“Long way from my home.”
— Traditional Negro Spiritual
Last week, I became an orphan.
My mama, of whom I have occasionally written, died two days after her 98th birthday.
After my father died in 2010, she continued to live alone, thanks to the help of her friend and caregiver Alvester, and three big cats who also kept her company.
Then it happened, the thing all old folks fear. She fell. But she had one of those “Life Alert” necklaces, so she pushed the button and before long Jim arrived to set the wheels of rescue in motion. (If you have an elderly relative who lives alone, or are elderly yourself, get one of those “Life Alert” thingies. This is not a paid commercial.)
Surgery in Mobile, then rehab, everything seemed to be going well. My goal was to have her walking again. Her goal was to be able “to wipe my own butt” —Mama was pretty basic when it came to recovery.
Then she developed pneumonia.
The doctor started her on antibiotics, but she did not respond well. I could see her decline, but I held out hope. She had been down and recovered before. You gotta be tough to live 98 years.
When I went to see her the morning of Jan. 12, she could barely speak above a whisper. Her biggest concern was that she might not be well enough to greet her Sunday school class from Grove Hill Methodist Church, which was scheduled to drive 150 miles down to have lunch with her later in the week. She already had her outfit picked out. However, she confided in me that because the outfit was red, she was afraid someone might think she was an Alabama fan. Like Daddy, she was Auburn to the end.
The nurse said she needed to rest, so I left. A few hours later, they called to tell me she was gone.
They used to call pneumonia “the old folks’ friend” because it took them away gently. Well, I don’t know how gentle Mama’s passing was, but it was quick and quiet, so there is that.
Then everything kicked into gear.
I had never been in charge of something like this before and I was worried. But all the problems I anticipated (and fretted over) never materialized. The funeral home in Florida, well versed in the “die in Florida, buried back home” tradition, moved quickly and efficiently.
Back home, the local funeral home professionally handled the arrangements.
When I got ready to order flowers from a hometown florist, I was cautioned by a lovely local lady not to go cheap, for if I did the town would not be pleased. Mama was a beloved institution and deserved the best. I guess I did OK. Everyone said the 98 pink roses were “just lovely.”
Years ago, Mama, Daddy, Miss Margaret and Aunt Stella had a “funeral planning party,” where they wrote down what they wanted their funeral to include. Daddy’s was quite elaborate. Mama’s was very simple, as I recall, but we never found what she wrote. She may have thrown it away. It may show up in all the stuff she accumulated — her filing system was based on a personal calculus I am still trying to master.
So, with help, I planned the service.
The day broke rainy, then turned sunny and chilly. You could smell a south Alabama spring coming, but it wasn’t there yet.
The crowd gathered, large considering Mama had outlived all her contemporaries. But she was “Mama” and “Grandma” and “Mamaw” and friend to lots of folks, so they turned out. We sang her favorite songs — “God Will Take Care of You” and “Amazing Grace.” The preacher read the 121st Psalm, prayed a couple of prayers, said some appropriate words, and we were done. Methodist simplicity.
Then we went to the cemetery a few blocks away, where another simple service laid her to rest.
Mama was born in Grove Hill and now she is buried in Grove Hill — between Daddy and my younger brother Bill.
Say what you will about small towns; for my mama it was a nurturing community. That day it nurtured our family and, in the tradition of Southern funerals, fed us well.
For most of her life, Mama kept a diary, just as her mother did before her. Later, looking through her things, I found the diary she kept in high school, part of it was written in shorthand. Was she practicing for her secretarial class or were there secrets there to which she did not want folks to have easy access?
I suppose I could find someone to translate it for me, but I don’t think I will.
If she had wanted me to know, she would have told me.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: email@example.com.