Mother, The Gift That Keeps On Giving

We, my two sisters and I, buried Mother yesterday. At least, what was left of her. Last night we shed our tears and got her out of our system. It wasn’t that hard since Mother had run roughshod around our lives from the day we were born.

There were so many things that drove us nuts about Mother. She had a neat fetish. After we left home, she would show up at our houses when we were not there. We never gave her the key. No matter the lock, she picked it. She could have given safe crackers lessons.

By the time we came home, the house would be cleaned spotless and everything put away. She loved playing hide-and-go-seek with our belongings.She never put things where they belonged. When asked where she put something we especially loved, she would not tell. “You didn’t need that old thing,” she answered. If there was something she didn’t like, out it went. I am still looking for that blue dress I bought at Neiman Marcus and wore to my college graduation. That’s been twenty years ago and I loved that dress.

It got to the point when we moved, we didn’t tell her where. Somehow she managed to find us. I once asked how. “I just stick my index finger in the air and it tells me where you’ve moved.”

At the end of each year, she’d show up at one of our homes and announce, “I am your Christmas gift this year.” Then she went about rearranging our decorations. She would insist on making Christmas dinner. But she would make the awfullest tasting stuff. I once asked her what was in it. “It’s my secret recipe,” she said.

There wasn’t a logical rotation to those Christmas visits. The same sister might get Mother five years in a row, then she would go on to her next victim. I mean, daughter. It might be eight or nine years before that sister saw her for the holidays again. Or it might be two.

That is just the stuff I can talk about. There were other things she did that none of us dare talk about. How Dad stuck with her for as long as he did we could never figure out.

Shortly after Alice and Marge left after last visiting with me October the First, the FedEx man delivered an unexpected cardboard box to me. It was twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches by six feet long. Attached to it was an unsigned note. “Your mother wanted you to have this.”

This was not good. Mother was eccentric. And there was no telling what was in that box. At least it didn’t smell.

I picked it up. The Box was surprisingly light. I shoved it into the hall closet. It wanted to put up a fight but I shut the door before it could protest much.

I took out my cell and punched in Alice’s number. Before I finished punching, I stopped myself. Maybe I had better not. Mother might not have given her anything. Mother was like that. From time to time, she would give one daughter something but not the other two. It was just another way for he to get under our nails.

So I decided to keep the Box a secret. No reason to rile things up. Especially when I wasn’t about to open the darn thing anyway.

With the Box safely tucked away, I went about my rest-of-the-day doing rest-of-the-day things. But Mother was not the kind of woman who would let a person get her off their mind. God help me but I had tried enough times. Just as I was about to bed myself down for the night, I got this call. “Did you open the package?” said a voice.

“No, I didn’t,” I gave the Voice. “And I don’t intend to.”

“But you have to.”

“Do not.”

“Do to.”

“Now hold on,” I said, just about shouting.

Then the Voice, “I would advise you to open the Box. Otherwise.” The Voice hung up.

“Otherwise WHAT?” The buzzing of a dead phone line was the phone’s answer. Mother always made me want to throw something. Even dead, she was doing it to me.

I went to bed earlier than normal. Sometime later, a large crashing sound came from the hall closet. I turned over and covered my ears with a pillow. The sound grew louder and louder. I pulled myself out of bed, wiped the sleep from my eyes, slipped my feet into a pair of slippers and tottered toward the closet, bumping into the bedroom doorframe. I steadied myself, switched on the hall light and continued.

Inside the closet, there was a heck of a ruckus. I looked at the door and shouted, “Will you just stop it.”

It didn’t stop the noise.

“I’m warning you.”

The noise kept getting louder. To shut it up, I said, “Okay, you win. If you stop it, I will open the door.”

The noise stopped, and the house went quiet. Very quiet.

I stood in front of the door in my night gown and didn’t move for several minutes. Shaking, my hand turned the knob and pulled. Out fell the Box, crashing onto the hall floor, opening when it hit the carpet. A broom jumped out of it and into my hand.


