My mother interrupted my favorite Yogi Bear episode to tell me what death was. I’d managed to sneak out of nap time again to watch the show. This was something I did most afternoons. My Grandmother made me lie down for a nap around 3 pm because she was convinced that a nap a day kept “the grave” at bay. “Naps are the reason why the women in our family live to be 99,” she told me.
But naps bored me, and at my age, ninety-nine was too huge a number to comprehend. So, I tried to escape naps and longevity whenever the opportunity arose. I waited until Grandma started snoring in the twin bed next to mine and then made my way down steep carpeted stairs either by rolling or scooting. Scooting was my preferred method, but sometimes the scooting misfired and became a roll. I remember rolling down the stairs more than any child should without a visit from social services. I probably looked like a slinky, feet flying overhead and then head over feet. Usually, this happened when my satin “special” blanket tangled beneath me. It was longer than I was, and I was like Linus; I sucked my thumb and took my blanket everywhere. Sometimes when I used my heels to grab the next stair and bump my bottom down a level, my special blanket snaked around one leg, locking my foot behind me. Rolling was scarier than scooting, but it got the job done. I just hated hitting the baby gate at the bottom. It made a racket and usually fell at the slightest bump. So, I’d have to disentangle and try to lean it back into place in order to cover my tracks.
Finally, I’d waddle to the den, pull the power knob on the t.v. and wait for the static crackle as the image expanded from a tiny dot to fill the screen, maybe the way the Big Bang filled our universe. Then, I’d turn the dial like it was a combination lock until I heard the Hanna-Barbera theme song. Usually, I could finish a couple of episodes, giggle, steal a honey bun from the breakfast room and get myself back into bed before Granny awoke. I didn’t want her to feel betrayed or disobeyed, but I also didn’t want to miss out on Yogi Bear or on being awake generally.
Getting back into bed was not as hard as getting out of it or as tough as getting down the stairs. I just had to step onto the white, wooden bed frame, grab the bedpost, hoist myself up onto the mattress and flop down. Sometimes, my mother would help give me a boost. She was equally averse to napping and was on to my tricks. Occasionally, she would join me for Yogi Bear, and we would keep it a special secret between us like we had attended an exclusive party open only to the cartoon-loving elite. This was more than a little thrilling since the t.v. watching was happening on the sly.
But I also remember those afternoons as sluggish and gauzy. It was Texas and the late day made me feel like I was being baked and dried out like a slab of Luby’s cafeteria liver. The ceiling fan whirred and the light through my grandparent’s white curtain sheers caused their bookshelves and furniture to appear as though they were trapped in fine netting. Tiny dust motes dangled in the air, and I mistook them for translucent inchworms or microscopic germs that only I could see. I was fascinated, but nobody else noticed them when I’d point them out. “Unh, huh,” they’d say to me before moving on to whatever grown-up thing commanded their focus.
Mom and I were both living there with her parents in Abilene then, and my Dad hadn’t been around for a while. I didn’t know why and sometimes I missed him. Something felt not entirely all right, but basically okay, I guessed. They were grown-ups and I was sure they knew what they were doing. I wasn’t four years old yet, and I hadn’t developed a strong instinct for critical analysis or questioning. I rolled with whatever happened, much the way I thought Yogi Bear might. “Who keeps cool when things are hot? Who does? Yogi Bear! Who buys some fantastic scheme but always lands on their feet? Yogi Bear!”
I curled up in my Grandfather’s green plush easy chair and rocked. I enjoyed the wave-like motion and the way the chair squawked like a duck when it pivoted upright. Maybe all children do. I’m not the only toddler who cherished when my mother rocked and sang to me. During our prior Tennessee stay, back before Texas, back when Dad was around more, I felt safest when I was with Mom in that chair. My favorite times were when she lullabied “She’s Coming Around the Mountain,” adding me on back up vocals complete with “toot toot” sound effects. That chair hasn’t rocked in nearly forty years. Dad continues his monthly payments for a storage unit to house it and some of Mom’s other things. After she was gone, he immediately sold some of her favorite possessions like her guitar and her piano, but there are some items he still won’t release: the rocking chair, her chess set, the dining room table they shared but that he never used again. He recently offered the rocking chair to me, but I can’t find room for it.
I felt safe with my mother when we were in Texas too, but in Texas, I mostly rocked myself or Granny rocked me in her own chair upstairs.
Mom watched Yogi Bear with me for a while before getting up to turn the sound down. She walked back and settled into her spot on the sofa, tucking her feet beneath her like she so often did. She didn’t say anything at first but had turned her neck a little to look at me. She was beautiful: tall, buxom, stately — a striking dark brunette with light hazel eyes. I received none of those genes, and I’d later wonder if I was switched at birth or perhaps the milkwoman’s daughter. I look exactly like my dad.
