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