Judith NakkenPhoto courtesy of the author.
Copyright 2017 by Judith Nakken
Mama was vain, of course, and probably quite mercenary. My biological father – divorced when I was barely two – swore that the first words she said to him on the church steps that October day in 1935 were “Give me some money.” Then there were the late in life episodes of eggs and chickens and the rubber-banded legacy to my sister and me. But in those formative years before I hated her, I didn’t notice this trait. I only saw her beauty. In makeup, she was breathtaking, Lana Turner with auburn hair. Around the house, puttering with her modeling clay or water colors, even her faint freckles had a golden glow.
Sister Nancy, only weeks old when the divorce orchestrated by The Grandpa occurred, grew to look just like her. I was precocious in both mind and body, overgrown and wall-eyed. Mama didn’t hit, but her “that was an ugly little girl thing to do (or say,)” brought home the truth. Sister got all the looks, and what was a girl to do with brains in the 40’s?
I didn’t hate her until I was about nine, though. This in spite of the fact that I realized at six that she lied .. lied a lot … and lots of times for no reason at all. My Grandma in Osceola said a lie was the first sin and the worst sin and I couldn’t fathom why her daughter, my mama, didn’t learn that lesson. I sought proof of every fact she ever offered if it was important to me, and discarded same if it wasn’t, but still adored her and tried desperately to get some love in return. But, by the time I was nine I knew that she was never going to stop the Wicked Stepfather from hounding me .. upsetting my weak stomach and whipping me unmercifully. And mothers should protect their children, right? So, I became even more reclusive .. when I wasn’t in school and my myriads of chores were finished, I was in a tree or on the other side of the garage roof, reading. And I didn’t adore her any more.
It was about a mile and a half to and from the one grocer in Iroquois and Mama sent me on my bike for some staple, nearly every day. One day she said I could get a popsicle! Boy, was it great in South Dakota’s 100-degree August heat. When she sent me the next day I asked “can I get a popsicle, too?”
“Don’t be thinking you’re getting a
nickel every day,” she snarled and turned her attention to the
small hunk of modeling clay that would soon be a perfect replica of
the Venus de Milo. I
shook a whole shaker of pepper on the hot rolls and cinnamon rolls she had set out to rise on the warm porch. And lied, lied to her face. “Must have been one of the little kids,” I swore.
I was as big as Mama when I was ten and got breasts. Little bumps for about 20 minutes and then they grew and grew and grew. “She’s only ten,” my beautiful mother would tell anyone in the vicinity if we were seen together. “She’s only eleven.” My “big” present the Christmas I was eleven was my first doll – a rubber baby doll that would wet its soft little diaper if I would unpack the little bottle and fill it with water. Nancy got a boxed doll just like it. I didn’t even take it out of the box, and gave it to the “poor kids” at the Methodist church’s toy drive the next winter.
I was seven, in Watertown SD, the first time I realized that the whiskey had something to do with Mama’s moods. She usually had it in the cupboard but only took a sip of it now and then. I liked the smell of it on her breath. But every few months in the years 1942-1947 she’d be gone all night and the whiskey smell would be stale and ugly when she came home, once with a green army jacket over her shoulders.
Marriage at barely sixteen was my escape from the chaos. Unprepared for peaceful cohabitation or anything housewifely or maternal, I found myself going home to Mama just two years later with a year-old son.
The Wicked Stepfather lay dying in their bedroom; his kidney operation two years before had not excised all the cancer. Someone sat with him at all times, mostly Mama, only leaving for moments to have a cigarette or to fix him something to eat. “He won’t eat anything but cheese and milk,” she would tell anyone who listened, but she didn’t fool me. She didn’t want to change diapers, and hoped the cheese would do its thing and “bind him up.” I guess it did – I don’t remember any yelping about the mess in the 3-4 days before he crossed over.
I lived in several cities as far away as possible, but she came to me in Whittier, California in 1960. I was again divorced and she wanted to be the live in babysitter for my three kids. It lasted a year .. she drinking up every ounce of my miniature whiskey bottle collection except the pinch bottles. She had her pride, I guess, and wasn’t an alcoholic if she wouldn’t drink scotch! The day she told me yes, she had straightened out the power company with the check number and all would be well .. and the power was turned off on a Friday and not back on until Tuesday .. was the day I sent her to Sister Nancy’s. There, in Idaho, she met her third husband and settled down in Spokane, WA.
What’d’ya know, the applelet doesn’t fall far from the tree. I fell into my own alcoholism in a big way and when I finally faced it, what did I do? I made a geographic cure attempt and went to the person I hated most in the world. Spokane, 1969. (Haven’t had a drink since!) We had a distant but mostly cordial relationship until 1973 when I found a feeble faith in a Higher Power, then came to the realization that my haphazard child rearing had probably damaged my beautiful, gifted children irretrievably. I was despondent. “Do you love your kids?” my mentor asked.
“Oh, hell, I don’t know if I ever have loved anything. But I’d lay down for a steam roller to protect any one of them.”
“Did you do the best you could with what you had to work with?”
“It wasn’t much. Vitamin a day, regular bedtimes, two pairs of shoes. Egadz, it was the day I discovered they only had one pair of shoes each that I decided to quit drinking!”
“It was all you had. Ask forgiveness, and forgive yourself.”
A lightbulb lit up my mind! My poor little, weak mama .. married to a meal ticket nearly 25 years older than herself because she couldn’t fend for herself .. Mama, who hid in her painting and sculpture as I hid in my books … she did the best she could with what little she had to work with. I remembered fondly a shirt she bought me somehow and how I heard her tell him that Auntie Ev had given it to me. Now I couldn’t wait to run up to her house, the place she nearly never left in her last years, sending cab drivers for her bottles when necessary.
“Mama!” I yelled in the house and found her on the patio. “Mama! It was me who put the pepper on the bread.”
We had two loving years before her diagnosis of adult onset leukemia at age 57. In those two years, neighbors had come to covet the big, brown eggs regularly provided by the little farm’s chickens and she was selling all they would lay. She and Bob argued daily .. his argument was that he bought the chicken feed and he should get some of the egg money. One day Sister Nancy was visiting her mother and called me at the office. She interrupted her monologue to laugh out loud. “Oh, oh! Bob’s home from work. And is he pissed!”
There would be no more arguments about the egg money. A man had come by, and our mother sold the chickens.
Poor little Mama .. the poison she had to take for the leukemia dispelled the 15 years younger that she had always looked, but she never spoke of it. Still beautiful but nearly 60, shestopped drinking without help. During leukemia’s third year it went into remission and she was again able to work in her flowers as well as at her oil paints. The fourth August, in the middle of a lively pinochle game, she began to cough and couldn’t stop. Gouts of blood spewed onto the kitchen table.
She had a cancer bigger than her lung and attached to her heart. Surgery and chemo only prolonged the inevitable. Age 62 in November, she joked that she wasn’t going to bother to apply for Social Security since her time was so near, and lay in her bedroom exhorting us to “play one more game” so she could listen to Bob, Dale and me haranguing over the pinochle cards.
She died in the hospital on January 2nd. I was at the office .. Dale was at her side. He said her last words were “I hope my Judith doesn’t lose her faith over this,” and that her former beauty returned as she slipped into the coma and was gone.
PS: Two identical rubber-banded bundles of greenbacks were found on her closet shelf- one labeled “Nancy” and the other for me. Each contained $468. We suspect that she did all the bureaucracy paperwork necessary to draw two month’s Social Security and leave her girls a legacy.
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