In her navy blue silk shirtwaist, a white-laced hankie tucked into her bodice, a pair of black patent leather pumps accessorized with a purse to match, Adele Starr managed to look both somber and regal. Leaning on her cane, and flanked on either side by her sons, Hal, and my husband, Kirk, she made her way toward the front row, keeping her eyes focused on Hap’s coffin all the while. My father-in-law’s funeral took place in 1994, during the early spring, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the Methodist Church where Kirk’s parents had worshipped for over forty years.
The rest of the Starr clan, fifteen of us in all, fell in line behind her. Mirroring Adele, I slipped into the pew between my own boys: Taylor, age sixteen, and Logan, almost ten. I gripped their hands and felt them squeeze mine in return.
The Minister raised his arms in welcome. As the large sanctuary overflowed with friends, relatives, and generations of Dr. Hap Starr’s patients, I started to cry, and soon Logan joined in. Our tears might have gone undetected had I remembered the Kleenex; without them, our sniffles and snorts became increasingly audible.
Logan’s and my unseemly noises brought Adele to full alert. As she glared left and right trying to ferret out the sniveling culprits, we slunk down in our seats seeking invisibility. Since Logan rarely cries, I was torn between celebrating his raw grief over his Granddaddy’s passing and wanting to protect him from the wrath of his grandmother. Adele and I had come a long way in our relationship, and her furrowed brow no longer frightened me, but some things never change, and her insistence on keeping a stiff upper lip was one of them. I decided to go for salvation, if not from the Lord, at least from my mother-in-law’s disapproval, so I patted Logan’s hand and put my index finger to my lips, whispering “shhh”. He leaned over, wiped his eyes on the hem of my long black skirt, and rested his head in my lap.
I glanced about: not a wet eye in the bunch, except for my sister-in-law Sharon, whose contorted face indicated her own struggle. The Starrs are a stoic people, except where we married-ins have diluted the gene pool. I stole a glance at Adele and followed her gaze as it bore down once again on the slick black coffin where her husband of 62 years lay in state. With arthritic fingers, she gripped her hymnal. Her eyes remained dry, her handkerchief untouched.
I wondered what was running through her mind. Was she talking to Hap? Reminding him to turn up his hearing aid? Straighten his bow tie? Was she complaining about being left behind? Was she promising to follow in his footsteps soon enough?
I met Kirk’s parents in May of 1967, in Nashville, Tennessee, just days before his graduation from Vanderbilt University. They had driven over from Chattanooga, for the festivities and had invited me to join them for brunch. The magnolias broadcast their cloying scent outside the restaurant window, and the azaleas bloomed fuchsia and gold, all of which was lost on me.
I was hung over. A mere freshman, still living with my parents, I was an unseasoned drinker and, on that morning, the precarious survivor of a friend’s engagement party. It had been a high-class affair, where dark-skinned waiters kept refilling our champagne flutes with the furtiveness of church mice. Hours later at Kirk’s apartment, I had vomited the pink bubbles all over my slinky black cocktail dress, after which Kirk tucked me into his bed to sleep it off.
“One blanket or two?” he asked, sweetly.
“Two please,” I slurred, grateful for his gentleman-like behavior.
The next thing I knew he was shaking me awake, in order to drive me home where I managed to crawl out of my clothes and pass out undetected.
Too few hours later Kirk introduced me to the woman who, in two years’ time, would become my mother-in-law.
“I’m so glad to meet you, Janie. Kirk talks about you all the time.”
I stole a glance at Kirk, wondering what he had told her.
I attempted what I hoped was a demure smile.
“Thank you ma’am. You must be proud of him, getting into med school and all.”
Adele reached for Kirk and put her arm through his. “Oh yes. You know he’s my baby. We already had a girl and a boy and Hap tried to tell me one of each was enough. I was all right until the youngest headed off to nursery school, and then I wanted a playmate. I wouldn’t quit until I got Kirk.”
As she beamed up at her baby, who shrugged as if the tale was a commonplace one, I felt my face heat up. In my family personal subjects were off-limits, and the how-tos and wherefores of baby-making topped the list. Yet the sweet-looking-glasses-wearing-gray-haired-only-an-inch-taller-than-me mother-of-my-boyfriend had just laid out the background information on Kirk’s conception.
“Lucky for him,” I mumbled, my head throbbing and my stomach doing flip-flops under my villager dress.
