I had heard about her years before I knew her. I married her college roommate and she told me of stories of sitting in bed crying over the way the world was run. They discussed the tragedies of college life. They ruminated about the terrors of what the future might hold. I also was told how beautiful and soulful she was. She was the perfect roommate and friend for my wife at that time in her life.
Mary Beth was an Italian beauty who life seemed waiting to christen her with delight. She had been a star of her high school choir and theater. Now she was going to a little Ivy college in Pennsylvania. She had tried out for the theater and choir and was rejected. This had crushed her. She was not quite sure what to do with this new thing called rejection. She was accustomed to adulation. So she packed up the dreams of singing and performing in a bag marked yesterday.
She met her husband in college. They had an idyllic life. He worked for a corporation that provided well for their family. She had two daughters she adored. They were the zest of her life. She was happy for many years. But on occasion the shadows of her rejection would haunt her. Not just the rejection but the fact she had let this rejection shape her. Her daughters grew and needed her less for the everyday functions of life. Her husband’s career continued to prosper. Age had made her re-evaluate the rejections that life offered. She had always been known for telling it like it was. She had a fiery personality. But there was a part of her that felt it was all show. She was directed in life by external happenings and not the take charge person she presented. One day at the grocery store she became aware that she wanted to sing. She was more afraid of what that might mean for her life than the actual doing of it. She could see the road ahead and it would cause a disruption in everything she currently cherished. She only hope that somehow the family she loved would not reject her.
So she began her new adventure in life. She sang and played in bars and clubs anywhere that would take her. She was learning more and more how to play her guitar and write music. Writing was not something she knew was inside her. But the words and music poured forth. But she was a married woman of over twenty years. She was so behind in the life that called her. The friends were different. The hours were different. Then one day she woke up and knew in fairness to her husband and being honest to herself she would have to leave. The journey called her to places he could not follow. But the girls would be heartbroken and confused. The happy family was now changing and would never be again. She only hoped they would not reject her and somehow understand that to live who she was was the biggest gift she could give them. But as she had doubted herself when she had been rejected so she now knew life was all a question. Was she doing the right thing? Was it fair to her daughters? Or Husband? She was older now and lived with the doubt of her life. She now knew she was free to make choices for herself that did not necessarily satisfy others and even sometimes did not satisfy herself. But choosing to not be chained by rejection or expectations was the freedom she desired.
Her career started with raves from the critics but the initial new voice soon became the older to be criticized voice. She realized she was behind decades in her career. Whatever magical thinking she may have had were quickly doused with cold water. But she was on a journey now that rose above criticism. But always the questions were there.
This was the spitfire who was now in my living room letting me listen to her ‘dress rehearsal’ for a gig she had in a couple of nights. She had decided to see her old roommate and thus had made our home her base for the next few weeks as she performed in neighboring states. She was at the top of her craft of playing and writing her music. She was a performer with charm and a beautiful voice. But a dark cloud hung over her visit. She was battling cancer and was expected to die in the next year. Her body seemed to be rejecting her. She was thinner than the pictures I had always seen of her. Her battle with this last rejection was well on the way. The evening had been magical as she had shared her music. I felt now that I had heard her perform I knew much about her. The cynic, the lover of life, the no holds barred woman she was came out in her music.
The next morning she awoke and her lip had swollen to ten times their normal size. I made a poorly timed joke about she needed to leave off the collagen. This was not helpful. I then tried my expertise with impaired immune systems by saying that this was all a part of dealing with cancer. She looked at me horrified. My bedside manner was lacking that morning. She was concerned she would be unable to perform looking like this. There was also the underlying motif to her words what all did cancer have in store for her. I agreed to take her to Immediate Med to avoid the crowded emergency rooms.
On the drive there I saw both her fears and strength revealed. She wanted to perform as long as she could. She did not care what cancer had planned. She could handle her body’s rejection. But her music was her life force. She knew her daughters who were now in college would be fine. ‘They were strong and had survived her’, she grinned. It was an allergy the doctor said.
