Carlita Walters, my mother of 91 years, passed recently. I am trying to write an appropriate memorial, but my words are inadequate, mostly because everything I know about my mother also involves me. So when I write about my mother, it sounds as though I'm writing about myself. That is true, I suppose, but intensely frustrating. The failure of words is discouraging to one who has made his living with them, but there it is. I am helpless before my mother's death.
So what follows is a series of anecdotes, things I remember. She was kind and sweet but also stern and relentless. Mother did not suffer fools lightly, especially when the foolishness was displayed by her eldest son. Like many children, I constantly strove to please my parents, but Mother's Germanic temperament rarely allowed her to display satisfaction.
At my 50th birthday party --an event I neither desired nor requested -- my wife told me that I did not look particularly happy.
"I'm showing as much emotion as I'm capable of showing," I replied.
My mother was sitting beside me. "Yes," she said, "we don't show emotion easily."
She was a small woman, and as she aged, she grew smaller. One of the smartest people I have ever known, she took for granted concepts, like the elliptical orbits of planets, that most are totally unaware of.
At her funeral, everyone agreed that she was wonderful, loving, considerate and the newest, most important adjective -- inclusive. She was certainly all those, but during the eulogy, I thought I heard her behind me somewhere, saying in that stern Germanic tone that I know so well, "Paul, BEHAVE!"
Her older sister Arlene, who predeceased Mother by many years, told me once that when Carlita was about five, Arlene found her one afternoon standing in front of the bedroom mirror, saying, "Now aren't we just the cutest thing!"
Arlene also told me that about three years after your author was born, she and her husband visited for an afternoon. I apparently was running around the house, shouting and laughing, and Mother was having trouble keeping up with me. Toward sundown she disappeared. Arlene went looking for her in the bedroom, where Mother was sitting on the bed with head in hands.
"I can't take it anymore!" Mother moaned. "He's driving me crazy!"
For years, my hair was cut by a local barber named Slim, who could only give flat-tops, a style long out of fashion. Slim would stand in front of me, holding the electric clippers in both hands, sighting down the line of my hair like a carpenter preparing to plane a piece of oak. Then very carefully, with both hands still on the clippers, Slim would slowly push the blades across the top of my head until my hair was as flat as a plate. He did not bother much with the sides, so when he was finished, my head looked like a newly mowed lawn between two yards that had not been trimmed in months.
Mother did not like this style, so when I turned 14, she began cutting my hair at home. She had never before cut a man's hair, but she did a remarkable job, making me look almost presentable.
The most important thing in the world to my mother was doing her duty. Everyone has duties, she often said, and everyone should do them. If you did not do your duty, you were less than a whole person, perhaps the worst fate to befall any individual.
When I was a boy, she took me to see a movie in the small theater in our town -- population about 8,000. I no longer remember anything about the movie. All I remember is walking outside into the dark evening and hearing my mother say, "Well, she did her duty. Someone had to do it."
I was born in the four-bed hospital in the walk-up above that theater. So was my brother. Both my parents were born at home. In Edmond, Oklahoma, I suppose that no one has been born at home in a long time.
I was delivered by Dr. Payne, who before he went to medical school was my father's high school basketball coach. The good doctor once sewed up my knee in his living room. Also, when I was in high school, I developed a painful in-grown toenail during the basketball season -- the result of shoes that did not fit properly. My mother sent me to Dr. Payne's office one afternoon. He looked at my foot and said, "Well, I've seen worse. When I was coach, I taught boys how to put on their shoes properly."
He then reached into his pocket, produced a bottle of something and poured a dark liquid onto my purple toe.
"Does that sting?" he said.
"No," I said.
Then, before I knew what was happening, he reached into his pocket again, pulled out what looked like a Swiss Army Knife, opened a blade and dug the toenail out of my flesh like a gardener harvesting potatoes.
"Now does it sting?"
I nodded through my involuntary tears.
When I told my mother about it, she said, "Well, he did his duty."
