In these last hours of Mother's Day, I am drawn to the blog to speak a little on mi madre, my mother, Lily Brice. She died on Father's Day in 1985. At that time, I was still in Uncle Sam's Yacht Club turning and burning on the USS California. We were out in the Indian Ocean when I got the message to head to the chaplain's office. Anytime a sailor gets sent to the chaplain's office, most of the time, it's not good news. I figured it was my Father, Raleigh because he was in pretty bad shape at the time.
When I found out it was my mother who had passed, I did what any red-blooded son would do. I cried my eyes out for a little while, but put those tears aside knowing that she would not want to see her baby blubbering. Orders were cut for 30 days emergency leave, leave pay was given and I made a 4 day trip halfway around the world involving 4 ships, 2 helicopters, 3 military jets, 2 civilian airliners, 4 islands, 5 airbases, and at least 2 dress white uniforms. Because I had no idea when I was coming home, I decided that it didn't make sense for the rest of the family to wait for me to get home from the IO, so I told them to proceed with the funeral plans. As such, I never got to say goodbye to my mother. She was buried while I was enroute. But I want to let this blog post say what I never could.
Lily Brice raised 4 boys and 1 girl. I was the baby. So by the time she got to me, I had seen how she handled the older siblings, and made sure that I didn't do anything to cross her. I was raised in those times when it was perfectly alright to apply the board of education to the seat of knowledge, as it were. I can count on two hands Ma had to chastise me physically. Most of the time, she only had to scream at me with that choir-trained soprano to get me in line. I'd like to think I was the odd duck of Lily's kids. While my older brothers and sisters were known for being cut-ups and for drawing Ma's wrath. I stayed to myself, and mostly steered clear of trouble. Ma was tough, but she was fair. She didn't tolerate her kids saying "Yeah?", and "What?" to her. It was always "Yes, M'am, and No M'am."
Ma loved her plants. She had the greenest thumb on the block. I ought to know, she wasn't afraid to employ my strong back to haul buckets full of rich topsoil from one part of the yard to the other. She could spend from sun-up to sun-down in her garden. Her specialty was flowers. Every room in the house had at least one plant in it, even mine, and I was expected to make sure that those plants were watered, even though they weren't mine.
When she wasn't in the garden, she was in bed reading about flowers. She had an exhaustive library of books about plants. When her garden was in bloom, you could point to any plant, and she could tell you what it was, where she got it from, how tall it was going to get, when it would bloom to the day, how long it would stay in bloom and when it would die off. She baked dirt in her oven to sanitize it and kept stinky buckets of eggshells soaking in water as fertilizer. She would stop on the highway median strips and grab a plant that would catch her eye and bring it home to try and grow it. She took over a vacant lot next to our house and within a few months had transformed it into the biggest and prettiest garden on the street. So much so that the neighbors took up a collection and presented her with a "Good Neighbor Award." She loved her neighbors, and they loved her. I never heard any of them say a cross word against her, and if they saw me cut up, she'd know about it in a heartbeat.
There were a few things that Lily Brice loved as much as gardening, and that was fishing, playing the numbers and singing in the choir. Ma could fish with the best of them. When I was coming up, she'd hop in the car with my stepfather and one or more of my older brothers and head down to one of her favorite fishing holes to catch whatever she could. She loved to go down to the Allegheny River under the Highland Park Bridge, or the man-made Lake Arthur in Moraine St Park in Butler County. She wasn't beyond smuggling home undersized pike in her purse if she could get away with.it. She could spent the whole day and a good chunk of the evening just sitting on the shore with a line in the water waiting for a fish to bite.
Ma also loved the church. She as well as most of the family attended Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Larimer section of Pittsburgh. That was the family church. She sang in the Senior Choir for over 30 years. It was her desire that all of her children would grow and embrace the church before they passed, and she was successful in that all of her kids including your's truly joined the church and got "saved." before they died. She made sure that my butt was always involved in church activities from Easter and Christmas pageants, to Youth Usher and Choir to Sunday School. When I decided to play soccer for Allderdice in high school, she'd let me play on Sunday as long as I at least made it to Sunday School. She had no problem with my decision to join the Navy after high school because she knew there was no way I was ready for college.
One of the greatest memories I had of Ma while I was in the Navy, was that in 1983, my ship, the Carl Vinson had pulled into Fremantle, Western Australia for a week-long port visit. The tradition was at that time that Australian families were known to host US Navy sailors for short periods of time. They'd take them on tours, show them the city, feed them a home cooked meal, and generally be very good and welcoming hosts. Don't know how it is today, but in the '80's, Australians loved American sailors. And I had managed to get hooked up with a host family from Perth who basically showed me the town and treated me like royalty. They were great people, and to this day, I have a soft spot in my heart for Australia. Meanwhile, after I had separated from this family, they had called Ma up from Australia and told her about how well-mannered I was and how they appreciated my company. That thrilled her to no end.
On a later visit to Fremantle, I stopped in a telephone exchange to call home. I got to talking to Ma about various things, and lost track of time. About an hour later, the lady in charge of the exchange knocked on my booth door and told me that I was racking up a hefty charge and that I should end the call. She told what the price was, and I told Ma, "Ma, I gotta get off the phone, this call's getting really expensive." She asked "How much is it?" I said "$93.20 American." Click!!!! but she told her buddies in the choir that following Sunday about how her baby boy called her all the way from Australia. That made her day.
I still think about that call and those experiences 25 years later. I hope that Ma is happy with the way I turned out. She'd be pissed about the fact that I haven't done more with my degrees, but I think she'd be happy that I have stayed true to the Church, although I'm no longer Baptist. She raised her baby and set him free, but all the rest was up to me. So on this Mother's Day, as it comes to a close for another year. I set some time aside to think about my mother, Lily Brice and thank her for all that she did for me. She brought me into this world and raised me the best she could. I'd like to think she did a damn good job.
I know that there are disappointments, but I don't blame her for them. That's all me. But Lily Brice taught me respect for my elders, to tell the truth, and how to live the right way. And while I never had a chance to tell her Goodbye back in 1985. I take this opportunity to do so now. Thanks Ma. Resquiat in Pacem, Lily Brice.
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