I got no answer. The broom rotated in the air and swept me onto its long red handle. With me on its back, it headed for the front door. Just as we were about to hit the door, it swung open. We flew out into the night, made a right, and headed toward a large, bright full moon. I closed my eyes and held on for dear life, afraid that I would fall at any moment. Each time I opened my eyes to peek, the landscape below changed from city streets to green pastures and country roads and onward over a large lake. Finally the broom slowed as it flew through a dark forest. Strange beastly sounds emitted from the forest. Even the breeze sweeping across my face moaned.

The broom came to a complete stop and dropped me onto the ground. I recovered my feet and stood. Before me was a black stone, glowing in the dark, providing enough light for me to see two other figures. They were Alice and Marge. Even in the dim light, I recognized them. Like me, each wore a night gown and slippers.

We ran to each other and hugged, partially to quench our fear, partially glad that we were not alone. The brooms at our back stood at attention.

It was then that a soft cackle came from deep inside the stone. We three stepped back, wanting no part of what we heard. A soft red light rose out of the stone. The cackle louder and louder. An apparition like a fog ascended.

Looking down on us, it said, “Well, if it isn’t my three daughters. Lucy, the youngest, the spoiled one. Marge, the middle girl, always pouting about this or that. The not-very-smart Alice, the oldest. Do you not recognize your mother?”

We nodded yes.

“You may be wondering why I brought you here. I have a mission for you, and I want it done immediately. You are to get my slippers back, you hear?”

“B-b-but how?” we daughters all spoke at once.

“You can figure that out for yourselves. The brooms will help you.”

I spoke up. “What if we refuse?”

“Refuse. Never.” A lightning bolt shot from the fog and almost hit us.

“I want my ruby red slippers. You understand?” Then she was gone.

Recovering, I said, “Guess you know what that means.”

No, the other two shook their heads.

“We have to go to Kansas.”

Happy Halloween!


Here’s something to think about. And it’s a big something too. From the moment you’re born, you’re auditioning. Sure, your mommy’s going to love you. But think about this. By the time you come out of her, you’ve been auditioning for nine months. After a lot of interviews, wallah,you’ve got the job. You’re her kid. I didn’t say her darling. That’s a whole other thing. That role may go to your older brother or sister. They may be the cute one. You may have the role of pain-in-the-butt. Remember the Smothers Brothers. Dick got all the goodies, Tom got the chicken.

What about Dad? you ask. You know we’re in deep doo-doo if he says, “I’ve got five others just like him. So you’re going to have to do some cooing and goo-goo-ga-ga-ing for him big time. Smile when he comes into the room. Always smile. Smiling works every time.  Adults like smiling. Smiling will get you into Harvard. And don’t tell me your poop don’t stink. It always stinks.

You know you’re in for bad things if mom or pop turns to big sis and says, “Go change your brother’s diaper. “ The audition with big sis ain’t going to go well. You pooped. You do not want to do that at an audition. It just ain’t cool. Later in life, she will get even. When you’ve crashed your dad’s car and you want help, she won’t be there. Because she had to clean up your poop. Get on big sis’s good side and it will serve you in good stead.

Next thing you know you’re walking and getting into everything. You know things are going well if mommy says, “Ain’t that the cutest thing.” It’s a statement, not a question. But be careful. If dad comes in and says, “Hey, he just broke my favorite coffee mug. You know the one I won at the annual bean-eating contest. The one I got for beating the crap out of Marvin,” You know where that’s going to go. And he won’t be saying “crap” either. He’ll be saying that other word that stands in for poop. So don’t break any of Dad’s stuff. He’ll appreciate it and remember what a good kid you were.

Oh, you don’t think he’ll remember. You know how you’ll know. When he hands you the keys to that really cool car for your sixteenth birthday and says, “You’ve earned it.” There’s this big smile on his face. It ain’t because your grades are good. You’re a C student at best. No, it’s because you did auditioning well. Your poop didn’t stink that bad. You didn’t break any of his precious things.