Mother was always hesitant to loan me her vehicle because, I think, she believed I was reckless. If she believed that, I probably was. Anyway, one night in December, while I was home from college, she allowed me to drive downtown and take my brother to see the movie Fiddler on the Roof at the same theater above which both of us were born. It was very cold, there was almost no one watching the movie, and I don't remember if my brother enjoyed it or not. I was 19; he was six. Honestly, I don't even remember if I enjoyed it, although in subsequent years I saw a live performance and enjoyed it very much.
Parking downtown was at 45 degree angles, and I deposited the car directly across from the theater. When the movie was completed, my brother and I walked out into the December cold. I noticed immediately that my mother's car across the street, the only one parked on the block, was no longer at a 45 degree angle. Instead, it was perpendicular to the curb. Then I saw glass and plastic strewn upon the pavement.
Someone, some idiot, had run into the side of Mother's car near the back, slamming it parallel to the curb and up onto the sidewalk where it had knocked over a parking meter. The vehicle appeared to still be drivable, but that did not immediately concern me. My immediate concern was what Mother would say when she found out her car had been hit.
I was already imagining Germanic shouting when I noticed, on the front windshield under a wiper, a white piece of paper. I pulled it out and in the dim street light saw that I had been issued a parking ticket. The local police had cited me for improper parking. Really! Apparently, someone thought I drove onto the curb, knocked over a parking meter, then casually walked across the street to watch a movie! Really! Really!!
The old police station, torn down years ago, was around the block, and I drove there in the sort of rage that only a teenager can generate. My brother kept asking, "What are we doing? What are we doing?" I kept telling him to be quiet.
I raced inside in a rage and, in a tone slightly below a shout, demanded that the ticket be torn up. Now! Right now!
The ticket was not literally torn up, but it was annulled. When I arrived home and told my mother what had happened, she said, "Some of those people [policemen] aren't too smart."
She said that because years before a police car had run into her while attempting to pursue a speeding motorist.
"Mother," I said, unable to contain myself, "they're just doing their duty!"
That same Christmas break, my brother spent the night with my father's parents. My mother asked me to drive across town and pick him up the next morning. When I arrived, my brother was racing around the front yard like a punctured balloon. With some effort, I grabbed him, deposited him in the car (this was before the incident in front of the theater) and drove back home.
He was jumping, laughing, shouting, grabbing, as though someone had plugged him into an electrical outlet.
"Did you eat breakfast?" I said.
"What did Grandma feed you."
He smiled broadly. "M&M's and coffee!" he said.
Some of these anecdotes may give the impression that life in my family was mostly humorous, and perhaps it was. Or perhaps I only remember the lighter moments. When I feel strong emotions, I try, as a defense mechanism, to make light of them. It comes as naturally to me as breathing. There were serious times, however, when I could not make jokes.
Every Memorial Day, Mother decorated her family's graves in and around Perry, Oklahoma, her birthplace. The practice was started in the Confederacy, called Decoration Day, as a tribute to soldiers fallen in the War Between the States. Subsequently, the Union picked up the practice, and it was declared a federal holiday and renamed Memorial Day. My limited experience has been that graves are decorated mostly in Southern states, and Mother was one of the biggest decorators.
In the old days, people would cut flowers from the garden to place on tombstones. By the time I was old enough to tag along, Mother was using artificial roses purchased from a craft store. She was always concerned that the color of the blossoms match the color of the headstone. Since I am color blind, I was not much help. My strong suit was anchoring the artificial bouquets into the hard red clay soil. If it had not rained in a week or two, the task sometimes required a trowel.
Perry, Oklahoma's cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the town, and beyond the town to the cotton and wheat fields stretching to the western horizon. The tallest structure for miles was the grain elevator that stood directly across the street from the tiny house where my mother's father and his two brothers and three sisters were raised.
The wind often howled on Cemetery Hill, and Mother was always concerned that the flowers should be fastened securely to avoid blowing away. We left the artificial flowers on the graves for two weeks. If any were gone when we returned, Mother would look at me sternly, as though she had been foolish to trust the son who wrecked her car in front of the local theater.
