Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

Sallie Colister Drake was an outspoken woman. She was born in Donalsonville, GA in 1927--not the most conducive place for opinionated, intelligent, no-nonsense women to grow up. But there she grew, the daughter of Carl Sherman, a tall, black, big-boned farmer in overalls and Suzie Sherman--the most exotic person I had ever seen in my life when my brother and I visited her with our mother in 1958. She had almost translucent, alabaster skin, high cheekbones, and frizzy hair done up in braids. Some families try to claim Native American heritage when they wouldn't know a Native American if one kissed them on the jaw. Grandma Suzie kissed me. They say she was part Seminole and I have no reason to doubt it. Five year-olds are highly impressionable. The echo of Grandma Suzie's appearance is loudest in my brother. I'll have to ask if he remembers her. I'll never forget her.

Anyway, my mother grew restive in the South. From what I've seen of it, I don't blame her. There are those who love it as home. There are those who have adopted it as home. There are those who go there to re-connect with their roots. Having grown up in California, I've never been comfortable below the Mason-Dixon Line. I am a child of the Fifties and Sixties and East Menlo Park, California. I've been to the South once as an adult and it felt like what I imagine visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald would feel like for Jews. Everything I saw was there thanks to an enormous, heinous, hideous crime. But it was mom's home and so much of it is a part of me.

As I remember her telling it, my mother had a token of what she wanted her life to be when she was young: A postcard of a cable car from San Francisco. It was where she wanted to go. That's understandable when your life is subject to someone else's whim. It makes sense when you could die any day over a misunderstanding or a someone's bad mood or unbridled lust. One lesson I learned literally at my mother's knee is that freedom is relative. She was free, even if everything else wasn't.

She finally got her wish to move to the San Francisco area after the war. She worked as a maid at Hamilton Army Air Base in Marin County. There, Sallie met a smart, funny, mercurial soldier with secrets and sorrows that melted away when his saw his sturdy Georgia girl. He also had a funny name: Purtie. Understandably, his friends--and even us kids--addressed him by his last name: Drake. So, when Purtie met Sallie, two black kids from the South decided that they had found the right partner to start a family. And they started that family as an expression of their faith that things could and would be better in this country.

He went to work and she bore me through a tough delivery. Some of my first memories are of her reading to me. She read to me so much that I could read the newspapers by the time I was two. My father would wrestle a newspaper from his buddies, challenge them to point to any place on the page, and he'd bid me to read. I remember pronouncing the abbreviation for pounds as "libs," but I pulled it off otherwise.

Another early memory: Sitting on her lap in the Empire Theater on Market Street in San Francisco and watching the premiere of Disney's Lady And The Tramp. Even well into my adulthood, she beamed with pride about the man who had sat next to us in the theater who apologized for thinking that I was going to be nothing but trouble.

"He likes the movies as much as we do," she said.

We grew, like any other family. We had our joys and our troubles. We laughed at Richard Pryor's newest albums until we gasped for air. We went to Disneyland. We endured 1968. We played baseball and football. Our parents fought. They danced. They built a home. And when dad, who had faced death in the military and through his own carelessness and through just being a little black boy in Depression-era Mississippi got sicker and sicker and saw more and more of hospital beds and the houses of others and less of his home, it was our mother who kept things together. It was my mother who transmitted to me his pride that I had an article published in the local daily paper where I worked. It was she who told me that he bragged about me being the editor of my junior college newspaper. It was she who told me of his disappointment that I had never directly challenged his authority, but chose instead to move out on my own.

His death in 1975 confused more than saddened me, but I'd found someone to start a family of my own with by then. Sallie C. Drake was with me every step of the way, even if I wasn't with her. One trait I neglected to mention before occurs to me now: My mother could grow anything. The first banana plant I ever saw, I saw in our back yard. There were collard greens and castor beans--enough ricin to kill the neighborhood if she'd been so inclined. There were tomatoes and ducks and avocados and figs and peaches. All this in a lower middle-class suburb south of San Francisco not five miles from some of the richest homes in the world.

Unfortunately, she also had a talent for growing cancer cells. She took me with her the day the doctor delivered the news. It wasn't his prognosis she cared about; it was mine. I told her that she'd be fine once the mastectomy was over. She beat the five year survival norm by a good margin. Over those years, her kidneys gave out and I'd take her to dialysis on weekends--my stalwart brother taking the rest of the duty. She still ran the house. She still rendered her opinions on whatever topic suited her fancy. And she loved her grandson so much that it almost made me jealous sometimes. Imagine! Him getting the run of the refrigerator when I couldn't go near it without permission when I was his age!

And so, when the news came that the cancer had come back and that it was easier to catalogue where it wasn't growing rather than where it was, my life lost focus. I sleepwalked through that time. I drank through it. Another smart, beautiful, strong-willed woman and the people at Apple helped to see me through it. And, at last, I came to a night when there was no one in that little house but my mother and me. She was sitting up in bed sleeping. Snoring. That snore. BIG. That snore. I had to get used to sleeping without it when I moved out. We talked. She began to cough. She couldn't stop. I got her a basin and thumped her back. The thump wasn't hollow, but full like that of a ripe melon. That's what lung cancer sounds like. She coughed out some fluid and I gave her some morphine and I told her it wasn't time to go yet.

"You did a good job," I said.

"I know."

She knew how I felt about Christian religion and the church and she argued for my and my son's souls. I told her that I couldn't stand the subservience and the language of submission. But neither could she. She could have taught Barack Obama a thing or two about the care and feeding of pastors whose pronouncements from the pulpit might displease. No reverend was ever unsure about what she thought about what was said. Not even her own aunt--a reverend of her own right. And--when the church had finally displeased her and disappointed her enough--she stopped going. Just as I had.


"You've got to submit to something," she said.

She began to nod off.

"Praise Jesus... praise Jesus." Then, that snore again.

The next day, my mother submitted to the only thing to which she ever really submitted. I still have to look that date up. I can't remember it for the life of me. I don't know that I'll ever be able to do so. But on this Mother's Day, I'm doing my best to emulate her. One of her strictest injunctions--one born of hard experience throughout her life--was "never put your business in the streets." She wasn't much for self-revelation or navel-gazing. The words tug at me even as I look at them. But I am my mother's son. I will speak up in the time I have left. I will tell the truth as best I can. I will take care of those who love me and whom I love. And I'll submit to the same thing she did.

Here's to Sallie Colister Drake. 1927-1990. Artist. Gardener extraordinaire. Wife. Mother. Friend. My soul.

(The image above is the Place of Refuge in Honaunau. She would have loved it here.)

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