She must have sensed my discomfort, because she let go of Kirk, took my hands in hers, and said, “Oh dear, I hope I haven’t embarrassed you. What you must think!”
I was thinking I wanted to throw up. Afraid to open my mouth, I gave her a weak smile.
“You sure are a quiet little thing, aren’t you?”
I had to laugh. Boy did she have me wrong. I was anything but, except on this particular day. Adele was in for a rude awakening, but then so was I. As she might say, “we had a long row to hoe” before we’d ever see eye to eye on most things.
The Minister began his eulogy, bringing my attention back to Hap’s funeral. Sharon passed me a couple of Kleenexes just in case. They lay flat in my lap, as I felt unmoved by the replay of Hap’s life: his successful medical career, his fine array of grandchildren – eight in all, his lovely wife Adele. I wanted someone in the family to rise up and say something personal: recount how Hap liked to introduce Adele as his first wife, how all he had to do was snap his fingers to silence his children when he was on the phone with a patient, how he smoked a pipe and wore the same red plaid flannel shirt for years. No one budged.
When my own father died, two years before, the preacher gave me the opportunity to say a few words. It was an un-Presbyterian thing to do, and I was terrified. It turned out to be one of my best and bravest moments, a gift I felt my Dad deserved and I needed to give. The Starrs were not the eulogizing kind; still I felt disappointed as the service ended and we processed down the aisle and out into the watery gray afternoon.
The years following Hap’s death were tough on Adele. She spoke of missing him and wanting to join him in Heaven. She appeared ready to go long before the family was ready to release her. She was healthy except for hip trouble; she had grandchildren who hung on her every word; and she had me who had become attached to her through our good times and bad. Adele would have eternity to spend with Hap; I wanted her on Earth a little while longer.
I had not always felt that way. During our early days we ranged from genuine affection to tense combatants. Shortly after Kirk and I became engaged, without the benefit of champagne, we drove to Chattanooga for the weekend.
Each evening before dinner, Adele mixed a gin and tonic for Hap, and brought it into his study along with her own glass of bourbon and a small bowl of mixed nuts. It was their time, when she could prevail upon him to put away his medical journals and pay attention to her. During previous visits, I had felt a wave of pleasure at being included in their cocktail ritual.
That particular Friday, as I attempted to make myself useful in the kitchen pouring olives into a crystal bowl, I watched Adele pour a heavy slug of bourbon into her already amber glass. I watched her take a ladylike sip and then another. As I moved toward the swinging door, bowl in hand, she stopped me short.
“Janie, you brought your Church clothes, didn’t you?”
“Uh, no ma’am. I didn’t think of it.”
Wrong thing to say!
“Why not may I ask? You know we always go to the eleven o’clock service.”
Help! Where’s Kirk when I need him?
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but Kirk didn’t mention anything about our going with you.”
The scene ended badly with me trying to explain how religious I used to be, and how I’d slowly lost the spirit since I started dating Kirk. Wrong again.
“Well I never.” Adele declared. “In that case, maybe I should call your parents and tell them what a bad influence Kirk is. Maybe we should call off the wedding.”
I was stunned and angry, but I had enough sense to recognize the sound of bourbon speaking. I let her rail until Kirk joined us and smooth-talked her out of making the call. The next morning Adele and Hap went to church, while we stayed home and made waffles. As far as I could tell, all was forgiven though I was left with the nagging feeling that maybe we had more in common than I cared to admit. Certainly, we were both accustomed to having our way and not the least bit interested in giving in if we could help it.
Kirk and I married in June of 1969, and I was welcomed into the fold.
“Call us Mother and Father Starr,” Adele instructed me soon after Kirk had placed the ring on my finger. After all we’re family now.”
I went along with her request, even though I didn’t like it. I was only 21 years old, and Adele’s word was law. Once I made the mistake of referring to her as my mother-in-law, and she corrected me right away.
“Oh I have never gone in for that in-law business. We’re your in-loves.”
Oh please,I thought, but there was no arguing with this woman, and besides she seemed genuine about loving me. I was Kirk’s wife after all, and he was her baby. And perhaps she was wiser than I about what connected us.
Most of the time I got along fine with my mother-in-love, as long as our visits were short and the bourbon was locked in the liquor cabinet. We developed a grudging respect for one another’s stubbornness as long as I kept my mouth shut. I knew better than to talk politics or religion, though my budding feminist voice caused a ruckus now and then. One time when I suggested that Kirk help me set the table, she argued that he had more important things to do.