Her mother, father, brother and sister were all buried in Perry. All had died relatively young: mother in her early 70's, father in his 50's; brother in his 40's and sister in her early 70's. Both brother and sister had died from cancer caused by tobacco, father from a congenital heart defect and mother from a stroke. Carlita soldiered far beyond the rest of her family, in part I think because of her steely resolve to stay active and engaged. She was like a storm that produces neither thunder nor lightning but rains continuously, steadily, relentlessly.
Her grandparents were buried in two rural cemeteries west of Perry, where one gets the first inkling that not too far beyond the horizon might lie the High Plains. The land is rolling, timbered in the bottoms. An Eastern Red Cedar forest had once covered the higher ground, so thick and impenetrable that not even Native Americans, masters of seasonal burning, could get rid of it. But European settlers in the late 19th century had cut down the cedars to make way for the wheat and cotton fields that turned golden in the spring (wheat) and white in the fall (cotton). The settlers had tried burning the cedars to warm their cabins in winter, but the timber contains a thick sap that explodes when heated, not exactly what one expects on a cold January night, so the wood was used either for construction or else for huge combustible piles of waste.
But Eastern Red Cedars are resilient -- like my mother. If fields are left uncultivated just a few years, small evergreens sprout like vegetables. In a few more years, the trees are as tall as children. A few more, taller than adults. Even today, when fields are plowed regularly, Red Cedars will show up in the oddest places, as though someone comes through at night with a hole in his seed sack.
One of the rural cemeteries (where Mother's paternal grandparents were buried) was outside the small settlement of Lucien and was easy to find because it sat next to the railroad tracks. Pronounced Lew-Seen by the locals, once a whistle stop on the Frisco branch line connecting Tulsa with Santa Fe's Belen Cut-off at Avard, Oklahoma, the "town," by the time I was old enough to decorate graves, was a few old houses near the tracks, nothing more. No commercial establishments, not one. The settlement's only gas station had been deserted many years. The windows in the old grocery store were all broken, and the roof was falling in. Lucien was like a stunted calf that lives a few months, then dies.
The railroad was originally called the Arkansas Valley and Western, and the tracks reached what became Lucien in 1903. The small settlement was then called Woolsey. When a post office was established, it was discovered that another Oklahoma town had already taken that name, so the settlement quickly became Lucien, after Lucien Emerson, wife of the owner of the local dry-goods store.
Mother and I would drive to Lucien once we were finished at Cemetery Hill. Then we would try to find the even more remote graveyard where her maternal grandparents were buried. I have now been to that cemetery at least 30 times, but I cannot remember its name. Nor can I find it easily. It is hidden somewhere between wheat fields in southern Noble County. On Memorial Day, the end of May, the wheat surrounding the graves is so high that you cannot see the tombstones until you have driven through the open gate. When Mother's Aunt Hilda was alive, we would follow her dust cloud as she raced across the red dirt country roads to the burial site of her parents. Hilda died many years ago at 100. I think she continued driving into her mid-90's, continued raising huge red clouds across the Oklahoma countryside.
I am a reliable grave decorator, because it is a solitary pursuit. All my life I have enjoyed doing things alone, and this always concerned my mother, one of the most social people I have known. She belonged to various clubs, was active in her church, ran for and was elected to the local school board and was friends with literally hundreds of people. I do not belong to a single club, am not active in the church, have never run for public office in my life and can count my friends on the fingers of one hand. If it were not for social gatherings organized by my wife, I would fit the definition of a hermit.
At my high school graduation, the commencement speaker listed life skills that we graduates should cultivate. The only one I now remember was sociability, and I remember it only because my mother gave me a lecture after the ceremony. I had not paid attention to the speech, nor to any of the other festivities. I thought commencement was a waste of time. I still do. Thus, I did not attend the graduation ceremonies for my three college degrees (B.A., M.A. and J.D.).
"Paul," Mother said that evening when we had returned home from commencement, "your social skills are weak. You are good at the others," referring to the positive attributes listed by the speaker, "and if you can learn social skills, it will help you later in life."
She was correct, of course. It would have helped me. But I never learned any social skills, and I have suffered for it.
