Mama died yesterday, while I was on the plane, on the way to see her. Her death was not unexpected, and it was not terribly sad in the sense of her having an unfinished life, but it is painful because her passing leaves a hole in the world. It most definitely leaves a hole in the world.
This is for her.
My grandmother, Mildred Beasley Barber, was born in 1914 in Warren, Arkansas. She was the third of five children born to Benjamin Beasley and Mai Smith Beasley. Her father was a lawyer who was also elected to two terms as Clerk of the Circuit Court for Bradley County. She went to college during the Great Depression, and hated it - it was a hardship for her family. She finally decided to leave school and she returned home to Warren and a while later, married my grandfather, Graham Nathaniel Barber.
When I was here two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother and I talked for hours. She told me that she knew my grandfather from the time she was eleven or twelve, but although they were friends in high school -- they shared books and notes -- he dated her friend Lucille. When she came home from college, though, all grown up, their friendship took a new course.
They had four children, including my dad, all of them exceptionally successful, and a life filled with joy and pain and fishing and books and travel -- and through it all, for those who loved them, my grandparents were the moorings, the port in the storm, the balm for what ailed us -- they were quiety, utterly dependable.
When I was in Florida, they took me fishing. Papa taught me to bait a hook and Mama taught me about love and loyalty. Mama loved to read, and rather than doing much fishing, she'd take a grocery bag full of books to read while Papa fished. I once asked her why she went at all if she wasn't going to fish -- she said it was because Papa loved to fish and she didn't want him to go out in his boat alone.
Mama took me to the library twice a week. She would help me cart home my 14 books (the most you could check out), and she would run interference with the well-meaning librarians who wanted to restrict me to the cihldren's section of the library. Mama's sister El was a librarian and she asked El for advice on what she ought to let me read. El said, "Turn her loose and you'll make a reader for life." El was right. When Mama and I talked on Thanksgiving, she laughed about how strange it was to see her ten-year-old granddaughter plowing through the Warren Commission, The Exorcist, and Shakespeare!
And what a wonderful role model she was. Mama read at least one book every day, and before she lost her eyesight, she did crosswords. She could zoom through the Sunday NYT crossword in record time. She always kept a dictionary nearby and if I ever asked her about a word she couldn't easily explain, she would immediately look it up. When I was in my Shakespeare phase, I would take a part and she would take another, and we would read it aloud as a play. Sometimes, when I begged her, she would even sing "Clementine" for me -- a song I remembered from my early childhood. No matter how difficult I was (and there is NO doubt I was difficult!), Mama was incredibly patient with me.
When I was twelve, I played clarinet in the varsity band. I wasn't really talented, but I was competitive and I challenged my way up to second chair. Rosie, the first chair, was better than me, but she wasn't old enough to play in the state finals, so I took the gold medal -- and was promoted to the Concert band, which was mostly made up of older students. I went from being arguably the best clarinetist in Varsity band to unarguably the worst in the Concert band, and I went with the band to the national championship in Orlando, Florida. The Concert band had won 20 consecutive championships and I was petrified that one of my mistakes would cost them a 21st. Looking out at the audience, I was on the verge of pretending to play, thinking that a missed part wouldn't be as bad as an audible mistake, and then I saw them. Mama and Papa Barber had driven all the way from Tampa to Orlando on a work-night, just to hear me play. Seeing them out there reminded me that I had a part to play and the right thing to do was to play it to the best of my ability, regardless of the outcome. So I did it for them, and I did it well -- and we won.
Mama and Papa were at my high school graduation. They helped my dad move me into the dorm at University of Arkansas. They held my hand and shared my grief when my dad died. Papa walked me down the aise at my wedding in my dad's place, and Mama was beaufiful in pink in the front row. They welcomed my friends into their home; they welcomed my husband; they welcomed my dogs, and they always always welcomed me.
I always felt my dad lived on in them, and now I feel that they, Mama and Papa and Daddy, live on in me.
Vale Mama Barber -- Requiescat in Pace