“Like what?” I ventured.
“Like saving lives for instance.”
“Right now?” I laughed, surveying the dining room for someone in distress. She hitched up the sides of her mouth and creased her lips in a tight line. She was not laughing.
“You should be proud of how hard Kirk works to provide for you, Janie.”
“We provide for each other,” I retorted as I went to look for him, pleased with myself for getting in the last word.
After five years of marriage, Kirk finished his pediatric residency, and I completed my Masters Degree in Public Heath. The Vietnam War was in full tilt, and Kirk was drafted. We moved far away from our southern roots to a naval base in Bremerton, Washington. Kirk doctored the Military Brats, and I did problem-pregnancy counseling at a nearby a teen center, no longer shy about the how-tos of sex.
During one of Adele and Hap’s annual visits, I succumbed to strept throat. Adele took over the cooking, and I resented her intrusion into my kitchen, in spite of the fact that she kept offering me gin and tonics to deaden my throat pain.
“No thank-you, Mother Starr,” I whispered, hoping she would take the hint and leave me alone.
“Now don’t you worry about a thing. I’ve got everything under control.”
“I’ll bet you do,” I muttered too softly for her to hear, but loud enough for me to know I was feeling mean.
“Janie, while I’m here I’d be happy to organize the kitchen for you.”
“No thanks, it’s fine like it is.”
No really, I don’t mind. You’ve run yourself down from working so hard. I’m sure you don’t have time to worry over the kitchen.”
“What’s wrong with my kitchen?” I croaked, and then stormed out before she could answer my impertinent question.
The sun was shining which even in August was something to celebrate in the Northwest. I sequestered myself in the back yard where I lay on the chaise sucking on lemon and ice cubes to ease my sore throat. I could see Kirk and his parents sitting around the kitchen table. I imagined her complaining to them about what a rude child I was, while I was still smarting from our exchange.
Kirk must have heard enough. He grabbed his mom by the arm and dragged her out into the back yard. He pulled up a chair, sat her down, and commanded us “to work it out.” Then, without further ado, he turned and strode back inside, waiting out the storm from a safe distance with his dad. After the shock wore off that my husband, the conflict avoider, had precipitated this unimaginable moment, I shrugged my shoulders and tried to look Mother Starr in the eye. She met my stare and smiled. I didn’t. I wasn’t ready to kiss and make up, though I saw she was making an effort.
“You treat me like a little girl, even after 5 years of marriage, just like this morning when you wanted to rearrange my kitchen.”
“Janie, I only wanted to help. Can’t you see how useless I feel when I’m just sitting around watching you work so hard?”
“And that’s another thing, you never ask about my work. I feel like you want me home cooking and cleaning, darning socks maybe. And then you flip around and thank me for taking care of Kirk for you – as if he’s on loan or something. I hate that.”
“Oh honey, I had no idea I was upsetting you so. I see how happy Kirk is with you and that makes me pleased as all get out. Y’all live so far away, and I miss you both. I just wish you didn’t get your feelings hurt so easily. Sometimes you’re too sensitive for your own good.”
I wished I wasn’t so easy to read, and I hated that she was right.
On it went, me tearing up, proving how sensitive I was even as I tried to deny it. The sun went behind a cloud and I shivered. Mother Starr handed me her light gray cardigan to throw over my shoulders.
“Janie, I’d like us to work this out somehow. What do you say?”
I wasn’t quite ready to give in, but I was starting to feel foolish. I believed she loved me, and I was tired of sounding like the whiney little girl I didn’t want to be.
“There’s one more thing, I said.” “I can’t stand calling you all Mother and Father Starr. I want to call you Adele and Hap, just like Kirk calls my parents Frances and Bill. Do you think you could handle that?”
She gave me a hard stare, and I thought maybe I’d crossed the line. Then she nodded and her face softened. She smiled, and this time I smiled back.
At long last we embraced, with tears streaming down our cheeks. Like Logan, Adele hardly ever cried, so I knew the moment was big.
From that day on, I called Adele by her first name, and I began to love her without resentment or fear. For her part she did her best to accept my short skirts and rebellious ways. She continued to thank me for taking care of Kirk, but once I understood that she meant it as a compliment, I learned to be gracious and say you’re welcome. When we disagreed, we worked hard at giving each other the benefit of the doubt. She stopped asking us to bring Church clothes when we came to visit, and I gave up smoking in her house. In fact I gave up smoking altogether.
