A Challenge to be Cheerful

A Challenge to be Cheerful

There are 48 states on my United States map, but only four of them—Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and Kansas—are between Florida and Colorado. So Denver, where Mama will be in Colorado, isn’t very far away. And it’s OK, anyway, that Mama will be gone for a while because I’m going to get to live with my Gramma in a garage apartment while Daddy and my little brother stay in the house. It’s good my little brother is staying in the house. He’s digging a hole to China in the back yard. I know he won’t reach China soon, but he’s two years younger than I am and doesn’t know, and he wants to finish.

Moving will be fun. Our dishes will be put in boxes and carried to the garage apartment. Even Gramma’s mahogany dining room table will be in the garage apartment. I’ll sleep on the green wicker couch in the living room, but I’ll have my dresser and especially my blue flower bedspread. While Mama’s gone, I’ll have everything I need.

I think I was 8 years old when Mama found out that Daddy was cheating on her, left him and went to live in Denver, and I was so well taken care of that the only thing I worried about was whether I would have my favorite bedspread.

I stayed with my Gramma for a year and then made the trip of my life to Denver, all by myself on a plane doing 180 miles per hour, top speed in 1952. I still remember the pilot announcing we would be “cruising (ah! a new word) at 180.”

Taking off, I got to see Gramma’s waving arm getting smaller and smaller on the ground. I got to see what houses look like when they get so small you can’t even see the chimneys on the roofs, and then when you can’t any longer even see the roofs. Flying over Tennessee, two n’s, two s’s, two e’s, I got to see mountains with pine trees and snow on top without having to climb anything. And every time we took off for another leg of the journey, I got to fly right into clouds. Gramma said my mother had told the stewardesses to take good care of me, so at each of three stopovers a stewardess on my plane that had just landed handed me over to another stewardess on the plane that was to take off. Best of all, when I got to Denver and the third stewardess handed me over for a big hug from Mama, she said she had a kitten waiting for me at home.

Some time after that, my brother also got to come live in Denver. I would not find out why he didn’t stay longer in Florida with Daddy until I was in my 50s and Daddy had died. Mama, reminiscing one day while I was visiting, told me she had found her husband on a couch at work with another woman. She knew she would have to leave immediately, she said, before the wives of her husband’s business associates found out, before the snide comments about “what she must have done to make him leave the nest” would begin. She said she knew exactly what those women would say since they had just said it, at every one of the recent company social events, about another of their own group whose husband had strayed. That woman was no longer invited to their parties.

Mama told me she confronted my father when he got home that day. Very quietly, so as not to upset the children, they worked out the details of an immediate separation. He wanted my brother, not me. She agreed to that.

I was shocked to hear she had considered giving up my brother and said so. “Oh well,” she said, “it worked out the way I thought it would. Having to take care of a child limited your father’s access to girlfriends, so he sent my son back to me.”

That statement said it all. In 1942, my mother had been a copper-haired buxom bride who got the biggest whistles from the guys home on leave from the war. That same year, she married the handsomest man she had ever seen. She remained faithful to him all during the war and his overseas postings. She was proud of him for doing his duty for his country and later  for his rapid postwar rise through corporate ranks. She was his Wife–a word which in that era was considered an important enough role to begin with a capital letter. She was happy taking care of his home and raising a family. Then, in one afternoon, she was reduced to schemes to keep her own children.

Once she put separation plans in action, though, I know my mother rallied. From that moment on, I don’t think she ever looked back.

It wasn’t that she went on to become successful in business or a famous artist. She remained a housewife, marrying again and eventually having a third child. And her artwork was limited to two chalk drawings of humpbacked fish that hung over the mantle in the living room. It was rather that she lived the life she was given to live, and did so with good cheer.

I think all her life Mama consciously chose to be cheerful. If I was depressed and didn’t want to get up in the morning, she would tell me, “When you wake up and feel depressed, get up out of bed and comb your hair. Come downstairs and say ‘Good morning’ to your family. Make yourself sound happy. Once you’re taking care of your day, once you do something nice for somebody you love, you’ll find you actually are happy. Come on now,” she would say, “You give it a try.”

And I do try. Every morning for the more than 60 years since I left my Mama’s house to make my own way in life, I have remembered her bright “Good morning.” And almost every morning I, too, give cheerful a try.