On Keeping Vanessa

My mother was a sweet, gentle woman of the Old South – brought up to work hard, extend hospitality, provide comfort, serve where called, serve her God, and do all with patience and grace. She dreamed of going to China as a medical missionary, of saving the heathens for Jesus. How peculiar, then, that she wound up in Wisconsin with a bunch of noisy, demanding Northerners. Heathens all right, but more in their self-occupation than in their theology. Mother’s natural rhythms were never those of the family she moved into. She always looked a little stunned at the end of a day.

The household included a philosopher-king husband and father who held his glassy-eyed family captive at dinner each night as he’d explain his latest take on unified field theory; three noisy daughters spread out enough in age that there seemed always to be a teenager amongst them; a ticked-off mother-in-law who wrote poetry standing on her head at age 92 and told anyone who would listen how much she resented being required by the fortunes of life to have a room in her daughter-in-law’s house rather than being queen in her own…and then there was Mother herself. To find her, we’d just follow the silence. In the comic-opera that was our family life, the Mother didn’t get many lines. She was, instead, caterer, laundress, wardrobe mistress, nurse, gardener, general spear carrier, and the keeper of grace…at the dinner table and otherwise.

Grounded in Scripture, Mother found great comfort in the Book of Ruth, most famous of all Biblical daughters-in-law. Ruth was undyingly loyal to Naomi, her own difficult mother-in-law. Mother never once voiced that she might not want to be putting up with Marie, the Naomi at our house. If Grandma was sometimes Mother’s cross to bear, so be it. Duty was all.

Never an easy read for us girls, Mother became of greater interest when we discovered the photo of British actress Vanessa Redgrave tucked away in the bottom of an old trunk. There she stood – tall, slender, hair blowing in the wind, great cheek bones, radiating a strength that said with the people of whatever that early state was – “Don’t tread on me.” Someone had, in error, we were sure, written on the back of the photograph, “Cecil Mauldin, age 33, 1934”.

Strange. That was our Mother’s name, and the handwriting looked like hers, but the sophisticated lady in the photo was definitely not our mother. We set the photo aside and hoped someday to find out more about the lady in the picture. It certainly didn’t occur to us to ask because we weren’t supposed to be rummaging in that particular trunk.

But then, from time to time, a peculiar thing would happen. Sometimes, when we weren’t looking, the lady in the photograph, Vanessa, would slip in and there she’d be, standing right where Mother had been just a moment before. Vanessa never stayed long, maybe just an hour or two, certainly never for a full day. It was easy for Vanessa to arrive unnoticed because most of the time, the rest of us just didn’t pay attention to Mother at all. When we’d suddenly notice that Vanessa was back, we girls would become strangely quiet. That way we could sneak peeks at the strange lady furiously weeding 1n Mother’s flower beds. Weeds would be flying every which way. Sometimes she’d be muttering. But unlike our mother, Vanessa never vacuumed or hung out clothes, and if she’d stayed longer than she usually did, we all would have starved. Vanessa read books and had tea parties and gardened. She didn’t do windows. Even our dad would refill his own coffee cup when Vanessa was around.

We suspected that Vanessa was a southern, too, perhaps come with Mother from “down home” – which meant South Georgia- Where Mother’s family lived. When we’d visit “down home” and beg for stories about Mother, the aunts would laugh and shake their heads and say “She was the ringleader, the one who led the way when the seven of us were up to no good.” We girls would shake our heads in disbelief and wonder where that person had gone. We certainly didn’t know her.

Except that there was that one particular story Mother’ d sometimes tell… that one time, when she was about 12, she broke every dish in the house when she was left home alone for dawdling over a huge stack of dishes after Sunday dimer while the rest of the family was waiting to go for a drive. We girls would scarcely breathe as we’d wait for the end of the story. Mother’ d pause and say, “I didn’t get punished. My father understood.” Oh, wow! Sweet rapture! We doubted that the story was true, but it did give us pause. And just in case it were true – and we saw no evidence that our grandfather’s mercy had been passed down to his daughter- it seemed wisest just to behave as Mother expected us to behave. Who knew what anyone who had once broken every dish 1n the house was capable of doing? She threatened to make us pick our own switches. She never did it, but it was best not to take chances.

When I was in junior high, we lived in a small town 50 miles west of Chicago. Sometimes Mother would get up on a morning and announce, “I’m going to town.” “To town” meant the big city, Chicago, just like “down home” meant South Georgia. Mother didn’t drive -she gave that up when I was five or so, the reason for that extreme measure, another mystery -so she’d catch one of the buses that came through town a couple a times a day on the way from Detroit to Chicago . One night when we met the bus Mother usually came home on, she wasn’t on it. My dad even got on and looked around. I remember feeling a little bit afraid. Mother’s ways were like clockwork, except, of course, when Vanessa was around. Mother finally showed up on a later bus, near midnight. Her story was this: On the way “to town” she’d heard moans from the back of the bus. She’d gone back to see. She found a young soldier, blood seeping from leg wounds. He was returning from the Korean War. Mother told the bus driver that she was a nurse and that the injured man had to be taken to the nearest hospital. The driver resisted, Mother insisted, the other passengers got involved, and Mother finally won. The driver left his regular route and delivered Mother and the young man to a nearby hospital – to the cheers of the other passengers and the astonishment of the emergency room staff. Mother stayed at the hospital until she knew the young man was stable; his relatives, notified. We stared in disbelief. Our mother wouldn’t do that. It must have been Vanessa.

This year, (2018) my mother, were she still living, would be 117 years old. She died at age 86- in silence on the evening of the 4th of July – a stroke having taken away her speech.

She died alone, well, seemingly alone, having sent Dad and us three girls from her nursing home room to see the fireworks over the lake I like to think that Vanessa showed up and that the two of them, tickled at the idea of going off in a noisy blaze of glory, took off amidst bombs bursting in air.

French novelist Emile Zola once said: “If you ask me what I came into the world to do, I came to live out loud.” I’m sure he meant by that “to express himself fully and freely.” Mother never was able to do that – partly, I say with great regret – because we didn’t make an effort to “hear her into speech”, that great transformative process UUs like to talk about. Mother, fully realized, would, I suspect, have been magnificent. Certainly the clues were all there, especially with Vanessa. It’s just plain sad we couldn’t get Vanessa to stay.

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