Last week was my friend Allison’s 50th birthday. This was the ninth year that she hasn’t been here to celebrate it with us, and it still hurts.
It’s been making me think a lot about friendships and how treasured a really good one should be...about how they don’t come along (at least for me) very often...about where we get our ideas of what a friend is.
And that has brought my thoughts again and again to my mother and her best friend, Mama Jean. She was the only ‘best’ friend I ever remember my mother having. Tagging ‘mama’ to her name was an endearment that she surely deserved, but it was also a necessary designation. You see her husband was named Gene also. As was her oldest son. And my father’s name was Gene as well. So just to keep a conversation on track, we would specify Mama Jean, Big Gene, and Gene Junior. They in turn called my father ‘Mac’ as most people did back then.
To me Mama Jean seemed tall and beautiful and soft spoken. When she was in our home, it seemed...better. Things were more relaxed, and people smiled more.
Our house didn’t hold many social events, but I have a memory (or maybe a dream) of Mama Jean’s car in our driveway and doors opening and legs walking to the backyard. I picture Daddy and Big Gene drinking beer out of dripping brown bottles while they grilled the best chicken I have ever tasted to this day over my Daddy’s brick pit, basting it with a magic mixture of ketchup, butter, Worcestershire sauce, and beer. The older kids taking turns cranking the ice cream freezer in the shade till their arms got tired. Mama and Mama Jean in the kitchen peeling hot just-boiled potatoes for the potato salad, maybe splitting a beer and drinking it out of jelly glasses.
One year while preparing for her younger son’s birthday party–I was about 5, so he must have been about 9–Mama Jean asked me what kind of cake she should bake, and I said, ‘chocolate.’ I was soundly disappointed to arrive at the party and see a cake with white icing on the table. I mean if you’re going to have a chocolate cake, it should have chocolate icing. Am I right? Anyway, my chocolate issues obviously go WAY back. I really, really hope that she did not see my disappointment.
I remember going to Mama Jean’s house with my mother another afternoon and being shooed out of the room. And conversation stopping when I would wander back in. I remember my mother teaching Mama Jean’s younger son how to memorize our phone number using the knuckles on her hand...two...two...seven...two...two...see, only the one in the middle is different, a seven, all the rest are twos.
And then, when I was about ten, a hurricane hit the Texas coast...I think it was Beulah. My mother got a call that Mama Jean was missing in a flash flood. I remember waiting endlessly for news from searchers. I remember grown up eyes filled for days with a mixture of shock and hope and fear. Before the final news came, I remember standing in our front yard looking up at a brilliant blue sky with white puffy clouds and wondering how could something so bad be happening on such a beautiful day, and feeling God whisper to my heart that Mama Jean was with Him, and that it was still okay. That was the day I learned that sometimes you have to let go of hope, but never to let go of faith.
What I don’t remember is how my mother grieved. How did she hide it? How did she cope with it? My mother hated showing any weakness, hated sharing private thoughts, hated talking about personal business. One day decades later, Mother must have been in her seventies at the time, I kind of took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind and asked her, "Do you still miss Mama Jean?" She looked away, but not before I saw the depth from which her answer came, and she said, "Yes." Just, yes.
I wish I could have asked her more. I would have liked to know more. But the simple truth of her answer will have to do. Eventually you run out of chances to ask questions. And at the time, I didn’t understand how badly I would need to know.