My mother would have been eighty-nine years old today. She’s been gone now since July of 2006. I still miss her and think of her every single day. We had a bit of a fiery relationship, I was the dutiful daughter, she was the domineering matriarch. Unlike me, my mother, Beverly Gene Waddell Hampton Goss Whatley Garcia, tended to be opinionated. Unlike me, she tended to enjoy making an entrance, often late. Unlike me she had a flair for drama, practiced at the art of pleading her case to lenders of all shapes, sizes and lending institutions. Unlike me, my mother tended to attract younger men, her last boyfriend was seventeen years younger than her. Okay, so anybody who knows me knows that this is complete and utter bullshit, because the conversion in nearly final. I have almost completely turned into my mother. The kids don’t even bother to roll their eyes anymore. They just look directly into my face and tell me it’s all over but the shoutin’, I have indeed become my mother.
Except that’s not really, really true. I like to think I inherited a lot of her good qualities — her loyalty, truthfulness ( can you say zero tact at times?) her steadfast allegiance to the Democratic party, her youthful inquisitiveness about life, her sense of social justice, her culinary talent and her uncanny ability to stir up a hornet’s nest and then go traipsing off to bed with everybody else so pissed off their heads are about to pop off their shoulders. She had that Scarlet O’Hara quality to her, “I’ll just think about it tomorrow.”
Good for her. My darling mother, who was married and divorced already at the age of seventeen, heartbroken over the cad of a Merchant Marine who had the audacity to tell a child bride of sixteen that when he was out to sea, it was “don’t ask don’t tell” and she was free to do whatever and whomever she pleased, figured that if he was that cavalier about her activities, she might as well divorce his sorry Merchant Marine ass and hook up with the other boy named Frank who was madly in love with her. The second Frank didn’t last any longer than the first one. The third husband, Mr. Whatley, well, on and off they lasted near about twenty years, two stray kids notwithstanding. And then she married the handsome Mexican, whom she would love and adore until his dying day. I was somewhat less enthusiastic. But what the hell, he taught me to drive.
Through all of this tumult with the opposite sex, the one thing my mother never lost was her sense of presence, her mind staggering energy, her incredible gift of youth and her dignity. Two days before my mother suffered the stroke which would eventually take her from us, she was at the Bernalillo County Democrat Headquarters either phone banking or addressing mailers — organizing something. She remained engaged. She continued to be involved in causes she was passionate about. It suited her — she was in fact larger than life herself.
I will never forget the last words I heard my mother say. I had flown to Albuquerque to see her in the nursing facility we’d had to move her to after her stroke. Knowing she was there, day in and day out weighed on me like the earth. Many of you know exactly what I mean. I’d get back home to Albuquerque as often as I could, she was only there about three months, still, it was hell flying back and forth, so hard to see her, harder still to leave her. On my last visit, I walked in, she was entertaining the nurses. My mother had this attitude that on the very worst day she was having, it was still probably better than the very best day millions of other people were having. She had this sense of duty, an obligation to try in her own way to lighten the next guy’s load. She told us when we were children, and we were barely middle class, like paycheck to paycheck bottom rung of the middle class, she’d say, “to those who have been given much, much will be expected.” I have never forgotten that, nor the sweet, near theatrical introduction she gave me when I walked in to her hospital room the last time I saw her, where she was holding court with the nurses, barely able to speak, yet spotted me in the door, saying, “This, is my darling daughter.” There is no prize more grand.
Here’s an excerpt from Off the Leash, Chapter Twelve, “I Know About You.”
I felt my mother’s spirit when I was overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Standing there next to the bay, with that world famous view, for the first time in my life, I thought about how hard it must have been to leave San Francisco to go live in Texas. Texas? But she was going for a man. She was leaving northern California, the Golden State to which she’d been delivered from the choking dust of Oklahoma when she was just fourteen, leaving all that beauty behind to reunite with the man she thought she needed. I could relate. How full-circle the lives of mothers and daughters can be. Her California was my Carolina, a sad farewell, one more move, a last ditch effort to make it work. God bless our naive hearts.
I stood there for the longest time, staring at the bay, channeling my mother. She was both reckless and responsible and this was the land which had branded her. She learned to drive on mountain roads, she married at sixteen, took a bus to Reno to dump her first husband at the ripe old age of seventeen. She worked in seaside cafes and fancy mountain resorts, until she met the tall Mr. Whatley, with whom she thought she could have a life. They had a tortured relationship, as evidenced by long separations with babies on the side. Pregnant with me, but not showing yet, she moved from Placerville to San Francisco go to Western Union school. She wanted a better life. She rented a tiny flat in the Mission District, with my two big brothers, Don and Garrett and she finished teletype school before I was born.
She was all alone when she went into labor. Took a cab to the hospital, calling Kybie the German lady who kept Garrett during the day, to come watch him and Don, while she went to have another baby.
“She looks like Archie Moore,” that was Booker’s assessment of his infant granddaughter once he and my grandmother Marie got there from Placerville. If you Google “Archie Moore,” you’ll see my baby picture there, I swear to God. Never mind that Archie Moore was a black man, who God only knows how many upper cuts he took to the face, he was possibly the greatest light heavyweight of all time. He was called the “Old Mongoose” and the “Ageless Warrior.” He scored 140 knockouts in a career that spanned from 1936 to 1963. The dude never lost his crown in the ring and in 228 recorded bouts, Archie was only stopped seven times. Okay, even if perhaps my mother wasn’t too thrilled in being told that her newborn daughter looked like an aging prize fighter, maybe she willed his stamina on me. Ageless Warrior? I’ll take it any fucking day of the week.
God rest your soul mama, you will forever be my ageless warrior.