And don’t get me started about table manners. You are going to have to eat that baby crap for a while. So don’t make faces. They don’t like faces, unless they’re cute faces.

Then there’s that first class in school. You’re auditioning there as well. You can either audition for the teacher or for your fellow students. Go for your fellow students. Your teacher is only going to be around for one year. Your fellow students are going to be around for, like FOREVER. So you had better impress them big time or your life is going to be a living h-e-double-hockey-sticks. Look across the room and find the kid you like the least. Immediately walk over and hit him in the face. He’s going to say, “What’d you want to do that for?” Best say nothing. You’ve impressed the other prisoners. I mean, kids.

This kid you just socked will turn out to be your best friend for life. For life, man. You can’t ask for a better friend than that. He’ll watch your back when you steal that car. He’ll be there for you when you need a sponsor in AA. You  will be his Eddie Haskel and he’ll be your Wally Cleaver. Can’t do better than that, can you? On top of all the trouble he’ll keep you out of, his mom will be June Cleaver. And, man, June Cleaver could cook. Not like your mom.

So that’s your life. You will be auditioning for role after role. For that first date. For that college you really really want to get into. For that person you will eventually marry. For that boss whose position you want. For that bank that will give you a mortgage and a credit card. For those two-point-seven kids that will make you a real American family. For those neighbors who always keep their house in tip-top shape and their lawn well manicured. (You keep wondering how he can afford the maintenance and the really cool stuff. Embezzling would be my guess.) For that divorce lawyer you will need. And you will want a good one. Your spouse is about to take everything. For that coffin you will have to fit into.

And last, but not least. There’s God. That audition is going to be real scary.

Half breed

I am a half breed and it’s only recently that I realized it. What do I mean ‘halfbreed”? I mean that I have one foot in one world and the other in another world. It was Rick Bragg’s “The Prince of Frogtown” that brought me that revelation, thank you very much.

You see, Rick Bragg hails from the same corner of Northern Alabama that I do. And many of the same kind of kin that make up one world. Blue collar folks who worked in the cotton mills and the steel mills, the garages and in the cotton fields and on the farms of that patch of earth. Hard working, good hearted, quick tempered, hard drinking, plain-speaking, deep-in-the-heart-of-the-South people who would give the shirt off their backs if you needed it.

Folks who are saved by the Blood of Jesus kind of people. People who work with their hands and not their minds. People who dig their hands in the dirt and come up empty way too often and who are without two dimes to rub together way too much. Folks who are as common as dirt and damned proud of it. People who take pride in their great granddaddy and spend much time looking backward into the past as if it was sacred. People who are deeply patriotic and won’t allow nobody to say a mean thing about these United States within their ear shot, but don’t believe the government is worth a damn thing. People who are described in the song “I am a Way Faring Pilgrim” and who have a natural poetry about them if you look deep.

It is from this side of the mountain that I take my love of a good story and have a y’all vernacular. It is from these folk that I first came to love the Bible and its stories and its language, much like Eudora Welty describes in her memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings”. It’s from this side of the mountain that I have seen how hard life can be for the least of God’s children. It is from these folks that I acquired my sense of justice. And the belief that if Jesus was around he’d be on the working folk side of things.

Then there’s the other foot that seems to have very little in common with the first foot. It is a world where creativity and the mind matters. Where education matters and where there’s a whole big world out there to love and to see. The future is all filled with hope. It is a world where the government is a part of the solution. It is a world where science matters. It is a world of literature and art and music, not just country and gospel, but jazz and classical and rock and roll, and it’s a world of dance and theater.

Most of my life I have made my best effort to escape the first world and move completely into the second. It’s been a long, hard struggle. But there’s no fighting it. I am beginning to understand that both worlds make up the who I am. Somehow I think that this was much of the struggle D. H. Lawrence went through. He would always have that coal dust in his bones and there was never any getting away from it.