On the ride home from the doctor she laughed at how scared she had been this morning. I could hear in her voice she would not let cancer rule her life. She was going to live and play until she could not. Her body was not rejecting her but was calling her to somewhere new. The fire had been relit.
She would live for a year after her visit. She performed in one of the local clubs by her home even in the final stages. She looked anorexic, her hair was thinning, she did not have the energy she once had but she still had something to share. My wife was able to see her perform in New York for the first and last time. Mary Beth wanted her to see that she was not crying in their dorm bed anymore. She was living her questions and doubts and had become quite the woman.
She died in her apartment, by her bedside were her sister, high school friend, and college roommate. Her daughters who lived in Germany were on their way. When I heard she had died I was blessed with the memory of how she would have loved to be remembered singing in my living room vulnerable but strong, sharing her music free and alive.
Links to a memorial for her and one of her songs:
Once a long time ago I spoke often at various conferences. Now conferences are those gatherings where some people who have done a little get to pontificate to those who are not quite as far on the path as they are. Now having been reared as a Southern Baptist I was always looking to convert people from their errant ways. Otherwise I would never speak to them. Conferences always seem to be for the needy. Those who need to be heard to feel worthwhile. Those who need to live vicariously through the hard work of others. Those who need to be seen. I am none of these and thus have never been a fan of conferences and usually view a conference as entering behind enemy lines.
Once I was asked to speak at a conference of fathers and sons. The idea was noble trying to make the world better through better fathers. This seemed to me to be a good and safe place to be. So I agreed, not because I thought I was a great father to my son but to meet other men who were going through similar things. In my talk I told of growing up next to Birmingham and never hearing a word about the years of Bombingham and Martin Luther King Jr. How I lost something when my parents, who were sympathizers to King and his movement remained silent about those times.so I grew up and never heard about MLK Jr. even though I lived a few miles outside of Birmingham. I now know I do not want to avoid the mess of our country and i want to share that history and my views on it with my son. I wanted him to know the full me, flaws and all. The talk went well and I was even asked by a few ministers to give a sermon on the topic at their churches. It was also good I felt that my son was there with me.
The next speaker, a local minister, who I had heard a lot about and was looking forward to his presentation. It was then I realized I was behind enemy lines. His sermon was about fatherless homes created sissy men who thought they loved each other. Fathers should raise their sons so they would not be infected with the cultural disease of gayness. It was a very judgmental speech. It was told with vigor and animation that only a black pastor on fire of God? could tell. One of the many problems I had with such a harsh judgment was how he came to the stage. After a grand introduction two young male adolescents came onstage bearing a bench. Then the great pastor with a man at his side came on the stage. He was humungous Four hundred pounds at least. He struggled to the front of the stage and sat on the bench with the two young men at his side as he delivered his fiery speech. After the service we ate and both young men brought him plates filled to the brim for his lunch. The young men, who were the pastor’s assistants, would never learn about the sissified way but I could not help but think he was teaching them something else that was not that great.
At another conference I was to talk to a gathering of fifteen to twenty Black Baptist pastors on the Bible and homosexuality. We were in small room with a podium and a table. It was my white self on my favorite island: Jekyll Island. This was one of the main reasons I had agreed to the suicide mission. But in this small room with these ‘moderate’ pastors there was none of the beauty of the island, only homophobia, except one minister who had arranged the whole affair, who was not married. I started the conversation with the question: did they know all of the places homosexuality was mentioned in the Bible? Even among these people of the book I received the same answer I usually did: no. My next question was why do they speak with such confidence on a subject they had not fully vetted? So I proceeded to help them discover this subject that is seldom talked about in scripture.
As I went along I noticed the challenges to my interpretation came more frequently. But although they had evoked and revoked homosexuality from the pulpit they knew very little about it. This made the discussion curve toward my concepts that had been built in the fire of homophobic seminary students. Tired at last with losing the repartee they fell back on their spiritual mentor. This was an older, more experienced minister who acted as the spiritual guide. He intoned his wisdom that basically said take me with a grain of sand. I thought: I am a white boy in the midst of these black ministers who give reverence to this older pastor. I knew this was not a situation in which I would likely do well. A white younger man challenging the older black minister on his home turf was not a recipe for success. I was once again behind enemy lines. After two hours of this discussion I came away with a commitment from them to not join the cultural wars against homosexuality and give it as much prominence as the scriptures: seven passages amongst seventy two different books of the Bible. I also suggested they take the advice of Jesus, who never mentioned homosexuality. I also suggested we were to give everyone as much love as Jesus demanded we have for our neighbors.
