End-stage dementia and malnutrition took her. That’s what my mother’s death certificate said. But the previous two decades had done damage that an autopsy might not show. By the mid-1970s, when she was in her fifties, tumblers of morning vodka had replaced bottles of evening beer. After I left for college in 1980, my father divorced her and married a co-worker. Somewhere in there, she drove her Plymouth into a ditch and got fished out by the sheriff. By the early 1980s, my mother had wrecked most of her friendships, too.
After their divorce finalized in 1982, my mother moved from Clinton, Georgia, where I grew up, to Columbia, South Carolina, where her sister lived. After a stroke in the early ’90s, she moved again, this time to Atlanta, Georgia, where I lived before I moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Nearly a decade in a nursing home followed. I don’t recall much from that time, but I do remember that, early on, a nurse asked me to quit bringing her the mouthwash she requested. I didn’t understand, until the nurse told me that my mother’s preferred brand contained alcohol.
Our neighbor Glenn Hunt delivered Jess eleven days after my mother died. Her newspaper obituary said the service would be private. In truth, there was none. Later that summer, as Jess began to sleep through the night, my father carried her ashes back to Bowman, South Carolina, where she was born. In the years since, I’ve traveled through Orangeburg County on the way to and from Charleston, but I’ve never visited the grave of Mary Beverly Evans Edge. Her resting place, and my responsibility to her, had slipped my mind.
My mother loomed large in my very small hometown. Frustrated by Clinton, bored by what was expected of her, she worked hard to recast the pageant in which she fitfully participated. Back in the early 1970s, when I was baseball obsessed, she served as a perennial team mother. When my Little League team won a county championship, she showered us with a bottle of Champagne. After some of the parents objected, my mother told them that she had cut the Champagne with Sprite. A bright smile creased her face. And she threw her head back and laughed, like Bette Davis in her black-and-white prime. We deserved to celebrate like the pros did on television, she said, and then my mother shook the bottle again, spraying down the few kids who had missed her first volley.
Late one summer afternoon, a year or so later, she stood before my Little League teammates, alongside a furled American flag, in the banquet room of a Shoney’s in nearby Macon. As we dug into burgers and shrimp baskets, she passed out Kennedy half-dollars and paraphrased his inaugural address, saying, Ask not what Little League Baseball can do for you—ask what you can do for Little League Baseball.
I was embarrassed by her, but more embarrassed by my failure. We had lost a playoff game. Specifically, I lost the game when I threw three wild pitches in a row and a player from the other team scored from first. Dressed in a red skirt and a white blouse to match our red-and-white uniforms, her gray-and-blond hair tumbling from beneath a ball cap, my mother asked us that day to dig deep and find meaning in that loss.
In that moment, she looked so happy, working the crowd, hugging necks, handing each player a round of silver. She was her best self. She knew it, and I knew it, too.
She was a genius, I’ve come to recognize, at recasting defeats as glorious spectacles. Faced with small-town ignorance, fearful of what small-town boredom might wrest from her, she did her best to divert and subvert. Looking back, I see my best self in her flagrancy. And I glimpse what my worst self might have nurtured, had the darker times in Clinton defined my life.
When I was not yet a teenager, as my mother and I ate salmon croquettes and conjugated verbs at the kitchen table, I heard a small pop in another room. On the floor of my parents’ bedroom, I found the young man my parents paid to work odd jobs, the black young man my mother called the houseboy. That horrific discovery looms in the stories I tell about my childhood, but my memory only carries me to the footboard on my father’s side of the bed, where blood spilled from his head and pooled on the heart pine planks.
For reasons I still don’t understand, that young man, just a couple years older than me, had shot himself to death with my father’s pistol. (Earlier this year, my father told me that the mother of one of my young friends had cruelly spread the rumor that I’d pulled the trigger.)
Drink and depression took my mother. She and my father argued often, over different things, but most of their fights ended the same way—with my mother throwing herself at my father’s feet, like a stock character from a theater production, begging for something she knew she would never get. My father recognized that our home was no place to raise a boy. Again and again he plotted moves that never came to pass, including an application for a Fulbright to study criminology at Cambridge. And I counted on changes that never gained traction.
When I was in my mid-teens, my mother ran out the door with a pistol of her own, threatening to kill herself. A couple of minutes later, we heard a crack from the dark woods. My father and I ran into the night to find her crying on a bench in the rock garden, among the azaleas, beneath a cedar arbor. A warm pistol lay on the cold ground by her side.
About this same time, some of our neighbors began burgling our home. We lived on seven acres out in the country. On Saturdays, those neighbors sometimes waited in those woods until we left for Atlanta. They crashed through burglar bars, broke down doors, axed through windows, and took what they could use or sell, often the stereo components I had begun to buy and trade. This happened so often that my father, who worked as a federal probation and parole officer, had an alarm system installed, with a bullhorn siren mounted at the back eave that faced the woods and an infrared motion detection device, linked to the sheriff’s office.
On the very afternoon that elaborate system was installed, my family returned home to find Lilliput, our blond-and-apricot-curled Yorkipoo, lying in a pool of blood. Our burglars had blasted apart the siren with a shotgun. When our yippy dog wouldn’t stop yipping, they gouged her throat with one of our fireplace pokers. And then they retreated through the woods.
Later that same year, a Little League teammate’s older brother, who lived on the other side of those woods and led the burglaries of our home, killed his own father and left his body in a burning car, just up the road. I learned through the local newspaper that their father had been a Baptist preacher.
I grew up a country boy, spelunking the deep gulley behind our house, fording creeks barefoot in cutoff shorts. I can recall the thrill of swingblading through privet to make a clearing. But in the wake of those burglaries, the woods became a place of menace. I have carried little knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world into adulthood. Ask me now to name a bush or a flower or a bird, and I blank. Compare a tree canopy to a cathedral, as a friend did recently, and I wish I could see what you see.
The country unmade my mother. And it nearly unmade me. On the other side of the azaleas, beyond the clearing, threats real and imagined lurked. Years would pass before I connected the country where my mother went haywire to the country where burglars crouched in the woods. But I knew from the time I was a teenager that I wanted to leave Clinton and those woods behind. Even as I longed to carry the best of my mother forward.