AUNTIE MARY LEE
BY PATRICK L. RILEY
(SUBMISSION TO BE CONSIDERED FOR: Aunties: Not Just Another Mother
by INGRID STURGISS). didn't get selected for the book, but now i can share it.
My mom died from a heart attack on July 20, 1994. Though an arguably long, twelve years ago, I still flinch at the one-two punch that comes from using the word "mom" and any variation of the word "death" in the same sentence.
Maybe I'm being dramatic because I'm the baby of the family and
feel that 23 years old is too young for a "mama's boy" to lose his
mom. After all, I hadn't begun to live and fulfill those dreams she
had for me - the ones she only seemed to understand, like my
insatiable need to have a career that made me happy. This, versus
the career "US News & World Report" was announcing would make me
stable in the marketplace.
Plus, I had yet to buy her one of the cliché'd symbols of having
made it, like a house or a luxury car. And though she had a chance to
witness me receiving a nice civic award here and an industry nod there, she didn't see me win the Emmy or Grammy or Oscar or some household symbol of my profession that would go on her mantle in the home that I would have bought for her.
Maybe I'm just trying to wrap my brain around the dose of reality
that she was only 54 when she left this earth (what a short life).
But the truth is she lived 45 more years than the doctors forecasted
when she was a child. At that time, my mom was given six months to
live as she struggled through a bout of rheumatic fever. Still, that
brings no comfort.
Maybe my brain is fried over what seems to be a death curse in my
family. In 1974, my mom lost her own mother, who was in her early 60s when she died. My mom was 54.
Bottom line: My mom died and it hurt like hell. And twelve years
later, it still hurts like hell.
And unlike the close call from spring 1992 when she suffered
from congestive heart failure two weeks before my college graduation, she wasn't coming back this time.
During that health crisis, she took ill and still managed to
recover and be in place to cheer me on at my alma mater Morehouse's
outside ceremony. That feat included a four-hour road trip from
Savannah, Georgia to Atlanta, which couldn't have been comfortable
considering her condition.
Not only that, but the next two years seemed to give her a long lease on life. She lost lots of weight in all the right places. She began to eat more healthily. On some level, she just seemed happier and more vibrant. And never would I have anticipated another dreadful call another two years later from an intensive care unit.
Right after that close call, Mom seemed that much more beautiful and statuesque than before the health episode. At my graduation, the sun made her hazel eyes shine that much brighter. Her multi-colored blouse-and-skirt ensemble with gold, metallic accents hung that much more flowingly off of her shapely frame. And that sheer, silky head-wrap with splashes of burnt orange - like her top,made her an even more dynamic diva than she already was. Think Maya Angelou at her most regal.
And by mom's side stood Mary Lee. I call her Auntie Mary Lee,
mother's oldest (by two years) and only sibling.
She was always the more understated one of the twosome. For every
strand of Mom's fiery auburn hair, there was a more conservative
blend of salt-and-pepper to Mary Lee's tresses.
For every vocal lead my mother took in the church choir, there was a rich bottom that Mary Lee would provide on the four-part harmony. For every pair of pants mom wore as a compliment to her heavily skirted wardrobe, there were only dresses - house and otherwise - to pad out my aunt's more mature gear.
In my lifetime, the two sisters have been jokingly called "The
Weather Girls" or "Two Tons of Fun" when their respective weights
got the best of them. Like the glamorous disco duo - known for the
big hit "It's Raining Men," mom and Mary Lee cleaned up very well.
No matter their sizes, they really were fabulous when they sashayed
out of their homes.
TV detectives "Cagney and Lacey" are another pair to which my
aunt and mother have been likened as they could sometimes get into
their own kind of trouble trying to locate a missing family member
or rescue a wayward cousin. I'm talking trench coats, ditches, and
flashlights. They truly had each other's back.
From back in the day, they were "The Preacher's Daughters" or
those "Bellinger Girls" as their father was a pastor of a well-known
church in Savannah. I hear you wouldn't typically see one without the other. And when you did, they were mostly in church.
Interestingly, they lost twenty years of being attached at the
hip, after my mom married my dad in 1958. As an Air Force man, my
father led my mother on an itinerary that included Berlin, Germany;
San Bernadino, California; and Tokyo, Japan where I was born. During
those twenty-plus years of travel with three kids to boot (my two
older siblings), my Auntie Mary Lee would hold the fort in Savannah,
looking after their parents, raising her own two kids, and managing
a marriage of her own.
But when Dad retired from the military in the late 1970s, Mary
Lee got her sister back. Mom and Dad chose their childhood home Savannah as the place where we - as a family - would settle down.
