On Fridays I would take Momma out for supper. One Friday we ate at Pizza Hut where I could have spaghetti. She wondered why. It was because my first race, a 10K which I'd kept a secret, was on the next morning. Four days after her death, I had surgery, and, following recovery, trained for eight weeks and ran my first marathon. Running began a new life for me. For her, life itself was a hard run. By coincidence, it ended as my new one was beginning. Endurance had filled her days. She left it with me.
On the Sunday supper table at Momma’s: chicken and dressing, giblets gravy, cranberry sauce, fried rattlesnake, boiled potatoes, fried corn, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, poke sallet, sliced tomatoes, green peppers, fruit salad, homemade relish, cornbread, biscuits, pecan pie and coconut pie.
That supper was on September 23, 1984 in the Smith Bend community of Jackson County, Tennessee. Just an ordinary Sunday feast—except for the rattlesnake whose head I had chopped off after he failed to bite my brother and me. We dressed the snake, Momma cooked the meat. It would have been a feast even without it. Poke sallet? Momma served that delicious weed even in wintertime; she canned it.
I know what was on the table that long ago day because as the women cleaned the dishes, I asked Momma for a pencil and piece of paper. She tore a sheet from a spiral binder and handed me a ballpoint pen, and I wrote down the list.
Just before Christmas fourteen years later, we held Momma’s funeral. I gave the list to preacher Draper Murphy, a family friend. He read it at the service. When he came to the rattlesnake, he said, “She’d fix about anything those boys brought in.” Hearing him read out the items on that list, the people in the little chapel smiled knowingly. They didn’t doubt the lavish menu; they’d sat at Margaret Smith’s table. That list told more about Momma than a room full of sermonizing.
Momma shouldn’t have died. At the age of seventy-eight she was in surpassingly good health. She stood five-four and weighed 105 pounds. She could outwork two good men—and often did. Her teeth, all still where God installed them, were porcelain white and contained not a single filling. Before I knew what toothpaste was, she’d taught us to brush our teeth with a mixture of salt and baking soda. No surgeon’s knife had gashed her skin.
She died because of how she lived—allowing no concessions, yielding not an inch. Following Daddy’s death two years earlier, she had continued living on the farm, pasturing twenty head of cattle and a herd of goats. Neighbors unable to contact her on the phone would be shocked when they learned she had been back in the hills checking on her cattle. “Something could happen to you back there and nobody would know about it for days,” they’d say.
When we were kids—my sister, my two brothers and I—she used to take us to those hills in the fall to collect hickory nuts and walnuts. She used the hickory nuts in pies, doing the painstaking work to crack the hard shells and pick out enough kernels. No pecan pie could compete with her hickory nut pie.
On Friday nights I’d drive to her house, some thirty miles in the country, and take her to supper, and then go back to her house on Sunday for the big lunch and supper she’d cook up. One Friday I suggested eating at Pizza Hut, where I knew I could get pasta. She didn’t know why I wanted to eat there, since I had not before. The pasta was for my very first race, a 10K, on the next morning. I kept the race a secret until the following Sunday. Then I showed her my tee shirt and the two trophies, heavy mugs, I’d earned for winning both my age group and the master category.
She was proud. With that race, she saw the very beginning of my running. A few months later, it was too late. She never got to see my later success. I know she would have been surprised and pleased.
We didn’t take her high blood pressure seriously. She wouldn’t have listened if we had. Her abiding fatalism trumped any worry. “If it happens, it’s supposed to,” she had always said. Throughout her life, that sense of resignation gave her the endurance to work in the field all day, and to then come home and cook supper while the men rested. I think the running events I seek out express that ability she had to work, uncomplaining, at a steady pace for a long time. Any stoic endurance I have I got from her.
Best we can figure she had the stroke on a Thursday. She had been out cutting weeds with a swing blade in the heat of a June day. That’s the way she was. It must have been a small stroke. People who talked to her Thursday and Friday noticed that she wasn’t quite herself. I, myself, took her to supper Friday night, and noticed she seemed a bit unsteady. But I didn’t suspect the awful truth.
