What We Keep

Maternal gifts never lose their value.

Ruby Williams Ervin

My mother has been gone since 1978, but not a day passes that I don’t think of her. As summer approaches and I plant and weed and water, I think of her penchant for gardening no matter how hot the sun. She wore a straw hat, I wear a Cardinals ball cap, but, like her, I take pleasure in a good sweat.

Ruby was one of 10 children, eight girls and two boys, growing up in a wonderful, rambling house in Ringgold, Georgia, not far from Chattanooga, with a grand view of the Smokies. She played basketball in high school, was “Miss Ringgold” in the state beauty pageant, and met our father Alfred when she was working at Kress’s in Chattanooga.

She bore six children, all girls except for the baby boy, and it was my good fortune that she kept a journal in 1949, the year after I was born. The demands of such a brood kept journal entries to a minimum. But she did record my being ill with colic and croup — so ill that she confided, “Neither Alfred nor I sleep and I am scared to death.” Then one day I smiled for her, and “oh, how it thrilled me.” Even as I absorbed the wonder of her love for my tiny sick self, she was facing more crises, as my four older sisters succumbed to the measles, to mouth ulcers; one even fell out of the car and injured her head, triggering yet another spell of frantic days and sleepless nights. Somehow we all survived. 

Mama was not one to cuddle or coddle, and when it came to schoolwork and chores, she brooked no slackers. Her marriage to our father wasn’t easy, and five growing girls tried her limits with their taunts and squabbling. (Get off the phone! You cannot wear my blouse. Have fun with dishes!) But no matter how tense the day or unpleasant her tasks, she found joy in her children. 

Of all the gifts my mother left me, three stand out. One is a passion for books that was sparked by a Saturday afternoon tradition. Mama would pick us up from our tedious piano lessons and take us to the main library at Peabody and McLean. I would tuck a stack of novels and biographies under my arm and read them from start to finish on our shady front porch.

Another is a love of trees. At Overton Park, or on our own canopied street, she’d give me a lesson fit for an arborist — water oak, scarlet oak, hickory, chestnut, cherry, sugar maple. Today she would grieve, as I do, at the wanton destruction of woodlands in the name of progress, and at the term “trash trees” some developers use to dismiss “worthless” species. Tell my mother a locust tree was worthless, especially in spring when the scent of their white flowers can make you drunk, and you’d get an earful.

Her most significant gift came as poignant advice I’d forgotten until recently: “Be happy, honey. Dwell on the good things.” Knowing I was prone to worry and even at times to melancholy, she’d written that gentle exhortation on more than one postcard mailed from her various travels, and I came across them this winter while cleaning out the attic. At this period in my life, a year after losing my husband, “happy” is an emotion that went dormant when he died. But her words got me thinking about that enviable state: Maybe it’s not an emotion so much as a way we choose to be. 

After we buried our father in 1969, Mama had more freedom to vacation with her sisters and indulge her first grandchild. Her death was swift and sudden; she was only 62. “I don’t feel so good,” she told my brother one Sunday evening. When my sister and I arrived at the hospital an hour later, she had — as the young doctor told us — “expired.” Stunned and devastated barely describes our state of mind. But in our mother’s best fashion, we did what we had to do.

That included going through a lifetime of possessions, and at least one precious discovery made the labor worthwhile. Written on our father’s insurance company letterhead was an essay titled “Pictures!” In it she described the items people like to collect — stamps, antiques, African violets. “I love those flowers,” she wrote, “but they die for me. Pictures are another thing; they live for me.” On top of our piano were the pictures she described as her “burning love” — photographs of her daughters and son. “As I walk through the house during the day, my eyes fall on the pictures. Hardly ever do I fail to stop and think of at least one of them for a moment — my children, my loves.” 

Mama would be 99 this year. I’m grateful she was spared the dementia that struck her sisters, but I wish she’d had more carefree years. She lives with us still, in the photographs that overflow boxes and albums, in the gifts she passed to each of us, in the advice that comes at a time I need it most: “Be happy, honey. Dwell on the good things.”

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