By Steven Ivory
Several years back, during a phone conversation, our “little” brother Kevin–who, with a wife and children and weighing more than me, isn’t little at all–asked me about our mother.
He doesn’t really remember mama, which I’ve always found interesting, considering that he used to be her shadow. How strange it must be for him to look at the photograph of himself as a small child, with this tall, lean woman in glasses holding his hand.
Your three other brothers and sister have undoubtedly told you plenty about our mama, Kevin. Now, it’s my turn.
A couple of days before the first Mother’s Day that I can remember, mama gave me money to buy her a handkerchief at TG&Y, helped me wrap it and then on Mother’s Day reacted as if she’d been presented the Hope diamond. That’s who mama was. She taught us things by having us do them, and treated whatever good we did as if it was something truly remarkable.
When any of her kids participated in school events, mama was quietly on the scene, smiling. She would go to PTA meetings in the evening and bring home whatever snacks they had–finger sandwiches and pastel colored mints–for us to munch on, for the fun of it.
Mama wore red lipstick.
When our brother Tony had to be hospitalized for something or another, mama used to listen intently to what the doctors SAID they were going to do, and then she’d tell them what they WERE going to do. I’d hear her tell Daddy this, and then she’d break down and cry.
Mama drank at least two cups of coffee in the morning and smoked Viceroy brand cigarettes.
Kevin, mama was a conventional woman with an inquisitive nature for the unconventional. A Baptist, she kept a jar of Catholic holy water in the hall closet. She was mild-mannered and low-key. I don’t remember her saying anything racist or unduly mean-spirited. By the way, mama wasn’t a saint. But I don’t think you will find a better mother.
We wanted whatever mama had. After enduring our begging like baby chicks, she would tease, “Can I, Can I, Can I! If I were eating poison, would you want that, too?” To which we’d meekly reply, “Yes.”
Mama could cook. She could fry chicken, bake cakes, pies and candy from scratch. When mama went grocery shopping at Safeway, she always took the same route in the store, starting in the produce section, and ending in the bread aisle.
In a pinch, with no facilities in sight, mama could always find a place for us boys to pee.
One of mama’s favorite songs was Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Her favorite “Stories,” as daytime dramas were called back then, was “As The World Turns” and the ominously titled, “The Edge of Night.”
Once a week, mama sought to numb the pain of her life with alcohol, gin being her preference. After some years as a housewife and then working as Dr. Porter’s housekeeper, mama put herself through college and got a degree in child development, all while working at a day-care nursery and raising a family. I imagine the books and classes were a mere formality.
It is an older brother’s duty to taunt his younger sibling. When we’d run you out of our bedroom, we knew we had to capture you before you got down the hall and made that quick right, because mama’s room was the demilitarized zone, and you were mama’s heart. Someone might have characterized your arrival in the Ivory household as “late,” but for mama, you were right on time. She was simply enamored with you.
The last time I saw our mama alive, I was fifteen. That evening she was relaxing, in good spirits, on the couch in the living room and I was on my way to watch basketball. While Douglass High was winning the game, I was losing my mother. There’s a peculiar ingenuity to God’s mercy: That night, I was spared the ensuing ordeal of her sudden stroke, and, though you were there, I don’t think you remember the event.
But more than 30 Mother’s Days without her, mama is still with us, because we are her. Certain qualities that you cannot explain–the way you might shift your body when you stand, or purse your lips when you concentrate on something; your willingness to speak to strangers, your sense of manners, or just your general inclination to want to do the right thing — these things have an origin. This is who mama was.
Printed in Volume 1 Isuue 8