by Elizabeth Fowler Sullivan
This is the kind of party Mamma always wanted to throw. There is music and singing and dancing. And there is laughter – lots of laughter. It’s Mamma’s funeral and it’s the best party she ever gave.
In life, Mamma struggled with get-togethers. Something would inevitably go wrong. She couldn’t get my brother to finish mowing the lawn, or motivate me to shake out the throw rugs, or her favorite yellow cake – the one with sliced bananas, fluffy white icing and cocoanut flakes – would burn when she put it back into the oven to brown.
This time it’s different. Mamma is here – and not here. This time Mamma won’t get upset. She lies still in her red and white polka dot blouse and navy-blue suit, just the way she said she wanted to be. And though they can’t be seen under the closed lower opening of the casket, she’s wearing the navy-blue slippers the two of us found for her to wear at a grandson’s wedding. Navy blue is good on Mamma. Any shade of blue, really. Even now, when you can’t see her sky-blue eyes, the dark blue is complemented perfectly by her snow-white hair.
I told the funeral directors how her hair was supposed to look. I knew they would have a problem because someone at her assisted living residence had cut short bangs – just taken a pair of scissors and cut them straight across like her daddy used to do all his children. He’d line the four of them up and chop off their hair. I gave Mamma short haircuts too, but I left the hair over her eyes as long as possible and feathered it to soften her high forehead. Her cowlick gave a natural
lift on top.
The preparation people at the funeral home have done the best they could and, even at 90, Mamma looks lovely. Her mother called her “My pretty girl,” even though she had two other daughters to consider. Today I think Grandma was right – not diplomatic – but right.
Once, as a little girl, I sat on her lap, stroked her face and described her complexion this way; “It’s like a peach, Mamma.” I remember her purring “Thank you, Darlin’.” And it was then that I realized I’d given her a compliment without knowing it – though I somehow knew not to tell her I’d simply meant that, like a peach, it was pink and fuzzy.
The truth is, Mamma didn’t spend much time trying to be beautiful. Her body was a strong and constantly moving thing and she enjoyed wearing work clothes, digging in the dirt, planting and tending her vegetables and flowers – especially her roses. Weeding and sweating, she would often work after the sun had set, pull off her garden togs and go “skinny dipping” in her kidney-shaped pool. But because she believed in – relied on – the power of contrast, she was known to
transform herself and go out dancing.
When telling the directors of Mamma’s plans for her funeral, I think they were a bit apprehensive, but they didn’t say so. I called Dr. Jim Faulconer, my friend and teacher at the University of Oklahoma. “I need a Dixie Land Band, Jim,” I said. And he replied, “Don’t worry, you’ll have it.”
Next, I called Dr. Gene Garrison, the minister Mamma watched every Sunday morning on TV, as she took detailed notes. He knew her personally because of her letters and the time he visited her in her home. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
Agreeing to come to see my husband and me the next morning, Dr. Garrison mentioned that it would not take long to plan the funeral. But when we asked him to stay for lunch, he agreed and, as we talked into the evening, enjoyed quoting from the letters she’d written him. We shared with him stories of her busy, often troubled life. While getting her Bible for him – he wanted to use it at her service – I thought of a scripture she’d underlined, found Revelation 3: 15-16 and read aloud; “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” I handed him Mamma’s Bible and said, “Mamma was not lukewarm.”
I can’t believe it’s going so well, Mamma. Just as you planned, right here in The Little Chapel of the Roses, the Dixie Land Band is playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and we’re singing and dancing down the aisle.
THE MUSIC ROOM
Mamma is reminiscing. She tells me, “Your grandma would say, ‘Let’s do one more song… just one more!’ She loved to pick and fret.”
I’m thinking that now she’ll tell how Grandma picked up hickory nuts to buy her first mandolin. She does. And I enjoy hearing it again.
“She knew a thousand songs – all by ear,” Mamma says. “Turkey In The Straw, Shamus O’Brian, I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen… and whatever she’d heard at the vaudeville show on Saturday night.”
