Sunday, May 14, 2017

A contribution for Mothers' Day, 2017



For Mothers’ Day, 2017: excerpts from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO.

At the age of about two and a half, I had a question for my mother, a question that went un-answered except in a way that I now recognize as typical behavior of Lillian Bernice Locke Janovy, a woman who could easily see right through anyone and who seemed to carry a deep and cosmopolitan understanding of the world far beyond our immediate surroundings, no matter where those surroundings were located. The question itself was obviously one picked up from a stranger, although at that age, and in that particular neighborhood, I doubt if I would have been allowed to stray very far from home, and especially not so far as to encounter strangers driving by asking for directions.
My mother could have answered this question easily and gone on about whatever young housewife duties she was performing at the time, but she didn’t. Instead, she set into motion a chain of events that would shape the lives of her husband, her son, and her as yet unborn, perhaps even unplanned, daughter. My question was a simple one:
“Dis whar Nat Terrio lib?”
She must have looked at me with her special combination of curiosity and judgment that I saw daily, once I grew old enough to recognize it for what it was, and thought “no, Johnny, this is not where Nat Terrio lives; this is where we live.” I don’t know what she actually said to me at the time, but shortly afterwards she told my father “let’s get the hell out of here.” I was not to grow up in Louisiana speaking Cajun.
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Suddenly, it seems, in this compression of memory and history, Bernice Janovy, crying almost uncontrollably during the radio broadcast of a nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki, and voting for Adlai Stephenson regardless of the hole in his shoe, makes sense. And just as suddenly, I now understand that her reaction to my question was simply one example of a cultural clash. Hidden away in Houma and preserved only by the telling, it was a tiny, personal, inconsequential event, but nevertheless a model for other events that would send the entire planet into convulsion by the beginning of the third millennium. Cajuns were “the other” just as surely as Japanese were then, and to many of my fellow Americans Muslims are now, and I was not to be one.
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No matter where the site, my father posed her, or—a more likely explanation—she arranged herself, in a stately, dignified, but interesting, way. So there she sits on a rock, a 19-year old newlywed on the side of a dark slope somewhere in the vicinity of Palo Dura Canyon, with two strange men in the background. These men must be geologists, if not by profession then at heart, for they are bent over in the near distance up the hill, collecting rocks, their rear ends facing the camera. This picture thus shows a young lady maintaining her elegance even in the company of asses. It would be nice to know how she did it because there are plenty of times today when I think that in September of 1935 she’d solved a pervasive, if not a truly monumental, problem for young women of all ages and all times.
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Aside from birth and death certificates, and public school report cards, the only other written record of my mother’s time on Earth is her college transcript. Years after my sister Teresa and I left home, Lillian Bernice decided to go to college, commuting to what is now University of Central Oklahoma to major in English, knowing full well she’d never live long enough to graduate. She took courses in history and literature until her cancer advanced to such a stage that she was mostly bedridden. After that, she read, again mostly history and literature, until—at the age of 46, a month before her 47th birthday—she could no longer lift a book. Nobody ever asked my mother about her childhood, her public school experiences, how she met her husband, what she did with her time before her children were born, or what she thought of her own parents. My maternal grandfather was gone by the time I was born, supposedly dead of pneumonia, but there was never any particular sadness in any discussion of Edgar Locke and my maternal grandmother never talked about him. He may have been a rather ornery person; we all seem to have such grown-up brats in our family, and one of my mother’s sisters certainly married one.

BERNICE AND JOHN is available on all e-readers.