My friend Susan asked me yesterday as we were paddling toward the sunset on the Roanoke River if I was going to write something about my late mother today, Mother’s Day. I said I wasn’t sure, hadn’t thought about it, even though it has become something of a tradition, beginning on Mom’s 70th birthday in 1985 (“How terribly strange to be 70” my remembrance then began, quoting Paul Simon’s song “Old Friends”).
“I love stories about your mother,” Susan said and I smiled. I’ve often heard that. I do too. The chapter dealing with Mom in my memoir, Burning the Furnitire, is always the readers’ favorite. The title of the memoir is straight from Mom’s mouth.
Opal McCourry Smith was a genu-wine enigma: a woman with a subtle sense of humor that often made me fall down with laughter once I got her quite, sophisticated little joke, and alternately one whose depression was so deep it sometimes seemed bottomless. I’ve often said that when she entered a room, we didn’t know if the lights would go off or come on. Such were her swings. We didn’t even have a name for it then, but have since known it as bipolar disorder.
Mom spent horrible, draconian time in state mental hospitals and was given shock therapy for a while. The only treatment she ever swore by was acupuncture given by a Chinese physician who moved in next door to her when she was about 60. She took the man and his wife a homemade lemon pie with four-inch high meringue the day they moved in–as was her custom–and they became fast friends. One day, he suggested the good doctor might be able to help her. He did.
As Susan and I chatted, I repeated an old story of mine with a new twist: “You know I’ve told you that I stopped going to church when I was 10 because one of the older church woman took me aside one day and said I needed to find another church, one where my clothing would be more appropriate.” We were poor and I didn’t have dress-up clothes.
When I came home crying that day and explained to Mom what had happened, she looked at me calmly and said, “Well, I guess you don’t need to go back there. Those people are not good enough to have my son as one of them.”
That settled on me like a soft blanket and has been there for me ever since. That’s what mothers do. Good mothers, anyway.