Mamma shares her favorite story about her parents: “You know how your Grandma and Grandpa met, don’t you?”
I don’t tell her that I remember – I want to hear it again. “She was playing her mandolin and he was strummin’ his guitar at a dance.”
I’m trying to pay close attention to Mamma. I might hear something I’ve not heard before. But my mind begins to stray – drift back to when I was very young.
We’re in the house my mother grew up in and we are company, my father, mother, brother and I. We’ve come from our little house on the other bank of Lightning Creek, in South Oklahoma City. It’s one of Grandpa’s rentals.
Mamma stirs something at the kitchen stove – briskly stirs and stirs. She pours the mixture into a large bowl. I see that it’s gravy – milk gravy. There’s the smell of fried beef steak, green beans with salt pork and something else… cinnamon. The crimped, browned crust of a pie is eye level on the long table, set with plain white dishes and mismatched knives, forks and spoons. I sit near an open window. The breeze sifts through its screen and cools the sweat on my back.
Grandpa, Grandma, Mamma, Uncle Billy, my aunts Molly and Martha, pile their plates high. Daddy and brother Glen eat small servings and I’m having apple pie.
Mamma begins to help Grandma wash dishes and put food away in the pantry and icebox. And, as we walk away, she wipes clean the white oilcloth covered table – the benches.
We pass the bathroom, where the roof slopes down over a tub. The smell of lye soap and Old Dutch Cleanser almost covers the faint acrid odor.
The walls of the living room are painted red. Mamma explains that’s why everyone gets angry. The wooden floors splinter and stab bare feet of children. Two big windows have no curtains. Grandma wants them, but Grandpa argues, “I put windows there so I could see out!”
Grandpa says you don’t need a house that’s “too good for ya.” He tells of trying to farm the poor land his family claimed in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 – of how they almost starved – and of how good we’ve got it now.
A bedroom with seven windows joins the living room on our right. Grandpa and Uncle Billy sleep here. A thick white cloth hangs from an iron rod on the other side of the living room. It’s pulled to one side so that you can walk into the bedroom where Grandma sleeps with Martha, her youngest. This room is dark because its only window is shaded by a porch.
“There used to be two windows,” Mamma tells me, “but Papa cut down a cherry tree and built a room for Molly.”
From the dark bedroom, we go into the largest room in the house. This room is for music. Here Grandma doesn’t make Grandpa crazy. Here, he forgets how often he waits for her.
“She may take a while, but she’s thorough,” Mamma offers in her mother's defense. “On family trips to swim and picnic, she never forgets a thing – down to the salt and the matches… she never forgets a thing.”
When he works and when he plays, Grandpa’s quick. He doesn’t understand anyone who isn’t like him.
There’s a wide bay window in the music room… the scent of honeysuckle comes through its opening. Evening comes and Mamma, sitting at the upright piano, chords to Grandma’s mandolin and Grandpa’s guitar. Aunt Martha sings "In My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown". Mamma wants Daddy to whistle "My Wonderful One". I want to hear him too. But he won’t. He likes to sit on the back porch – look at the stars – while he whistles.
Brother Glen and I aren’t ready to perform in the Music Room. Mamma’s bought us a piano. It’s not new, but it’s got a good sound and the keys aren’t hard to press down. Stuyvesant is the name painted on a wooden lid that folds down over the keys. She says it’s called a “player piano” because you can slide back little doors behind the music stand and watch rolls of paper with little punched-out holes that catch on the prongs of a turning cylinder. Foot pedals are used to work the bellows. The keys go down… it’s like many fingers you can’t see are pressing them to strike the strings. Music comes out. Mama says the “player part” has to go. She wants us to play it. But we don’t know our notes and Mamma insists we learn, says I’m prone to be like Grandma, who doesn’t read music.
Billy and Molly tune their violins, play hoedown while Mamma jigs and Grandpa clogs, innovate obbligato accompaniment to the tunes the others do… solo here and there. They play a Bach violin concerto and Grandpa forgets the time he spent waiting for them outside Mrs. Brandenburg’s Studio – and the cash it took. He smiles at Grandma, and I fall asleep on a cracked leather couch to sounds of harmony.