So my job is to bring these two halves together and make them into one whole, unique human being. Can I do it? I don’t think it’s done overnight and who knows the work may never be complete. But here’s to trying.

Have you ever felt you were apart of two different worlds?

War Story

People ask me why I became a war photographer. Why did I pick up a camera at forty years old and head off to the hell holes where war devastates so many lives? I don’t talk much about the reason. Most people would not understand why a man keeps doing a thing over and over that is so destructive to his personal life. Ending two marriages and jeopardizing his relationship with his four kids. I have never told anyone this. It is because of my dad.

My dad never talked about the War. The War being World War II. Neither did my Mom. She  kept silent for my dad’s sake.

When he came home from the War, he didn’t take the G. I. Bill. “It’s not right,” he said to my mom. He went to working the assembly line for GM, building Chevys. He and my mom saved and scrimped enough money to pay his way through college. He became an engineer since he liked to build things. Ended up building bridges and roads. Seems many of the roads and bridges in the state of Florida one way or another have his stamp on them.

When family and friends or my mom’s church group came over, my dad would head off to his workshop out back. He was not a man to give God no never mind, and he was not a man who craved company much.

Our backyard became a playground for my sister and me and our friends. There was a tree house. There were swings and slides and a maze. All kinds of wooden things we played on. All built by Dad.

If a war movie, a “Longest Day” or a John Wayne playing at war, if one of them came on tv, my dad either changed channels or snapped off the movie.  He would say, “We’ll have none of that in my house.”

I turned eighteen in 1968. By this time, his hair had turned gray and he looked twenty years older than his forty years. He  packed my bags, put me on a bus and sent me off to Canada. The last words in his deep bass voice still ring in my ears, “No son of mine’s going off to Vietnam and get his ass blown off.”

Come 1990 I got the call. My aunt phoned me. Dad was dead. I had not seen him for the twenty-two years since I caught that bus to Saskatchewan. Every time I wrote or phoned, Mom told me that Dad did not want me to come home. The time was not right.

I got the call. Mom said, “The time’s right. Your father has left us.”

Before I could get my bags out of the cab, my sister Lindy was in my arms, hugging me, crying. Crying hard. Her husband, Dave, paid the driver and took my bags into the house. Lindy didn’t want to let go. It was as if she believed that I would disappear if she let go. Finally I wrenched myself from her arms. That’s when I saw Mom, standing on the porch, her face filled with sorrow.

In the next few days, I heard the stories of my dad’s war. He had been in North Africa and Sicily. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was among those soldiers who liberated Buchenwald.

Mostly the stories came from our aunts. They told us that Dad had medals “up the wazoo”. Even the Purple Heart and a Silver Star. But there were no medals for us to see. No pictures of my dad and his buddies in uniform.

I asked Mom, “Where’s Dad’s medals?” She didn’t answer. She just slipped away into the kitchen.

Aunt George said, “He buried everything. When he came home from the war, he buried his uniforms. Any pictures we had. All his medals. My mom begged him not to. But nothing would stop him.”

“Where did he bury them?” I asked.

“Nobody knows.”

Later that night, I stood on the porch. Uncle Jack and I were drinking a couple of Buds. He said to me, “You know your dad shot himself on purpose. It wasn’t an accident. He meant to do it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “No,” I said, angry at Jack for accusing Dad of something I just knew he wouldn’t do. I knotted my fists and got ready to strike.

“He knew guns too well for it to be an accident.”

I sat down on the porch and went to catch my breath. “But why?” I asked.

“I think he had enough of all the nightmares. Most of us were able to leave the war behind. Not your dad. He’d seen way too much of it.”

“I should have come back sooner,” I said, then downed the last of the beer in the can.

“You wouldn’t have been able to stop him. In fact, he might have done it sooner if you had been here.” His words were no consolation.