Shortly after Adele’s 93rd birthday, she passed away. She just got tired, and, after five years of missing him, Hap’s pull had become a whole lot stronger than ours. Even Kirk’s hold couldn’t keep her forever. The family gathered once again at the same Methodist Church where we had congregated for Hap’s funeral. The numbers of mourners had dwindled over the years, so the service was held in the small chapel adjacent to the sanctuary. Entering from the rear, we meandered down the aisle toward the row of pews up front. The other mourners, garbed in black, remained seated and offered us their sympathetic nods, like a line of crows on a telephone wire.
As we took our seats, tears sprang unbidden to my eyes. I could feel my face scrunch up while I tried in vain to look dignified. I fixed my gaze on Adele’s magnolia studded coffin, as my mind jumped to a story she had loved to tell. It was about the time when, at age four, she had gotten so sick and tired of everyone making a big deal about her new baby sister’s long eyelashes that she sneaked into little Naomi’s crib and cut them off.
“I never meant her any harm,” Adele would hasten to add, with a grin that made you wonder. “I just wanted someone to notice me for a change.”
She seemed to delight in her incorrigible past even as she took on the trappings and duties of respected Doctor’s Wife and Community Volunteer. I loved the pluck of that little girl who grew into a strong-spoken kind of woman, struggling to fit into the girdle of Southern expectation. I had given up girdles in my teens.
The Minister appeared behind the lectern. Garbed in simple white robes, he blended in with the pale chapel walls as he directed us to page 242 in our hymnals. The congregation sang all six verses of How Great Thou Art in monotone voices, and then dutifully joined in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. While an all-Black choir, swaying and clapping as they belted out Amazing Grace, could knock me sideways and tease my agnostic soul, I was no longer moved by the all-white southern rituals of my childhood. Even though I knew Adele would disapprove, I refused to add my voice.
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven …” Kirk recited words he had assured me on numerous occasions he no more believed than I did, but he had spent too many years as the good son to change course now. Wasn’t he the one who had led me astray in the first place?
Early in our marriage, when we still smoked, Kirk used to conceal his cigarettes in his mother’s presence. I, on the other hand, lit up the first chance I got. He had nothing to prove and seemed to figure why upset the apple cart; I thought being true to myself outranked keeping the peace.
I still felt that way most of the time. While Kirk hallowed the Lord’s name with no apparent discomfort, I sat in stony silence. After thirty years of marriage, I could still be irritated by his willingness to take what I felt was the easy way out.
“Forever and ever, Amen.” The Minister opened his eyes, raised his arms and then lowered them back down, signally us to sit. I looked down at the program and read that it was time for personal remembrances, though, like at Hap’s funeral, only the Minister was scheduled to speak. The problem was that he was new and never really knew Adele. He had entered her life long after her life had pretty much left her. He began to build on a theme, telling us how Adele fit – as a wife, mother, volunteer, patriot, churchgoer – you name it she fit right in. She was good, loving, giving, and thoughtful to a fault. He could be talking about almost any southern woman of a certain age, compliant and capable all at the same time. His recounting rang hollow, and nowhere could I recognize the Adele I loved.
Adele was more complicated than the Minster would have us think. She stood out. She was outspoken, hard-headed, and, at times, a pain-in-the-ass. She drank too much bourbon on more than one occasion, and it made her ornery. To her credit, after Hap insisted more than a time or two, she eventually switched to white wine, which doesn’t even qualify as alcohol among true southerners. It sat with her much better.
Adele was a grand storyteller, who relished center stage, though she liked to play hard to get and often had to be coaxed out by her admirers. She would start by suggesting that Hap tell the tale, but she’d be butting in before he had made his way through the opening lines. She would interrupt so many times with her version that he would predictably and good-naturedly give the spotlight over to her. Over the years I had become one of her biggest fans, as were my children. Our favorite stories were of her childhood, and the more outrageous the tale, the better. Like me, they had trouble reconciling that bad little girl with the grandmother who required them to parrot “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” on command.
The Minister warmed to his theme or how Adele fit, but I continued to be inundated by memories to the contrary. Once again, I wished someone would speak to the real lives of these people I loved. As if in a dream, I watched myself stand up and push my way to the aisle and march toward the pulpit, bowing at Adele’s coffin on the way. I waited on the sidelines until the Minister seemed to slow down, and then asked if I might say a few words. He graciously stepped aside.
