Sunday, April 2, 2017

On my mother's 100th birthday

My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was born one hundred years ago today. She came into the world as the United States was about to enter the First World War and left it seven weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

For twenty-four years she was the postmaster of Elizaville, Kentucky 41037, a one-room, fourth-class office that was a local nexus. She saw nearly everyone in town every day and knew what everyone was doing. (To live in rural Kentucky in those days was to experience a level of surveillance unmatched by the Soviet Union at the height of its power.)

She had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, the latter of which I inherited from her, along with a regrettable tendency to indulge it.  Her  private smile appeared briefly when she was amused, as she regularly was by slightly improper stories, and my sisters and I called the glower when she was displeased “the camel look.”

On one occasion she heard that a local official had been using an official vehicle to ferry voters to the polls on behalf of candidates he favored, and she told other people. That official got wind of it, came to the post office, confronted her, and demanded that she disclose whom she had told. My mother, about five feet tall and slender, looked up at this beefy figure, six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, towering over her and said, “Everybody I saw. And the ones I didn’t see I called and told.”

After Kathleen, the children, and I moved to Baltimore, we returned to visit every summer at the farm she had inherited from her parents, and there were the treats of my childhood: the country ham, the One True Fried Chicken, and green beans and potatoes cooked on the stove all morning, a transparent pie from Magee’s Bakery in Maysville. (She also made her powerful bourbon balls twice a year, in December and February, for Jesus’ birthday and mine.)

I recently came across a note from her, written on a Post Office memo sheet on my first day at Michigan State in 1969. It promises to write every day, encloses a check for laundry money and expenses, and wonders what I am doing at that moment in the afternoon. Blissfully, youthfully obtuse and preoccupied with new experiences, I did not recognize then and only now belatedly realize that she was telling me she missed me.

She did not, after all, write every day, but I have a box full of letters that I have not yet been able to put on the curb to be transformed into cardboard. The texts of the letters themselves, innocuous, quotidian, are not the message. The unstated meaning on every page is how much she cared for me, how proud she was of me.

After the death of my father, she remained at the family farmhouse. As her health got shakier, she had a companion in the evenings. But she stayed on. She had one gentleman friend with whom she enjoyed going out to restaurants, and I found at her funeral that she had most recently been dating a man whom she had known in childhood at school. She lived on her own terms to the end.

Her physical remains rest on a hillside in the Elizaville Cemetery. You can turn from her grave and see the family farmhouse on another hill in the distance, one look taking in the place where she spent her entre life.

The body is gone, but something of her survives in me.

      Marian Early McIntyre with her parents, Lucien Lundy Early and Clara Rhodes Early