I left this meeting feeling dirty and sad. So I took a long walk on the beach in the dark with nothing but the moon and stars to light my way. I listened to the constant rhythm of the waves beating the shore. And wondered would that be my fate? A wave constantly beating the unremitting beach. As I walked on the beach I watched by the light of the moon the crashing waves. Once the wave crashed it returned to the great ocean taking with it a little sand. One wondered what happens to the sand after the ocean captured it? Was the ocean changed or the sand? After a couple of hours in the darkness I drove home. I never received a thank-you.
We all have stories of our moms. If things go right they are the first to nurture us. We are totally helpless when we enter this world and our mothers are the first bringers of food, smell, touch, and sound we become accustomed to. But we knew them even before we took our first gasp for air in this world. We were held inside of them for nine months and through a glass darkly we were able to perceive their lives and even their characters.
My mother’s mother had died from childbirth complications when she was ten on Mom’s birthday. Her little brother, whom she loved dearly, would share her birthday. But now birthday cakes and celebrations would always have an after-taste of grief over the loss of a mother who died way too young. Her father, as was customary in that day in the rural areas, buried his first wife and left to go to town to find his second wife. He was a farmer and though he loved his children, he knew nothing about how to care for them.
He brought home the woman I would know as Grandma. She would always be to my mother a second class mother. It would have been disloyal to her birth mother to make her more than that. And Grandma would have her two children. Try as Grandma might even if she was not biased, my mother would always look for the slights to her and the favoritism to her half-brother and sister. My mother would hold a place of grief for the mother she lost for the rest of her life.
She loved her father and clung to him mightily. He was the source of her feeling of place in the world. She lived her life to please him. She picked cotton, fed the hogs, shucked the corn, checked the chicken houses. She also was homecoming queen and valedictorian of Horton High School. She was a looker said all the boys in the class but she was also going places. None of them, try as they might, could catch her eye.
It took the tall, forever boyish Marine to sweep her off her feet. They were going places. Horton would always be home but they were going out into the big wide world to stake their claim. He would become a military bodyguard for Jackie Kennedy, serve in two wars, become a decorated hero, and in his day a legendary soldier. The military life was different from the farm. Washington DC made life big for someone who grew up on a farm in a community with less than five hundred people in it. They may have lived in small military apartments but they were close to the corridors of power.
Life went on for her; she became a mother. Three boys who were the pride of her life. But death always lurked around the corners of her life. Her older brother Dean, who drank too much, shot and killed himself. Suicide was a forbidden topic. By the time she knew better than to obey those social mores she had nothing to discuss only a puncture in her heart. Her father had an unexpected heart attack in his sixties. The farm would be sold to her half-sister and her husband. They would lose the homestead as farming became a way of life that had come and gone for most. Her home was lost forever. The last place her mother could be found was now only in her childhood memories.
She was the good military wife. They made friends; he regaled her with stories of his Drill Sargent day. She raised three boys who would be her gift to the world. She taught Sunday School for couples and would be the guide for them through hard times. One even would live with us for a few months as she divorced her husband. Everyone was amazed at her compassion and her wisdom. She would run a daycare out of the church that helped financially struggling families. The daycare became so popular people who had financial withal wanted entry. She fought and kept the place for those who were struggling.
She ran restaurants. At one time she and Dad ran four different food businesses at the same time. Everyone sought her out. She was the life of the party. She was the nurturer and she was the wisdom. My friends would come to my house after dates and we would play cards. If we did not have enough players for a game or sometimes even if we did they would demand I awake her to play with us. They loved her. Everyone sought her out.
