Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Devastating Phone Call and Fatal Chain of Events

In January, 1980, while enjoying some music in my room, I heard the phone ring. Momma answered. She kept repeating, “it can’t be true, it just can’t!” After a little more discussion with the caller, she hung up the phone and began to cry. I ran to her side and at that moment I realized I had never seen her cry. I felt very nervous and a little scared. Momma was upbeat and even tempered, but authoritative when it is was necessary. She wasn’t supposed to cry.

Momma wouldn’t tell me why she was upset. She hugged me and asked me to go back to my room and continue to listen to my music. Momma hid herself away in her bedroom. A little while later, Daddy arrived home from work early and met her there. Their room was at the opposite end of the hall from my bedroom. I listened intently to see if I could figure out what was wrong. Tried as I might, I could only make out the sounds of Momma sobbing. I imagined Daddy holding her.

When and how I was told about my cousin’s death, I do not remember. My Aunt Brenda’s son, Danny, just 18 years old, was killed in a plane crash. Danny was taking flying lessons with his best friend. During one of their final lessons, the plane’s engine malfunctioned and it crashed, killing Danny.

Danny had a wonderful and loving personality. I liked it when he paid attention to me. I thought he was so cute with his blonde hair and blue eyes. Danny was the second oldest of my Aunt’s 5 children.

Daddy was very close to Danny. They had a lot of things in common and had a great Uncle-Nephew bond. Although I did not see Daddy cry, he was somber and looked vacant and absent from his body.

Our family was so incredibly sad during this time. I remember the long faces. I remember so many tears. I remember it so well because seeing the tears from all of the faces that were always smiling and kissing me was so hard to comprehend especially, Papaw. Papaw cried openly and hard. This, his oldest grandson was gone in an instant.

In the coming days there was a funeral. I was not allowed to attend and neither were my brothers. We were told that we were too little and that a funeral was not a place for children. In that moment, I became afraid of funerals. I wasn’t quite sure what they were, but dead people were there and it was no place for children.

With so much sadness, I began to wonder if those faces would ever be the same. During this family gathering there are sporadic smiles, spurts of laughter here and there but demeanors were mostly subdued and calm. The adults would often look at me endearingly and then just pat my head or my back while ushering me back to play with my siblings.

Within a few days, we fell back into our typical routines returning to school and work. Momma seemed to be back to her normal self, but I knew she was still sad about Danny. I made sure that my brothers and I did not ask her any questions about him, although we were still so curious.

Getting back into our routine and going to school was easy for Lee and me. We both loved being there and we were good students. We attended Grace E. Hardeman Elementary and it was located just one block from our house. I was in the 6th grade and had just started in the band.

Being in the band was the coolest thing ever. I played the clarinet. My Aunt Catherine, Daddy’s sister, lent me the one she used to play when she was in band. I was so embarrassed to carry that thing around. It had the most hideous, old-time brown, hard case. What used to be plush and green interior was now a putrid shade of greenish-yellow and rough in patches. The clarinet itself was beautiful and shiny without a scratch on it. I, of course hated it because my fellow classmate’s had clarinets that were matte finished.

Many times, I was scolded not to complain about what I didn’t have. Momma told me that I should be thankful that I was able to play in the band. I truly was grateful. Band practice took place in the Junior High band hall. We practiced everyday after school with the 7th graders.

Each day I looked forward to going to school just so I could go to band practice at the end of the day. You may think I was drawn to music, but I wasn’t. I did pick it up quickly and I was pretty good, but the boys….oh the boys! They were older and cuter and they were in Junior High! There was one that flirted with me every day. Well, maybe he was just being nice, but my 11, almost 12 year old, self chose to think he was flirting. His name was Chad. I couldn’t wait to see him each day just to hear what he would say to me.

Chad had gotten really friendly and spent a lot of time talking to me after practice one day. I just knew that he was working up the nerve to ask for my phone number. I couldn’t wait to go to school the next day. I ran home and told Momma all about it.