My granddaughter wondered how to arrange 90 candles on the birthday cake she’d baked for me.
Thinking I’d simplify her problem, I suggested she just use 9 of them – one for each of the decades I’ve lived.
But while she was pushing them through the icing, I said, “If I were a child, somebody would say, ‘Add one to grow on!’”
She smiled as I added, “Place another candle, Dear. Your grandma wants to keep growing too.”
Elizabeth Sullivan, May 22, 2020
VIEWING A 1931 PHOTO
Mama must be taking the picture, because she's not in it, just my daddy, brother and me; and the four of us are making this Route 66 trip together. It's somewhere east of Chula Vista, on our way back to Oklahoma. We're part of those folks who thought California could solve the problems of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression days. But reality set in; and a lot of us are going home. It's definitely a photo by Mama, who has a feel for how to use contrasts in black and white. She sets a mood, tells a story.
Daddy is 29 years old, 5'11" and very slender, he's wearing overalls and his felt dress hat, tilted just right over his face. He holds me in his arms, leans against our Model A Ford and manages, in spite of it all, to look debonair. My hair is the lightest shade the film makes, my long sleeved baby dress and socks about the same, and my baby doll shoes, the darkest. Brother's hair is only a little darker than mine; he wears a V necked shirt and shorts and he stands close to Daddy, where he will always be. We look scrubbed, and mended; Mama sees to that.
I am the family's only California acquisition, if you don't count the trade-up from the old Model T Ford they came out in.
The wooden steering wheel, specially designed we're told, can be seen through the windshield of the car. Under the hood is a Bosch lgnition System, a Rotorhead and a Ruxel 3 to 1 axle. "Pretty fancy," Daddy likes to say. Strapped to the front bumper, placed low, so the radiator can breathe, is a wooden box that holds Daddy's tools. He's a good mechanic and can stop, when funds are gone, to fix something for cash or food. My brother's tricycle is secured on top of the box, and folding out of the turtle back is a built-in picnic table. There's also a space there for food supplies and a little kerosene cook stove. Even loaded down with our every possession, we pass puzzled motorists as we climb the mountains. Pretty fancy.
We're poor, but I don't know it. Everything a little child needs is mine. I'm comfortable and happy, being kept clean, fed, and loved by my struggling young parents.
But we are rich too. And I don't know that either. Mama and Daddy are still very much in love and they can can spread a tarpaulin along the side of the road where we can get a good night's rest before traveling on.
Elizabeth Sullivan, January 1990
FREE PASSES TO VAUDEVILLE
"John Sanapolo gave Papa free passes to the vaudeville shows that came to Oklahoma City," Mama said. "He owned the Lyric Theater...it was on 3rd, or 4th, or 5th street and Robinson, and the Orpheum Theater on Main. He liked the way Papa worked hard to get a water weII for his mansion in the blackjacks northeast of the city. He paid Papa a dollar a foot for a 100 ft. well...and the free passes."
"It began in 1915 ‐ I was six years old," Mama remembered. "Every Saturday night for years Papa, Mama, sister Molly and l got into the Buick touring car and went to see stars tike Wi‖ Rogers perform on the stage. There were always lots of dancing girIs ‐ kicking high ‐ and comedians." I asked about the car. "It was black, of course, all cars were black back in those days ‐ and it had isinglass flaps you could fasten down.… but we didn't much...we didn't care if we got wet!"
She remembered one performer in particular "...she made us laugh so hard! She told about a family with a new car ‐ traveling through the countryside. The mother shouted ― over and over ‐ 'Breathe children!'"
Mama told me about how Grandpa and Grandma would take them home to the family kitchen pantry. ''Your grandma would bring out pumpkin or cherry or apple pies and we'd eat like hogs.… then she'd pick up her mandolin and say, 'Now, how did that tune go?' And she'd play by ear the songs they'd heard, like, 'If you wake up in the morning and you find the bed a‖ wet, blame the baby, blame the baby.' Your grandpa would clog and ev'ryone would perform something they'd seen and heard that night."
