The first January 15 that I ever remember is the one when I was five. 1974. We were at my Granny’s farm. Daddy had cows there, and I absolutely loved them. Mama had asked me to leave them alone and stay out of the pasture, as it was a special day. All kinds of goings on in the house, so after I poked my head in and spoke, I wandered back outside. Before the morning was over, I had found the cows. Yep. Mama wasn’t happy. With three little ones– me, age 5, Sister, age 3, and Mess Cat, 7 months, she had her hands full on a non-special day. But that day…..
it was my Aunt’s wedding day.
I adored her then and still do today. I remember how in awe I was of her that day. She has always been so beautiful, but I still remember how especially beautiful she was that day. And I remember thinking she was so calm finishing putting the roses on her dress. She had crocheted the whole gown. In Tiffany Blue, before Tiffany blue was in style. With beautiful crocheted roses. (And if I have these memories wrong, please forgive me. They’ve been rolling around in there for forty years now.)
Her special day, and I was starting to smell like a cow pattie, or at least a cow. I remember Mama bemoaning that I’d need another bath.
My memory doesn’t recollect that I’d done all that disobeying on my Mama’s birthday. But I had.
January 15 is the day this spunky precious treasure entered the world as well.
I don’t remember how old I was when I “got” birthdays other than my own. But I’m hoping maybe by the next year. Mama was born in 1946 in January–her birthday became a light in the midst of the after Christmas blues. Eventually I wanted to make her cake. Over the years I’ve made her pound cakes (more than I can count of those), banana pudding from scratch (her and Great Aunt W’s favorites), and there was the year or two I made White Mountain Cake with lemon glaze (as she loved her citrus, being a born Floridian and she needed to cut back on her cholesterol). I loved baking for her. And vice versa.
She didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, but the amazing thing about my Mama was that no one paid the price for that. Except her I guess. She was an amazing and loving and fun Mama, despite the fact that she had had no example set by her own parents. I credit her grandmother, her aunts and great-aunts, and her mother-in-law, my Granny, for loving her through it and empowering her to be more. She was amazed by their love, and she worked hard. She even went to nursing school for a bit, something which I, a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, always appreciated. (Her usual response–“Tara, it will either get better or it will get worse, and then we’ll know.” Wise woman.)
She moved on from there to Valdosta State, where a friend named Cheshire introduced her to “The Joyner,” as he was referred to. Daddy wrote thoughtful and thought-provoking things, and this friend who was friends with Daddy too had already let Mama read his writings. I think it was at a Laundromat that they met for the first time. Where she said, “I could fall madly in love with you Mr. Joyner.” Oh boy. But I’ve already told y’all how that turned out.
Daddy was someone else whose love amazed her. Standing beside his bed, holding his hand, as he took his last breaths, Mama told God how thankful she was for having him in her life, what a beautiful gift he was to her. Y’all. Greater love did not exist. I promise you that. Theirs was one of the greatest love stories, a quiet one, mind you, but a great one.
They started their life out with Mama about to finish college, but during the spring semester she found out she was pregnant. The doctors told her that it would be graduating or having a healthy baby. I’m glad she chose the latter, because by the time their first anniversary rolled around, I was a month old.
Three years later there was Sister, seventeen months after that Mess Cat joined the Fray, with her first words coming out–“My Turn.” Is it any wonder?
A little over four years after Mess Cat was born, and after some sadness and heartbreak, Mama’s Gem was born. Dark haired, blue eyes like his Daddy, Mama’s little cowboy entered into our family. She often talked about the first time she heard the song “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with the line “Don’t let ’em pick guitars and ride in old trucks.” My baby brother had just gone on his first ride with Daddy…..in Daddy’s old truck. She knew she was in trouble then.
She loved her birthday cakes. Or maybe she was indulging me. I just know she is the reason I bake now. She let me mess up (as long as I cleaned it up) and use her cookbooks and experiment. I love baking because of her and my Granny.
Mama was an incredible cook. The whole time we were in Japan, I heard from my Aub that my food was okay, but it just wasn’t Maemae’s. I know baby girl, I know. Mama didn’t always have a lot to work with, but she made some delicious food from scratch and we never went hungry. (Unless there were mushrooms in the spaghetti and I just couldn’t deal with it that night. Let me amend that–if we went hungry, it wasn’t Mama’s fault.)
