Love in the Time of Corona- Boys Without Mamas


Today is my mother’s birthday. I have long maintained that it should be declared a national holiday if for no other reason than she was the vessel by which I (with a bit of help from my father) was gifted to this world (for which some might say they should actually prosecuted. Too late; they are both already in Heaven).

Since my mother’s birthday falls each year so close to Mother’s Day, it means that I have a long holy week for observance. I think of her often throughout the day everyday of course still, these five or six years since she’s been gone. I barely keep up with anniversaries of dates I want to remember let alone wanting to remember the anniversary of the worst and most precious day of my life. Hmm. “Precious?” Mother and I would quote Steel Magnolias to each other. She was my was own personal steel magnolia and will remain so forver. I know it may  sound silly and cliché, a Southern gay man and his mother. But not just the movie but the concept of being a steel magnolia is a place where my mother and I connected and there were thousands of those. I always considered that perhaps the playwright, Robert Harling, got it wrong when he gave the line to M’Lynn, “I was there when that precious creature drifted into this world and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of this life thus far.” I thought surely he meant to say Shelby’s birth was the most precious and her death the most horrible. Since Mother’s death, I understand. Something precious is something valuable. My mother died in the arms of the two things in this world she cared most about, my brother and me.

I left Brooklyn to return to Alabama when my parents got into decline. I wanted them to die at home and that was their wish too. I hadn’t met with the great financial success that I’d been assured my acting and writing prowess would afford me, but that I could give them. Dad was the first to go, my mom a year and two months later. After Mr. Carmichael across the street got married and moved away (in his 80’s!) I was left there alone on that hill where thirty people had lived while I was growing up, just me and the dogs Mr. Carmichael had left behind chained up in the back yard. I was beginning to identify with those dogs way too much. I just sat on that front porch where I had spent years of my life. I sat there in those rocking chairs and rocked. I rocked and I smoked weed and drank PBRs and thought of every single thing that had happened to me there from the time I arrived in 1965 to the present moment.
My grief ritual was to sit at her makeup table, spray a little of her signature perfume, Channel No. 5, into the air and wail like an infant for as long as it took. Then I’d go lie on her bed where she had died and sleep the deepest sleep of my life. When I woke, I’d go on.

During her convalescence, she and I had binge-watched Bates Motel and would laugh about how we should sue them for stealing our story. It was less funny when, hand-to-God, one day I reached into one of the drawer of her vanity and pulled out a short wig. (My mother had leukemia for the last eleven years of her life.) I often wore one of her Mu’umu’u’s (actually more of a Dashiki, purple of course), because it was long and big and comfortable and still smelled like her. Through my tears, I laughed at the sight of myself in the mirror in that short blonde wig. I went to the closet and doned that flowing explosion of African purple to complete the look. I said out loud, “Well, I guess all that’s missin’ is the butcher knife!” I went to the kitchen drawer to retrieve the knife she’d bought on QVC (believe it or not also purple) and went to sit on the front porch and glare at the cars that no longer passed. I think it was about that time that my bestie, The Fish, said, “If you don’t put your shit in a UHaul and point it towards New Orleans, you’re gonna die or go crazy on that hill and who knows which’ll come first.” And so I did. And almost four years later, I’ve found a permanent spiritual home; as did my Ascended Master, Tennessee Williams; in the city on the crescent of the Mississippi River; New Orleans, Louisiana.

