Sunday, November 19, 2017
Human Interest

Even in the pain at the beginning and the end, motherhood never wavers

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I watched from the second-to-last basement stair, which was covered in the original short-pile marigold carpet from 1959.

My mother ironed my sister Melinda's tea-length dress. It was the color of orange sherbet, the lace overlaying flowy silk.

Melinda had worn it to our cousin's wedding several years earlier. It would be the last dress she would wear. She was to be buried in it the next day.

"That wonderful Glenn Keever insisted on going with your father and Alean to the funeral home," my mother said as she placed one tulip sleeve of the dress over the tip of the ironing board and pounded the iron on each tuck.

Alean Chavis was the housekeeper who had stayed with Melinda and me when my mother taught at N.C. State University. Alean still was coming once a week when Melinda died at age 31 in a car crash.

When my father told her the funeral would be closed casket, Alean asked if she could see Melinda once more. He complied immediately, telling me later he wouldn't have done that for anyone but her.

Glenn Keever was one of my father's closest friends. He had identified my sister's body for the authorities after she was hit by a drunken driver 20 years ago this month; my parents were out of town and I was living in Florida.

I remember how the basement smelled that day as my mother ironed. Filled with the stiff, clean scent of Niagara spray starch. It was a familiar smell because Melinda and I had spent hours, thousands of hours, playing in that basement. Because she was three years older, she always had directed whatever we were doing. But Melinda's unleashed imagination rarely had given me reason to complain.

My mother seemed to have lost 5 pounds in the three days since we had convened at our brick house in Raleigh, N.C. Her yellow linen dress was a burlap sack on her as she stood at the ironing board. Stray hairs from her short brown curls tinged with gray stuck to the glistening sweat on her brow. I had never seen my mother exercise beyond an evening walk, but ironing was an Olympic sport in her book.

To my right was the big brick fireplace, devoid of ashes in June. I pictured it two decades before, lined with produce boxes my mom had procured from the manager of Winn-Dixie. Melinda and I had stacked them three high and eight long to build empires for our Barbies.

We had created more than we'd played. Our dolls had slept on lush beds made from Kleenex boxes and potholders. Lamps were Crest lids stuck on aggie marbles with Silly Putty. For chairs we cut off the tops of Dixie cups, stuffed the cups with cotton balls and covered them with scraps from the sewing cabinet.

Our next-door neighbor had complained several times to my mother that when she washed her dishes, she had to look out her kitchen window down the hill into our messy basement full of boxes. Melinda and Katherine should clean up their toys at the end of each day like her daughter had always done.

My mother put up drapes.

We had the requisite plastic Barbie furniture, too, and wooden ladder-back chairs Santa had stuck in our stocking every year.

Once we were old enough to know, Melinda teased my parents as she peeled the "Made by the Blind" stickers off the chairs and said they clearly weren't from Santa's workshop. The myth was over. She was beginning to pull away.

When my mother was finally done ironing, she carefully hung Melinda's dress on a coat hanger. She hesitated a minute, then placed a pair of white cotton underwear over the ironing board. She slowly ironed one side. Then she started on the other. There was no pounding. No rushing.

I was only four months pregnant with my first child, but this is when I started to realize the love and pain that come with motherhood.

I really felt it when I walked into my oldest daughter's empty room a week after she left for college last year. The cheery-eyed stuffed animals stared at me from the bed she had left unmade. The room was so silent and lonely. But I knew she would be back.

Then I remembered my mother ironing Melinda's dress and underwear. I knew exactly what she was doing.

She wanted to be Melinda's mother for at least five more minutes. She wanted to keep ironing, caring, teaching, defending, celebrating, helping, consoling, praising.

Motherhood is called a thankless job, and often it is, for sure. But it's a job the best mothers hang on to as long as they can, down to the last minute.

Katherine Snow Smith is the editor of Bay magazine and a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Contact her at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith on Twitter.

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