The next round of January 15’s saw Mama gaining more children. She and Daddy have sponsored children through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation since I was born–even when times were lean. It just mattered to them to help others. Always. So they welcomed others into their home from time to time. And then they started gaining children-in-law. For Mama, that in-law part didn’t matter. In her heart, she now had four daughters (plus one more she loved like a daughter) and four sons, and she loved them just as fiercely as she did her own children she’d given birth to. As a matter of fact there were times when I suspected she loved my Fella more than she loved me. (Surely I was mistaken here. Ahem.) She found things to love about each one of us, and never stopped right up to her last breath.
Then the grandchildren started arriving. She would tell anyone who would listen and even folks who would not how GRAND being a grandmother was. She loved it. She was made for the part. Aub and I lived with them for a period of time, and though I know it wasn’t easy, she balanced being a grandmother with being more than that very well. I am so thankful for that. Each one of my children has precious memories of her, and for that I give thanks. Mama has fifteen (plus three who loved her as their Maemae too) grandchildren now, two of whom she gave a kiss and a hug to before they joined this world. They were her greatest treasures. Always.
Over the years we gave Mama different gifts on January 15 (and later some years–it’s a rule, we celebrate birthdays all week long, sometimes longer). But the gift she gave us whenever she saw us was that smile. Even in the hospital when she was in so much pain, she would try to give us that smile. And the wrinkle of her nose that said, “I love you.”
She loved reading. Especially children’s books. Her favorite thing, next to spending time with her family, was reading to the children in my Joyful friend’s class and her friend’s class over the years. They adopted Maemae as theirs and loved the books she shared, the animation in her voice, and the science experiments she would bring to show them. She loved children. She believed that every child deserved to be wanted and loved. God bless her, she tried to do it all herself sometimes. And as for us, the four who called her Mama first, she loved us and spoiled us rotten, never letting us forget about the switch bush right outside the door. Who was her favorite? I claimed it, just ask the nurses and doctors at the hospital. But if you asked her, she’d tell you, “My favorite is the one I’m with right at this moment.” You gotta love diplomacy, don’t you?
Last January 15 we didn’t get to celebrate or party. My little guy, Cooter, was sick. Our Princess had ballet and tap that afternoon. Mama herself had been in pain herself since Sunday, two days before. Mama had told me all she wanted for her birthday was fluorescent light bulbs to replace the ones over her dining room table. They were doing that annoying flashing thing and it was time. Mama, not feeling good, sicker than any of us–including her–realized, did not feel up to going to Lowe’s and picking them out. She asked me if I would. “That can be my present,” she said. “You pick them out. Put them on my card. My gift is I don’t have to get out and get them.” She was going to ask her neighbor or Leroy to help her change them out.
Our Princess and I darted in Lowe’s that afternoon, hurrying and scurrying and then there were all these choices. Different colors of fluorescent lighting? Who knew? I mean, I thought a light was a light. Alas, no. Fingers crossed that I’d chosen well, but keeping the receipt in case I hadn’t, we checked out and hurried over to Blackberry Flats, leaving only a short time to visit before dance started.
I don’t even think we went all the way into the house. Mama really wasn’t up for company, and she knew we had to go. I hugged her and encouraged her to call me or the doctor if things weren’t better. I put the lights in the laundry room, and we made party plans for Friday. Friday and Stevi B’s pizza–it was a party date. We just knew everyone would be feeling better by then.
Only that wasn’t to be. Mama never saw those lights put up, though Leroy replaced them the following Saturday. I’ve thought about it a lot today. Do I regret the time at Lowe’s that kept us from visiting a few more minutes with Mama that day? Before everything started?
My answer, strangely enough, is no.
Mama believed in taking care of business. Getting things done. I think having those bulbs where she was then back in control of them being changed out was a gift that she needed. And the truth is, while I can’t call her up and ask her what on earth I should be doing or saying or thinking about this or that or the next fire that starts, I feel like she is still very much with me. Believe me, I wish I could hear her voice out loud, even if only over a “Speak to Your Loved One in Heaven” app or something like that, just for a few minutes. But this morning, when I was taking Miss Sophie out for her morning constitutional, I wished Mama a Happy Birthday and told her I love her.
And I swanee, I could hear her in my heart, where it really matters, whisper back:
“I love you too, baby girl.”
And that will do for this January 15.
Happy Birthday, Mama! Thank you for everything.