How a Mother’s Mark Never Fades
It turns out there is such a thing as a happy childhood.
It’s always been my belief you learn what you live and live what you learn. Even so, we all see life through different lenses, which makes us unique. One of three girls, I knew early on my father would have preferred three boys. He gave me the nickname “Prissy” before the ink dried on my birth certificate marking my legal name—Priscilla Monica, the name my mother picked. As the middle child I carried the pleasing gene. Only later did I learn it wasn’t a positive attribute.
I was a tiny child with oversized eyes and a large smile. They say I started running at 10 months and was potty trained by 11 months. In my earliest years, before puberty, I clung to our housekeeper, Mazelle. My mother wasn’t the mothering type and never cared if I chose Mazelle, or that I begged to spend nights at her small house across town. I loved her lumpy mattress and patchwork quilt. When I spent those nights, she lulled me to sleep with gospel lyrics and whispered words of affirmation: “You be a sweet girl, yes you be.”
When I was a baby, toddler, child and teen, she infused and instilled in me those core values, traits and characteristics one should have to live a harmonious life: empathy, kindness, gratitude, ambition, love and humility. With only a fifth-grade education, she would become the most influential person in my life.
I attended a parochial elementary school run by Irish Catholic nuns. By age 9 I could count on one hand the number of nights I forgot to pray. The nuns convinced this shy, self-conscious and naïve child she would live in purgatory if she missed one night saying all 14 prayers she’d been taught. Should I forget to pray and unexpectedly die, I might even rot in Hell. No worry there, I was a pleaser and obeyed the rules. Plus, I was Sister Conception’s chosen pet. She would flip the headpiece of the habit back and forth when she read to us. Later, I told her I liked watching her do that.
“Look, I’m a nun!” I squealed. I still remember the expression on my mother’s face to this day. Alarm!
One October day she invited me into the nuns’ private residential cottage. “I have a gift for you,” she said. I’d never known anyone who’d been inside the cottage and could barely contain my grin. Boy, was I surprised when I opened the present wrapped in white tissue paper. Inside was a petite black habit and white collar, the exact replica of hers, only in my petite size.
“Thank you, Sister.” I was beaming as I slid everything inside my school bag and waved goodbye. That evening I slipped on the contraption and twirled in front of my mirror as I smiled at my reflection. I scrambled out to show my parents my new costume. They were on the porch sipping cocktails.
“Look, I’m a nun!” I squealed. I still remember the expression on my mother’s face to this day. Alarm!
I wore my gifted habit that Halloween and collected for UNICEF instead of trick-or-treating. When I saw all the candy my sisters collected, I knew I’d made a big mistake. I never wore that habit again.
As small beings we are influenced by everyone around us in some shape or form. They are instrumental in who we become.
Be Brave, Prissy
It was May of 2017, a sunshiny Sunday, also Mother’s Day. It should have been a day of celebration. The radio was off, and the air-conditioner purred as I traveled slower than the speed limit. I questioned what I was doing, and why. My bloodshot eyes pooled with tears as I concentrated on my breathing. Inhale—hold for five counts—exhale.
It had been two hours since I’d left Tallahassee heading west on I-10. I was thirsty, nauseated and spent. Only weeks earlier—on my husband’s birthday—my mother had died from a massive stroke. It was so sudden that I had no time to negotiate with God. Death is a bully and steals your heart. Then grief, the ugly sidekick, takes up residence. That leech mooched away the very essence of me. I wrote and delivered my mother’s eulogy. Afterward, I couldn’t arrange a coherent thought, much less a sentence. Days became weeks as I moved through life dazed, with no desire to ever write again.
The strip malls blended into 30A as I approached Seaside, the small resort community on the Gulf of Mexico. I rolled down the window and inhaled the scent of sea air as the gulf breeze brushed my face. Another fresh tear fell to my cheek as I turned into the crowded parking lot across from Bud and Alley’s restaurant. I circled twice and listened to my hypnotic blinker and waited for a parking vacancy.
Strangers distract heartache, I told myself.
As I glanced at my mirrored image, I wiped the mascara bleed from beneath my eyes and moistened my parched lips. Be brave, Prissy! I repeated three times, then climbed from the car and headed toward registration with trepidation. Confidence trailed so far behind I couldn’t even see the coward.
Death is a bully and steals your heart. Then grief, the ugly sidekick, takes up residence. That leech mooched away the very essence of me.
Months earlier, I’d enrolled in the Seaside Writers Conference. It was a week of workshops, seminars and readings held at the Seaside Institute’s Academic Village. Family and friends suggested I request a refund after my mother died. I ignored the well-intentioned advice.
During the day, poets read poetry and novelists read pages as we listened, engaged with and critiqued each other’s work. We gathered at nights with wine as strangers became friends.
It was the third day of a workshop, and an acclaimed journalist was the instructor for our group of nine. Beforehand, she had requested we send a writing sample for her review. Then, we would read said sample to our peers for their feedback. I sent a page from my unpublished manuscript, Chasing Ordinary.
The last paragraph read, “…I was transformed to the young girl he once knew. The one who believed—with innocent naivete—bad things happened to others. In those days I was sheltered by a physician father and housewife mother. I believed life was safe, wonderful, and certain, as only a tenderfoot would, before the brutality of life knocked me flat.”
