My mother had a way with words -- a habit of using an incorrect word in an almost appropriate context.Once, when I was growing up, she told me: "You can tell a lot about a person by looking into the 'pulpits' of their eyes." She valued the souls of people and saw pulpits in their eyes.
When I had my first child, her first grandchild, she asked whether they had shaved my "public" hair. I told her no. She sniffed and told me that, in her day, "public" hair was always shaved before babies were delivered. And then she related the discomforts of "public" hair growing back. "So bitchy, I couldn't stand it," she said. She meant itchy; bitchy worked just as well.
Later, when her health problems began, I would take her to doctor appointments. When asked about her past medical history, she would say she had a history of "cardiac arrests." When I corrected that to a history of congestive heart failure, she would give me a stern look. "That's what I just said," she would say, with a small smile.A child of the Depression, she was the daughter of an alcoholic father and a teenager when her mother died. She survived by forging her father's signature on welfare checks to buy food for her younger brother before her father spent the money on alcohol. And even though her father eventually abandoned her and the brother, years later when he was ailing and needed assistance, she welcomed him into her home. "Of course you can live with us," I heard her say. "We're family. That's what families are for." She said it with sincerity, with joy. That is one wonderful way with words.
She was widowed in her 60s, after caring for her husband, my father, for 10 long Alzheimer's years. She remarried in her 70s. She and her new husband planned a trip to the Outer Banks. They wanted to walk the beach at sunset. A hurricane was predicted for the East Coast at exactly the time they were to be walking the beach. I tried to talk them out of going. "We're going," she said. "We're going to walk the beach.""Well, if you make it there," I said, "do you remember that little art shop we went to a couple of years ago? I bought a couple of Audubon prints there. You know, bird pictures. Audubons. If you make it to the Outer Banks, could you pick me up another Audubon? They run around $200."
The hurricane didn't change course. They didn't make it to the beach. Instead, her 80-year-old husband told us, with a little giggle, they had only gotten as far as Intercourse, Pa. She giggled, too, and patted his hand."But," she said, "The best part is, I got the picture you wanted. And, it was only $198, so I saved you $2." She handed me a large, flat cardboard box. She stood, smiling and proud, as I opened the box.
There, in a massive black frame, was a picture. In the snowy background was a red barn. In the foreground, on a thick dark tree trunk, were two red-headed woodpeckers. The sales slip lying on top of the picture read: "Dutchland Galleries, Kitchen Kettle Village, Intercourse, Pa -- $198""I am so glad we found this," she said, hugging my shoulders. "What luck! Finding a picture of birds on a barn! Just exactly what you wanted."
Birds on a barn. Audubon. My mother, a woman who could use perfectly incorrect words in an almost, but not quite, appropriate context.After she died, I received a condolence e-mail from someone I vaguely remember. It read: "I was so sad to hear of your mother's death. I think she saved my life. When I was a little girl, I was in a bad home situation. Your mother heard about it and would bring me to your house to play. She also took me to church and taught me to sing 'Jesus Loves Me." She made a difference in my life."
I remember my mother singing "Jesus Loves Me." She had a way with words.Birds on a barn hangs over my desk, right next to my Audubons, more precious than my Audubons. Thank you, Mother. Thank you.
Previously published in Pittsburgh Tribune Focus Magazine
Harriet Parke is a freelance writer from Apollo.