Poor Momma, I don’t know how she did it. She would sit and listen to me for an hour at least. I would tell her all about who did what to who, who said what and what for. She listened intently as if it really mattered. I could tell her anything and did. She never judged, just offered simple advice. When I told her all about Chad, she cautioned that it was inappropriate for a young lady to offer her number without being asked and it was highly inappropriate for a young lady to call a boy. She also warned that I should be guarded with my feelings just in case he didn’t ask.

That night, I slept very little. As soon as my alarm went off, I jumped out of bed and put on my cutest outfit. I snuck on a little makeup and curled my hair up real nice. I was just about to run out of the house when I came around the corner and saw Momma on the phone. She was crying….

Monday, June 22, 2009

Family Ties

There was a strong sense of family among our immediate and extended family. Momma was the tie that bound us all. We loved our family gatherings, which occurred every holiday at a minimum.

Memaw and Papaw (Iva Jo and Eugene Henry) hosted the events at their house. Their home was very small and very old. I was told that Memaw and Papaw moved in when the house was first built and lived there long enough to pay it off. When the home was purchased it was considered an “all-white” community. Keep in mind these were tumultuous times caused by racial bigotry against African Americans.

It wasn’t long before a brave African American family made a bold statement by moving into the neighborhood. Against all persuasion, the family stayed. One by one the Caucasian families moved out and one by one the African American families moved in. Before long, Memaw and Papaw were among a small handful of Caucasians still living in the community.

Memaw and Momma always taught us to treat every person with dignity and respect without regard for their color or race. Papaw and Daddy were your typical, southern and racist men but they were kept in-check by their wives. They did manage to get away with building a cyclone fence around Memaw’s front yard. That always seemed so odd to me. I think it somehow made Daddy and Papaw feel like they were compromising, in the sense that they lived in the neighborhood with the “colored folk”, but then fenced off the house to display segregation.

My grandparents earned a certain level of respect from their colored neighbors and she never felt safer or more at home than she did during this time. Soon, Momma and Daddy bought the house next door.

During times when Momma did have a job, Memaw kept Lee and me during the day. I can remember playing in the backyard all day with my dolly. There was a little girl next door to Memaw that I would play with through a cyclone fence. Every day, we had plans to play together. We pretended that we were mommies and tended to our dollies all afternoon. We longed to play in the same yard, but that was just not allowed. In fact, playing with this little girl “of color” was mine and Memaw’s little secret from Daddy.

I loved living next door to my grandparents. Memaw and I were very close. We played lots of games and we would talk for hours. She knew all of the things I loved to eat and had a good supply of them in her pantry. I snuck out of my house and over to hers on a number of occasions, just for a piece of sharp cheese. I did this so often, that she used to call me a mouse! I thought that was so silly, for I was not a mouse, I was a little girl.

When I turned 6, Daddy insisted we move to Watauga, another “all white” community. He felt that this was the proper thing to do, now that I was of school age. I was so sad to leave Memaw and Papaw. I knew I would see them often, but I really loved living right next door. And, I would miss my secret friend.

Moving away did not limit the amount of family gatherings we had. It also did not minimize the number of visits to Memaw’s. It seemed we were there 4 to 5 times per week.

The boys and I spent many weekends playing with our cousins while our parents enjoyed each other’s company. So much time was spent with our cousins that it seemed like they were more like siblings. Momma’s older brother, Roger lived in a neighboring town. He and my Aunt Sharon had 3 children that were all very close to our age, Little Roger, Gina and Brian.

Momma’s sister, Brenda lived in Houston and had 5 children with my Uncle Dan. These cousins were quite a bit older than my brothers and I. They loved to hug and kiss on us. I thought this was so weird and I really hated their wet kisses and I hated being called “little” and “cute.” Though, I did love their frequent visits.

There was another sister that passed away as a child from the flu. Her name escapes me. Memaw always cried when we asked about her. You know, curious kids ask painful questions. Eventually, I understood it was not something easy for her to talk about so I stopped asking. As a mother myself, I don’t even want to imagine the magnitude of her pain.

