My Mother Was a Live Wire

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans    My mother was a live wire.  She could light up a room like a glowing bulb, but if you didn’t make the connection right, she could singe your fingers.  One minute she had all the charm, grace, and manners of the old south, and the next minute, if you weren’t on your toes, she could stand you up straight with a single word.

Or, a look.  My brother and I could watch the way her eyebrows raised in a crowded department store as we hurried behind her, and, heaven help us all, when one eyebrow went up towards her forehead.  We braced for what would come next, although we knew well as she pulled the words out in a clear and carrying voice and would say, “Boys, this must be a department store without a single clerk.  We may have to leave since no one seems willing to wait on us.”

For those of you who knew my mother, you know she was a force of nature with a melting smile, an infectious laugh, and a razor-sharp wit and tongue.  My father was a thunderstorm that would blow through from time to time, and then be gone as quickly and forgotten.  My mother was a slow, deep burn, who could cut to the quick.  She would forgive, but never forget.

These were performances we knew well, but NOT ones that we suffered.  As we moved around the country from Wyoming and Colorado to Kentucky and then New Orleans, for my mother, it was “us” versus “them.”  There were never any other Rathke’s or Ratliff relatives within hundreds of miles, so we were all separate planets orbiting around her sun.  She pushed and pulled us with pride. She did the same with my father.  She believed in the American myth of a meritocracy the way some people believe in heaven.  In her world, we had the brains, so if we did the work, then there was nothing that could stop us.

She was raised in a house full of boys, so having a couple of her own was old hat to her.  We lived in the 1950s world without television, filled with reading and card games and dinner at 5:15 on the dot.  She ate fried eggs with bacon and white toast every day of her life.  She was a Mississippi delta cook.  There were three colors: meat, vegetable, and potatoes or rice with desert.  Always. We had chicken once or twice a week, fried, stewed, or baked.  I was so tired of chicken when I left my mother’s house, I didn’t eat it for almost twenty years!  The first thing Dale and I learned to cook was chipped beef on toast, the second was macaroni and hot dogs.

And, the deserts, I miss them to this day.  Apple crisp was my favorite!  Baked pies with the extra pieces of dough cut off the crust, were broiled quickly, and served hot with cinnamon and sugar.  And, don’t forget the jamcake she made for Christmas and Thanksgiving from a recipe of my grandmother’s that, thankfully, my daughter also learned to make.   My dad’s job for years put us every summer hunched together in a car for thousands of miles throughout the west when he was a field auditor for Chevron.  From city to town to company camp, it was the four of us 24/7.  The experience welded together a family with steel in our hearts and rubber on our butts, always ready to go and stand as one.

She was a lady who lunched and a clubwoman with a posse of great and loyal friends.  We knew when she was doing book reviews for people because we would see books around her house with as many as fifty paperclips marking potential passages she would read to the ladies.  She almost missed Chaco’s birth as the main flower judge at the 1982 New Orleans amaryllis show.  At different times she played bridge every week.  She played hard, and she played to win.  We knew because she made both Dale and me learn.  I can remember both of us called to sit in to make up foursomes when we weathered Hurricane Betsy five stories up in the old California Company building downtown in 1965.  Dale became a certified bridge master and used to make money playing in New York City on the weekends when he was at Yale.

She was social and made my father and brother so as well.  She was skirts and high heels all the way with her hair done every week.  I can remember her opinion, expressed adamantly later, when one of my dad’s sisters wore pants to a family gathering when we visited California, and then marveling that despite her surprise, she defended my Aunt Jo against the attack by my father’s other two sisters.  She advised us from birth without hesitation or doubt that the heat and humidity made southern women the most beautiful in the country, a lesson I certainly always remembered and took to heart.

At the same time, she was a woman who embraced the changing times, made her way, and made her mark.  When Dale and I were moving into high school, she went back to school as well, getting her masters at UNO, and then her doctorate at Tulane in English literature.  Lord, they believed in education as the cornerstone of their vision of America.  There were so many degrees in the house that when they would hector me about dropping out of school to organize, I would say there was no need, because if they averaged the family out between the three of them, I had a masters.

She was a teacher all of her life, as her children and grandchildren knew well, intimately, and thankfully.   Several decades later, she was getting paid for it again, finally retiring after more than 20 years at Delgado as an administrator.  Perhaps she wasn’t a feminist, but she was a womanist, demanding to be heard, and standing with women to be paid equally under civil service as well.

Beth and I have worked long and hard all our lives.  Others would ask us how we were able to manage this with our children.  Sometimes I would jokingly answer that they were raised by wolves, but then I would add quickly that my parents, especially their grandmother, were the key.  When Beth was asked about what we fed the kids, I’ve heard her answer that “they took their meals with their grandmother.”  So true.   She picked them up from school if they were anywhere within range.  Dine’ would walk over to their home at the end of classes at Franklin every day, and Chaco would drive over from Grace King. They did their homework with her and their uncle, before heading home to Bywater.

I fought with my parents in high school, and always swore I would be a different and better parent by my own lights if I ever had the chance.  Now, I feel my children were given a huge gift in being able to spend so much time with their grandparents, when we had hardly known ours in comparison.  It was a joyous present, freely given without complaint.  Watching my parents with our children, it was clear that we were different parents for sure, but better?  Hardly.

My mother and my father met at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, when he was sent there by the Navy to attend college in the NROTC program as an enlistee during World War II.  They married secretly – and against the rules, I might add – when he was at Tulane, and she was teaching in Picayune, Mississippi.  After my father passed away, my daughter Dine’ found letters my father had written to my mother, when he had planted us in Drew for a bit while he found a house for us as we moved to Kentucky.  They were so young.  They were so in love.  They were so lucky to stay that way forever.  My parents were married more than sixty years, when my father passed away.

She was starting to slip then, and when she broke her hip, she seemed to fall into the dementia that marked her last years.  It was hard to see the fierce and wondrous woman we loved and admired in such a state.  As is characteristic of the disease, she had her own mantras, oft repeated.  She wanted to make sure she didn’t lose her name.  Beth, the children, and I assured her that no one would take her name.  She wanted her mother.  She wanted go back to her mother’s house.  Truth to tell, I wanted to see my mother again as well.  I too wanted to go back to her house as well, and the times when she was always smiling and asking if I wanted anything to eat, or if the children were with me.  But, early on, before I understood the disease well, I would often remind her that my grandmother had passed away more than 45 years ago, and she would nod, knowingly, somberly sometime, and then say, “nevertheless,” and moments later demand to see her mother again.

We loved my mother dearly, through thick and thin.  She loved us all unconditionally, and we tried our best to do the same for her, though likely never as well.  Now that she has passed, she has returned to our minds in her full force as we remembered her in life, and it gives us pleasure seeing the pictures of her arrayed here.  We were lucky to know her name.  All of us gathered here were fortunate to know her well.  She touched our lives deeply and left her mark, and we will always remember her in our hearts.

Never the less.