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Mama's irisLuisa
Just thinking of you and hoping you are well.

I’m flying straight and level – an old USAF term meaning nothing has changed since we last talked. Though my destination is still uncertain, at present I’m just looking out the window and trying to take things one day at a time.

And I’m not sure I thanked you for the Daily Devotions booklet you sent. I am reading it and the Bible almost every night, some nights though I fall asleep before I get very much read.  But I do try to get some quiet reflection time during each day as well. It helps me keep my eyes looking forward rather than back.

Cyndy sent a nice thank you note for the birthday card and gift I sent via Steph. She seemed to have worded the note carefully neutral but I still felt something in her words. Probably my imagination / wishful thinking.

I hope your visit home went well. I can only guess how many memories the trip brought to your mind and I hope that on the whole they were pleasant ones.

I think I told you that the house (506 1oth Street SW, Birmingham, AL) where my family lived for the first 10 years of my life was demolished to make room for a hospital parking lot that never materialized. The last time I saw my mother (when her mind was too far gone to talk about my problem) I drove to the spot in West End where it was and could only see the zozia grass I had helped her plant in our front and back yards. Not that I did much other than step & fetch-it for her. But at least I was able to see something we had done together.

A couple of years later, after the zozia had spread to cover the front yard, they sold the house and we moved to a larger home on the east side of Birmingham.  There she and I repeated the zozia planting – my grandmother Bubba’s home in ACIPCO was the source of the grass.  We had to first dig up the zozia at Bubba’s, load it in the trunk of the car, and drive about an hour back.  My father, as usual, did nothing in the yard, so mother and I did it all. I cannot remember my older brother Dean helping at either house and of course Dan was just a baby. Dean had the excuse of being asthmatic and not long out of the polio ward so Mom did not expect him to help in the yard or around the house. I did not mind doing either and I don’t remember ever begrudging Dean for not having to do yard or housework.

Mom loved to work in the yard, planting every square inch with flowering plants – particularly roses and irises, though daffodils and summer annuals were everywhere the roses and irises were not.  We continually planted new flowerbeds at the new house, as Mom was able to get money to buy plants or found a free source for them.  Most often she got them from Bubba. Bubba seemed to have an endless supply of grass and plants at her home and was able to get replacements from her relatives or friends for whatever Mom took – really hand-me-down plants!  The plants seemed to be on a round robin, moving from planting bed to planting bed and then from home to home as people Bubba knew moved or changed their tastes. She had a knack for suggesting to her moving friends or relatives that it would not hurt for her to take some samples of their plants before they turned the homes over to new owners. I guess, like the cakes Bubba cooked, she was able to “push” the remaining plants around to fill the gaps left by the ones she took.

I remember the spring before Dean died, Mom decided the trees in the front yard needed to be whitewashed. That was a trend back in the 50’s, painting the bottom 5 feet or so with a whitewash mixture to better set trees off from the rich green summer grass. We had both oaks and pines and the latter were difficult to paint to Mom’s satisfaction. It seemed the more I painted trying to fill in the gaps between the flakes on the bark of the pines, the more flakes I knocked off or loosened so that shortly a new brown spot showed up in the band of white. Mom was a perfectionist – I guess that is where I got it – and she made me keep at it for several weeks until I almost had stripped all the bark off the pines.  But they were finally solid white!

After Dean died, Mom seemed to lose interest in planting and retreated inside. She still had me cut the grass and weed the beds occasionally but she rarely joined in. I was 12 and big enough to do it all though my enthusiasm waned too.  In early August (Dean died mid-April, 1958), the irises had long since faded and their leaves had crumpled to the ground amid the grass that I had neglectfully allowed to creep into the beds.  Mom told me to clean out the beds and I lazily just ran the lawn mower over everything, including the irises.  I knew the brown irises’ leaves were usually left tied in knots and left to “rot”, but to me the plants were dead and I didn’t think she cared anymore. She did and I soon found out.

I don’t have many memories of her being furious with me but she was then.  And for the first time that I remember, I talked back to her, saying I could never do anything to please her, that she always loved Dean more than me, that he could never do wrong and I could never do anything right in her eyes.  I stopped short of telling her I had caused Dean to die, that I had done that wrong as well.  She told me to go to my room, the room Dean and I had shared and I now shared with Dan. But I instead moved my blanket and pillow onto the studio couch in our Florida room. I did not sleep in my old bed again until I started high school a year later.

For most of that year, Mom and I did not talk often; we were just cordial but unsmiling to each other. Dad was far into the bottle then, Dan still too young to do other than enjoy his new room and Mom was focused on Dan.  I don’t think any of them noticed that, during that year, I changed, growing from the wimpy mama’s boy to an independent-acting teenager. I continued to ride the bus across town from East Lake where we lived to West End, an hour plus ride each way to and from Blessed Sacrament grammar school.

In fact, I rode the First Avenue North bus, the main drag in Birmingham back then, from the last stop on the east end to one stop short of the end on the west side. When I got off the bus coming home, unless it was pouring rain, I had to walk about a mile and a half up 82nd street to 9th Avenue South. A block short of our home, I crossed Rugby Avenue where there was a drug store and where I bought a small Hershey bar with left over lunch money.  I don’t remember where Mom was in the afternoons, but she was rarely home when I got there.  I used that private time to eat my Hershey bar with a large glass of cold milk and sit on my studio bed thinking about anything but my “sinful” feelings.  Thankfully, I had made friends with Ricky, the “all-American boy” who always had something going on with the current in-season sport, football, baseball or basketball. So I followed Ricky’s lead and pursued sports for the first time in my life.

The following May, I graduated from Blessed Sacrament school but no family members came to the noontime ceremony that was held at John Carroll Catholic high school.  The bishop had all the grammar school graduations at one time and one location so he could continue to pressure parents to send every catholic child to John Carroll.  Mom had already decided I was to go to a public high school, Banks, where Dean had gone and she saw no reason to travel that far for such a short ceremony just to get an earful from the bishop and principal about why she was making a mistake sending me to Banks.

I remember Mom taking me to register at Banks the following August, introducing me to Principal Gann, who was also Dean’s old band instructor (Dean played the trombone) and an officer in the Civil Air Patrol squadron Dean had been in.  Mr. Gann had led the CAP contingent at Dean’s graveside services, playing taps himself and having Dean’s fellow cadets acting as pall-bearers. Mom also made sure the school advisor, a woman whose name I cannot remember, knew how good a student I would be, bringing letters of recommendation from my teachers at Blessed Sacrament as well as copies of my achievement test scores and grade reports. This is the advisor, who started me on the path to becoming an engineer, who did put me in advanced classes (Rocket, with Jet and Glider being for lower achievers and non-achievers respectively – I’m sure this segregation by ability is no longer politically correct).

Wow, once again I have “talked” your ears off. It is now almost 1am and I must get in bed. I promise I will read the devotions and Bible text tonight.

Again, you are in my thoughts and prayers each day.