The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on. – Carl Sandburg
When my mother got married for the second time, at the age of 68, my sisters and I were there to witness the event, as were two of my stepfather’s four children, who, along with their father, had flown from Mississippi to California for the ceremony. Two sets of siblings, total strangers to one another, stood and watched as our mother and father, respectively, married a person whom we had never met. The bride and groom themselves barely knew each other, having seen each other only twice in fifty years. If there were ever a day when alcohol was needed badly, this was it.
Outwardly it was a happy occasion, but that may have been because for all of the parties involved reality had not yet sunk in. Betty, my mother, and Walter, my soon-to-be stepfather, seemed oblivious to the fact that their children were in a complete state of shock.
Immediately after the ceremony, the newlyweds got into my mother’s Honda Civic and headed across the country to Waveland, Mississippi, the town where my stepfather lived and where my mother would start her new marriage. She had barely taken the time to pack, leaving behind a condo filled with unpaid bills and most of her clothing. The amount of thought she put into this move, which is to say not much, proved to be a good idea in the long run, but early on things did not go well.
The term culture shock was introduced by social scientists in 1958 to describe the anxiety that is produced when a person moves to a new cultural environment. My mother, to put it mildly, did not react well to living in Mississippi after forty years in Northern California. When she got to her new home the honeymoon ended quickly. She found herself living in a town where being from California does not generally work in your favor. According to the prevailing view in southern Mississippi, the San Francisco Bay Area is a place filled with aging hippies, crack addicts, and weird religion. To make matters worse, my mother is not blessed with any kind of internal editor. Anything she thinks, she says out loud.
“For God’s sake,” she’d announce to anyone within earshot, “why would anybody want to live in Mississippi?” People at the bank, or standing in line at the grocery store (in other words, people from Mississippi), endured her earnest, yet entirely rhetorical ramblings. She admits now that this behavior may not have helped endear her to the locals.
At first, Mom and Walter fought constantly, which came as no surprise to anyone, particularly their children. My stepfather quickly had to learn to cope with a fiercely independent woman who was used to being on her own. My mother quickly learned to swear. She also discovered, for the second time in her life, what it was like to put dinner on the table every night, no matter how tired she was. (Just as my father had been, my mother and stepfather are products of their generation, i.e. women cook, men eat.) They each must have wondered what kind of colossal mistake they’d made just in time for their twilight years.
In my mother’s case, she moved to Mississippi in the middle of the summer and I’m not convinced she’s been the same since. A woman who keeps a clipping of Carl Sandburg’s famous ode to fog scotch-taped to the refrigerator is not likely to have a good time in the heat. In California, she would wrap herself in a sweater, drive to the headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge and take a bracing walk right into the wind. She loves the mountains, wood fires, and crashing surf. She must have thought God had a sense of humor when she found herself living two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico in a state where the heat and humidity are legendary, there is no crashing surf, except perhaps during a hurricane, and is so flat you can see for ten miles from the roof of your house.
When my sisters and I realized that our mother was leaving California with a man she hadn’t laid eyes on since the Truman administration, we armed ourselves with every negative thing we’d ever heard about Mississippi and flung it in her face, trying to convince her that it was the most backward place on earth. She took it all in, meekly trying to defend a place that she would soon be calling home. When reason gave out, we grasped at straws, spurred on by what we viewed as our mother’s rapidly loosening grip on reality. “What if you want to find Yo-Yo Ma’s latest CD?” we lamented, as if that were high on her priority list.
Our reliance on stereotypes was based, as it so often is, on indoctrination. Like most Californians, we were staunch advocates of the “We Are the Center of the Universe” philosophy. It was only when we visited other places, like Mississippi for example, that we learned that not only was this not the case, most people assumed we were crazy as loons.
My stepsiblings must have feared their worst nightmares were coming true when their father told them he was marrying a woman from San Francisco. Envisioning their inheritance going up in smoke, they had to believe that their father would soon be wearing a nose ring, smoking pot before breakfast, and ditching his cowboy boots for a pair of Birkenstocks.
It’s times like these when grown children realize an inescapable truth: you cannot control what your parents do so you might as well just give up and accept it.
Betty and Walter met in 1949, while attending junior college near Gulfport, Mississippi. My mother’s family had moved there from Washington, DC, so that her father could start a business near where he had grown up. On her first day on campus, she was standing with a group of students when Walter approached her and asked if she would have dinner with him. She said yes, and that was that. Later voted “Cutest Couple on Campus” by their classmates—a bit of trivia that my mother still manages to insert into conversations decades after the fact, she and Walter dated that whole year and by the following summer had fallen in love. But there were problems.
Walter came from a Catholic family that had lived in Mississippi for generations. Mom was, God forbid, a Yankee and, on top of that, a Methodist. By now her parents’ business had failed and they were moving to New Orleans to find work. They wanted their daughter to finish school in Louisiana, where she would be closer to them. So Betty and Walter sat on the seawall next to the Gulf one afternoon during the summer of 1950 and my mother told Walter she was leaving. He still refers to this as, “that day you left me.”