My Aunt Catherine, Daddy’s sister was an integral part of our family as well. Even though she was on my father’s side of the family, my mother’s family treated her and my cousin Jessica as if she were born under their family tree.

Momma, Aunt Brenda, Aunt Sharon, Aunt Catherine and any female cousin old enough to follow directions were required to be in the kitchen. My family always enjoyed eating and with as many people as we were feeding, it required a lot of kitchen support. It was very much expected that the women do the cooking and the cleaning while the men sit and watch the television. Being a small little girl, I didn’t mind the kitchen chores. It made me feel important and big. I learned to shuck corn, shell peas, set and clear the table. When I got a little older, I was taught how to make cream gravy, mashed potatoes, banana pudding and pinto beans. We were you typical southern family enjoying down home cookin’ every chance we got.

At the center of the gatherings was Momma. She told funny stories and kept everyone engaged in conversation. I can remember hearing the stories of how they stayed up all night talking and laughing. In my little mind, I wondered how on earth they could have found so many words to say to keep them up until the morning time.

As a little girl, I thought all families spent this much time together. I didn’t know until much later how truly precious and special these moments would come to be. And how fractured a family could be come with one member absent.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Momma as I Knew Her

Carolyn Jo Shaver – Moore, born to Iva Jo & Eugene Henry (nice southern style names) on December 2nd, 1947. She was the youngest of 4 children. She married Daddy on July 8th, 1967. The Vietnam War was in full force. It was a very scary time for young men of age, because of the draft. So many men had already lost their lives and the possibility of Daddy being drafted was very real.

Young men could be drafted between the ages of 18 and 35. In 1967, men were classified and prioritized with statuses. These statuses included whether or not the man was married, had children, was already in the military or was in school, just to name a few. Young single men that were not in school were first picked. A married man, with a child was further down the line to be drafted. Thus the reason I was conceived immediately following their marriage and born on July 26th, 1968. Daddy enlisted in the Navy Reserves, as well. Thankfully, he never was drafted. My brother, Lee came just 18 months later and Robert joined us when I was 6.

Momma worked off and on through the years, but she was primarily a stay-at-home-mom. Her house was always neat and orderly. She managed to cook amazing meals on the tiniest of budgets. One of our favorites was fried Spam with ketchup and macaroni and cheese. Sometimes we ate fried bologna instead of Spam, which was just as good. Another frequent meal was pinto beans and hamburger meat. When it was affordable, of course we at McDonald’s and Sonic or Church’s fried chicken. Nothing really compared to Momma’s cookin’.

Besides all of the great cooking on a shoe-string budget, Momma was very creative. She was good at just about everything she ever tried. Her ability to draw was amazing. Caricatures seemed to be her favorite but she was also very good at portraits.

To Momma, writing came very easily and she had a great imagination. Her stories and poems were vivid, colorful and captivating. She once shared with me some of the papers she wrote in High School. I was truly amazed that my mother had actually written them. The comments from her teachers were highly complimentary. I often wondered why she didn’t do something more with her talent. As I look back now, I can understand that being a mother and a wife were her priorities and she never faltered.

Momma was also very quick witted. I can remember so often, her friends telling me, “your momma is so funny.” It was a something to behold when she came up with the funniest reply to the simplest questions. And hold on to your britches if you ever messed up and said something you didn’t intend to say! There was no way she would over look it. Her humor was clean and it was endearing.

I can remember one of my daddy’s birthdays. I am pretty sure he was turning thirty years old. His age is a little foggy, but I do remember the cake! Momma was so proud of the cake! She used metal bowls, two of the same size, to cook the cake batter in. This was so weird to me because I had only ever seen a cake baked in a cake pan. The bowls were bigger than a cereal bowl but smaller than a mixing bowl. When the cake was done, she carefully dumped them upside down onto a foil line cutting board. The flat part of the cake was on the bottom and the round part formed mounds on the top. They were placed side by side with approximately 2 inches separation. She then proceeded to frost them as if they were some how connected. She used food coloring to concoct a frosting that was a pinky-flesh like color. Next, on the top of each cake mound and in the very center, she carefully, oh so carefully, placed a single maraschino cherry.