Yesterday I realized I had taken a sleeve of ground beef down from the freezer to put the fridge to thaw. It had been there a couple of days. I absolutely hate to waste food, especially if somebody died for it so I decided on meatloaf. I still had a couple of those zucchini my neighbor left at my door. I threw some Ritz crackers, Planters mixed nuts, flour and cornmeal in the Vitamix and decided to make my own breading. Meatloaf and steamed zucchini go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. I sautéed some spinach with diced red onion and Applewood bacon. And on the other hand, meat loaf without mashed potatoes is like sex without kissing; it might fill you up but it will leave you feeling empty. Miss Ann, another sweet neighbor just happened to have given me a bag of Idaho potatoes this week so I grabbed the bag and started to wash and scrub.
A little side-note on that Vitamix: once, when Mother was still alive on this plane, we were on one of our epic Costco Crusades. Without even trying (and usually when we weren’t) we could leave there with one of those big flat carts looking like a one-legged elephant on a roller-skate and this was a two-cart day. I think this day the fluorescent-marker-hungry receipt was pushing two grand! So when we got home, Mom perused the receipt and eventually announced, “Well, I guess I have a $500 blender” and I simply said, “Yep. You do.” Because I’d stood there in that Costco that day while she was off in areas of the consumer wonderland that didn’t at all interest me, and I had listen to the sermon from beginning to end, two times through, of that Vitamix evangelist and on the second time around, I’d answered that altar call because I knew somehow that if I did put that $500 blender on that rolling platform, somehow she and I would start making those delicious and nutritious soups and what-nots and she wouldn’t die and leave me. But neither of us watched much Food Network in those days and I went right back to running to the four-way stop for Jack’s hamburgers and milkshakes which is what she preferred and I hope someone allows me to live out the last couple years of my life doing what I want and eating what I want.

But the Vitamix sat there on our America Junction, Alabama counter until it was moved to New Orleans and has remained mostly unused until this past week when I swore off (most) news television and (most social media). I’ve dipped into the blue-and-white wasteland a couple of times just so no one would think I had died and turned on the TV at three in the afternoon (or later) but only on Music Choice Soundscapes or Food Network which. Anyway, that Vitamix, because of those better-than-me chefs on Food Network, has gotten more use in the past couple of weeks than it has in its lifetime.
So last night, as I prepared for the crowning achievement of my way-too-massive-for-one supper– no, not the meatloaf, the mashed potatoes, I looked to the shelf that holds all my heavy kitchen machinery and prepared to take the very nice Kitchen Aid mixer my mother gave me to make my epic mashed potatoes which, as I mentioned, in my life, have not been matched (at least according to my standards). But something inside me said, “Why not Food Network it?! There sits that $500 blender still messy with ground-up Planters nuts and bacon bits!”  And I heard the voice of my Mama say, “Don’t you put those potatoes in the $500 blender. You take down the mixer and do it like I taught you.” But, as I’m sure happened many times throughout my life, I chose to ignore her admonition. The result was something a little more than a purée and a little less than a pancake batter. Even my attempts to fulfill my “no food wasted” policy of trying to turn them into latkes this morning proved a disappointment. The remains remain in the refrigerator. I haven’t given up. The lesson here isn’t about how to make (or mess up) divine mashed potatoes, it’s about listening to the messages when they come. Which is exactly what my friend Joe said.

“I reckon if she goes to the trouble to send you a message from beyond the veil, you might ought to listen.”
And he’s right.

Which is the reason I stood over the sink last night and cried over my failed mashed potatoes and the loss of my mother, for the thousandth time. Crying time is also good prayer time.

Seven months ago, Joe moved his mother from Houston to Seattle to live with him. I have daily watched his struggle to be the best son he could be, do as best he could by the woman who brought him into this world. I don’t know that I have ever admired a human so much watching him persevere. Most would have walked away when he stood mostly alone to meet the task.  Taking care of a dying parent, especially one with dementia is an easy path for no one but his was all uphill and I have loved my spiritual brother more deeply each day as I watched it unfold. Last night, standing over my kitchen sink, I spoke to my mother in that secret room of my heart that only we share. Looking down at that bowl of disastrous potato putty I simply said, “Mother can you help her?”

I know it sounds silly but so does putting potatoes in a blender. At 1:41 am this morning, Joe’s mother let go of this life’s struggles and a body that could no longer serve her.

In Heaven, our two mothers are enjoying a great Vichyssoise and talking about how much they loved their boys.

(pictured: my friend Joe.)

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