An odd title for a scribbler’s blog post, I suppose. As I sat down to compose this post, I discovered a scarcity of words that surprised even me. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am rarely, if ever, at a loss for words. Fortunately I rediscovered my words, so here we go:

I’m full of emotions right now. Emotions threaten to knock me off my feet the same way a wave knocks you on your backside when you venture too far off shore when the Gulf is choppy chocolate soup. The emotions vying for my attention spring from what seems a multitude of sources: preparing my childhood home for sale, readying my daughter to move into her first apartment away from home, and observing the first anniversary of my mama’s passing.

The house is coming together finally. Now that it’s been almost completely emptied of all the things that made it “home,” I don’t get quite as sad when I walk through the front door. I still have vivid memories though, and I remember lying on the green 70s’ carpet in my bedroom — a first grader trying to stay out-of-the-way while my parents moved all our worldly possessions into our brand-new house. Lying on my stomach, I read fairy tale after fairy tale from the hardcover copy of The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales my mother had given me. It was protected by a glassine dust jacket that still allowed the colorful illustration centered on the front of the navy cloth binding to show through. A companion volume of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, bound in burgundy cloth, completed the set. For some reason, I always preferred the Grimm Brothers. They were a little darker, a little more melancholy.

Mine are similar to these, but I didn’t have a slipcase. I’d take a photo of mine, but the college girl is sleeping and I don’t want to wake her up.

My college girl is scheduled to move into her apartment two weeks from Friday. Two weeks. How did the time fly so quickly??? Yesterday we went to IKEA, where we bought a small desk, swivel chair, bedding, and a few other small things. After grabbing a late lunch at Buff Burger, we stopped at Homegoods and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Truthfully, I think she has just about everything she needs for now. We have the luxury of only being an hour down the road, so if she forgets something or gets in a bind, it won’t be too difficult to help out if she wants our help. The challenge will be leaving her alone to figure things out herself. It’s part of the process, and so I’m going to sit on my hands, hide my keys from myself, and resist the temptation to call three times a day to see how things are going. Isn’t this what we’ve been preparing her (and ourselves) for the last 20 years?

I’m dreading tomorrow. Actually, today because it’s after midnight. So it’s August 3.

A year ago today, mid-morning, I got a phone call from my sister. She thought our mama had a stroke. Because our mama didn’t like the hospital in Clear Lake and any EMS that served her area would take her there, we drove her to the hospital in Pearland, at her request. The initial symptoms that we thought were symptoms of stroke must have been related to the cancer that had metastasized to her brain several months before, because after a little time passed, the symptoms were gone. Sitting in the triage area at Pearland, we made little jokes and she requested that they allow her to keep her underwear when they helped her into a hospital gown. As doctors and nurses came and went, she asked when she could go home, and they explained that they needed to send her to a hospital with a neurologist consult. So they made arrangements to transfer her to Memorial Hermann. I wish I’d known that would be the last time I saw her awake and cognizant of her surroundings. I wish I’d made sure to hug her before they took her in the ambulance to Memorial Hermann. Little did my sister or I know that around 4:25 am the morning of August 4, we would say our final goodbyes to our mama.

Truly, our mama had very definite ideas about the way things should be done, and as I’ve spent the last year going through things from the house — reading letters, mementos and the like — I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the high standards she set for us were rooted in her own heart-felt desire to be better than she believed herself to be. Growing up in a small east Texas town, her family lived on land leased out around the South Liberty oil fields. Her parents were good, hardworking folk who loved and did well for their kids, especially considering neither of them went past grade school. We knew our mama was sharp and talented because of the things we witnessed her do for us throughout our childhoods — she was very active in our classrooms when we were small and she eventually worked hard to establish a library (properly organized by the Dewey Decimal System, no less) at the private school my sister attended.

Surprising things we’ve learned this year or so:

  • Our mama was a member of the homecoming court when she was a freshman in high school.
  • Our mama was president of the library club at Liberty High School, and she served as regional president when she attended the state convention of high school library clubs.
  • Our mama wore ladies’ dress gloves (we found white and black gloves, elbow and wrist length), beautiful heels with thin spike heels, and she had a black cashmere coat with a detachable mink collar that makes me think of Audrey Hepburn.
  • We found a snapshot of our teenage mama standing in front of the Christmas tree at our grandparents’  home — Mama wore a Norwegian style sweater with black pants. In my entire life, I never saw my mama wear pants.
  • Mama worked at the Liberty County courthouse after she graduated high school, but before she got married, and her supervisor liked her to fill out the marriage licenses because she had such beautiful handwriting.