The group complimented the page and suggested no changes. Relieved, I sat down as the next participant stood to read. The journalist interrupted, “Rarely do children have happy childhoods; nobody wants to read about someone who did.” A debate ensued between the group and the journalist. The dialogue became muffled noise as I flashed to my past.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
I was stretched on a frilly coverlet atop a provincial twin bed. My mother walked in carrying a large box and dropped it on the bed next to my bare feet. I turned another page from my newest book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and ignored the intrusion.
“Don’t open it, I’ll be back!” I kicked the package further toward the end of my bed. Minutes later my mother returned, carrying a knife, hammer and nails. “Sit up and help me.”
“I’m reading,” I quipped. The mouth of a tween—I’d like to slap her (me) with that sassy attitude. Tweens, teens, and attitudes. God bless mothers and fathers raising these Lambs of Jesus. Have faith they can become kind beings. Should they not, well, life is sweet and will pay it forward. They may get teenagers one day.
My stylish mother looked around the room and chose the most suitable wall, the one next to the only window with a view of the lake. With a nail in her mouth and one in each hand, she lifted the hammer and slammed the first nail against the unmeasured wall. That day, three separate holes pierced our wall on Montgomery Drive. My mother hung her collection of big-eyed paintings by Margaret Keane on each of those nails.
When the hammering stopped, I looked up from my book in disbelief. There, above me, hung the faces of three little girls with huge, dejected eyes and spilled tears. Six eyeballs scowled from the framed trio. “Mama, take them down,” I squealed. She didn’t. Not then or ever. My two sisters and I had three new roommates for the rest of our childhood years.
I heard my name called and pulled myself back to the present. My instructor handed over my piece with a scribbled compliment on my writing skills. In the margin she wrote, Make your childhood more realistic. In that moment I realized her childhood had been different than mine. Maybe unhappy, like my big-eyed roommates. Only she was now a grown-up. It felt like I knew her, maybe because I had lived with images of those like her.
I never considered the big-eyed paintings as the semblance of some unhappy childhood. Not until the journalist called me out. Perhaps it’s why I shield the glare of sadness with rose-colored glasses and am a Pollyanna, of a sort. It’s possible Big Eyes influenced me more than I realized and made me kinder and more inclusive of others. I mean, you can’t stare at those faces and not be affected in some way, after so many years. Maybe it’s why I impose humor on others whenever I can, even during times of despair. It makes pain less painful. Humor makes me comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
I turned off U.S. Highway 98 and back onto I-10, heading east after the long week. In my stillness, I reflected on my mother’s mothering. She was an anomaly, but one I so loved. Big Eyes seemed small compared to some of her crazier doings.
Like when my sisters and I started dating and she suggested to my dad they add an outside door to the bedroom so we could come and go and not wake her up. Or when she flew all the way to London with my sister Gina just to purchase a Yorkie puppy. Before they flew back to the USA, she agreed to take Gina to the theater, only to leave her alone when she discovered it was a musical. My sister still tells the story of taking the Tube back to the hotel at 11 p.m. alone.
But the “Burt Reynolds episode” may be the winner. She framed and hung his nude centerfold behind the toilet in our guest bath on Montgomery Drive. She refused to take it down, so Burt watched daddy pee for years. After I was engaged, my future in-laws drove from Tallahassee to Lake City to meet my parents for the first time. I begged my mother to let me take Burt down. “They’ll be using that bathroom, Mama. What will they think of us?” “Why would they care?” she said. Burt watched them pee several times that night, too.
Although my mother had idiosyncrasies, her benevolence equaled them in every way. She supported two of her siblings all their lives and paid for schooling for the impoverished, car repairs for strangers and funerals for friends in despair. She supported more nonprofits than I can count, including many I only discovered after her death. As I drove back to Tallahassee, I captured those reeled Sylvia-isms, featuring my mother, Sylvia LeBlanc Landrum, as leading star. Her liquid memories were mine. I could pour them from my head to my heart whenever I needed. I returned from Seaside replenished and restored.
I never did make those changes my instructor suggested. Maybe I should have, maybe not. In the end it was my narrative to write. Memoirs are based on truth—or should be. I was a happy girl and can’t change my story to please another. I shouldn’t have to apologize for being happy. It wasn’t anything I did that made me deserve it. It was because of the wonderful and diverse individuals who nurtured me, collectively. They impacted my life in such a positive way. For that, and them, I am humbly blessed and grateful.
As it turned out, I became my own version of quirky. I have two fluffy names and answer to both: I’m “Prissy” to almost everyone and “Sassy” to my grandchildren. I dress bohemian chic with my own wild flair. My hair is longer than it should be, and I seldom answer the phone or return voicemails. Also, I’ve left written instructions that “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen be played at my funeral when the day comes. I’m documenting it here since both my two daughters yelled in unison, “NO, YOU CAN’T HAVE THAT!”
Flamingo has printed my wish. I win! Clearly, I am my mother’s daughter. It must be in the genes to become strange(r) as time moves on. The circularity of this life is downright hilarious!