature around one hundred
degrees . . .she had a habit of tucking up her skirt (she would NEVER wear men’s pants) to cool off her legs, and for no reason at all, she always wore nylons.
Thankfully, we had one of those huge “Emerson” fans and it helped cool off Mama’s temper. I knew one thing: when Mama was canning, KEEP OUT!
When we ate at the kitchen table we were literally “stacked” at the table. If we forgot something, Mama would get up, give us one of her looks, and have us all move so she could open the “ice box” door. It was a huge thing, round, and she kept ice in it so we could have good things to eat. She bought ice from the “ice man” who came around every two days. If we were lucky, he chipped off some of the ice and let us have it.
Mama somehow managed to get us through school. She had so little money to “make do” on. Her one joy was to get new Easter dresses for her two girls. She’d had an account at a big department store in Muskogee and she would call them and order our dresses. They were so fine. One Easter she got me a gorgeous “taffeta” dress. Kathleen and I were the best dressed girls at Sunday school and I didn’t realize until much later what Mama had done to get them: she had pawned her diamond dinner ring.
I was able to make it up to her when I was grown and working, but the pain of her loss still affects me. She was never able to get the ring back. Daddy suddenly lost his job and Mama was faced with the awesome reality that we had nothing. Not a home, nowhere to go because after all, we lived in a “company house.”
The day this happened Mama came to me, her great brown eyes filled with fear. She had this huge hand tooled leather bag in which she kept all her “important papers.” I remember how she opened and shut that brass clasp on her bag; she was so frightened that I immediately took over and assured her that we would be alright. Somehow we managed to buy an old home way out past Smackover Creek, and have it moved out on the highway where Daddy had managed to buy an acre of land for a few dollars. Mama let me “fix up the house” and I almost killed myself. Unknowingly, I was working with floor stain in a bedroom and “stained myself in” and I began to feel sick. There was no air and I made it out in time just before I blacked out. But Mama smiled when she saw the floors, so I was happy.
She took everything in stride; she never gave up the habit of believing that something terrible was about to happen, and this made her all the more brave in my sight. She had no tranquilizers, no counseling, nothing to assure her that life could be good. But she lived out each day at a time, fearful but refusing to back down to all the things that happened. She had an opinion on everything: how badly the blacks were treated (she shamed all her church lady friends with that); how God was going to bring His judgment on such a wicked world (which by today’s standard was a paradise); on how to raise children (if we talked back to her, we got slapped - HARD); how to vote; how to deal with poverty (never admit you are poor by taking welfare of any kind); everything was cut and dried to Mama. Maybe she was right. Maybe that is why I find it difficult even today to ignore wrong doings, and act as though they are not happening.
Mama’s upbringing had its marks on her. She made sure we got a “Baby Grand” piano. It filled half the living room, but it made her point when people visited: we were doing okay. She went through her “change of life,” yelling and screaming, but always there. I used to test the temperature
of her disposition before entering the room, and it worked. I made myself invisible until the storms of her outbursts were over.
She wanted the best for us and blamed herself, I’m sure, that “the best” for us was not what she had envisioned. I was talented. I graduated with highest honors, I went to college, but I never made her proud of me. She thought I should go into show business and be on TV. Everything I had done, it was for her. I sang at every school event, sang with bands the summer before I went to college, and I did all of the things I possibly could to please her.
But her sights were set on the temporal, and mine became set on the eternal. She knows that now; but I was a tremendous disappointment to her. My sister did great. She began to teach music early on, and she was successful financially. And for Mama’s sake, I am glad that she had my sister to be proud of.
Mama knew she needed me but she never admitted it. When my sister almost died, I was the one who reassured her that Kathleen would not - like her sister Kitty - leave her. When Daddy went broke, it was left to me to keep things cheerful and make believe we had plenty. When the storms came, scared as I was, I was the one who refused to agree with her that “we will all be blown to kingdom come.”
And later, in her life as she began to grow old, I was always there simply because she depended upon me. I saw to it when they moved to our area so they could be close to me, that they had groceries when the ice storms came; I took her candy, her one weakness. She always said she couldn’t talk about anyone addicted to alcohol or drugs because she loved chocolate so much that she had to hide it from herself! When Daddy was sick I was there. She could not bear that kind of burden.
And when she almost died one night, Daddy called me to come quick, “Your Maw acts like she is dying.” I never let him know how frightened I was. I called an ambulance and drove through the mountain pass like a race car driver. When I arrived, she had no air to breathe and Daddy was pacing the floor and crying. I just picked up a magazine and began to fan her and said, “What is actually happening?” For a moment the old fire came into her eyes and she said, “I CAN’T BRETHE!” I said, “Yes, you can, Mama. You are breathing and the ambulance will be here in a minute.”
