My mother rarely gave voice to her feelings but I never once questioned how she felt about me. When I spent the night with her parents, I never saw either one of them come out of their bedroom without pajamas buttoned at the neck, a robe and slippers.
Her way was to do things that she thought would make you happy. She made food you liked or bought snacks you craved. She never said a word about it, she just did it. On Sunday mornings, she made breakfast for us and whoever might be around. Friends of my brothers who were sleeping off Saturday night on our couch or any relative who might show up. It was an enormous feast. Dozens of eggs, a pot of gravy, plates of sausage, bacon and ham and pan after pan of biscuits. She made gravy from the grease of the meat and she made the biscuits from scratch. But I did not like them. I liked the flaky biscuits that came in the long cylinder can. In truth, I think I like unwrapping that can more than eating them. You pulled the tab and it unraveled along until the can popped open. My mother bought a can of those every week and made them just for me. She waited on me to get up and open the can.
I don’t remember how old I was the first time we went on our first family vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My brothers were teenagers and could drive, so I must have been around 6 or 7. We shared a large condo with Uncle Hoyal and Aunt Judy and their daughter Shanna, who, as an only child and to my great envy over the years, always got to bring a friend along. We arrived on a Saturday and left the next. We stopped at the grocery store on our way into town and shopped. My mother made breakfast for everyone as they got up; lunch was catch as catch can and dinner was usually out at a restaurant. At the store, Aunt Judy bought
a block of sharp cheddar cheese. I had never seen cheese like that. I thought cheese only came in slices inside plastic. She gave me a wedge of it. My face crinkled up and my eyes shut. It tasted sour at first, but then as I chewed, I liked it more and more. Every day, I would come in from the beach and make a cheese sandwich. White bread with the crust cut off, mayonnaise and a slice of cheese. We ran out one day, so I asked Judy for some of her cheese.
“Sure, darlin’.” She always called me darlin’ and Uncle Hoyal always called me Sport.
She had macular degeneration and had begun to go blind in high school. At that time, she could still see movement and tell light from dark. She did not yet have a Seeing Eye dog. She got her loaf of bread down for me. Wheat bread. She laid out the two pieces and I lathered them with mayo. She got a very sharp, little knife out of the drawer. A knife for adults. She sliced thick pieces off the end of the cheese block and I stacked them carefully on the bread so that I didn’t leave any empty space. I placed the second slice of bread on top and asked her if she would cut the ends off for me.
“Oh, no, darlin’, that’s the best part. That’s where all the nutrients are.”
I took my sandwich on a small saucer over to the table. The bread was thick and course and had pieces of nuts in it. I didn’t have the heart to tell Aunt Judy that she had picked up a loaf of bad bread. There were so many textures and tastes in that sandwich that I had not yet grown the taste buds to appreciate. I did not like the rough texture of the crusts, but I chewed along because this felt like how grown ups eat sandwiches and that felt too good to stop.
My mother could make a ham last an entire week. She would cook it in the oven as the corner piece of a Sunday meal. Then she would slice it off the bone and put it in a zip lock bag for us to make sandwiches out of. Finally, she would boil the ham bone and use it to make soup. Again, I was not impressed. I wanted the sliced ham from the Piggly Wiggly that came in a rectangular plastic pouch of water, so she kept that in the fridge just for me.
On my second day at Oxford, I felt lost and alone and thoroughly out of my depth. I had a break and wandered into a pub. It was Friday, so on the end of the bar was a ham and a loaf of bread for everyone. I sawed off two slices of bread and a wedge of ham and sat over my Guinness and ate. I tasted my mother’s ham and I felt my mother’s love. I felt her protection and support. I was firmly aware of how much she believed in me. Fridays at the pub became a very special place to me. I had a calling card that I used to call mama every day. The first minute was free, so I tried to rush through all that was going on and get off. I told her that there was a little pub where I eat on Fridays and everyone was so nice and they even made her ham for me. In eighth grade, I developed a tremendous crush on a tall, lanky brunette who sat in front of me in math class. One day, as I was walking out to mom’s car after school, I passed her and she smiled at me and said ‘see you tomorrow.’ I got in the car and we drove away.
“Mama, how do you know when you love somebody?”
“Well, how do you think you know?”
“I guess it’s just something you feel.”
“True. But it’s also something you do. Real love is a verb as well as a noun.”
Any time I came for a visit after I moved away from home, I took it as a given that there would be a block of sharp cheddar and a zip lock bag of ham in the fridge.
I wasn’t sure whether I should unpack or wait in the kitchen for dad. I knew he was in the bathroom, reclaiming his energy for the next part of his lecture. And, suddenly, I felt my hunger. I had a pack of pretzels on the plane. I opened the cupboards that used to be stocked with cereals and vanilla wafers and crackers. They were mostly bare. No one had lived here in quite some time. I opened the refrigerator. I smelled the Arm & Hammer baking soda first. It was completely empty. Except for the middle shelf. There sat a loaf of white bread, a rectangular package of ham in water and Kraft American cheese slices.