Afterwards, I dropped her off at her house. “Wait a minute,” she said. She went into the house and came out with a present, a polo shirt for my birthday, which fell later in the week.
“My birthday’s not until Thursday.”
“I might not see you then.”
She wanted me to stay the night. I had to go. I backed the truck out. I remember her standing there looking into the glare of my truck lights. Her oldest son was leaving; she stood helpless and utterly alone. I missed the best chance anyone had to get her prompt medical help, essential in the case of stroke. The next day, still ignorant, I remarked to a friend, “Last night Momma seemed old for the first time.”
My sister found her that day when she went for a visit. Momma was confused, and Sis checked her into a hospital.
At first, we were sure she would recover. But then she had another stoke, in the hospital, and was taken from Carthage to a big hospital in Nashville. A vigil began. We took turns staying with her night and day. My turn came on my fifty-eight birthday. Momma and I faced the struggle in the hospital room just as precisely fifty-eight years earlier we had faced a similar struggle in a two-room log house in Jackson County. Just the two of us again—except now it was my turn to help her live.
But I was inadequate. After six months Momma died in a Donelson Rest Home. We had chosen that particular home for its location, just a few blocks from my Sister’s house. Sis had visited her daily, bringing treats, staying to comb and plait her hair.
The night she died I drove to Donelson. My daughter Jill rode with me. In her room, Momma lay peacefully in the bed, her hands crossed. The nurses discretely withdrew. Sis, Jill and I stood there looking down.
After a few minutes, I left the room and walked outside. Jill followed. I walked along the path where I used to push Momma in her wheel chair—she always liked to be outside. The path led to a gap in a fencerow where we had always stopped. Looking west across a parking lot, we would watch the traffic on Donelson Pike.
It was a fencerow like the ones in Smith Bend where Momma had always lived, thick with tall Sassafras bushes, honeysuckle and briars. Jill and I stood there in the dark now, not speaking. I saw a wild grape vine hanging from the bushes. I slashed it off with my knife and yanked the severed vine with the sudden fury of a savage. Dead leaves and twigs rained down, branches snapped, bowing to the violence. I ripped the whole vine from the tree down to its last clinging tendril.
I rolled the fallen vine into a hoop, twisting the bushy branches around the main limb, and tucking the curlicues. When I finished, I had a platter-sized wreath.
I took it inside to Momma’s room and handed it to Sis. She turned it in her hands, admiring the curly twigs. “It needs a bow,” I said. Sis had an idea. A vase of flowers sat on the table, a small card attached by a pink ribbon. She untied the ribbon, and looped it into a graceful bow. Then she fastened the bow to the wreath and held it up. It was an elegant little wreath. She stepped forward and gently laid it on Momma’s folded hands. “It’s the last thing we can give you, Momma,” she said.
Two days later they closed the casket. It was twelve days before Christmas 1998.
My oldest son flew in from his Texas home. The night before the funeral, he and I spent the night in Momma’s house. Everything was just as she had left it six months earlier.
A rose bush Momma had recently planted stood at the corner of the front porch. It was thin and scrawny and hadn’t had much chance to grow. Though it was December, the sad little bush reached up a single red rose.
We gathered at Momma and Daddy’s house for Christmas that December as we always had. My sister, my two brothers and I, our families, kids and grandkids were all there. Gene, my youngest brother, had put up a cedar tree and decorated it just like Momma used to do. Gerald, my other brother, brought his shotguns for skeet shooting. We gathered around the tree and opened presents. Kids with new toys romped through the house squealing, raising a happy din.
The women brought a feast like Momma always fixed. Once again we sat around the big long table in front of the picture window that looks out over Cordell Hull Lake and the hills beyond.
It was a joyous Christmas obeying the spirit of past ones. But Momma now rested beside Daddy in the family graveyard a few paces from the back porch. A glance in that direction reminded us—it would never be the same.