THE HIDING LOFT
Children know about the need to hide.
They hide and seek by nature.
As a child I lived in a house with a long back porch.
It had a railing that followed three steps down at each end.
The west end led to the cottonwood tree,
on which my swing hung,
the cellar and what seemed a large back yard.
Roses and honeysuckle grew along the fence
encircling that sanctuary
and with the hollyhock blossoms of pink and red,
they brushed the scene with glorious color.
I played "dress-up" on the west steps.
I practiced "grown up” dialogue,
and wore my mother's
old dresses, shoes and hats.
The top of the cellar was the stage for my "props."
Old benches, stools and buckets became
for my fantasy world.
My only sibling was a brother
who played baseball,
and though children
sometimes came to share in the theatrics,
I was most often left to myself to "talk"
to the imaginary characters
of each scene.
I liked the names Ann and Jim, Jane and Clem.
I especially enjoyed saying "Clem."
I don't remember
the weather ever being
anything but lovely there.
In my memory
the sun always filtered
through the leaves of my tree.
They were shiny and they slapped together
and clapped for me
there on the west side,
down the west steps.
It was there that I celebrated
When World War II was declared,
I was eleven years old.
Soon my mother took an "outside" job
at a nearby defense plant.
Everyone helped in what we called
"The War Effort."
We didn't complain about rationing
and writing on both sides of our school paper,
or taking on household chores
while mothers went to work
away from home.
It was the least we could do.
The east steps led me to the garage,
our family's soiled clothes in my arms,
where the washing machine was kept.
Its brand name was "Easy."
We thought its name was quite appropriate
since it contained both the wash and rinse cylinders,
making washtubs obsolete.
I used a rubber hose to fill the larger container
(the one with an agitator at its center) with hot water.
Using a knife, I shaved slivers from a bar of lye soap
into the tumbling water,
so that it would dissolve thoroughly.
I washed white clothes first.
Then, using a wooden pole,
I lifted them into the metal basket
in the adjoining rinsing compartment
and filled it with cold fresh water.
After I fastened its lid,
the device spun until
all the water was extracted.
Two or three such treatments
produced clean, well rinsed clothes.
When the lid was fastened for spinning, however,
It was usually necessary
to hold the whole thing down.
It had a tendency to shake violently
and "walk'' away from the drain in the floor.
The soapy water was used again
and again (with added water and shavings as needed)
for subsequent "loads."
The colored fabrics followed the whites-
darker and dirtiest clothes were last.
Hoses, connected to the bottom of the contraption,
released the water and after a final rinse down,
the process was finished.
The clothes, placed in separate piles of whites, colored, and darks,
were ready to be hung on clothes lines for drying.
The east steps led to work.
There was much less time for leisure and childhood.
But above the washer there was a loft.
Its floor stretched from one side of the garage to the other
and began at the roofs edge,
so that its shape was triangular,
with a depth of no more than five feet.
Even a child could not stand
in the space, which was left open-ended
so that tall people could slide long handled tools into place,
without using the wooden ladder I had to climb.
I discovered I could lie there quite comfortably-
next to the shovels, rakes and hoes-
on a pallet I'd made of an old quilt.
I felt as if no one could find me.
I was alone to be quiet,
My hiding loft was a particularly wonderful place to be
on stormy days,
days not good for washing.
Rain fell on the wooden shingles close above me.
My own little space,
was a window for my mind.
And its pane was unhindered imagination.
It might have been in the loft,
above the washer,
that I first knew the joy of solitude.
lt was there,
that work and play
were more perfectly balanced for me
than they have ever been since.
It may have been then
that I most fully accepted the value of both,
and that neither be disguised as the other.
It was there
that I was half way between
the accomplishment of pretending
and the goals of endeavor.
And it was surely there that I,
hiding in the loft,
was precisely poised somewhere
east of west
and west of east,
and wiser than I am today.
LIGHTED MAGNIFYING MAKEUP MIRROR
…bought a lighted
It was enlightening,
but I’m not as happy as I was in
September 10, 2021