A splash of humor, a dash of cynicism, and a twist of skepticism

james poyner

james poyner
Summit, New Jersey,
May 14
A former journalist and stock analyst, I now do custom cabinetry and photography. I also occasionally vent verbally, a throwback to days in the newsroom.


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MARCH 25, 2012 8:05PM

Tarantulas in Heaven

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My mother, Mary Ellen Poyner, died at 81 last Monday. As her second-born and oldest son, I delivered this eulogy based on important memories I have of her. Though she had been in declining health for awhile, when her time came I still felt unprepared when my brother called to tell me a heart attack had done its work while she was in the hospital with pneumonia. Now I’m an orphan.

 The earliest memory I have of my mother was when I was five or six years old. On a broiling day under the West Texas sun, I was playing in the sand pit that was our backyard. I looked up from my toy trucks and saw coming down the driveway right at me a huge, black, hairy tarantula. To me, it was the size of a dinner plate. I had it on good authority from my older cousins that tarantulas liked to leap for your face and sink their poisonous fangs right into your nose, which would subsequently turn black and fall off.

I bolted for the kitchen door, screaming my head off, barely able to get the word “tarantula!” out of my mouth to my mother who was preparing dinner. “Where?” she asked. All I could do was point to the yard. Without hesitation she moved toward the door, reaching for a straw broom on the way out. I timidly followed, making sure to use her for cover.

Mother spotted the tarantula rhythmically moving its eight legs right toward us. 20 feet. 15 feet. 10 feet. I anxiously grabbed her dress and cowered behind her, awaiting the spider’s fatal leap at us. Before I could squeal, Mother hefted the broom high into the air like an executioner’s ax and brought it down squarely on the pink sand. She lifted the broom to reveal a flattened, lifeless spider, then turned toward the kitchen, tossing over her shoulder, “Go wash up. Supper’s almost ready,” as casually as if she killed huge, nose-biting tarantulas on a daily basis. I remember standing there in the sand, slack jawed, watching her go back inside. I remember that it was the first time I realized that she had unimaginable strength, that she was more than the person who fed me, clothed me, and washed the sand out of my hair.

Mother was a child of the Great Depression, living a hardscrabble childhood with her six siblings (another had died in infancy). She never knew her mother, Ethel Banks  Lollis, who passed away of pneumonia when Mom was just a baby. The oldest sister, Nancy, helped raise her until dying at a young age from cancer, while her much older brothers rode the rails seeking work. Crippled by polio, her father, John Henry Lollis, made a meager income going door to door on crutches selling small household items such as thread, razor blades, and pencils.

My childhood was hardly the lap of luxury, but I remember feeling as though it were when she told stories of growing up in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and northern Texas, of dropping out of school in the eighth grade to get a job to help out the family. After such somber stories I would sit on her lap and put my arms around her neck and promise that when I grew up I was going to buy her a big red-brick house with a brand new car in the driveway. She would laugh and tell me not to worry about that, that she was just fine where she was.

But if anyone ever deserved those things, she did.

When I was in the fourth grade, Mom was the room mother for the class, primarily responsible for arranging our parties throughout the year. The fourth grade was a tense year for me mainly because a classmate, a girl named Leona, delighted in terrorizing me on the playground. Leona was four and a half feet of pure mean who would knock you down and wail on you at the drop of a hat. Her nickname for me was “basketball head” because it was true that I resembled Charlie Brown--only with freckles. All I had to do to hear that derisive pejorative was to make eye contact with her. At our Valentine’s Day party Mother appeared with a plate of decorated cupcakes for the class. Upon seeing her, Leona beelined across the classroom toward me--and I braced myself for yet another insult. Her typical scowl, though,  was replaced by a look of wonder when she softly said, “Your momma sure is pretty.”

And I realized she was. With raven hair and ivory skin, she looked liked a brunette Betty Grable in the glamour portrait she had posed for at 18, already a mother of a two-year-old daughter, my oldest sister, Connie. It was easy to see why she had caught the eye of my father more than 60 years ago in the coffee shop where she waitressed.

When I was a teen-ager I had my share of rebellious attitude, growing shoulder length hair to the chagrin of my father and delighting in playing my rock albums at window-rattling volume. Most of my mother’s communication to me then consisted of admonishments to clean up the landfill that my room had become or to “turn that damn stereo down!” One Saturday morning, though, with Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” cranked up on the turntable, she appeared in the room. I was certain she would reach for the volume knob herself. Instead, she sat on my unmade bed listening intently. When the song was over, she said, “Play that one again.” And I did so another two or three times, stunned that my ancient mother of 43 could appreciate my music. “Good song,” she observed of the tune whose lyrics are about misplaced priorities. Hers never were. She returned to her housework, leaving me to ponder yet another side of her I never knew existed.