She was a conservative Christian. Yet she lived to not judge. She did not agree with the gay life of her employee but was determined to treat her fair. Mom made her manager even after she was alerted by concerned citizens of the employee’s gayness. She thought gayness was a sin but God was the judge not her. She was to love her neighbor as herself.
She kept a strong faith in life and God despite the Vietnam War delivering her a broken husband, who would wake up in the night screaming in anger or terror. A broken husband who would have a scandalous affair that broke her heart. A broken husband who would disappear without a trace for a few months. A detective and some unusual phone calls led to her finding him in a small trailer in rural Arkansas. He was broken and battered but she embraced him and nurtured him back to health. Of course none of this left her unscathed. She developed a bitter edge to her. Her life was not as perfect as she thought when she set out from Horton those many years ago. But she pressed forward. She would say that in the last twenty years of her marriage my Dad became the man she married.
But then life delivered her death again. Her oldest son, who seemed in good health, died when an aorta burst from an ulcer and he bled to death. She never intended to outlive her children. This broke her heart. She would struggle to be the same but she could not understand why God would be so ruthless. She had always been the good daughter, wife, mother, friend, and worker. She lived her church and faith. Why so many untimely deaths? She never came to a conclusion. She just struggled through it.
Dad would die a few years later. She no longer understood why she was left. She loved her grandkids. Gave hell to her two remaining sons. She still sparkled and loved to play cards. She was always the darling of the assisted living facilities. But she was ready to move on and this life kept clinging to her.
She never lost her mental faculties but her mind, when she was tired, would on occasion visit unseen places and times. She thought she was having friends over for dinner. She would be worried about the health of someone long dead. Asked for Dad and then, an apparent realization that this request was somehow wrong. But when she was not tired she ruled. She was the mother supreme, homecoming queen, valedictorian as always.
She died in a hospital. I was not there. I, who had been there for so many others at death, was not granted the privilege of being present for her. My brother, who lived in the same city, in denial or confusion, assured me she was going home the next day. I was taking vacation to visit her the next week so I waited. But time waits for no one. My nurturer died without me. For an observer who did not know her Mom’s life may have appeared as if it was in shambles. Her mother died young. Her brother committed suicide. Her husband had a scandalous affair. Her son died too young. But to those who knew her she was always the feisty, smart, homecoming queen, and loving mother dealing gracefully with the ruthlessness of life.
I love China. The food is wonderful, plentiful, and cheap. Their food for the most part is healthy. Cheese is treated as a delicacy instead of a necessity like here in America. Thank your local Dairy lobbyist for that. Deep fried is almost unheard of instead they choose stir fry. Thank their local wok lobbyist for that. They love their mangos here and they have stores that only cater to your mango desires. We have stores that only cater to our cupcake desires.
They walk, bike, motorbike, take a subway or bus everywhere. They actually use public transportation. Here we are making sure the bus stops only go to certain neighborhoods. We walk in our neighborhoods not to anywhere. We drive our cars anywhere. We drive down the block if we have to go that far.
There are of course some things I will not miss. These Chinese love their museums which means long lines and waits to get in. Here in America seldom do I find a museum with a line unless there is a blockbuster traveling exhibit. The Chinese need less pride in their museums and a little less desire to know things like us. The driving is horrifying. They believe in honking horns and they do not believe in a one car distance between the car in front of you. When you drive here you do not wait for breaks in the traffic to pull out onto the road. You pull out and the break will happen. Here in America for driving like they do we shoot you or at the very least we point out your errors with our middle finger. A horn is such a waste of time.
Of course they have a pollution problem. Which is like the type they have we have left behind in Pittsburgh and other places. But President Trump has great promise in filling the pollution gap with China. They have problems with freedom of speech but again Trump is looking into that.
Yes I love America but hey sometimes we forget in other countries lovers hold hands, dote on their children, are creative, take pride in their work, share laughter, and try to live good lives. China for me has been in part a reminder when we think of the ‘other’ it should not only be about what we see is their faults but also our commonalities and their successes. If we thought this way more about the ‘other’ there might be less other in the world.