Today, April 18, is my mother’s birthday. And as with my father’s (July 18), every year around this time I get a little morose as I sift through the memories.
My mother and I had a close relationship, if a rocky one at times. I had as much in common with my mother as I did with my father, but they were very different things. In sharp contrast to my father’s no-nonsense, almost stereotypical stoicism and toughness, my mother was an emotional creature, and passed that nature on to me. It’s because of her that I cry over sappy movies, have a soft spot for all animals no matter how large or small, and have a feeling side that’s just as big as the thinking side my Dad gave me. Mom and I were both as stubborn as mules at times and we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of different issues, but over the years I’ve come to realize that she really did know me a little better than I knew myself, and I’d have been a lot better off listening to her than thinking I knew everything.
Geraldine Lee Johnson was born into a large family with brothers Bruce, Lucian, Bill, Jim, John, Bill Jr., and sisters Kathryn and Patricia, all children of Ramey and Floetha Lee. Our family is a branch of THAT Lee family, the one so badly maligned in recent years that the name was stripped from a park in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA. I am not the least bit ashamed of this … the Lees were a First Family of Virginia, and our family’s pride long predates the Civil War and what it was fought over. I am proud to be a Lee.
My mom, called Dee by almost everyone, developed an early interest in nursing and upon graduating from nursing school, went right to work, mainly at Catawba Tuberculosis Sanatorium which was near her home. She was a C.T.N., a Certified Tuberculosis Nurse, which was a very rare nursing license that no longer exists. It required the same amount of education and training as an R.N., but in different areas of knowledge. She was later able to become an RN after only a few hours of additional coursework.
Growing up with a nurse for a mother can be very interesting. Most mothers worry and fret over every skinned knee, every bloody nose, every cut or scratch. Not my mom. She knew what was serious and what wasn’t. What needed attention got attention, and what didn’t was laughed off. I remember once lifting a bicycle out of the back of a pickup truck and getting a deep slash about an inch long from the edge of a fender hitting my hand. My father said it needed stitches. She laughed, cleaned it out, taped it together with butterfly bandages, and considered the wound, and the matter, closed. I’m looking at the scar right now as I remember that incident. She was probably right. It’s hard to see now. It would have been far more visible with suture marks.
Mom loved her garden and her flowers. We had a little tiny garden even when we lived (1963-1966) in an old mobile home on Hydraulic Road, on a piece of leased property. But when they bought the house in Batesville in 1967 when I was 5, she went crazy. Our front porch was a jungle of flowers! I never got very interested in plants but boy, did she know them! And she could make anything not just grow, but flourish! The lower part of our backyard became a garden, planted every season with vegetables of all kinds and carefully tended.
My dad didn’t have much living family, but in my younger years all her siblings and her parents were still alive and we made countless trips to New Castle in Craig County to see them. They were a wild and colorful bunch but I loved them all very much. All of the men were military veterans. Bruce and Bill were Navy WWII veterans, John was in the Army, and Lucian and Bill Jr. were Marines. Bill Jr. (Billy) is the only veteran still with us; he served in Vietnam. Kathryn (Aunt Katy to me, Kat to my mom and everyone else) didn’t serve but ended up marrying a military man, Bob Weber. Bob was an army dentist during the Korean war. His son, Bobby, was a Marine helicopter pilot with HMX-1 and flew Marine One. And my aunt Patricia (Patsy) still lives in the southern part of Virginia, and was a nurse until she retired. Her late husband, my uncle Mike, was an officer with the Virginia State Police.
Mom was crazy about birds, too. Owls were her passion and I seem to have inherited that fascination. Her house was like an owl art museum; they were everywhere. A few of her owls are now part of the decor at our house, too. My recording studio is named “Superb Owl,” which is a play on words but also a tribute to her.
Mom did everything she could to attract birds to our house, and later to her back deck when she moved back to New Castle. She put out every conceivable sort of feeder and kept them stocked. She put out nesting boxes. The response was enthusiastic! If you were a birdwatcher, you would need no binoculars at her house. They all came to you, feeding and congregating on the deck, the railing, and the bird baths. She would call them, go right out among them and talk to them. Some even had names.