Other than relatives, Mom had only one friend, Hazel, who had grown up with her in Oklahoma. They got together once or twice a year over the decades and traded progress reports on their children and grandchildren on the telephone until Hazel died a year or so ago. From time to time we would suggest places for her to go to socialize with other seniors, but Mother never showed an interest. She had a certain shyness, I think, that only her cats over the years understood. Her world revolved around her children, especially after James Davis Poyner, her husband of more than 50 years, died five years ago. She saw us through many ups and downs with a quiet humility and a grace that grew over the years.

“Just because you kids are grown,” she used to say, “doesn’t mean I get to stop worrying.”

In my last conversation with her on the telephone, we fell into an uncharacteristically broad discussion of the economy and the election year and crazy politicians. I mentioned how much I disliked the governor of New Jersey, where I’ve lived with my family the past 18 years, and cracked that if he walked in front of a bus tomorrow I wouldn’t shed a tear. “Oh, now you know you don’t really mean that,” she scolded me. While she could spot what her father used to call “educated fools” a mile away, she could never wish them ill. As my son, Nick, observed when I broke the news of her death, “She was the nicest lady I ever knew.”

I am the last person in the world to claim to know anything about Heaven. However, I’d like to think that she is there with her siblings and her husband and her cats Cotton and Henry. But if all of God’s creatures go there, I’d advise the tarantulas to make themselves scarce.

Mary Ellen Poyner, 1930-2012 

Mary Ellen Poyner, 1930-2012

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A nice tribute, James. It sends my thoughts to my mom who passed on 4 years ago. She managed to like some of the Beatles songs. Reelin' in the Years is my favorite Steely Dan. I wasn't so much up on the message as that guitar riff.
Your mom was pretty and I see the resemblance in your picture. I'm more able to comment on how men look now than when I was younger, but I hope you don't mind if I don't say you're pretty also. Very few guys looked good with that much hair and more, but we haaaad to have it.

Some of what she said sounds like an echo. Our Moms grew up in the same era, mine only 3 years younger. She wouldn't have been so aggressive with the tarantula, though. She might have thrown a shoe.

If your experience is like mine, you will think of her passing less often as time goes by, but never with less intensity over the loss and, fortunately, the good memories as well.

I liked the closing. I bet she did also.
lovingly wonderful. Thanks for sharing your mom with us.
Nice. A well written tribute.
Your mom looks like my sister did in her youth. She was tough too.
Jim: I was moved by your recollections. The tarantula story was especially vivid and telling. I know you say you've been having trouble writing of late, but there's no evidence of it here.

What a first memory! To be playing in the sand and confronted by a nightmare creature, your mind full of fearful images of attack. And to have a mother to run to. Your depiction of how she handled your near attack was sweet and satisfying and revealing. Your mom's offhand dismissal of the monster was the perfect introduction to her. She sounded like the kind of no-nonsense woman I'd like to have known.

I cringed for you when reading of Leona's attack. And I was at least as relieved to find she didn't bite your nose off. Between those to tales, I felt like a welcome visitor to a Texas I usually only see in movies. Hardscrabble lives may not be much fun while they're unfurling, but they sure do make for interesting stories later on.

So I suspect there's a blue tinge to your days just now, and that's as it should be. But I also hope you realize & recognize how your eulogy is warmed a heart in need of it tonight. Thank you.
What a great mom to hold onto: Aren't they the very best teachers? Yet they try to give us everything. And , hopefully, we appreciate this. Your mother has true beauty and tremendous character, which does not come from easy living. You are blessed my friend. Thanks for sharing a fine portrait of your time.
Jim, I am very sorry to read about your recent tough loss – my condolences. Your Mother sounds like good people; salt of the earth type folk shaped by their upbringing and circumstances. My experience with women of her generation is that they were good, caring, tough straight-up people that made us who we are; raised us and taught us about the world. I am sorry I never knew her, but your writing is sharp as always, bringing her essence to our minds. Thanks for your talents and strength – will always appreciate the piece you did upon my father’s death. Again sorry that you and your family are experiencing such a loss…….prayers and gentle wishes.
Ray Bell III.
P.J.: Thanks for dropping by. I'm sure you're right about time making thoughts about her less frequent. And you're also right about the intensity of the loss not diminishing. Dad's death still seems like it happened yesterday.

hyblaen-Julie: The irony is that I think if Mom hadn't been so shy around others as she got older she would have been a social hit at the senior center. Glad you liked the piece.

MeatMonkey: Thanks for taking the time to read it. I pretend that all of you who do were at the service.

Myriad: She was tough and mostly at the right times. The last couple of years of her life, though, she seemed to shrink physically before our eyes. But she never hesitated to say "I love you" at every opportunity....

Jeremiah: I most wanted you to see this.

inthisdeepcalm: Everything you say is true, and how am I supposed to deal with her absence now?

Ray: So nice to hear from you again. I appreciate you're sentiments very much. You know what it's like. And I still read the piece about your Dad from time to time. It's one of my favorites. Be well.