“Well hey, Richard!”
I’m not looking in her direction, but I know it’s my mother. She turns “hey” into three syllables, “Richard” into seven. It’s a gift.
I turn around and there she is, looking much better than the last time I saw her, which was probably three years ago. Maybe more.
For starters, her hair is dark brown, like when I was a kid. And it’s cut nicely, framing her face, not pulled back in ponytail. Some people can pull off that severe look, I suppose, but not mom, and certainly not mom at 70.
She’s wearing more makeup than I remember. And although I’m not sold on the celery-colored suit that my sister-in-law-to-be picked out, it fits mom perfectly. Honestly, the only thing that needs fixing are the white pumps — chunky patent leather things that look like they came out of the dollar bin at Walmart. Which, in fact, they probably totally did.
I hug her with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. I might be feeling better if I weren’t encased in a horrible rental tuxedo, but it’s not my wedding, so I didn’t get a say in the matter. However, if my youngest brother should ever get married again — in May, in New Orleans — he and I are going to have a little talk about breathable fabrics.
I lead mom inside, to the air-conditioned reception room. I order myself a Diet Coke from the bar and ask if she wants anything. She asks for a glass of white wine. I wonder if she can see me wince. This isn’t likely to end well. (Mama’s relationship with alcohol has been somewhat less than awesome.)
We talk about nothing in particular, which as Southerners, we do masterfully. She asks if I know where to find a bottle of Champs Elysées, a Guerlain fragrance I bought for her a dozen years ago. Given mama’s iffy mental state, I’m surprised she remembers it, but I tell her I’ll get a bottle and send it to her.
Eventually, we part ways. She has to take her seat for the wedding, and I have to go hand out fans, which double as programs since the ceremony’s outside.
Did I mention the polyester vest? I’m drenched.
Later — hours later — mom and I are back inside sitting together, trying to carry on an empty conversation over the blaring music from the cover band. She asks about another of my brothers, the one who’s nine months younger than me: “Where’s David?”
“He’s right there, mama,” I say, pointing to a table about ten feet behind her. I try to catch David’s eye and wave him over, but he doesn’t see me or won’t acknowledge me. Either way, he’s not budging. I don’t know the people he’s talking to.
“I can’t get his attention.”
“Well, don’t worry about it, Richard. He’s just upset.”
“Upset? At his own brother’s wedding? What’s he got to be upset about?”
“Because now he’s the last one of y’all who’s still single, and he knows he’s going to stay that way. He can’t even find a girlfriend, much less a wife. He’s all alone. He feels left out.”
My face turns beet-red with embarrassment. Not because I’m guilty for being happy — though I am, a little — but because I owe so much of who I am to my mother, my adoptive mother. And I almost never give her credit for it.
* * * * *
Mama and I have had a rocky relationship for the past 10 years or so. After divorcing my father, she left the town where we grew up, squandered her savings, and made a very bad marriage. Then she made another one. She doesn’t work, and frankly, she’s never wanted to. As a pragmatic workaholic, I guess you could say I lost my respect for her.
But if mama did one thing, she gave me the twin gifts of empathy and compassion. When we were much, much younger, anytime my brothers and I would start ragging on a friend of ours, mama always came to the friend’s defense: “Well, how do you think he feels, given all that he’s been through? Don’t y’all go judging until you’ve put yourself in his shoes.”
Of course, my brothers and I shrugged her off, but somewhere in the back of my head, I filed away each and every one of mama’s little life lessons.
I can’t say that I’m always considerate. I can’t say that I’m always polite to strangers. But if I possess no other redeeming qualities, I’m able to view situations from multiple perspectives. I think that’s made me a much better person, and it’s a skill I owe to mama.
* * * * *
When mama leaves that night — early, before they’ve even cut the cakes — I can tell she’s a little tipsy. She’s beginning to snipe at daddy’s wife, which is making a lot of people uncomfortable. Well, me and daddy’s wife, at least.
I walk her to the door and hug her and say that I’ll try to come up and see her in about a month. Maybe we could go out for dinner, if she’s available. And for the first time in a long while, I mean it.
I’m fortunate to have two mothers. Not many years after my relationship with mama went south, I met Callie, the woman who gave birth to me. It’s been great getting to know her: we have a lot in common, and we get on like a house on fire.
But Callie and mama aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re not substitutes for one another, like a couple of neckties I can only enjoy one at a time. Part of me has missed mama, and although she’s very different now than when I was a kid, when we were close, I’d like to know if we can at least be friends again.