For the next three years, my mom and Mary Lee tag teamed on
keeping their father fed and fit. At this time, my grandfather was a
retired preacher and widower, who had suffered a stroke and was
living in a nursing home. With my mom again by her side, my aunt
visited Granddaddy and took him hot, home-cooked meals everyday. He
wouldn't eat the food that the health care facility provided.
This daunting arrangement gave my mom the opportunity to pay her
sister back for the many times Mary Lee was left to care for Grand- daddy on her own, including the time when their mother had fallen ill. Mom was raising us in California.
Also, Auntie Mary Lee had a heart attack herself in the mid-70s.
She didn't want anyone to tell my mother until she got better. My
mom was thousands of miles away on the West Coast and she didn't
want to worry her so soon after their mom's passing. As a result,
Mom wasn't around to help much during her recovery.
I guess Auntie Mary Lee is a typical "older sibling". She didn't
want anyone to worry and very often put herself and her needs last.
Perhaps I was drawn to her as a child for those reasons, much like
I'm probably drawn to my own "oldest sibling" Janice. She has a knack for putting other's first, especially those "youngest kids" in her life (not just me).
My aunt was a wonderful compliment to my mom's more direct, in-your-face brand of parenting, no doubt rooted in her being the bratty, outspoken baby in her own clan.
Sans the neck roll or lip flap my sassy mom might toss at you
before she would step foot into the kitchen, Auntie Mary Lee was
always more than willing to prepare any range of dishes for us. From
pork 'n beans to the all-out soul food smorgasbord with sweet tea,
and lemon for kicks, she cooked to order.
With Mom, sometimes we had to constantly badger her to purchase
the things we "wanted" versus what might have been on sale; Mary Lee's cookie jar always had one of my many favorite brands of cookies in it - namely the flower-shaped ones that have BUTTER inscribed simply on the packaging. Incidentally, the cookies that came out of her cookie jar just tasted better.
And without having to bring home straight A's, my aunt would
always call me "the professor". To her, the fact that I was reading anything made me smart. Granted, I wasn't always reading Langston or
Shakespeare. Sometimes, it was a teen rag magazine, but somehow she
always identified my love of reading with being the smartest kid on the block. Surely, Auntie Mary Lee's simple philosophy worked for me as it came with less an onus than the one I had to adopt in my own household, where pats on the back didn't come as effortlessly. It was always nice to have the option to not have to try as hard to impress when I visited my enabling aunt.
I just loved having a mother and an aunt, who were so similar,
yet so different. And without mom here, that balance is gone. I not
only feel a huge sadness for myself - a pity I've taken to Jesus and
But Auntie Mary Lee must be dealing with an even more intense grief. I mean, my mom is someone she's known all her life.
Though they haven't always been geographically in the same city,
they have always been close. When they were in the same city, they
were road-dogs. And whatever time they didn't spend together
physically was off set with the telephone. Auntie Mary Lee would
call mom everyday at 5 o'clock. And though mom would sometimes
cavalierly receive the call, she'd panic if it didn't come.
"I haven't heard from my sister today," she'd say. "Patrick! Call
Mary Lee and make sure she's okay."
I find myself similarly impacted when my own (and only) sister
calls on the dime with nothing to say. But let that call not come,
I'm on the wire trying to reach out to her and find out why I didn't
hear from her. This, my aunt has no more.
And as the last person living and breathing from her immediate family, she's got to be in a really sad place right now.
"Mary Lee is your mama now," my aunt's current husband Lloyd once
said. "You won't be without a mama because Mary Lee is here."
When he spoke this, I respectfully nodded without any words, even though my instinct was stabbing me in my gut that this is not the case, for me at least. The reality is there will never be a replacement for my mother. She provided me a brand of love that no one can duplicate.
And chances are the sadness I continue to feel will always linger
near, even if time has allowed me a few more moments of laughter and
Still, on those moments when I venture back to Savannah from my
new home New York City, I can go and visit my sweet Auntie Mary Lee.
No, she's not my mom. But she's a bittersweet reminder of the
good stock, which bred my mother.
And whenever my Auntie Mary Lee and I come together, I feel a nostalgic glimmer of the comfort I felt as a child -- with each meal, with each cookie, and with each compliment.
I flinch again at the thought of life without her.
POST SCRIPT: Uncle Lloyd died earlier this year. Auntie Mary Lee is still hanging in there. She was so gracious to prepare my favorite dishes, including cornbread dressing, for the Christmas meal, even though she wasn't feeling her best with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other pars for the course of aging. She's still funny, bright, sharp, and on top of all that goes on in our family.
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