When the cake was completely done, imagine my Daddy’s surprise when he saw a BOOB Cake! That’s right, Momma, figured out a way to make a boob cake. This was something that was seemingly inappropriate behavior for a young woman of this era. It was a time well in advance of Googling ideas of others for those milestone birthdays. This was an idea that was all her own. Carefully, thought out, skillfully planned and expertly executed. Even as a 10 year old, I got “it”.

Of the most significant memories I have of my mother is her ability to sing. She had the most beautiful voice. She loved old country songs. Among her favorite artists were, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Donna Fargo, Charlie Pride, Elvis and Conway Twitty. To hear her sing was always so soothing. I knew she was happy when she was singing. My brothers and I often recall her voice sounding just like Patsy Cline.

It was very important to Momma that my brothers and I learn all of the words and sing along with her. One song I remember learning all of the words to The “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” by Donna Fargo. I have found so much contentment in that song for so many years. I have sung it to each of my children when they were babies and needed to be comforted. Isn’t it funny how a song can take you back in time? When I am taken back by that song, I am always an innocent little girl with no worries, no fears, no expectations and full of unconditional love. The only thing on my agenda is to bury some old toy in the backyard and draw map for my brother to use to locate my small treasure. We never did find those toys!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

And so begins my story.....

On the evening of April 11, 1981 a young girl approached her small 3-bedroom home that she lovingly dubbed “mustard house” for its yellow shade of paint. The front door opened to a long narrow hallway that spilled into a modest living area which was the center of the home. To the right of the living area was the breakfast nook and kitchen and to the left were the living room, bed and bathroom. She walked through the front door and entered the narrow hallway. And, even though her closest family and friends were not far behind, she had never felt so alone. Her small body ached and the bruises were beginning to surface. Her blood stained clothes were torn and wreaked of gasoline. This young 12 year old child was emerging from a state shock induced by a terrifying day and leaving her with an uncertain future.

There was a deafening silence as she approached the kitchen. The room was still and eerie. Her eyes focused on an object sitting in the center of an oblong wooden table marked with years gone by. This object so poignant, so lonely, so appealing and so simple, was a coffee cup. There it sat half full of coffee, stale and cold from the morning past. Lipstick captured every crease of her mother’s smile. She stared at the cup, the color of lipstick and the coffee that touched the lips of her mother only hours earlier. She studied every line and crease from the tender imprint left upon the brim and imagined her mother sitting in that chair, at that table as she appeared every morning and from this moment a young girl’s life was forever changed.

As you might have guessed, I was this girl many years ago. The thought of that coffee cup often finds its way to the top of my thoughts. For it was that day that the little girl I had enjoyed being would resolve to the responsibilities of an adult woman.

The coffee cup represented a time and place I have longed to go back to so, so many times in my life full of what-if’s. When the coffee was hot and full of aroma at that very moment my mother was carefully sipping as she sat at the kitchen table. There are so many things I loved about my mother and as I have grown into an adult and a mother myself, I recall the many things that I took for granted. I am thankful for the short time I shared with my mother and thankful for my memories of even the smallest of things.

To fully understand me and my life with all of the challenges I faced as a child, a teenager, a young woman and a mother, I must begin by describing the impact this woman had on me in 12 short years. I leave this story as a legacy to my children to understand where they came from and who I am. I leave this story as a tribute to the woman and mother that gave me life and love with her entire soul. Enough love that it was a powerful presence that carried me through and made me who I am. But, most importantly for my children to know that life can slap you in the face, knock you off your feet and turn you upside down but only YOU have the power to shape it. I don’t know who said it, but I do believe, “life IS what you make of it,” good or bad.

I could begin here and share the accident details and how we ended up so broken and out of sorts but you really wouldn’t know my mother and that would be truly tragic. It is important to really know this woman, as I remember her. When I think of the times I observed my mother, my memory is as if I was looking upon Christ, Mary and Joseph all rolled into one soul and standing before my eyes. Of course, I do not believe my mother was a Saint but to me she was Saintly, loving and very beautiful.

