Mom Was a 'True Steel Magnolia'
The beach in winter is a great place for perspective. Sometimes the answer, to paraphrase the poet Wallace Stevens, is a brisk walk at dawn.
Today, as I write this, my mom would have been 93 years old, and I walked a mile or so down the beach to where, half a century or so ago, just this side of the original Johnny Mercer pier, she taught me to swim in a small lagoon on the sound side of the island. She would have been 40 years old then, still turning men’s heads, an aging beauty queen who never met a stranger and always seemed to have a great time whatever the occasion.
“Jimmy, don’t forget to smile,” she told me constantly, even when I was desperately dog-paddling after her smooth backstroke in that lagoon. “Life is too short, Sugar, for being unhappy.”
Carl Jung pointed out that most children dream their father’s dream. A father shapes how his children approach the outside world, but a mother creates their capacity for love and compassion.
Even well-meaning sons sometimes take their mothers for granted. Mine was exceptional, though it’s only been in the years since she passed away that I’ve realized how much like her I am. My love of music and my personality powerfully resemble hers, I’ve come to realize, not to mention a feisty combativeness that has no problem fighting the good fight if the cause is just, regardless of the consequences. She taught me courage and manners, and gave me my deep love of snow.
My mother was the youngest of 11 children born on a mountain named for her family in northern West Virginia. Her mother died in the great influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide in 1918. My mother was 2 years old and went to live with her older newly married sister Fanny in Cumberland, Md.
When she was 18, a songbird in her high school choir and the prettiest of the eight Kessell sisters — all Germanic, strong-willed and blonde — she entered the Miss Western Maryland pageant and won, earning a shot at the state title, where she won Miss Congeniality and wound up attending the national pageant because the winner, ahem, fell into a family way.
A short time later, she was selling big band records at McCrory’s department store when a newspaper reporter who was new to town asked her out to the movies. She declined to go because she was dating a local rich guy named Earl, who had a roadster. The reporter, a polite Southerner, bought a big band record and came back the next day for a second record, making the same pitch.
He was Baptist. She was Methodist. Three months later, they got married in a Lutheran church. My dad trained to be a glider pilot and went off to serve in Europe. She went to work for an admiral in Annapolis and got chased around the desk by the admiral. About that same time, actor Tony Martin, who’d seen her perform in the pageant, arranged for a musical screen test, and my mom was offered a film contract. Had she taken it, my brother and I wouldn’t be here today.
‘True Steel Magnolia’
She had a late-term miscarriage the same week my father came home from Memphis, where he purchased a new web press for the weekly newspaper he started in Gulfport, Miss. Talk about a tough week. That same day, he discovered that his partner, a local politician who planned to run for governor, cleaned out the company accounts and fled to parts unknown with his girlfriend.
Two days after that — the day he closed his promising little paper and headed for a job he found at the newspaper in Wilmington — my dad’s only sister was killed in a car wreck outside Washington. In the space of a few days, he’d lost his newspaper, a baby and a sister.
“How did you get through a week like that?” I asked him some years ago when we finally took a golf trip to Britain, where he’d learned to play the game as a soldier station near Lytham St. Anne’s.
He had a simple one-word explanation: “You mother.”
She was the strongest person he’d ever known, he told me in a pub in Southport, England. “She believes being happy is a choice, something you have to work at, not just luck. Don’t ever cross her, though,” he added with a laugh. “She’s a true steel magnolia.”
When I was 6, my father’s boss came to supper and stood in our kitchen telling me a racist joke while the wonderful black woman who helped my mother get back on her feet following her second miscarriage was preparing our supper. My mother excused us and walked me down the hall to the bathroom. She calmly picked up a bar of Ivory soap and showed it to me and said, “If I ever hear anything like what just came out of that ignorant man’s mouth come out of yours, you’ll be sitting on the toilet seat for an hour with the soap in your teeth. Is that understood?”
I nodded. It was my first lesson in civil rights.
When I was in high school, teaching guitar and playing in a folk group, she was always trying to fix me up with the daughters of her friends. All mother's want the best for their sons, I suppose, secretly hoping to hand-pick their brides.
“She’s such a wonderful girl. I know you’ll love her,” she’d tell me.
“Mom, she looks like Charles de Gaulle,” I’d always tell her back.
“Oh, honey. Give her a chance.”
I rarely did. But she loved the beautiful Maine girl who became my first wife and the mother of my children, and braved the biggest blizzard of the year to be there the day after Maggie, our oldest — named for my mom’s mother — was born. When that marriage ended a decade later, my mom was the first to tell me to do the right thing and keep the faith, and happiness would come my way again.
She was right. Five minutes after my mom met Wendy, she pulled me aside and declared, “You need to marry that girl. She’ll go anywhere with you. Besides, she doesn’t look anything like Charles de Gaulle.”
Her mother's instinct about Wendy was spot on. She was the reward for keeping the faith, the feisty Yankee woman who brought passion and deep happiness back into my life.
Not long after my brother and I moved her to an assisted care residence near my home in Maine, my mother and I were having a glass of wine at the place on Bailey Island, where she and my dad, who’d died three years before, loved to sit and watch the sunset over Casco Bay. Though she fiercely missed her North Carolina home and friends, the good news she and my daughter, Maggie — who was more like her feisty Gammy with each passing day — got to spend loads of time with each other.
“You miss Dad, don’t you?” I stated the obvious at one point.
“More than you can ever know, Sugar,” Miss Congeniality replied sweetly, then glanced at me and winked. “But that’s OK. I’ll see him very soon.”
She clearly knew something I didn’t. Several weeks later, she suffered a stroke and was resting peacefully when I took Maggie and her younger brother Jack up to see their Gammy resting in the hospital. We visited for about an hour, and she seemed eerily at peace — dare I say, even happy.
The next day, I was playing in my club championship when her doctor phoned me to say she’d passed away. I arrived at the intensive care unit still holding a 7-iron in my hand.
“It was the funniest thing. I was changing her sheets, and she was telling me about her grandchildren,” the on-duty nurse explained to me, “when she suddenly looked at me, smiled and closed her eyes. Her heart just stopped. I have to tell you, it was the most peaceful death I’ve ever seen.”
All of this came back to me as I walked down the beach this week with winter weather and snow flurries in the forecast.
Walking back from the lagoon where she taught me to swim five decades ago, I realized I’ve probably never been more at ease with life — and eager for the adventure that lies ahead.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said out loud to the cold beach wind, looking up at the gray clouds that were moving in and might bring snow that would have surely delighted her.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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