A tombstone for mom

Published May 13, 2007

I was 13 when my mother died. - I was a chubby, shy little girl who'd clung to her, choosing the company of adults over those my own age. I was a tomboy who rode a pink Huffy 10-speed bike and skinned my knees playing outside. I wore skirts only when forced to. - A dozen years after her death, I was a young professional, and my mother's grave still didn't have a headstone. My father had promised that one would be laid. He'd married twice since she died. Maybe he'd come to terms with things. - I hadn't.

The absence of a headstone caused me sleepless nights. I wrestled with pride and the foolish assumption that it was my father's responsibility. He'd promised to buy one, but other things seemed to take priority.

No one knew I desperately wanted my mother to have her name engraved on a concrete slab. That meant she wouldn't be nameless, abandoned in a grassy field among the dead.

It would be something I could show my children someday, something to remind me of May 28, 1994, her last day on Earth. But a few years ago, I was new to the working world and just didn't have the money.

During the fall of 2005, my sister bought the headstone using money from a small separate inheritance. She's 13 years older than I am, practical and unsentimental. A headstone wasn't at the top of her priorities. But I think she sensed it would matter to me and that I would visit and tend to our mother's grave if it were properly marked.

She was right. A visit home last spring allowed me to see it for the first time.

I finally got the closure I'd been searching for.

* * *

My mother's death was sudden.

On May 27, 1994, she went on a smoke break in the restroom at UAW Ford in Dearborn, Mich., where she'd done clerical work.

I'd seen her earlier that morning. I had no idea it would be the last time. I can't recall what, if anything, were the last words we said to each other.

Later that day, during her break, she collapsed on the floor from what doctors called a heart attack/brain aneurysm. Whoever found her called paramedics.

My father and I rushed to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. In a small, narrow room, a hospital official pulled us aside, eyes sullen from defeat. She was unconscious but could hear us, they said.

My father ushered me to her bedside. Tubes seemed to creep from every crevice of her body.

I stood stoic and teary-eyed, almost in a daze. Even as a 13-year-old, I could tell the end was near. At 12:26 p.m. on May 28, 1994, my mother died in the same hospital where I had been born.

* * *

I've feared one day forgetting the sound of her voice. But the handful of memories I have of her remain fresh.

Carolyn Spencer was born Sept. 5, 1943, in Montgomery, Ala., in the middle of the Jim Crow South. She was the only child of a rail-thin firecracker named Virginia.

At 5 feet, 4, she was the short one in a family of giants who loomed at least six inches taller. She'd smoked cigarettes for decades, drank coffee by the gallon and snacked on Jordon Almonds.

Her salt-and-pepper hair sat shoulder length, peeking beneath the wide-brimmed hats she wore to church every Sunday as the wife of a Baptist minister.

She had perfect vision, typed 100 words a minute and mastered crossword puzzles.

She'd worked odd secretarial jobs, most notably at Motown Records in Detroit, rubbing elbows with the city's A-list R&B singers.

She'd played countless Monopoly tournaments with me and could rival any Jeopardy or $25, 000 Pyramid contestant.

A picture of her sat on my desk at my first reporting job in Jackson, Miss. The photo is here in Florida, among manila folders and dusty notebooks.

Her first name is my middle name. I'm adamant about using my middle initial as part of my byline.

When I was in elementary school, she bought me a poem book. One in particular stuck out which I ripped from the book's pages and lost years later: I see the moon, the moon sees me, God bless the moon, and God bless me.

When I was 19, I got a tattoo of a blue moon with purple clouds, with her first name written below.

After she died, I started keeping some of her belongings in a black steel box that opens with a key. It holds three pairs of her reading glasses, photos, driver's licenses, her funeral program and the wedding ring she wore when my parents married on April 18, 1964.

Her absence meant a void at my high school and college graduations, and someday, my own wedding.

Now, she is a memory to me, in the contents of a box and in the fading sounds of her laughter in my mind.

* * *

Driving through the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, I was eager and confused. It was a cool April afternoon. I maneuvered my sister's car over uneven pavement as I drove past mausoleums of dead strangers.

As I parked the car on the edge of the road, I began feeling anxious.

I remembered how elated I was when my sister called during the fall of 2005 to say she was going to buy a headstone.

She sent me a catalog of headstones. I chose a simple design emblazoned with a cross and sent it back. She paid $500 for it.

After the headstone was laid in early 2006, my dad asked me how much it cost. He handed us a check for the full amount.

That spring afternoon, frustration set in as I wandered through the cemetery. About 20 minutes passed, and I had yet to find her.

I prayed, asking God what direction I should turn. I walked to the left about 10 feet. There, in the grass, I saw her name.

I squatted to wipe my hand across her birth date and day of her death, easing my fingers across the words "wife and mother" and the cross that was engraved to the left of her name.

"I hope I've made you proud, " I whispered.

Camille C. Spencer can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is cspencer@sptimes.com.