As far back as I can remember into the 1970’s, I spent many mornings staring in amazement as she teased her hair, pulling small sections with a pick, holding between her fingers of her left hand and raking a comb up and down meticulously with her left while letting loose of just enough strands to give her that “ratted” look. When the last section was complete she looked as though she had been standing in a puddle of water when an electrical storm snuck into the house and passed through our tiny bathroom electrifying only her hair and leaving her skin unsinged.

Next, she sectioned her hair again and curled each one, carefully rolling the iron under and then taking her pick once more, she lightly lifted each curl. She picked these curls apart until her hair laid neatly together in a symphony of strands that she called “fixed.” “Fixed”, was a common term women used during this time and many sought the assistance from a trained professional once per week.

The heights of her dusty blonde hair astonished me. As I learned, this style was a bouffant style hair-do. While the “ratting” never changed, the altitude of this symphony descended over the years leading into the 1980’s to a lift just three inches above her scalp.

Meticulous as she was, she did struggle with her weight through the years. Always wanting to please Daddy, she began to drink more coffee and eat less actual food. She practically starved herself but lost close to 100 pounds. There were lots of rumors that she and my Aunt Sharon used prescription diet pills to aid in the endeavor but I guess I will never really know for sure.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why a Coffee Cup?

It is important that I begin by explaining the meaning behind the name of my Blog. When I was a little girl there were many things about my mother that I remember closely watching. I am not sure why I watched her so intently. It could have been that I was a little girl and she was a big girl. It could have been simply that she was my mother. Or, it could have been that somehow I sensed, how special she was and how little time I would have with her on this earth.

Of all of the things that I observed there are several that always come to mind when I think of her. First, was how she would get herself ready-to-go. I would sit on the toilet in our small bathroom and watch her every move. She used to tease her hair up into this giant mess and some how manage it into this very neat and carefully placed ‘do’. She lined her lips in brown and because she was so very fair she used a pencil to color her eyebrows in place.

Next, I watched how she interacted with family and children. I was mesmerized by how she knew exactly what to do to make my baby brother stop crying. I asked her one time, “Momma, how do you always know what he wants when he cries?” She very simply replied “ a mother just knows.” I asked her if I would know too when the time came. She assured me that when God saw fit to bless me with a baby that I too would know.

Lastly, her fixation with coffee was a wonder. She drank it all through out the day. Her girlfriends often sat and drank with her. There was just something about coffee that seemed to make her whole. Boy, oh boy, would she loves Starbuck’s today. I tried it once but hated it. I to this day cannot stand it. But, it had some power to calm her, allow her to bond with her friends and to just be that thing that was all hers. I will never forget when she asked daddy to hook the travel trailer up to the power in the drive way so she could drink coffee in the trailer with her neighbor friends. They did this every day. It gave her the perfect vantage point to watch us on Lindy Lane.

My mother loved her home and her family. She was a stay-at-home mom and worked hard to make her home, just-so. She argued with Daddy often about the junk in the backyard. In an effort to please Momma, Daddy agreed to spend a weekend cleaning up his mess. He brought home a long flat bed trailer and proceeded to fill it up with all kinds of junk from our yard.

Our home was exactly one block from our Elementary and Junior High School, Hardeman Elementary and Watauga Junior High School. We of course walked to and from school each day. On this Friday, April 10th, 1981, as I am walking home from school, I can hear my mother calling my name from the backyard, “Carrie… that you? Carrie, come to the back yard. Carrie?” I ran to the backyard to find that Momma and Daddy had created this square 12 x 12 slab of concrete where they planned to build a storage building. The concrete was still wet and my hand was the only one missing from the family prints that were dated and placed in the wet cement. I arrived just in time to place my hand in line with my siblings to mark this special day.

The events of the following day changed my life forever and set in motion a future that I would have never expected. I hope you will follow my story and come to truly understand the poignancy of “The Coffee Cup” and why so many of my friends now say “you need to put that in the coffee cup!”,,, when something memorable happens.