Dean Martin was near and dear to Mamaw Mamie’s heart, but, after Jesus, she held only two things sacred: time with her family and cleanliness.
When I was young, we would drive to Eden, NC most Sundays to visit Mamaw Mamie. After we pulled into her gravel driveway, as soon I could, I’d get out of the car, make my way up her front porch steps, and wait for her to come to the door. Wearing a simple house dress and a spotless apron, she would greet us with the same pure joy radiating each time. She smelled clean and sweet. I’d wrap my little arms around her and squeeze her tight. She felt like a cross between a stick of soft butter and those melt in your mouth biscuits she made. She was warm and comforting.
On the surface, there wasn’t much firm about her. She was almost blind, a widow by the time I was born, and, well, about as loving and compassionate as a person could ever be. She was truly Christlike. A print of the Last Supper hung on her wall. I’d seen that print in lots of other places, but when I was at her house and looked at Jesus, I really saw Him. I saw Him through her. She was my best example of Jesus’ love. Through the years, Jesus and I have had a strained relationship, but Mamaw Mamie’s version of Him has always been with me. I can see Him now with His arms outstretched, eyes cast down, not judging, just loving me. The energy at her house was different from that at home. Mamaw Mamie’s house was a holy place. There is no doubt that it was because she spent so much time reading the family Bible (that she used to record all of our names and birth dates) and praying for all of us, her family.
Sundays we got together at her house. Those that couldn’t make it would often call and we would all talk to them on that heavy old rotary phone of hers, but it was usually a full house. After the big eaters arrived and we had lunch, the women would stay inside cleaning up and the children and men would go out on the front porch. Mamaw Mamie had a traditionally Southern front porch with a swing, rocking chairs, and steps that led down a short distance to the road. There was good concrete, next to the quiet street, for sitting on while catching ants in empty medicine bottles and picking tiny flowers. We knew better than to bring the ants in, but we would repeatedly attempt to bring in some of the tiny flowers we picked for Mamaw Mamie. That’s when we we’d get the chiggers talk. Chiggers were mysterious creatures that apparently lived on flowers in Mamaw Mamie’s yard. I never saw a chigger and wondered what kind of bad experience she must of had with them.
Usually, when I showed her something, she’d say, “How ‘bout that!” or “Isn’t that somethin’!” It was different when a chigger infestation was on the line. “Oh, Lord! Go put those back outside!” followed by a sweet request for me to wash my hands. I would go back out, past the front porch, and toss the flowers in her yard. I’d make my way back up the porch, into the house past the heavy old rotary phone, and through the back bedroom to the only bathroom in the house.
I secretly loved washing my hands at Mamaw Mamie’s house. There was ceremony involved. It wasn’t just washing my hands, it was washing my hands thoroughly (I learned the word thoroughly right there at her bathroom sink) with warm water while scrubbing them vigorously. There was as special blend of diluted lysol and water beside the sink that was used as an after rinse to kill any remaining germs and she always had a clean towel available for drying our hands. I accomplished something each time I washed my hands at Mamaw Mamie’s house. I had communed with cleanliness and a change had come over me.
After a successful and fulfilling hand washing experience, I might find myself melting candles onto napkins with my older sisters, watching The Wizard Of Oz on that TV that still ran, or flipping through the National Enquirers that Mamaw Mamie kept for stories about Dean Martin. After some time, I would tire of the art, movie, or literature and we would start loading up.
Saying goodbye took a really long time. It was exhausting and sweet. My favorite part of the goodbye ritual was going in search of something in Mamaw Mamie’s front bedroom. This was never done alone as it was a guided tour into an inner sanctum. It was the room that held all the things that were less Mamaw and more Mamie. The tour started with Mamaw Mamie going to get the key from a hidden spot. It took her forever. I waited right up at the door, as close as I could get to it. My imagination was already in that room as she placed the key in the keyhole, turned the key, and opened the door. Finally, the door opened wide enough so that I could follow them inside. We entered with reverence and, although I obeyed and mostly kept my hands to myself, I wanted to run my fingers along the chenille bedspread, look in all the drawers, and open every little box. That room had a texture different from the other rooms. Mamaw Mamie’s front bedroom had its own energy. Whatever it was that she was looking for was never the thing, it was just a MacGuffin allowing her to reminisce about her life. Mom and Dad would comment on something, a photo, a figurine, a piece of furniture and there was always a story, albeit sometimes short. The shorter the story, the more I wanted to know. Maybe it’s because I was too tired or too distracted that I don’t recall any of the stories, but I did feel them. Her stories were young, a window into who she was before all of us came along. The light that filtered through those thin white curtains and filled room was the same light I saw come through her as she shared, visiting places she didn’t often go. Some of the stories made me wonder about that red lipstick she wore when we took her out somewhere. Was she wearing that same shade when she was a younger Mamie? Back in the day, did she court a man as handsome as Dean Martin? What did Grandpa Roy look like when he was young? Was he her Dean Martin? I’ll bet she let him bring her flowers.
Today, I’m little again and back in that front bedroom standing next to her. Feeling the tufted fabric against the back of my hand, the room’s energy fills me. I see a sepia-toned Mamaw Mamie looking at a Technicolor trinket, allowing herself to be there, wherever it was, again. Mamie’s lips begin to color red and her a tall, dark, and handsome man appears. Music plays in the distance. A tiny flower blooms, her soul lights up. She picks the delicate pink flower and lovingly presses each petal against the page of a bound wax paper book. She carefully uses masking tape and a grease pencil to write the date, location, and the name of the handsome man she was with. She closes the book, places it in a special place in her heart as her hand spreads across her chest. Her spirit dances as music fills her front bedroom, her soul, Mamie…
Like a flower bending in the breeze
Bend with me, sway with ease
When we dance you have a way with me
Stay with me, sway with me