Mama was a stickler for honesty — she disliked untruthfulness with a passion, so we were a little amused to discover our mama had sticky fingers, at least as a teenager, when it came to hotel souvenirs. The Library Club attended a couple of conventions and we found a shoe box with odds and ends from a hotel in San Antonio, the name of which escapes my memory. The mother lode was a cache of goodies from the Shamrock Hilton in Houston, Texas. We are now the proud “owners” of an ashtray, a seafood fork, a teaspoon, and a room key with brass Shamrock Hilton key chain attached.

Photo found on Google — our key chain has the key still attached.

There was something entertaining, reassuring, and comforting in realizing our mama had been a silly teenager, just like us. I can almost imagine my mama, who I always thought of as very prim and proper, getting excited over Elvis’ latest song.

Today, when I’m tempted to be sad, I’m going to focus on that teenage girl growing up in Liberty, Texas — getting dressed up, with hat and gloves to shop at Foley’s Downtown and eat apple pie with rum sauce at the Azalea Terrace upstairs.

I miss you, Mama. Thank you for everything, including the stories and the seafood fork. I love you.

Mama in high school. I think she told me she was 16 in this portrait, so it would have been 1959.

Happy Birthday, Mama.

Today is my mama’s 73rd birthday. Last year, when we were in the middle of battling her cancer, we tried to celebrate her 72nd birthday with a family dinner. The details are a little vague because we were so overwhelmed by what we were dealing with. We asked her how she’d like to spend her day and she tried to muster up a little enthusiasm, but it required so much energy — energy she didn’t have.

I remember we got sliced brisket, fried okra, coleslaw, and the trimmings from a local barbecue place that we’d frequented for years. My sister and my girl both made desserts. I can’t remember what my sister made, but my girl made an “Orange Slice Cake” that Mama had asked for.

We really hoped Mama would be able to enjoy the day, but I think her illness had progressed much further than any of us realized at the time. She was tired and the radiation treatments she received in May had fried her tastebuds. It didn’t help that the barbecue place we’d always enjoyed seemed to be slipping, with the brisket being half fat — and I’m not exaggerating. It was terrible. If we hadn’t been so worn out from everything else, one of us would have taken that styrofoam box of fat back and demanded a refund. The cake my girl made was delicious, but it was a very rich and heavy cake — more suited to a wintertime dinner than a summertime birthday party.

After the so-so birthday dinner and cake, my sister started feeling poorly and within about thirty minutes, she was shaking with chills and fever. Her symptoms were so frightening I, along with her kiddos, took her to the urgent care center while my guy and girl stayed with Mama. I can’t remember what the final diagnosis was, but meds were prescribed and she began to feel better. By the time we got back to our mama’s house, it was late and time for everyone to call it a night. I remember being sad that it was more than likely our mama’s last birthday with us.

Today, on the anniversary of that day, I’m sad. I miss my mama and I miss the sound of her voice (my sister and I chuckled about that earlier – that we missed her voice, except for when she was nagging us about something she thought we needed to do or not do). I have her voice on a recording from my voicemail and every so often I will listen to her say, “I was just calling to see what you’re up to. I love you.”

Like I said, I’m sad. But I’m also happy, too. Because today is my mama’s first birthday in heaven with the Lord. And she is with her mama and daddy, whom she has missed since they passed away in the mid 1980s’. I like to think they are enjoying a family dinner with the best food (it is heaven, after all) and lots of good conversation and love.

Happy birthday, Mama. I expect being healthy and surrounded by love is the best birthday gift of all. I love you.

My Mama

Tomorrow we face another first — our first Mother’s Day without our mama. I went out to the cemetery earlier this afternoon to put some flowers on her grave. I almost didn’t go, because I had a difficult time deciding what to put out that wouldn’t look cheap or tacky. Since we live in another town, fresh flowers seem such a waste. I wanted to find some “silk” flowers that would stay pretty for a while until I can get up there again to put out some more.

AJ had a great suggestion and I ran with it. Mama was a very patriotic person, and he suggested I put some American flags on her grave. I was able to find some red silk roses and some red, white, and blue silk hydrangeas, as well as seven small American flags — one for each of us, and one for Mama. I thought arranging them like so would help make up for the current lack of a headstone. That’s something we are hoping to remedy in the not-too-distant future.

Mama loved her country, and she loved her some red, white, and blue!

I want to share a couple of photos of Mama from her sixteenth year, in 1959. Wasn’t she a cutie?

Mama, around 1959. She was sixteen years old.
I always thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, but prettier.

