My mother believed in small things: small gestures, small ideas, small circles, small voices. I, on the other hand, have been too big for britches since my britches were the size of coffee cups. My mother lived by simple principles that felt quaint and outdated in my world of annual trips to New York City and biannual trips to Europe. I outgrew her so fast.
My mother didn’t believe in God. She told me that believing in God was as silly as believing in Santa Claus. But she liked religious people, liked the way they lived and the way they believed. She thought it was a virtue to have faith, but she didn’t think less of herself for not believing. If my mother had believed in a god, she would have believed in a god of small things.
My mother, Violet Faye Carter, only cast one vote for a presidential candidate in her life, and it was for Jimmy Carter. She always liked Jimmy Carter because he seemed kind and decent. Kindness and decency are small, uncomplicated things. I also like Jimmy Carter, but I have bigger, educated, more complicated ideas about him: I know his policies, his business interests, his lifelong dedication to community service. I’m cultured enough to have laughed at The Onion satirical news headline “Former President Carter To Be Tried For Peace Crimes.” She started small; I started big; we landed in the same place. I treasured moments when we could agree.
My mother’s childhood best friend was black. It’s a fact that shrinks in the distance like the Earth seen from a departing spacecraft. It felt small to me in the 80s, it feels even smaller in the 2020s. It was larger in the Mills Godwin era of Virginia. Godwin, whom Virginians elected governor twice when my mother was growing up, closed public schools rather than integrate them. He never apologized for his racist policies. Even in that era of flagrant institutional bigotry, my mother never saw her friendship with another young girl as any kind of statement. Statements are big. What she loved were the small anecdotes. She loved to tell me about trying to style her own hair with her best friend’s hair products, gunking up her fine straight hair with heavy gels and creams, blissfully unaware of the difference between her hair texture and that of her best friend.
My mother raised me on Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton. I raised myself on hip hop from New York and punk from Washington DC. I was embarrassed of the parochial culture I inherited. I thought people from Chicago or New York City had a legacy of big, sophisticated art and what I had were cave drawings. Even when, as an adult, I tried to reclaim some of that culture, I approached it like a PhD candidate studying folk art.
As a teenager I struggled to erase my southern accent. I stopped saying “y’all,” shortened my vowels, caught myself saying “mumma” and corrected it to “mom.” I thought the south was a small place of small people like my mother and I wanted people to think I was larger. On the night of February 5th, 2023, I received a three-way phone call from my older sister and the hospital where my mother was lying unconscious. As the nurse explained to us mom’s prognosis, her vital signs flattened. The nurse consoled us as best he could, but all I could think was how I was from the same area and the same culture as the other two people on the line, but my voice sounded nothing like theirs. These were my people, but I sounded like a foreigner. I felt the same thing at the small informal funeral we held for my mother. I sounded like an anthropologist there to observe a native ritual.
When my sister and I discussed mom’s funeral options, I wondered if we should plan a memorial service at the church where I grew up. “Who would come?” my famously matter-of-fact sister asked. Instead, we spent a few minutes at the funeral home together before the employees cremated her. A small quiet goodbye for my chain-smoking mother before she generated one last pile of ash on her way out.
The Greek hero Achilles was told by his own mother that he, unlike everyone else in Greek myth, could choose his fate. He could either live a long, small life and die in obscurity, or he could fight in the Trojan War, die young, and be remembered forever. For Achilles, living a big life was worth living a short one. My mother wouldn’t have been ashamed of her own small funeral. She won’t mind if her memory doesn’t survive longer than her own grandchildren. “Famous or obscure, we both ended up cremated. Ashes to ashes,” I can hear her laughing from across the River Styx.
From my mother, I inherited a love of games combined with a paradoxical aversion to competition. My mother loved poker. She played weekly games at the smoke-filled neighborhood parlor when I was a kid, and moved to online poker late in life. She deserved to win more than she did – which is something I could say about much of her life – but she valued being in the game more than winning. There were combinations of cards that she liked for no reason. They weren’t good or winning cards, but she liked them, and she would play them instead of folding the hand like a more competitive player would. I grew up knowing my mother as a losing player, and it wasn’t until I asked her to teach me to play that I realized how sharp she was. She liked to play; aggressive competition made a game feel more like work.
My mother was pathologically self-effacing. Although she was more sinned against than sinning, she was rarely bitter. She took her own failings more seriously than she would ever take yours. She was always ready to forgive a slight, swallow her pride, and offer the first apology on the way to peace. No matter how big my mistake was, a small apology was always enough for her.
She was quietly kind and generous. She had barely come into a windfall before she was brainstorming how to give it away. Whether it was money, or time, she was always ready to give. When I was 11, I wanted to go see a midnight showing of Nosferatu at a movie theatre across town. We had no car, and only enough money for one ticket. She walked me over an hour across Richmond and sat outside the theatre until almost 2am and then walked me home. I still love that film. I watch it almost every year around Halloween. I don’t think my mother would have enjoyed the movie, but she certainly would have had a better time inside the theatre.
My mother only left the country once. Her first husband, my sister April’s father, was in the military stationed in Panama. My mother, ever the letter writer, became frustrated that he wasn’t writing her back and flew to Panama to ask him why. She lived in Panama for a few weeks and picked up one small phrase in Spanish, “¿Qué pasó?” She loved that phrase; it always made her smile to say it.
My mother loved practical jokes and juvenile humor. When I was a kid, we would microwave eggs to watch them explode. Even when we were so poor that we were living on instant mashed potatoes, we wasted food for entertainment.
The older I get, the smaller I feel. I find myself falling back on those insufficient ideas of my mother. The world is more complicated than it used to be, and I’m less sure about my big ideas because big ideas become outdated. They have too many moving parts; they suffer from wear and tear and they break down. A small idea is like a triangle: it’s not fancy or complicated, but its simplicity makes it durable.
My relationship with my mother was not uncomplicated. Her issues with addiction and mental health made my childhood harder than it needed to be, and I had trouble forgiving that because my own lifelong sobriety made me less sympathetic to a struggle I never had to overcome myself. We fought about her drug use; we fought about her smoking. We disagreed about politics and social issues. We argued about our family. She lived with me for five years and we found a way to irritate each other nearly every week. I’m not easy to love; I inherited that from her. I worried that our relationship would never be peaceful or easy.
Of course it was Dolly Parton that finally made peace between us. One week a few years ago, I listened to the podcast Dolly Parton’s America and then cried as I wrote my mother a long long letter apologizing for all the tension and strife between us.
Losing your mother is never easy. I have so many regrets about how I spent the years I had a mother. But in the last few years of her life, I tried to let her know that I was old enough that I was beginning to understand. I forgave her for her mistakes, and I apologized for my own.
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. I lost my father at 17 and my mother at 37. I miss them in different ways. I still want my father’s advice, but I want my mother to know how right she was.
My mother was small. She lived a small life. She had a small circle and a small family. She told small stories and she believed in small things. She believed in kindness and decency and generosity. She deserved to win more often than she did, but she valued being in the game with friends more than the size of the pot she walked away with. Her funeral was small, but she ended up as ashes just like Achilles. No one will remember her after her grandchildren die, and she is ok with that.
It’s a small legacy, but it’s hers.