I probably saw a picture of a Playboy playmate before a picture of my own mother. My dad would leave Playboy, Penthouse, and much more graphic magazines like Juggs lying around. Although in his defense, he did read the articles in Playboy. Not sure if he read the articles in Juggs. I grew up without a mother. She died when I was one and I have no recollection of her. We didn’t have any pictures of her in the house. No one talked about her, and I certainly didn’t ask. It was as if when my mother died, she took everything with her. Her stories, her memories, even her existence. The only connection I had to her other than my own life was that a few times a year when we would visit my mother’s grandmother, my great grandmother, Maude Laborde whom we called OldMama.
OldMama lived 3.5 hours away from New Orleans which is where we lived. Since she was in her 80s and wasn’t too qualified to drive, it was up to my dad to take us. He hated driving up there and spending the night. It’s not like he had a reason not to take us other than he just didn’t feel like it. My dad didn’t go to work like other dads did. I wasn’t sure how we got money. He told everyone that he was a writer for the tv shows Cheers and Moonlighting, but his name was never in the credits, nor did he ever leave New Orleans to go to any show business meetings. I never thought about the logistics of my dad’s mysterious writing career. He was an anomaly. He was well-liked by my teachers and especially by my friend’s mothers. In fact, most women that met him were seduced by his charm and good looks. He dressed mainly in suits like he was James Bond but without the accent or bank account. My dad wasn’t like a regular adult. He was very childish and immature. In fact, he was really just a big kid. Still I felt safe and protected.
Dad begrudgingly drove us to OldMama’s. Probably his only solace was that he would pocket some of the money OldMama bestowed upon me and my older brother, Camy. OldMama would unceasingly gift us a Hallmark card separately. Typically the card had a cheesy, over-sentimental bear on the front with a personal handwritten message inside about how much she loved us with some cash stuffed in. As soon as we got in the car and drove away, my dad would say, “Fork it over.” And we did. I didn’t know anything about money so it wasn’t a big deal at the time.
OldMama lived in Hessmer, Louisiana, a small town in the bayou. It had a population of 500 on paper, but really it appeared that like 16 people lived there. They all knew each other and were mostly related. She lived in a shotgun house off a dirt road. She always waited for us on her porch in her wooden rocking chair, wearing her muumuu with her rosary in hand. Who knew how long she had just been sitting there, praying as she rocked back and forth in the humid heat, looking down the open road, hoping a blue van would approach. But once we did, she’d stand up delighted to see us. We’d run and hug her as dad followed nonchalantly.
“I hope ya’ll are hungry,” she’d say.
We’d nod enthusiastically. Dad would jump on the, “I’m so hungry” bandwagon, too, but a tad bit facetiously.
OldMama was Cajun through and through. When she spoke Cajun it sounded so strange to me. I thought she was speaking code to other possible aliens from a different planet since she seemed way more animated when speaking Cajun. She spoke English to us, of course, but with a hearty accent. She was 5’2, plump, with short and easy-to-handle gray hair. Her husband, OldPapa, died in the late 80s. He was the town’s sheriff, also Cajun. I don’t have many memories of him, other than not understanding a word he said.
Our way of expressing our love to OldMama was overeating. She was famous for her gumbo, so gumbo it was. We’d help ourselves by scooping gumbo from the pot and then sit at her folksy kitchen table as she devotedly watched us. She’d make macaroni and cheese just for me since that was my favorite dish. Therefore, I would eat both. We talked about school, weather, and the latest gossip with the 16 people who lived in Hessmer. As soon as she saw that we were coming near to an empty plate, she’d insist we go back and get more. We could only stop eating when it became too painful to take another bite. That was the unspoken rule at the table. But then her apple pie would be revealed, and OldMama made the best apple pie. Her secret to baking the best apple pie was that instead of using apples, she used pears. She’d still refer to it as an apple pie though. And well, there’s always room for her apple pie since dessert doesn’t go to the stomach. Dessert goes straight to the heart.
Once the eating was officially over and the discomfort was in full bloom, my dad would sit in what use to be OldPapa’s Lazy Boy chair and watch the news. OldMama would join him. Camy would probably go outside and do something destructive. I always assumed he was getting high. He was six years older than me and had been escaping into drugs pretty heavily for the last couple of years. Since we were out in nowhere land, I would bet that he brought some type of something to bide time with. As for me, this was my favorite time.
Now OldMama, so far, had had a pretty grim life. Her only daughter died, and her only granddaughter died, and her husband died all within 5 years. Camy and I were currently her only living family. So there was nothing but pictures of her husband, my mom, my grandma, Camy, me, and one massive picture of a bloody Jesus. Short of the bloody picture of Jesus which startled me ever time, I soaked up the numerous photographs set on the tables, walls, and shelves as if they were the sun.
