I was probably 14 years old when I calculated the years between my mother’s birthday and my own. The realization that there were only 19 years between her birthday and my birthday intrigued me. So, being a rather fundamental Baptist kid at that time in my life, I decided to calculate the amount of time between my parents’ wedding anniversary and my birthday.
Let’s see…November ’74 and May ’75…
[counting on my hand]: December-1, January-2, February-3, March-4, April-5, May-6…6 months? No, not 6 months.
How could I have been born just 6 months after my parents were married?
During a visit to my grandparent’s home, I recalled the troubling mathematical path. So I asked an aunt, “Was I a premature baby?”
Looking back on the memory, I realize how clever her initial response to me was.
My aunt responds, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, there’s only 6 months between my parents’ anniversary and my birthday. There should be 9 months. So that’s why I’m curious if I was a premature baby.”
“Yes. Yes, you were.”
Fascinating. How had I missed this piece of my life’s story? Why had I not seen the pictures of life-sustaining tubes and incubators? This was good stuff. I was born after only 6-months in the womb. That’s church testimony stuff right there!
One evening, after coming inside from finishing the daily list of chores that my mother always had for my brother, sister, and me to complete, standing in the kitchen, I asked my mother,
“Mama? Why haven’t you ever told me that I was a premature baby?”
My mother, back turned to me as she stood at the stove in her simple and practical floral-print house coat, responded without hesitation, “You were not a premature baby. I was pregnant with you before I married your daddy.”
You know those scenes in movies when an actor experiences something that causes the entire environment to suddenly telescope into a blur of bright light? When the camera angle suddenly and abruptly rushes towards the face and expression of the actor all while a sound like oxygen being noisily and quickly sucked from the room occurs? That’s how I replay this memory in my mind. In that moment, I experienced a crisis of sorts and I was given new sight.
I wonder if the transformational experience I felt in that moment was similar to the one that Adam and Eve experienced when their lips parted and their teeth broke the flesh of the forbidden fruit taken from the Tree of Knowledge? It kind of makes sense that it would. After all, this knowledge I had just received brought an awareness to my 14-year old existence that I had not possessed prior to that day. And it was a formative awareness that my mother was a human, not some automated and perfect presence in my life. My mother had a story; one that preceded and transcends the story that I felt I already knew.
There was no more discussion of the matter after my mother gave me her answer. She continued, uninterrupted, preparing our family’s meal, as she did nearly every night of the week and I continued to stand there surveying her. With new eyes. With new questions. With new awareness.
Autobiography: an account of a person’s life written by that person.
Mom: the person most likely to write an autobiography and never mention herself.
If I had to know my mom’s story only by what she said about herself, I would know very little of my mom’s story. She doesn’t talk much about herself. She talks…goodness does she talk. But it’s never talk about how she wishes to be perceived. It’s never talk about circumstances that she hopes will help her gain that excusing sympathy from a listener that we feel relinquishes us from all personal responsibility. It’s never talk rooted in self-love or in self-loathing. Instead, it’s talk that is an outflow of a life shared with others, of experiences, of lessons learned, and sometimes of people who have scored a place on her, “I want to drag them into the woods and bury them” list.
For me, my mom’s story is a reel of personal vivid memories, mysteriously preserved in the mind’s eye of a son and rich with insight anytime I revisit them or they revisit me.
One day, I plan to share a narrative of Mama’s story. I will craft it from the memories she indelibly left within me. I will preserve it with carefully selected words that will still fall short of capturing who she is. And I will ensure that it is passed along in an attempt to achieve the impossible: to share a story, poorly reflected through words, that is told best through action.
Happy birthday, Mama. As you prepare for your big backpacking trip on the Uwharrie Trail, I hope that you enjoy respite, refreshment, and happiness. And I want you to know, as you trek out, that your life, though composed of challenges, sacrifices, hurts, pains, and self-denial, tells a story of humanity that is largely drowned out by those shouting their own stories that they want the world to hear, but that serves as a beacon and a raft that quietly leads and carries those fortunate enough to share life with you.