In the fiction of the prolific American writer and poet Wendell Berry, there are a few characters that quickly win a place in a reader's heart. For each reader, it may be a different character. For some, it may be Elton Penn, the notorious hard-worker whose intense intimacy and commitment to his land would inspire the thoroughest urbanite to sell all of his or her possessions and become a farmer. For others, it may be Jayber Crow, Port William's barber and resident theologian, whose existential wanderings somehow redeem those of Berry's readership. Still others may connect with Mat Feltner, one of the most reliable, steadfast and true people in the whole heritage of the Port William community. For me, I am attracted primarily to Burley Coulter.
Burley Coulter is one of the most loyal members of the Port William community; he does not, however, tend to abide by its conventions. He comes and goes as he wishes; he escapes by himself into the woods for sometimes weeks at a time. He never married, for he was a free spirit that could not keep or be kept. He once told Jayber Crow, "I don't own anything that I can't carry on my back or that doesn't follow me when I whistle for it" (in reference to his fox hounds). You never know when Burley is going to show up or when he will leave, but you always know that when he does, a piece of his being will be left embedded in your very self.
There are many ways that Ma reminds me of Burley Coulter. (For those of you who don't know me, my biological mother is "Mom" and Ann is "Ma.") As I have experienced Ma, she is one of the most loyal people I know. She proved this to both J.J. and me time and time again, showing up, for example, to our high school football games only to watch us count the number of splinters we would retrieve from our butt pads. She trusted our ability to succeed in whatever we did. If we said something ambitious like, "I'm gonna hit that half-back so hard his grandma's gonna fall down" (knowing full well that we'd likely line up across from said half-back maybe once in the game), she would pour a smile of beaming pride upon us. And let's not forget, she'd then remind us not to get hurt.
Ma was an adventurer. To my knowledge, she never slipped away into the wilderness for extended periods, but her posture towards life has been one that views the world as a constant opportunity. I don't know if many of us can quite grasp how special this quality is. She has the gift of being persistently and acutely aware that each choice we make matters, particularly choices about how to treat people. We didn't understand this growing up. We didn't see this gift when she thwarted our efforts to fraternize with those she deemed "undesirables." We didn't get her beauty when our hormones emerged and we were interacting with girls for the first time, when we would pray to the god of pubescence that Amy would bring a friend over while we were there. [And yes Amy, every one of us had huge crushes on you back in the day.]
There is something about Ma. When she shows up, there is a new conscientiousness, one that she models in how she gives dignity to those around her: to nurses and counter clerks, to old and young, to the familiar and the foreign. It is an art, really. What is natural to her in her interactions requires an intentional exertion of the will for most of us, and even then it feels fabricated and phony and therefore never sustains. But in that moment--like the one I observed a few weeks ago when she spoke to a girl taking our order at Portillo's--in that moment when she practices and embodies her art, there is something inspiring and a part of Ma becomes embedded in those around her. Perhaps it is only a memory, an altar that we raise in our minds that from time to time calls us back to itself on our own journeys, to remind us that there is something beautiful that we know and by whom we are known. But for many of us, it is more than that. It is like a spring board within our souls upon which we wish to plant ourselves only to be propelled into a new medium through which we live our lives, one through which we may practice and thereby redeem that tramped-upon and trivialized word we call "love."
In eulogizing Burley Coulter, Wheeler Catlett spoke of Burley as a "wild man." He intimates, "Burley's wildness was in his refusal, or his inability, to live within other people's expectations." Ann has come face to face with expectations in the past, and it was perhaps her wildness that gave her the courage to follow her dignity when it led her beyond the expectations of her social milieu. I, for one, am grateful that she had the wildness and fortitude to defy societal taboos and divorce, in order to raise Amy and J.J. as her dignity demanded. She did great work! She has also come to face to face with the expectations of numbers. In her fight over the years against the persistent enemy of cancer, she has demonstrated her wildness thoroughly, laughing at numbers that spoke against her. And now, part of her doctor's task is to set her expectations concerning her body. They seek to set her expectations regarding that beast called death. When faced with the choice of giving in to the expectations of doctors, statistics and odds, she has responded with the same feisty refusal to live within other people's expectations that she seems to have passed on to her grandson, Connor. She continues to give life to those around her. She flies in the face of expectations as if to say, "You can tell me what you want, but I'm going to live." For her, life is more than the avoidance of death, it is gaining interest on the opportunities that we have to give life to others. Living her life as she has, she appropriates those immortal words of John Donne, "Death, thou shalt die!"
Ma, we love and cherish you! Hugs, kisses and "marijuana music"! :)