“Begging your pardon, Sir, what you said was true to a point, but I believe there’s a whole side to Adele that’s been left out.
“You all remember when Adele snipped off Naomi’s eyelashes because she was jealous of that baby getting all the attention. And how about the time a few years later when she had to spend the night in the dining room because she wouldn’t apologize for slamming the door when she skipped out after dinner? Her daddy ordered her to, ‘come back here this instant young lady and say you’re sorry’. She countered with a defiant ‘No,’ her lower lip trembling and enough sass in her voice to warrant a spanking. Instead she was told to sit there until she was ready to act like a young lady and do as she was told. She’d be there still if her daddy hadn’t relented the next morning and allowed her to leave without a word after breakfast. Those are not stories of a little girl trying to fit in, and while it’s true she civilized her tongue and turned in her scissors when she grew up, she never did hide behind an apron.
“Adele could also be as sweet as all get-out. Once, when my son Taylor was two and didn’t really know his grandparents, Adele and Hap flew out to see us. The first thing Adele said was, ‘Now come here, honey and give your Nanny some sugah.’ Taylor had no idea what she meant. Wanting to please, he ran to the kitchen, licked his finger, and stuck it in the sugar bowl. Then he ran back and held it up, wondering what next. Adele laughed, licked off all that sticky sugar and gave him a great big hug. And then she showed him what she meant and slobbered his little neck with kisses.”
I felt the tears crowding in the back of my throat, as often happens when I think about my children and their grandmother. Time to quit. I stepped down and made my way back to the family pew.
The Minister was wrapping up. My eulogy had been nothing more than a fantasy. I had never budged an inch, never marched up the aisle, and never spoken the words that were begging to be said. As much as I had wanted to give Adele her due, I was still a product of my Southern upbringing, and that meant staying put. The woman I came to honor would have risen up in protest had I messed with her funeral, and I was willing to let her have her way this time. So I had remained seated. I took Kirk’s hand, and tuned back in.
“In closing”, the Minister said, “there are only two ways we truly lose someone: we stop saying her name, and we stop telling her stories.”
“Amen to that!” I whispered and promised myself to do neither. I would make sure Taylor and Logan remembered Nanny as the Gramma who spoke her own mind. Who loved their dad and fig trees, purple pansies and magnolia blossoms. A woman whose greatest pleasure was passing on her stories to her grandchildren, who adored her husband, and, while she gave him holy hell during their marriage, she couldn’t wait to join him in Heaven.
Even though I no longer believe in an afterlife, for Adele’s sake, I hope I am wrong. I want her to have her happy ending. Of all the gifts she gave me over the thirty some years I knew her, perhaps the most instructive was her relationship with Hap. She and I shared an acerbic tongue, a tendency toward nit-picking our mates. But while I have striven for independence, she sought devotion. Where I have carved my own career path, she melded hers with his. Not because she had to or because it was expected of her, which it was, but because she wanted to.
Whenever Kirk and I returned “home” to Chattanooga, Adele would wake us in the morning with piping-hot cups of her dark Louisiana coffee, laced with an ample supply of cream and sugar. If she caught us asleep with our backs to one another, she would admonish, in that take-no-prisoners southern voice of hers, “That’s no way to sleep. Y’all should be sleeping spoon fashion.” Then, while she held us captive, she would add, “and never go to bed mad. It makes for bad dreams.”
We don’t always curl together the way she would like, and on occasion we’ve been angry when we turned out the lights. It never fails to raise the image of her small stooped-over shape, a gnarled finger pointed in my face. She was right about the bad dreams. She was right about a lot of things.
As the Minister invited us to join in singing the closing hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, I refused to cooperate. I imagined I heard Adele tsking at my impertinence, but it was just the rustling of pages. She was gone, and I was left with memories of a strong southern woman with a big heart. A heart big enough to embrace a daughter-in-love who sought to be strong in her own right, and who learned on occasion the grace of giving in.
The words of a lifelong peace activist came floating back to me on the organ’s final notes. “You can’t achieve world peace,” she had advised, “until you’ve learned to get along with your mother-in-law.” Well, I thought, as Kirk and I filed out of the chapel, I guess there’s hope for the world after all.