Once, during a long trip, I left Phoenix, my only bird at the time, with her for a few days. Phoenix was not a bird who was comfortable around strangers, and I was terribly worried he’d bite her, but she thought nothing of it. She had a way with animals, she said. It would be just fine. When I returned, not only was Phoenix having long conversations with her and stepping up very politely, but she’d taught that boisterous, loud bird to whisper, something he remembered thereafter. Amazing.
Mom had a little cockatiel, a lutino she named Big Bird. Cockatiels aren’t great talkers, but she’d taught that one a pretty big vocabulary for a ‘tiel, and it absolutely loved her. She talked to that bird all day, during the time she lived alone, and it was her whole world. One weekend, when I was visiting her during her declining years, she confided in me that she was afraid she’d become unable to take care of Big Bird. I’d become quite experienced with hookbills at the time and she’d met my other birds. Tearfully, she asked me to please take Big Bird home with me and take care of her. It scared me to death. I didn’t know how much stress it might put the bird through, after they’d been so close, and I didn’t know how Mom would keep from going crazy without her companion. And it scared me that she thought she’d become that ill. I agreed, though. It was what she wanted, selflessly wishing her bird the best life possible.
Big Bird was, as I learned over the years, a lot like Mom. She was outspoken, set in her ways, at times cheerful and engaging, at times insistent and tough as nails, and always full of love.
And within five years, they were both gone. Mom is with the Lord she served and sang to all of her days. Her passing was sudden and unexpected and struck me very hard, perhaps harder even than my father’s passing, because while my father was my mentor, my teacher, my friend, my mother was my heart. She understood my emotional nature more than anyone because she was me and I was her. We were more alike than either of us would want to admit sometimes.
When I was down and needed a shoulder, Mom was there. When my marriages and relationships fell apart, she was there. When my animal friends passed away and left huge holes in my life, she was there. When I needed life advice, she was there — her advice always came half from experience and half from the Bible, but it was usually good advice. As it turns out, the only major life event she wasn’t there to help me get through was losing her. She was, in electrical terms, my ground, and losing her left me floating around at all sorts of dangerous potentials. I made a lot of bad decisions until I found a way to ground myself again.
We were not close in the last few years of her life. I lived in Atlanta and she in southern Virginia, and my tumultous and busy life kept me so reactive that I didn’t take the time as often as I should have to call, to visit, to write. When she passed I was working in St. Louis and had to drop everything and rush to her home. She wasn’t there but the guilt sure was. It’s a guilt I still feel just as acutely as the love I still have for the woman who gave me life, and from whose gentle heart so much of me is made.
A couple of weeks ago, an old friend from High School sent me a message on Facebook, saying he’d love to hear how I sang a certain song. (Some people still remember when I sang in High School … some would rather forget.) He’d attached it to the message. When I saw it I dropped my phone and burst into tears. The song was the 1913 hymn, “In The Garden” by Austin Miles.
One August, many years ago, while I was at my mother’s house for the annual Lee Reunion, Mom suggested that she and I sing a song at church that Sunday. That’s the song she selected. We practiced it a couple of times during the week, and on that Sunday morning we stood in front of the whole congregation at the little country church and sang it together in harmony. It is my most vivid memory of singing with my mother, a tiny snippet of my life I will always treasure.
And as I sit here this morning, drinking my coffee in a quiet living room, I hear my little birds talking to me. I cast my eye around the room and it alights on numerous owls that gaze back at me. I glance at the barely-visible scar on my hand. I step out onto the front porch and smell the wildflowers starting to bloom, and hear the wild birds chatting, sometimes raucously and sometimes tunefully from their places in the trees. I stop, even though I am running late for work, and stand still for a minute, letting the feeling of nature, the spirits of the birds and the plants and the animals fill me. She is here.
Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.
Oh, and Mom? As soon as I can get through it without crying, I’m going to record In The Garden for you. Maybe I’ll let Fred hear it too.
[Edited a bit on April 19, 2018. I got confused and left some folks out, and also got some of the branches of service wrong.]