Mom, Dolly, and Me


On a country road in Hanover County, across from Ashland Berry Farm, sits an 18th century Episcopal church that time has dealt with kindly.

Forests beckon alongside Fork Church, ancient tombstones call – Patrick Henry once worshipped here, Katherine Hepburn’s grandfather was rector, the wife of a signer of the Declaration of Independence is buried in the graveyard.   And so is my mother: Susan Hughes Norman, August 28,1935 – December 31, 1997.  Her tombstone rests at the back end of the cemetery with a woodland view and sounds of birds twittering, just as she would have liked it.  We will all be joining her one day.  Years ago, the church announced there would be a real estate price increase so my father bought eight plots.  Even though I was divorced at the time, I told him I intended to marry again, by golly, so he bought me two slots.  Never mind Granville would like to be cremated.

My mother has rested her weary bones at Fork Church since she died on New Year’s Eve after battling a rare blood disease and dying at 62.  New Year’s Eve had always been her least favorite holiday, silly and overblown with a lot of tacky hats and behavior; this was her final comment on a celebration she had never liked.

What was so strange about my mother’s illness at such a young age was while growing up, I never remember her being sick other than when she had measles.  She was the member of the family who usually ate right and exercised.

Her sudden death from a hospital infection left me torn asunder, mainly because I was seven months pregnant with my only child.  One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to bear has been trying to teach my beloved daughter how to love my beloved mother.  It’s hard to cherish and admire someone you’ve never met.  My daughter Marlyn, 20 now, is working and studying in Los Angeles and this fall will spend a semester at Second City in Chicago, enrolled in their comedy studies program.  I know my mother is as proud as I am.

My mother was an extraordinary, talented woman – and modest.  I don’t remember a moment when she bragged about herself.  Amazing cook, creative gardener, in both Virginia and South Carolina, fisherman.  A veritable expert on silver and Oriental rugs.  A true friend.  After she died, several people told me she had great courage and never complained.

What’s been strange all these years is I have played my role as mother and her role as grandmother, meaning I probably spoiled Marlyn more than I should have.  Nonetheless, she seems to have turned out so I guess we will both be okay.

On Monday I drove out to visit Mom’s grave, taking my terrier Dolly with me. My mother owned numerous Jack Russells over the years, Arthur, Effie, Nicky, Josephine, Treacle, Abigail – bred them as well and participated in trials and shows.  The ribbons still hang on a board in my dad’s garage, dusty and forgotten.  Mom would be pleased that I had inherited her terrier gene though I’m not sure there will be a board full of ribbons.

Hoping the sun, any sun, would break through the clouds, Dolly and I meandered along on our drive.    She likes car trips now that I’ve bought a booster seat so she can sit up front, sometimes balancing on her back legs, taking in the scenery though I wish she’d stop barking at drivers when we’re at stoplights.

We drove down the rippling grosgrain of country roads, past waterlogged farms and large bleak signs announcing land for sale.  The names of the roads could roll off your tongue lyrically: Newfound Bridge Lane, Whispering Pines, Hillbilly, Daybreak.  Driving in the countryside is dreamlike.  I saw a gaggle of geese and swans blocking a road.  A mighty bull and a chummy duck shared a small pond.  A deer was frolicking in a side yard.  Someone had put a giant red wooden sign saying JOY in a tree last Christmas and just left it up, because, well, we all certainly need more JOY.  Many homes had a few chairs pulled up in the shade out back, placed in an oval so friends and family could come over to chitty chat and drink cold ones.  I saw honor vegetable stands.

All this makes me think of setting out to find a simpler life.

Soon, when the sun is out, I will drive back to Fork Church to leave a pot of flowers on my mother’s grave.  After twenty years, I have learned to live with a shadow across my heart.


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