This made it weird during my late childhood and teen years when Mom’s friends and cousins would weep at the sight of me as though they’d seen a ghost. “I don’t even look like her,” I’d think to myself. But I held my tongue; they wanted to see her somewhere in my blonde locks, flat chest and five feet of girlhood. “You have her same mannerisms,” they’d add. This part may be true; there’s something in the way she posed or tilted her head for the camera that makes me see it. Sometimes when looking at old black and white photos displayed in my house, my own friends mistake her for me.
In Tennessee, she, dad, and I went to see Mary Poppins at a local drive-in, and I thought that Mary Poppins and my mom were the same person. Both had giant doe eyes and black, wavy hair, and both were magic-makers who liked to laugh when other adults around them seemed stern and sour. My mom had a reputation for being a trickster. My grandparents’ friends talked about how she was the one who always lit up a room and made people laugh. And she was a terrific actress. Granny kept scrapbooks of local newspaper features about her starring as “Rosie” in Bye, Bye Birdie.
And my dad told me stories like the one when they rented a bicycle-built-for-two in Vancouver. He kept peddling hard and trying to figure out why the physics of the bicycle design would make mobility so challenging. He called back to my mom and asked if she was struggling too. “Oh, yes. It’s SO hard. I’m quite tired,” she called up to him. He looked back over his shoulder to find her smiling broadly with her feet kicked up on her handlebars and her hands behind her head. It may not be the best example, but it’s the one I most remember him telling.
I stared at my mother then with my usual awe and looked back to see what was happening on t.v.. I’d seen the episode before and already knew the plot, but it was an especially good installment because the Three Little Pigs made a bonus cameo appearance. Yogi Bear and Boo Boo were lost in the woods, an unusual predicament for bears, but Yogi claimed that he and Boo Boo weren’t “your average bear.” They were what people today would call metrosexual bears. Boo Boo even wore a bow tie. So, for them, getting turned around in the forest wasn’t a shocker. Eventually, Yogi and Boo Boo ran into the pigs. The bears were desperate for a place to lay their heads, and their desperation made it easy for the crafty swine to dupe them into buying their straw house. The pigs wanted to trade up to something more solid and secure, something that the big bad wolf couldn’t blow down.
Finally, my mother spoke: “When someone dies, they go away. They’re not around anymore. They’re in heaven instead, and that’s better for them. But you won’t see them again until you’re in heaven too, and that may be a long time.” I don’t remember much more detail about that conversation now, but I remember remembering it. I remember that event staying so vivid in my mind that for many years my eyes would close and it was like a time machine physically transported me back into Granddad’s easy chair with Mom on the sofa and Yogi & Boo Boo on the t .v. I remember wishing that a time machine would take me back to her. Then one day I just stopped thinking about it, and I no longer remembered in that same clear, cloudless way.
But I do remember asking this: “You aren’t going to die, are you?”
“No. Of course not,” she said.
“Do you promise?,” I asked.
“Yes, I promise.”
So, that was the first thing I thought of when, nearly a year later, my Dad took me to the church playground in Tennessee, one that he helped build, and told me what death was. He didn’t think that I was old enough to understand, but I did because my mom had explained it. “When someone dies, they’re not around any more,” he said. I told him that I knew that already, but that he was wrong; she wasn’t dead.
“She was very sick,” he continued. “And she died.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to himself or to the air. He said something about how she felt the pain of all the other people in the world. He would repeat this statement to me many years later, when I was seventeen and I demanded that we revisit the “what death is” conversation.
“Now . . .,” he stopped again and took a deep breath. “Your mother is in heaven with God and Jesus.”
was she sick with?” I
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I waited a long time to be older, and for much of the time I waited, I told myself that he must have received bad information. “He doesn’t know because he wasn’t there when she told me. Mom couldn’t possibly be dead and in heaven because she promised me she wasn’t going to do that, and she was the one who had told me never to break a promise.”
I just needed to get back to Texas, and I’d probably find her at her vanity brushing her hair or applying her coral lipstick. She’d ask me where I’d been; then, we’d play hooky from nap time and watch Yogi Bear at our secret only-important-mysterious-sneaky people-allowed party.
After I did return to Texas and that didn’t happen, I concluded that she had gone back to the hospital again and contracted amnesia. Maybe she was a memoryless homeless person like the one I’d seen on an after-school special. One day I’d run into her on the street in Detroit or someplace while she was pushing her shopping cart. She’d see me and that would make her remember everything. Then she could come home and it would all make sense to Dad, and he’d know that I was right all along.