My mother wasn’t forgotten here. She was alive. I quietly escaped to OldMama’s bedroom. That was where she kept the family photo albums, and where I learned more about my mother. I had been going to OldMama’s since before I could even remember. But this time it was different. I was thirteen. I had just gotten my period a few months earlier, and I was grasping for answers unknowingly. I was technically a woman, but not only did I not feel like a woman, I didn’t even know what a woman was. To me women had huge breasts, wore bikinis, and had pouty lips. I was far from that. All I wanted was to fit in and be normal like the other teenagers who had mothers and who seemed happy. I even forced myself to wear Abercrombie & Fitch to blend in, but that didn’t stop the abysmal inferiority and shame I deeply felt in my heart. Maybe no one saw the bottomless hole inside me, but I sure did. It was soothing to look at pictures of my mother. As I attentively flipped through the leather-bound albums, I noticed that when my mother was a little girl, she was chubby like me. Then when she got older, she blossomed into a classically beautiful woman. She didn’t have huge breasts or wear bikinis or have pouty lips. Instead, she smiled and showed her teeth. I studied the pictures as if I were discovering my newly developed body. Fascinated, intrigued, and somehow titillated. But as soon as I closed the album, my mother vanished back into the elusive mythic creature of my imagination.
The next afternoon, we drove off, leaving OldMama waving goodbye on her porch with tears in her eyes. I continued to wave in the back seat of the van until she was completely out of sight. I turned back around feeling depressed. Poor OldMama loved us so much. Camy and I were all she had left. I guess she had Jesus, too.
“Fork it over,” Dad said. His tone was humorous, but unquestionably was serious about it. My brother moaned and handed him the cash inside his card, as did I.
“Dixie. Move,” my brother commanded. “ I’m going to see if I can sleep.” He got in the back as I slid in the front. I never sat shotgun seeing that my brother automatically owned it. I didn’t mind. Now I was getting the better view.
An hour passed, and my brother was sleeping off whatever drug he took. It was getting dark, and trucks were turning on their lights. Now with the following incident I’m about to tell you, I’m not sure what spurred it. Perhaps it was that during this trip, I looked at the photo albums longer than usual.
“Do you know how your mother died?” my dad asked as he looked fixedly out the windshield. My face instantly turned warm from embarrassment. It was as if he asked me where babies came from, a question I would have rather answered. A sudden memory flashed before me of when I was seven years old. A mean, neighborhood 9 year old boy, Drexel, and I were paired off on the same team to play “hide and seek chase.” Megan, another neighbor kid on the opposite team, tagged me, causing Drexel and me to lose once again. I hated playing these games since I was never athletic. It wasn’t ever enjoyable for me. But that’s what everyone was doing so I had no other choice but to cooperate. “You’re mother died on the streets, and you can’t even run,” Drexel said heatedly. The other kids gasped and turned to look at me as if he had just skinned my cat. Why did everyone get so serious? I instantly pictured my mother dressed up like a gang member, in a hoodie and baggy jeans. That image didn’t match the photos in OldMama’s house. I didn’t think his joke was funny. No one else did either. I got excruciatingly uncomfortable and couldn’t handle the unwanted stares.
“Nuh-uh” I answered with uncertainty, and then fled across the street to my house as they continued to eyeball me. I barged open the door and confronted my dad. He was sitting at the dining room table at which we never ate. He was retyping newspaper articles that he liked and highlighted.
“How did my mother die?” I asked him. He looked up from his typewriter, looked me in the eyes, and in a quiet but serious voice replied, “She died in a car accident.” That made more sense since my mother didn’t look like a gang member.
Now, driving back home, my dad conveniently couldn’t look me in the eyes without a chance of crashing. It was favorable for me too.
“In a car accident.” I apprehensively said. “No. That’s not what happened,” still staring at the highway. “I need to tell you what happened.”
I looked down at my hands. I felt skittish. He sounded businesslike which was very much unlike him. He waited a moment, and then said, “She was murdered.”
My heart stopped. My dad discreetly glanced at me, shifting only his eyes. I immediately turned and looked out the window to the empty, stark highway hoping the road would tell me how to react or feel or even better, hold me.
“How?” I asked, soaked in fear.
My dad began to clue me in on my family history. It consisted of drugs and more murder. He recounted that my mother had witnessed her parents getting stabbed to death. A few months after that, she got pregnant with me. He steadily unloaded detail after detail, one shocking description after next, seemingly without holding anything back about her. I think he needed to tell me more than I needed to hear. In fact, later I found out that he had exaggerated on a few things. Not sure why, what happened was gruesome enough. I guess he was a writer after all.
The following morning I went to school. I was anxious to confide with my best friends, Amy and Lauren, about all this surprising, new information I had learned over the weekend. I was desperate to talk to somebody about it. Turned out they knew. In fact, everyone knew. It was in the newspapers, and their parents had lectured them not to mention anything to me. I was the last person to find out that my mother had been murdered. Now I was embarrassed about that.
Never having a mother and then finding out that she was unjustly murdered has felt like a work-boot kicked to the gut. My feelings of embarrassment have also lingered with me till this day. But passing my mother’s age, something shifted. I felt like I was allowed to mourn for her for the first time. I decided to embrace my feelings rather than be ashamed of them. That’s partially why I’m writing this. As for the other part, I’m still figuring that one out.