There was another lady at the cemetery while I was there, and we ended up visiting for a few moments. Her mother passed away several years ago, but she said it never really gets any easier. I can believe that. You might get busy and your busyness keeps you from thinking about your sadness. But some little something will remind you, and the next thing you know, you’re blinking back a tear, or three.

My mind sometimes goes in weird directions, and a few days ago I thought of Mama and the teal dress we chose for her burial. You can see from the photo below it was originally purchased for a happier occasion. I keep thinking about how weird it would have been — we were out shopping for wedding things, having a great time together. How strange it would have been, to see into the future for a split second and know that this beautiful teal dress being purchased for a wedding celebration is also the dress that will be chosen for her burial almost twenty-four years later.

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I’m glad she saved the dress. I always thought she looked so pretty in it, even though blues and variations of blue were not her favorite colors. She knew I loved blue and I think that may have swayed her decision to buy the dress. Or at least I like to think so.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. I wouldn’t wish for any other mama and I miss you very much. See you in heaven someday!

A Busy Day

It’s the early hours of the morning and I should be in bed. I don’t know why I’ve had such a difficult time going to bed lately. It’s as if my mind gets revved up right about the time I should be going to sleep. Well, tonight it’s going to have to get revved down because in a few hours my day is going to get cranking and not stop for quite a few hours.

I promised a shutter client that I would come put some temporary shades in her windows to provide some privacy until her shutters come in. After that, I’ve got to go meet with a client who ordered blinds from me a year or so ago. We didn’t do anything on his french doors, and he’d like to look at cellular shade options.

When I finish that, I’ve got to meet with someone at 1:00 pm to conduct an interview for an article I’m writing for Image magazine. And then I’ve got to book it home to write the article, because the deadline for submission is May 15!

Saturday, I’m hoping to make it up to Alvin to put flowers on my mama’s grave, since we’ll be meeting my in-laws for Mothers Day lunch on Sunday. My sister and I are going to decorate Mama’s grave for the Fourth of July next month. Mama wouldn’t be happy with the current political state of the nation, but one thing’s for sure: she was always a patriotic American.

RIP, Grand Old Party…

As much as I miss my mama, I can’t help but think that God in His mercy took her home last August before the political mess became so… messy.

My mother was a passionate conservative, a proud Republican. She watched the news with her father when she was a teenager, as well as baseball and Gorgeous George, the wrestler. She didn’t carry her interest in baseball or wrestling into adulthood, but she always watched the news, and before her health declined, she was very active in the Republican political scene in her community.

As I’ve gone through the things at her house, I’ve discovered dozens of elephants, many adored in red, white and blue enamel. Lapel pins, earrings, buttons, stickers – you name it,  I’ve found it. She loved Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. We will not get into debates about whether they were good or not — she also believed in Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment:

Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

I know that she would be heartbroken by the condition of our nation, the travesty that our government has become – both sides guilty without question. I ran across the following obituary, which I think explains it pretty well:

The Republican Party, 162, has died


My beautiful picture
My beautiful mama and me, 1965

My mama is never far from my mind these days. Even though I’ve been busy with usual day-to-day responsibilities, more days than not I spend a few minutes thinking “this time last year, we were in the waiting room at MD Anderson” or “this time last year, we were about to start radiation treatments,” or “this time last year, I was living with Mama in Alvin…”

It’s hard to believe in only three months it will be a year since Mama passed away and we laid her to rest under the beautiful old oak tree at the Confederate Cemetery in Alvin. Of course, it’s just her physical body lying there. We know where she really is. We know she’s with Jesus.

When I think back to last August — how the expected was still very unexpected — I am so grateful for Mama’s planning. I think it was around the time of her first battle with melanoma, probably four years ago, that she started thinking about preparations for the inevitable journey that we all face at the end of our time on earth. I am the daughter who usually sticks her head in the sand about things like this. I can’t help but also be grateful that my sister, Angie, handles “things like this” so much better than I do. (I owe you big time, Little Sister!)

Whenever Mama tried to talk to me about it, I emphatically insisted on changing the subject. Poor Mama! It was important to her to have a “nice” funeral — she did not want to be cremated. She pointed out how much respect the living paid the dead in the Bible. She couldn’t reconcile cremation with the traditions of the early church, and did not want us to have to resort to that because a traditional funeral was too expensive. I have to assume my sister helped her coordinate the information needed to purchase a $10,000 life insurance policy for burial expenses when the time came. Mama paid the monthly premium faithfully to make sure we wouldn’t have to worry about anything.

