Vol 5, Num 18 :: 2006.10.06 — 2006.10.20
My mother was generous to a fault, funny as all get out, larger than life in so many ways. And my mother was A Fury. She did not bother to work herself up over every little thing, which is good, because when she was angry, she would say, “I am so mad I could SPIT NAILS.” My mother upholstered for a living, a pencil propped behind her ear, and when she repaired furniture she did indeed keep a handful of upholstery tacks in her cheek— she would gather one nail at a time from her pursed lips, with her magnetic tack hammer, and slam the tack effortlessly into place with three blows, neither her eyes nor her left hand leaving the piece of furniture. And she alternately worked with a pneumatic staple gun, which blew staples into place and was, of course, extremely dangerous. But spitting nails—yes, she was capable, and that, from my mother, would be more dangerous still.
I am thinking of my mother today, her keen curiosity to assess broken things, her understanding of wood and weave, her analysis of the structure of items that can be fixed, and when fixed these items provide a lovely place for a person at rest, at leisure. My mother, so rarely at rest, at leisure—but, as in everything, when she did rest, she did it well and like no one else. I think of her desire, compulsion to repair what is broken, brokenness in a realm that can be addressed with skill, with force when necessary. And her bitterness over the things in this life that cannot be mended and must merely be lost or even burned on the scrapheap to erase the sight of them, the space broken things take up.
She once upholstered an antique fainting couch, mostly a skeleton when she received it, and she had to “read” the piece to find out how it must have looked in its original state. When finished, the blurry and off-center photo (all of my mother’s photos were blurry and off-center, but that is another story) did not capture this grand object from another era: gold velvet, hand-tufted with pleats and self-fabric buttons— the kind of furniture my mother would never choose for sitting, let alone fainting. She charged too, too little for her great skill, yet the pride of workmanship was practically its own reward. She probably showed that blurry, off-center photo to a hundred people.
I think of my mother when I recall Huck Finn’s line, “Alright then, I’ll just go to hell!” My mother as Huck Finn, yes, I see it now—she did hitchhike to California, she did end two marriages and had a third end without her consent, then married again and outlived her last husband, but always so determined to go to hell if that’s what survival required. Perhaps that is what survival requires.
At my mother’s funeral, some fresh-scrubbed young pastor sermonized about my mother’s deathbed conversion, actually a week prior to her death, and I found myself—a dedicated Christian!—completely outraged. To see that my mother raised a flag of surrender simply broke me to pieces. I wanted my Huck Finn back, my mother so determined to enter hell with her head raised high. And moreover, he was so smugly secure that her last two weeks had been the most important weeks of her life, not knowing the woman who could spit nails and would not hesitate to do so. “You haven’t seen my mother,” I wanted to say. “You have no idea the importance of her life, the remarkable quality of her struggle. You have no idea what she surrendered to say that sinner’s prayer for you, or that God has been working mighty works of kindness and strength through her stubbornness for decades, for a whole life. If you think this final act is the most important, I wonder if you even know God, friend—repent, and see the world in front of you, how God weaves and mends brokenness through the calloused hands of people like my mother. Sure, she put up a good front about ‘going to hell in a handbasket’, but has she ever been separated from the love of God? Where would you look for the evidence of such a thing?”
I should have stood up and preached the sermon myself, but people don’t do such things in Farmland, Indiana—take situations into their own hands—and I was weary with grief, protecting my three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son from my rage and tears. It’s one of my life’s few regrets—there should have been more said. I should have spit nails.