In the crime shows my grandmother loved – Matlock, Murder She Wrote – you typically have a good cop who loosens people up and a “bad cop” who gets to the bottom of things. In politics – which she also loved – it is also this way. For every Bill Clinton, there is an Al Gore. A straight, dutiful man to add credibility and grounding to the beloved, folksy man of the people.
My grandparents had this, too.
My mom and aunt are in their 60s and still talk about the childhood tea parties they enjoyed with their dad before bedtime each night. These involved ice cream and other sweets, eaten with the “fun” parent – their dad – just before I’m sure the other parent – Mop – insisted that they finally go to bed.
As they became teenagers, Bob traveled a lot for work, or worked late, or was locked up in the plant as part of the management team when the workers went on strike… And this left Mop to be the disciplinarian, enforcing curfews, asking questions, and losing her temper when teenage girls behaved like teenage girls.
These roles seemed to intensify with retirement and grandchildren. Bob was relaxed and laughed easily, the kind of person who drove 20 miles out of the way and the wrong way down a one-way street to get hot fresh donuts when the “hot fresh” donut light came on at Krispy Kreme. Mop was a worrier, goading him about the high cholesterol in things like donuts that had led to two separate heart attacks, groaning audibly in the passenger seat with every haphazard, white-knuckled driving move he made – making people feel guilty but also safer on those late night donut runs, or what I hear were wild times on Bourbon Street when they lived in New Orleans, or later when they retired to Lake Martin where they moved to help take care of her mom after her father passed away.
Often with Bob behind the wheel, or Dad or Andy after Bob died in 1998, we spent long summer days and weekends on Lake Martin, riding around in innertubes and on water skis pulled behind their boat, a cooler stocked with beer, Bartels & James and Jack Daniels. We jumped off Chimney Rock. We swam in the channel. We stayed out in the rain and raced home in the lightning, loving the day and fearing we’d face an overwrought, highly anxious and livid Mop. She worried constantly that something would go wrong, someone would get hurt, things would not work out. As far as I know, only once did anyone end up in an emergency room, though there was a time when the outboard motor fell off the pontoon boat in the middle of pulling a bunch of teenagers behind it on rafts.
Bob was the kind of person who decided on the spot – in that occasion – to buy a new boat. Mop was the kind of person who went along with the decision because she’d anticipated it in the first place – a kind of pre-emptive “I told you so”.
Because she was the responsible one, we could have fun. Because she thought about things like what time dinner would be, we thought about things like cordials and dessert. Because she thought about his cholesterol, we had Bob in our lives a little longer.
That Mop so often was the heavy not only made it easy for others to feel weightless, it also gave an added gravity to her judgment about things and endorsement of people.
A few years ago I interviewed her on camera about her aunt, who had been in a marriage-like relationship with a beloved family friend that Mop considered to also be like an aunt. When Mop said, on camera, “I don’t know if they were gay or what. It doesn’t matter. I loved them both and Pearl was my aunt,” that solidified – to me and my daughter, who was around 9 at the time – Mop’s viewpoint on human rights and civil liberties of all people. Love is love, she would have said, and she would have been just as upset at Pearl’s spouse for driving a boat around in bad weather as she would have been at my dad, and for the same reason: You people are all my people; don’t you dare put yourselves into harm’s way.
I myself married young, to my high school sweetheart, and like many stories like that, I divorced young as well. I was afraid to break this news to people, as my husband was beloved by my family, especially Mop. But not only did she hug me without me having to tell her, she whispered, “It will be okay. You will all be okay,” and because she said this, I knew it would be true. She was always right, and she did not joke around.
That next Christmas, as my little family tried to figure out how to do the holidays with our marital status in transition, I realized it would be easier on my daughter and me if we remained home in Nashville rather than travel to Lake Martin where everyone else would be. I asked my parents what they thought the chances would be of my extended family coming to Nashville to join us, which would have been a huge break from tradition and quite a hassle for all of them. No one thought this was likely, but Dad said to ask Mop. If Mop said yes, we’d do it.
Well, she did say yes, without hesitation, and I am sure this is a key factor in why our family remains so strong despite the end of a marriage.
There are many stories like this one.
Mop was the heavy, yes. She was also strong-willed and certain, an original thinker, a graceful and generous lady who was in many ways ahead of her time, a person who was able to see things creatively and from different viewpoints.
With Bob, we enjoyed life. With Mop, we valued it.