Henrietta, Texas, 1958: For the big 7th grade Valentine’s party, I wore my white sport coat, Easter finery, memorable from the rocket-fuel incident. I was already stealing Kent cigarettes, and had a partial pack in my right-hand jacket pocket.
My mother was fussing over me, which at fourteen, annoyed tremendously. I kept brushing her hands off my jacket, my hair, but she kept at it, and sure enough, felt the cigarettes in my coat pocket. Her face froze.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
“Please, Mama!” I cried out, “Don’t ask me!” I was near tears.
She let it pass, and I ran from the room, downstairs and out in the back yard, where in a fury I tore the cigarettes into bits, scattering them in the grass. Like as not she watched from the window above, but I was in a fit of grief and upset.
Somehow, I pulled myself together for the big party. This party was in the little building on the block just outside the graveyard. No pall lay on the big party. There were kissing games. Somehow I got the exotic Linda A. into the coat closet.
I’d never kissed anyone, and didn’t know exactly how to do it. I’d come prepared with a flashlight, and so by the flashlight we gave it a try. Not bad.
My mother had watched over me fiercely. My father hadn’t lasted long, having left us before I could toddle. I met him later; he generally seemed a bum to me. She’d worked as a nurse for my Uncle Doc, and originally we lived behind his office. Later, she’d married the other doctor in town, Dr. Strickland, and now we lived above his office. Since we lived on the second story, I guess we’d come up in the world.
From this time on, with the ignorance and tactlessness of the young, I thought poorly of my mother, never realizing how she’d shielded me, tried to keep me safe from life’s relentless vicissitudes, comforted me when they came along. It was a shock when she was gone.
In June of 1975, I was living in San Francisco, in the studio apartment on Third Avenue, and working at the Westbury hotel. I was studying magic and meditation, and had just made some silver amulets of protection. They were to be given to a girlfriend and her daughter, emigrating to Australia. On one side the amulet said “I protect whoever knows my name,” and on the other side “Omnia Gaudium Est Presens Nunc Ipsum.” No Latin scholar I, but I meant it to say, “All the Bliss there is, is here right now.”
I got a call. My mother was in hospital. It was serious.
She’d lost a huge amount of weight some months before. She’d been generally plump, quite round, since her marriage to Dr. Strickland. He’d passed away, and she moved to the farm, my grandparents former home. There she’d somehow found a boyfriend named Herman, a retired Air Force shooting instructor who’d taught Olympians. Ostensibly, he lived in an Airstream parked below the house, and he was raising bird dogs in the field to the north of the house.
Living now in her girlhood home, this particular morning, mama had gone out to play with the puppies. She was sitting on the earthen floor of a former chicken house, playing with the hound puppies.
She said, “I’ve got the most terrific headache.”
Herman looked up. She passed out. She’d had a stroke.
The amulets went off to Australia. I made the arrangements as I left San Francisco. In the Wichita Falls hospital, she was on a machine that breathed for her. But she died.
At the funeral, tears in my eyes, I suddenly saw Judy, a former girlfriend. She’d read the news that morning. She came with me to the farm, and we spent some time together, but we had little to say. She left.
We children chose some things we wanted to keep, and I shipped my things in boxes to my new home in San Francisco. The young brothers, Paul and David, were to finish high school, staying with my Uncle Doc.
I flew back to San Francisco. She was gone.
I’d brought away some things I’d given her: a carved wooden box, a wooden perfume bottle from Spain, a Dunhill lighter, and a wooden comb.
On the wooden comb, the scent of her hair.