My mom was a prolific writer. Most of her writing exists today in longhand, in her distinctive but usually legible cursive, sometimes written with felt-tip pens in unusual colors. (Yay, purple.)
Some of her writing has come into my possession over the last 10 years. A family friend had some bits and pieces that he sent to me recently. Others were in boxes stored in a warehouse that I didn’t know about until a few years ago. It’s a wide range of subject matter — precious family memories that you will never pry from me, an oral history of the semi-seedy motel in Five Points where married men slept when their wives kicked them out for the night, and an account of a member of the Kennedy entourage trying to pick her up at the Great Wall.
I had on my oldest pair of sandals but suddenly I hit the turf, walking back as fast as I could. The route would be up and down for a half-mile or more over rough stones, but mostly down. In all my hiking experience, uphill had been hard, but they don’t call me “The Downhill Racer” for nothing, a title conferred on my by a 6’4” Marine (a friend of ours who always called Dad “Col. Dure”) I deliberately raced down a six-mile trail once.
Dad was, as you’d expect, a prominent character in many of these tales:
Leon always kept his old uniforms, going back to Korea, even if they were outdated, and always kept his figure to fit in them in case he was called up. The same was true when he became Exec, then CO in Atlanta. (This is a reference to his Marine Corps Reserves duties.) The same was true three years ago when he was passed over the second time for general. Viet Nam was over by then, but we still have an atticful of outfits for World War III.
I wonder what she would have made of the social media age. I’m sure she would have taken to it with things that would make me laugh, cringe and smile in various measures.
But it also occurred to me that I never wrote a proper remembrance of her as I did for my dad when he passed away. I was just discovering the Internet when she died, and I had no outlet for writing anything that anyone would see.
Also, I was still young when she left us. I didn’t have the perspective I have now.
So here’s a long-overdue tribute to a well-loved, complex woman.
And make no mistake — she was well-loved. My friends adored her. I hear frequently from her friends and colleagues in Athens, all remembering her as a wonderful, witty woman. At my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding (also referenced in my dad’s farewell), people who had grown up with her in Berlin, Md., came over to me and instantly recognized me as her son, having never seen me before. That’s the kind of impression she left on people. The Hammond family had been part of the fabric of Berlin since pre-incorporation times, and while my uncle Edward stayed in town as a pillar of the community, my mom was still fondly remembered by everyone who had grown up there.
Whatever “it” is — beauty, a sharp wit leavened with graceful manners, a reputation as a loving mother of a precocious but often awkward child — she had it.
She made all those impressions despite the fact that she was frequently ill. Her body and mind broke down all too often, giving those of us who cared for her quite a few scares. A lifetime of heavy smoking contributed to those problems and ultimately took her from us far too soon.
She also was what you might call “unfiltered.” Many of her little essays are not for 21st century consumption, riddled with stereotypes we wouldn’t use today. They’re also brutally frank about some people in our family and around Athens. Every Southern family, it seems, has one ne’er-do-well relative, and she devotes a lot of pen and typewriter to skewering ours, sometimes in arcane ways I can’t even fathom:
He could have left directly from the beach in front of our cottage like a seagull, but he likes to shroud his comings and goings in secrecy and fly commercial.
(I’m withholding his name and identifying details, of course.)
Most of her essays (aside from some published work — she wrote for various UGA and Athens publications) were meant for limited readership among her inner circle. But even when she wasn’t writing, she could be a little too frank for many tastes.
At the fall sports banquet of my sub-freshman (eighth grade) year, I went woefully underdressed. Most people wore ties. I was just in my shabby school clothes. I was pretty embarrassed about it. She didn’t really help matters by talking loudly about it, making the excuse that I was the youngest one there (I had skipped a grade, so I was a year younger than most classmates and a good five years younger than the seniors). Then she said it was the same reason I shouldn’t worry that my bench-press results were the lowest in the class. Again, a little too loud.
(Looking back — why were we charting bench-press maxes for everyone in P.E., anyway? I was 12, dude! And I ran cross-country — let’s see the football players’ 5K times!)
She had a lot of good friends and fulfilling responsibilities — her writing gigs, her work with the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation (“Heritage” in this case being historic preservation of the type supported by the guys from R.E.M., not “Heritage Foundation” in the sense of a propaganda mill), and her work as president of the Barrow Elementary PTA.
But most of all, she had a son.
I’d often heard people say Mom was as proud as she could be to be an expectant mother. One of her essays is full of the usual doting on her baby — how I was already doing something at Day 1 that most kids couldn’t do, that I was the most beautiful baby in the nursery, etc.