During the last few months of her life, she started making known the specifics that she wanted for her last “party.” It sounds strange, but to us it is a party, a celebration of eternal life through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong — we cried plenty, but there is comfort in knowing we will see her again.

The Christmas before she found out her cancer had come back, she faxed me her Christmas list. She asked for two specific songs: “I’d Rather Have Jesus” by George Beverly Shea and “There’s Just Something About That Name” by Danny Gaither. I was able to find the first, but could not find the second. I gave her the one I could find on Christmas Eve and then discovered she’d asked for them because she wanted those songs played at her funeral! I fussed at her about that, asking for funeral music as a Christmas gift! My silly mama.

From the time she was diagnosed the first week of April, until she passed away the first week of August, she kept hoping and praying that she would get well, but she also faced the fact that might not be God’s plan for her. So my sister brought her computer over and they looked at caskets and flowers and headstones online. It was during their conversations that she let it be known she would really like a mahogany casket, and that she wanted her full name, “Norma Jean Swearingen Swan” on her headstone. My niece was paying attention, because when it came time to choose a casket piece from the florist, I could not remember what my mama’s favorite flower was. My niece quickly offered that Mama said she loved lilies. Mama mentioned that there was an available spot near her friends at the Confederate Cemetery and my sweet husband took care of securing the spot under the beautiful oak tree.

When you lose a loved one, it’s amazing how quickly everything happens. You’re standing in a hospital room at 4:35 am being told your mama is gone, and before the end of the day, you’re talking to a funeral director and trying to deal with how far $10,000 will go in between close encounters with a soggy Kleenex. It’s painful and messy, but much less so than if you had to make these decisions all the while wondering how to pay for everything.

The precious funeral director took such excellent care of us. My sister brought the paperwork from the life insurance policy to the funeral home and with the ease of a couple of signatures, signed it over to them. The funeral home kept a tally of how much everything cost and deducted it from the value of the policy. We looked at caskets, and in the course of the conversation, mentioned that Mama really wanted a mahogany casket. The funeral director asked us if we’d looked online. We were both a bit shocked by that, but she smiled gently and said, “You can get what she wanted for half the price if you order it online. But you need to do it tonight so the truck will be able to deliver it from Dallas in time.” I cannot say how much we appreciated this kind soul who basically took money out of her own pocket so that we could honor our mama’s wishes. When all was said and done, they returned a balance to us which we set aside for Mama’s headstone.

The service was beautiful and I’m pretty sure Mama was pleased with how we did things. The mahogany casket arrived on time, and we were invited to come see Mama the night before the funeral. The director had taken special care and even allowed my sister to come sit with her while she did Mama’s hair and makeup. It was really important to Angie that Mama’s makeup look the way we remembered it. As we stood there next to the casket, Angie said, “Mama, how do you like your new bed?” We both burst into laughter through our tears because we knew it was what she wanted and that she would be pleased. The flowers were beautiful, and we displayed photos that Mama loved in the foyer. The next day, during the service, the entire congregation joined together to sing the songs Mama had asked for, as well as Amazing Grace. It was the most beautiful funeral I think I’ve ever attended.

I’m so grateful that Mama made provision with the insurance policy, and that she made her wishes known so we, her daughters, her son-in-law, and her grandchildren, could honor her in a way that reflected who she really was at heart: a loving mother, grandmother, and most importantly a woman who’d rather have Jesus than anything.

Trigger Finger

I knew it was going to happen. At some point in time, I’d be too quick to punch the wrong button on the answering machine, and accidentally delete one or both of the two messages left by my mama a few months ago. Earlier this morning we had to have our well worked on, and that required turning off the breaker. When I walked past my answering machine, I saw the red light flashing and when I pushed “Play,” the machine announced “Time and Date Must Be Set.”

The messages started playing and my too quick finger punched the “Delete” button, rather than the “Stop” button. And I immediately realized what I’d done.

I haven’t listened to the messages that often, because it makes me sad and miss her so much when I hear her say “I love you” at the end. Fortunately, I still have a message and I’m about to record it with the “voice memo” feature on my phone. I’ll save it to my computer, and then to a flash drive. It may seem weird, but the message is so perfectly her and I don’t want to lose it, too. Calling to see if I’d heard from my sister (who was in New York at the time) and wrapping it up by saying “I love you.”

I used to get frustrated because she would call me to see if I knew what was going on with Angie. I would say, “Mama, just call Angie!” and she would tell me she didn’t want to disturb her if she was working or sleeping or otherwise busy.

I would love to hear her ask me what is going on with my sister today.