They lowered his casket into the grave. The soldier went to hand Mom the flag. She hesitated taking it, but she finally did.

Everybody left, but I lingered behind. I tried to recall Dad’s face. I couldn’t summon up that face. My mind was blank. I was numb all over. I went to say something to the man in the grave, but nothing came. After a while, I walked away. I joined Jack in his car.

“You alright?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I mean I don’t know.”

He drove on. Both of us quiet. Everything had been said. Back at the house, I did the socially acceptable thing and spent time with all those who came by to express their condolences. Then I slipped off and climbed up into the tree house. The tree house I had spent so many good days in.

In the dark, I sat listening to the night. The crickets were chirping, filling the summer night with their music. I wanted to cry, to weep, but the tears just were not coming. Softly I prayed to the night, “Dad, I love you. And I miss you. My God, if you only knew how much I miss you. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think of you. I became an engineer because you were an engineer. I married and became a father because of you. Oh, I love Mel but I would never have had the courage to take on a wife and kids had it not been for you. Now, you go and do this. Why couldn’t you just share with me all the crap you went through. Maybe I could have helped.”

For the next two years, I was in a fog. I flew back to Mel and the kids. Went back to  work on the project I was on. For a year I was a zombie. Mel, the kids, they knew something was wrong.  One night I was watching the news, or maybe it was some documentary. It was a war zone. Later Mel and the boys were off to bed. I sat alone in the dark in the living room.

The fog cleared. It all came to me in an instant. I knew what I had to do.

The next day I went out and bought a camera. Then I caught the next flight to Sarajevo.

Mom’s Skool

Well, it’s another Mother’s Day. Uncle Bardie wants to send out his Happy to all you mothers. You done good.

Being the guy I am, I want to reveal a secret to all you mothers out there. I am just telling you, not your children. So let’s keep this on the q.t.

Since way back to Eve raising Cain, there is a motherly ritual every first time mother goes through. I know. You don’t remember it. Within twenty-four hours of the birth of your first born, the hospital staff hypnotize you and take you down to the hospital basement.

Now, I can hear many of you objecting. There wasn’t a hospital in Eve’s time. I just have one question for you. Were you there? Of course, you were not. So how would you know?

Anyway they push you down to the hospital basement. They put a set of headphones on you. Then you are instructed that you were brung here to equip you for what’s ahead when Junior goes amuck or daughter sticks out her tongue at you and yells and screams.

You will need some armor. Since words are the strongest armor, you are given words that will curl any kid’s hair when coming from Mom: They’ve worked since the beginning of time and they will work till the Big Bang takes us out.

Memorize these. You will need them.

1. When the kid misbehaves, just say, “Wait till your father comes home.”

2. When the kid won’t eat his veggies, it’s okay to say, “Think of all those kids starving in Ethiopia.”

3. If the kid comes back with they’ll send their share of the food to Ethiopia, don’t whack him. Just give him one of those drop dead looks and say, “Eat your vegetables. You’re going to need them where I am sending you.”

4. When your teenage daughter is smart mouthing, just comment, “Wait till you have a daughter of your own.”

5. It may not change her behavior, but later she will realize the curse that has been placed on her head. When she comes to you to beg it be removed, you will smile and say, “That’s nice, hon.”

6. Just when the kid comes out with a “I didn’t do anything”, answer, “This is for all the stuff I missed.”

7. To keep them on their toes, say, “Always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident. You wouldn’t want to embarrass your mother with the funeral director, now would you?”

8. “You’re the oldest. You should know better.” Just because they should.

9. Another useful saying: “You won’t be happy until you break that, will you?”

10. If all else fails, say in a very quiet voice, “I brought you into this world. I can take you out.”

These are the most useful sayings. But there are more. Lots more.

They gave you a manual you had to learn in the next six or seven hours. Then they take you back upstairs. You wake up and wonder what happened.

Mom’s Skool, that’s what.

Happy Mom’s Day. You deserve it.