On Monday morning early, they brought the babies around. I took the little Pamper off and inspected him from head to toe. A real beauty. I got what I paid for. He was warm, loveable, washable, and wonderful. Better than those three national awards I won for publications that year. There was just no comparison. Now if I just didn’t drop him on his head. …
In the nursery, Beau wiggled his foot. He rubbed his fist against his cheek. The other babies were nearly always sleeping. Beau stayed busy. He had little short blonde hairs all over his head and blue eyes. In two days a nurse told me he was doing better nursing than any of the babies they had, and they had quite a crop.
She goes further. This was written during a time of strife, and she has an extended dream in which she and I travel Dante-style through various afterlifes, with a few side trips to a fantasy version of this world. In one, she gives birth to a pearl. She marvels as this perfect little gem — me, her only child — rolls out into the world with curiosity and confidence.
Mom was certainly big on discipline, nearly as much of a stickler on good manners as Dad was. She wasn’t one of these moms who would’ve excused or ignored misbehavior or irresponsibility on my part. But for the most part, I could do no wrong.
And so some of the funniest writing in this collection I’ve compiled are some responses — as far as I know, never shared with anyone beyond a couple of confidants — to my final grades and final comments from my Athens Academy teachers. She toys with my young French teacher who gave no As to anyone in my class, noting how ill at ease the recent college grad seemed around parents and questioning why I didn’t get the French award. (She was also mad that I didn’t get the math award, and she had a better case for that.) She gives a few backhanded compliments to other teachers, in one case going through a laundry list of tangential complaints about the school that really didn’t have anything else to do with that teacher. She tells one teacher that he’s a wonderful guy who could fix other problems at the school if only he had more responsibility, and yet she makes reference to his weight several times.
Your note is an example of fine writing, even for an English teacher. (He wasn’t.) If you weren’t brilliant at (subject name redacted to protect his identity) and at teaching it, I would write (administrator) to place you in a needy department, fat man. My personal goose is already cooked because you gave Beau your highest award instead of those two doctors’ sons. (No idea who they are.)
These responses were never sent to those teachers, which is a relief! Each one reads “not a real letter” at the top of the yellow legal-pad page. Even if they had, no one at Athens Academy should have taken them seriously. She knew I had a terrific experience at the Academy. And she was thrilled that it gave me an option other than the horrifying public schools in Athens, where fights broke out daily in the hallways, or Dad’s suggestion of going off to his old boarding school at Woodberry Forest.
She also helped me in another educational standoff with Dad. I didn’t go to Woodberry to follow in his footsteps, but I could still follow him to the University of Virginia. My heart was set on Duke. She backed me up. I went to Duke. And my roommates didn’t seem to mind that she called every day for the first two months I was there.
Of course she had to call that often to check up on me. She knew all those Duke girls couldn’t keep their hands off her beautiful, intelligent son. Every time I mentioned a woman I knew or went over to visit a female friend of mine in Athens, she figured we were dating. After a while, I stopped correcting her. In her mind, I was leading a glorious life of gentlemanly polyamory, playing the field until choosing which woman I would marry. Why spoil that image? Why tell her Duke women had about as much interest in me as she had in traveling to Calgary for the winter?
She also enjoyed seeing pop culture through my eyes. I grew up in the age of MTV, and she would sometimes watch with me as we saw curious stuff like this:
“Well, it’s a good song,” I said.
“How can you tell?” she responded.
She didn’t have many opportunities to meet the friends I made at Duke and beyond, but she continued to charm those she met. After my senior percussion recital, she took me and a couple of friends out to dinner. My Southern friend Matt talked about whether to regrow his mustache.
“You had a mustache?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“What the hell’d you do that for?”
He got a good laugh and took it as a compliment, as intended. No need to mess up a perfectly nice Southern gentleman’s face with facial hair.
I wish she had been around much longer. I especially wish she could’ve gone another five years. The year after she died, Dad was in tears when we left the church at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding, knowing how much she would’ve loved to see her dear niece at the center of a lively celebration in her hometown. And within 18 months of her passing, I was dating Jen. How thrilled Mom would’ve been to meet her, dropping her fantasies of women pursuing me across North Carolina and Georgia and seeing that my romantic reality was even more wonderful than she could’ve realized.
I realize much of this remembrance puts her in a supporting role in my life. I don’t mean to suggest there’s nothing more to her life. Far from it. But I can only speak second-hand in terms of the impact she had on other lives. I hope people will feel free to share their own thoughts here.
And I hope she has a great view from wherever she is, seeing her little pearl weathering a few storms and trying to make people laugh as she did. And I hope she can see two more little pearls, both carrying those Hammond features through school and life. None of us little pearls is perfect. But we will always know that we are loved and cherished by special people like her.