They bloomed early this year and my heart wasn’t prepared.
My roommate and best friend, Jean, and I had planned on going to the Dogwood Festival that day. I never had to set an alarm for Saturday mornings; Daddy’s call came like clockwork at the same time every weekend. I loved waking up to the sound of his voice, but that morning, the call was different. “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this…” he began. Seconds later everything in my life was upside down and my head was spinning out of control. Mama was gone—she died peacefully in her sleep—but she was gone.
I hung up the phone and started screaming. Before I knew it, Jean had booked me a flight to Knoxville and we were headed to the airport. Instead of kettle corn and handmade crafts and a celebration of those beautiful blooms that filled our little Arkansas town, I found myself staring out the car window at the dogwoods that grew wild amongst the dark trees of the mountains. They were like little white lights floating through a veil of tears as Daddy drove us home from the airport. A few days later, I found myself staring in wonder at the two dogwood trees that would stand guard over Mama’s final resting place, one at her head and the other at her feet. I felt that God had planted them there just for me.
I’ve now lived almost as many years on this earth without her as I lived with her. I’ve been through ups and downs, anger and laughter, and too many tears to count. Things weren’t always easy between us—there were times when I didn’t feel quite so loved by her. I wish I had known then some of the things that I understand better now. I wish my teenaged brain and heart could have better grasped the pain she was in, both emotionally and physically. Maybe I wouldn’t have erected such a wall of self-sufficiency and independence. Maybe I wouldn’t have started running, never wanting to look back. Maybe…
I don’t know. I do know there are still things that come up that I have to forgive, and things that come up that I desperately need forgiveness for. If only we could fathom the wounds we inflict on each other through ignorance and pain. I have a feeling Mama knows the full extent of both sides now, even though I’m still trying to figure it all out. She has the advantage of a heavenly perspective—I’m thankful for that. Thankful I can no longer wound her heart, and thankful that my heart is in the process of being healed as well.
She was a beautiful woman, but like most of us, all she saw was her flaws when she looked in the mirror—some of the same flaws I see in myself today. I remember how I used to wish my eyes were like hers—beautiful, silvery-gray with that touch of mischief and love and sadness that could say so much, and with the narrowing glare that was way worse than any spanking because you knew how much trouble you were about to be in if you didn’t change your wicked ways right then and there.
She was fiercely loyal. At the funeral, Mama’s friend Imogene told me a story about when they were young and she had fallen crazy in love with a guy that everyone knew was wrong for her. She said that mama just sat there sewing her wedding dress for her, all the while telling her she was making a huge mistake. She never forgot how Mama loved her through it all—the wedding and the divorce that came shortly after.
Mama impacted people with her unconditional love. When my best friend wound up pregnant at sixteen, Mama loved her through it. She didn’t judge her or forbid me to be friends with her, she was always welcome in our home and when that baby came, Mama loved him like he was her own grandchild.
Sometimes I stare in the mirror to see if I can see her staring back at me. My eyes have turned a bit silvery now and my cousin swears I have the “Aunt Shirley” look—that warning glare that I referred to earlier. Every time I post a new picture on FaceBook, my brother says how much I look like our “little mama.” I don’t really see it that much, though I’m glad he does. I confess, I hear her coming out of my mouth more than I see her staring back at me.
I think we often think of those who influence us in terms of how we have become like them. I’ve come to discover that there are things my mama was so good at that I just don’t even really want to attempt. She was an amazing cook—ask anyone who knew her, especially my brother’s football teammates from Western Carolina University. Offensive linemen can eat a LOT, and they loved my mama’s cooking. I don’t like to cook. I think subconsciously I’m afraid I can’t measure up, so why bother. Food is just fuel, and yogurt works for dinner as well as breakfast.
She had such a green thumb—her plants were amazing. Mine commit suicide if they see me coming. Maybe I slay them with that glare. Maybe it’s just been too painful to try; it would be hard to be surrounded by leafy reminders of her while I try to figure out who I am in light of—or in spite of—who she was. I think that’s why the pictures I have framed of her in my house are from her younger days, the days before I knew her and before things got difficult between us. I like the happiness in her beautiful eyes from those days.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to process my relationship with my mother. I don’t know if I even fully grasp it now, but what I do know is that my heart is at peace with her and we will have eternity to make up for the years the locusts have eaten away. Twenty-four years later, I see the dogwood blooms and I remember the love that seemed hidden at times, but was always there. I’m truly thankful that God chose her to be my mother and I’m thankful for the little white blooms that will forever be a reminder of the beautiful life that was a gift from God to me.
Shirley Morgan Reagan, February 23, 1942 – April 24, 1993