Mother’s Day should never be routine, but despite our best intentions, it happens.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in the same zip code, you visit Mom. You go to church with her, take her out to eat, buy her something that looks nice or smells good.
If you live out of town, you order a corsage, or you send flowers, and always a card. Since my mom was always nearby, the routine was church, lunch, and a white corsage. Yes, it was a routine, but one that both of us enjoyed.
Now, four years after my mother died at the age of 90, I miss that routine. I see the commercials: “Don’t forget Mom!” “Be sure to call your Mom!” I feel like Bear Bryant did in those wonderful Southern Bell commercials. He’d solemnly look into the camera and ask, “Have you called your Mama today? I sure wish I could.”
Since my mother gave birth to me at the age of 36, I was fortunate to have her near me for such a long time. I have friends who lost their mother at an early age, and I always felt sad for them when they would hear see those cheery Mother’s Day commercials.
On this Mother’s Day, I’m remembering two stories about Virginia Ruth Norris Carroll, or as my dad called her, “Ruthie.” One is kind of funny, the other one still makes me sad. Let’s do funny first.
During my KZ-106 Chattanooga radio days in the late 70s, I had just broken up with a girl, or maybe she had broken up with me. Either way, I was feeling down. Like many “newly single” guys, I started over. I grew a beard. Mom didn’t like it. She missed my baby face, she said. For the next 14 years, she would frequently remind me how much she disliked my facial hair. “When are you going to shave that beard?” she would say. But I kept it, even into my TV news career. My wife and kids had never seen me without it.
One summer day in 1993, I looked in the mirror, got out the razor, and shaved it off. I thought, “I’m gonna make Mom happy. When I go out to see her this weekend, her son’s “baby face” will be back, and she’ll be thrilled.” You can probably guess what happened next. Mom took a close look at my clean-shaven face, scrunched her cute little nose and said, “You need to grow that beard back.” Ah, mothers.
Now the sad one. I like to think I’m a decent enough guy, but every now and then, I fail at basic human behavior.
Mom was a child of the Depression, and grew up cherishing every bit of food in her kitchen. Those of us who came later had no idea: food was in the stores, it was in our pantries, and it was plentiful. Mom was reluctant to toss anything out of the refrigerator. One evening the smart-aleck jokester in me came out. One by one, I would take a jar out of the refrigerator and make some wisecrack about the expiration date. “This one goes back to the Eisenhower administration.” “There’s something growing in this one.” There were more knee-slapping insults. Anything for a laugh, right?
Then I noticed some tears on my mother’s face. Her only son, was making jokes at her expense. As soon as I realized what I had done, I felt very small. I had made my mother cry. I offered an awkward apology. “I was just trying to be funny, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
She got over my so-called comedy show. But I never quite recovered. It still resides in my memory like a fungus. She never knew it, but I spent the rest of her life trying to make that up to her. Long after Alzheimer’s robbed her of her memory, I felt like I owed her so much. I could never do enough to make it right, but I gave it my best shot.
My sisters and I were fortunate during Mom’s ten-year journey with Alzheimer’s. She was cheerful and pleasant during her twilight years, just as she had been in her prime. My dad had been an excellent caretaker until he suddenly became ill, and died in 2005. As a new chapter in our lives began, I looked forward to my weekend visits with her, taking her to church, going out to eat or just sitting at home watching the Braves (her favorite was Chipper Jones). Later, my visits to her nursing home were just as pleasant. She always smiled as I entered her room. I know I will never see as sweet a smile again.
We all strive for a long, healthy life. Although my mother’s mind was foggy near the end, she still enjoyed being around her family. I felt blessed that she knew who I was. I was among a dwindling number of people, a handful at best. Most of her acquaintances didn’t realize that. She pretended she knew everybody.
Still, when you live to be 90, most of the people who knew you when you were a teen, a young adult, or even a middle-ager are gone. By living into her golden years, most of those who saw her at church, or even casually, knew an elderly woman who used a walker. A woman with a ready smile, but no real personality beyond that smile. A woman who would respond to greetings, but would not start a conversation. They didn’t know her when she was someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, a wife, a mom, a co-worker.
For her funeral, I thought it would be nice to put together a little video, featuring some classic photographs. It was a way to introduce “Ruthie” to those who didn’t -really- know her. It was a way to help them understand why I’ll always miss that smile.
I hope Mother’s Day was never routine for her. I hope it was special. No doubt about it, I owed her that much, and a lot more.