Here is the problem. I am moderately autistic. Following are characteristics of autism, taken from the Mayo Clinic website at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928, followed by my estimation whether the category applies to me:
Social communication and interaction
A child or adult with autism spectrum disorder may have problems with social interaction and communication skills, including any of these signs:
Fails to respond to his or her name or appears not to hear you at times -- Yes.
Resists cuddling and holding, and seems to prefer playing alone, retreating into his or her own world -- Yes.
Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression -- Yes.
Doesn't speak or has delayed speech, or loses previous ability to say words or sentences -- No.
Can't start a conversation or keep one going, or only starts one to make requests or label items -- Yes.
Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech -- No.
Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them -- No.
Doesn't appear to understand simple questions or directions -- No.
Doesn't express emotions or feelings and appears unaware of others' feelings -- Yes.
Doesn't point at or bring objects to share interest -- Yes.
Inappropriately approaches a social interaction by being passive, aggressive or disruptive -- No.
Has difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as interpreting other people's facial expressions, body postures or tone of voice -- Yes.
Patterns of behavior
A child or adult with autism spectrum disorder may have limited, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities, including any of these signs:
Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping -- Yes.
Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging -- No.
Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change -- Yes.
Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff or exaggerated body language -- Yes.
Is fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn't understand the overall purpose or function of the object -- No.
Is unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature -- No.
Doesn't engage in imitative or make-believe play -- No.
Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus -- Yes.
Has specific food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or refusing foods with a certain texture -- Yes.
As they mature, some children with autism spectrum disorder become more engaged with others and show fewer disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe problems, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the teen years can bring worse behavioral and emotional problems.
When I was in high school, I told mother that I thought I was moderately autistic, not so severely that I could not function in the normal world, but enough so that I would never develop her level of social expertise.
She frowned at me and said, "Don't be silly. You can do anything you put your mind to. You just aren't trying hard enough."
Well, I knew that wasn't true. No matter how hard I tried, I could never enjoy being in a group of strangers. No matter how hard I tried, I could never stop my many habitual routines without extreme distress. I could never sit still while eating. And on and on. So I never mentioned it again.
I wish she could have understood me. Perhaps she could have, had I raised the issue again. Perhaps not. Now I will never know, because the opportunity is lost.
So at the end I leave only images -- 91 images to commemorate her 91 years, 91 images as transitory as our short lives, 91 images that remind me of my mother. I don't know why they remind me of my mother; they just do.
She never understood my desire to photograph trains, either. It seemed pointless to her. I did not have the heart to tell her that I enjoy it very very much.
And I hope to still be enjoying it if I live to be 91.
|Ash Hill, California.
|Little Canyon, Oklahoma.
|Cimarron River, Oklahoma.
|Curtis Hill, Oklahoma.
|Bolo Hill, California.
|San Gorgonio Pass, California.
|Belen, New Mexico
|Tierra Grande, New Mexico
|Eagle Nest, Arizona
|Abo Canyon, New Mexico
|Cajon Pass, California.
|Inspiration Point, Colorado.
|Oregon Trunk Bridge, Wishram, Washington.
|Kicking Horse Pass, British Columbia.
|Crater Loops, Colorado.
|Crawford Hill, Nebraska.
|Dalies, New Mexico.
|Echo Canyon, Utah.
|Manzano Mountains, New Mexico.
|Matfield Green, Kansas.
|Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.
|Ashville, North Carolina.
|Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma.
|Big Ten Loop, Colorado.
|Lombard Canyon, Montana.
|Tierra Grande, New Mexico.
|Green River, Wyoming.
|Point of Rocks, Wyoming.
|Sand Hills, Nebraska.
|San Francisco Volcano Field, Arizona.
|St. Louis, Missouri.
|East St. Louis, Illinois.
|Tennessee Pass, Colorado.
|Sand Hills, Nebraska.
|Kansas City, Missouri.
|Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
|Vaughan, New Mexico.
|Loma Alta, New Mexico.
|Scholle, New Mexico.
|Fort Cady, California.
|Folsom, New Mexico.