She had one of her “fits” when they put her on the stretcher in the dead of night in a rain storm and carried her to the waiting ambulance. ‘YOU BOYS COVER ME UP, IT’S RAINING ON ME!” she howled. I smiled. Mama was going to be alright for now. The “boys” laughed and said, “Okay, Mama, we’ll cover you.”
As I sat in the ambulance (going backwards, I always said I’d never ride when I had to be going backwards) I held her small hand and remembered the times when she had brought herself to my bed side. She was too nervous to tend the sick, but she had one solution: “I’ll make you some milk toast.” I find myself today, when I am sick, wishing I had Mama’s milk toast.
From the night of that first heart attack, Mama was never the same again. I tried to make believe that she was, but as her body grew weaker I knew that one last time, she would expect me to take charge. She would leave Daddy’s care to me.
She left me on a chilly, blustery day in March. Daddy made a frantic call to me. “Bicky,” he said (and I knew he was crying), “Your Mother just died in my arms.” I pushed my own grief into the bottom of my heart and took care of Daddy’s needs for three more years, until he slipped away. He had never really wanted to stay, after “Bea” died.
I buried them just three miles from our driveway, and as I pass their graves when I go to town, I always say, “I’ll see you again, Mama and Daddy.” Mama would not want that; she was afraid of emotions and to know that I still miss her would make her uncomfortable.
But I WILL see her again and we can remember together all the times we had, the lean years, and the years of plenty. And I suspect that even in heaven I will see just a spark of that fiery nature that made my Mama who she is.
I hope so.
I hope that this story blesses everyone as it did me. I cried as I read it and I remembered times in my life, people and places long ago, almost forgotten, but still in my heart.
I believe this story speaks to us of a loneliness that we all have, whether we admit it or not. Its a “knowing” down deep in our heart that we are not complete. What most of us don’t know is that its God that we miss. He is the only one who can make us complete.
Those of us who are of the elect and chosen by Him, will know that, because He put that “knowing” in us. “Yet again the soul breaks away to its own with the natural flight of a bird from its autumn nest, at the call of an unseen spring to the far off land that is nearer still than its nest, because its in the heart.” Amy Carmichael
We have seen geese fly north the past few weeks. How do they know that its time, or that they even should fly north? Its put in their heart by God, that’s what I believe.
God does not call us to an easy life. The life of a Christian is hard. I used to feel that we had a hedge around this property, kind of like Job (Job 1:10), and it was a good feeling. God was here, and no matter that things went wrong sometimes, in the end it all worked out, so it seemed.
This year I have often gone to the story of Job. It’s a comfort to me to know that satan does have to ask God for permission before he does his evil. But God is in control and satan can only go so far and no further. In the end God has done a work in our life that could not be achieved by any other means. We need to know and accept that, so the suffering won’t all be for nothing.
Our prayers of course are for deliverance from what comes against us, but more than anything we should ask that our faith in God will be strengthened, and we will truly know that we can do all things through Him that strengthens us.
I want God’s blessing on my life more than any deliverance. It’s like when the Angel of the Lord wrestled with Jacob and Jacob wouldn’t let Him go until He blessed him (Genesis 32:24-31). Let us all hold on to faith in God until He does bless us. And you know He will in the end.
Prayer Requests for May, 2009
For Robert Heffernan, Grady, Arkansas, that his case will get back into court soon.
For Joseph Runge’s Mother. She has another tumor in her bladder. Joseph is at Centralia, Illinois.
For Timothy Bufford, Florence, Arizona, that he’ll be able to talk with his two sons next month.
For Willie Harper at Joliet, Illinois, that he remains “cancer free.”
For Freddie Lee Lott, Galesburg, Illinois, that his cancer stays in remission.
For Chris Harley, Florence, Arizona, who is having problems with his allergies.
For Jimmy Huff, Colorado City, Texas, that he will stay strong in health and that his little yard business will do well.
For Willie Clark at Iowa Park, Texas, that he will be able to visit with his son soon.
For Sister Ann & all the Carmelite Nuns in Little Rock.
For Frank Williams, Jr., Death Row, Grady, Arkansas. The State Supreme Court is deciding his fate.
For Anthony Grayson, Fallsburg, New York, who is working on a new appeal.
For Adrian Bishop, McAlester, Oklahoma, that this year he finds the right people to be in his life.
For Marlin Resinger, McAlester, Oklahoma, who is trying to get an interstate transfer to Arkansas.
For Willie Scott at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for his health, and that his cancer will stay in remission.
For Ed Ewing, Tulare, California, who is 88 years old, that his health will hold so that he can get to church each week.
For Pastor Melissa Scott and her ministry (The University Network) in Los Angeles.
For all of us at Wingspread.
Note: Terry left this week. He is moving back to Florida. He has a home there and friends. His children are grown, but they also live in Florida. Since the recession hit work in our area has been scarce for tool and die makers. Hopefully things will work out in Florida, and we wish him all the best.
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