So my mother moved to Louisiana, where she eventually met my father. They married in 1953, on the same day she graduated from college. My father had moved to San Diego the year before, after joining the Navy. He had fallen in love with both my mother and California and so, on a four-day leave, he rushed back across country, married my mother, and they headed west. When he was discharged, they moved north, first to Berkeley, then to the suburbs east of there. I was born in the spring of 1957, followed by my two sisters in quick succession. Walter, in the meantime, finished college, moved back to Waveland, fell in love himself, got married, and raised four children.
In 1984 my father died of a heart attack and Mom was widowed. They had been married for thirty-one years. As much as we girls loved our father, we never thought our mother would be alone for the rest of her life, nor would we have wanted her to be. Mom’s sister, Ann, who lived in New Orleans at the time, felt the same way.
“Betty,” she said one day, “I noticed in the Picayune that Walter Turcotte’s wife has died. You remember him, don’t you?” This was the first of many “hints” my aunt dropped in my mother’s lap over the next few years. “You know I don’t like you being alone,” she would say during one of their many talks. “Really, Ann,” my mother would reply. “I’m fine.” Although there’s no doubt that my aunt had my mother’s best interests at heart, Mom suspected that her sister wasn’t being entirely truthful, and that her main motivation was to have her sister living less than an hour from New Orleans, meaning that they could spend more time together.
Eventually, however, her sister wore her down and Betty wrote Walter a letter, asking if he remembered her. She expressed sorrow over the death of his wife, telling him that she, too, had lost her spouse. Walter wrote back, asking if he could call. When my mother heard the message he left on her answering machine, something clicked. “When I heard his voice,” she said later, “I just knew.”
My stepfather’s name is Walter, but for some reason my mother has always referred to him by his last name, Turcotte. Around town he is known as “Mister Walter,” or “Buddy” to his friends. His family simply calls him “Honey.” (My sisters and I still remain tremendously confused by this.) Except for his college years and a brief stint in the military, he has spent his entire life in this small corner of Mississippi. After serving as the local postmaster for thirty-five years, he now spends most of his time on his farm on Bayou La Croix, raising Red Angus cattle. He loves his family, Louis L’ Amour, Atlanta Braves baseball, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and my mother, not necessarily in that order. He is a quiet man, taciturn at the best of times, unlike my mother who barely stops to take a breath once she’s latched onto a topic.
The first time I saw them together, in Mississippi, was at the farm, where they spent every morning during the early years of their marriage. In my mind I’d pictured it much like the farms I’d seen on TV: a quaint piece of land with a red barn, fields of corn and wheat stretching to the horizon, surrounded on all sides by white picket fences. In reality, it was not at all what I had imagined, but rather, one hundred and fifty acres of piney woods and swampland in the middle of nowhere, “middle of nowhere” meaning, to me, any place with unpaved roads and no sidewalks.
During my first visit to Waveland, I asked Walter to take me to see the farm I always seemed to be hearing about, and he agreed. My mother and I squeezed into the front seat of his pickup and, after driving for what seemed like hours, over countless bumpy, country roads, we finally arrived at the farm. The farm dog, Duke, and four or five chickens met us as we pulled in next to the barn, and I stepped out of the truck in my three-inch sandals and wandered over to the nearest fence. A very large horse and several cows eyed me suspiciously from the other side.
Mom immediately picked up a garden hose and began to fill a large trough with water, while Walter threw bales of hay into a feeding pen. Over the next hour I stood and watched them as they worked. My mother was wearing a pair of Walter’s blue jeans and an old pair of his cowboy boots, her faded yellow button-down shirt a far cry from the clothes from Talbot’s that she usually wore. Every so often Walter wandered over and whispered something in her ear. She would smile at whatever private joke they’d just shared, and I realized that in some ways they were still the two nineteen-year-olds who had fallen in love fifty years before.
Seventeen years after they stood in front of their stunned offspring and exchanged wedding vows, their marriage is a strange and wonderful mix of rural and urban sensibilities. They listen to NPR in the truck on the way to church. At home they watch Braves baseball, CNN, and the farm report. Both of them are feisty, stubborn, and unlikely to change anytime soon. But they are also still very much in love. They survived culture shock, in my mother’s case, and, in my stepfather’s, a whirlwind of unbridled estrogen that he can’t possibly have been adequately prepared for. They’ve lived through great tragedy—losing their home during Hurricane Katrina, followed by two years in a FEMA trailer—and great joy. Despite their differences they remain committed to one another, even while they’re quarreling, which they continue to do on an almost daily basis.
The locals now call my mother “Miss Betty,” at the dry cleaners or at Wal-Mart, instead of, “that woman from California.” (I knew Mom was going to be fine when she called one day and began to chatter about the new Super Wal-Mart going up in town. This, from a woman who, in previous years, would rather rip out her fingernails with a pair of pliers than shop at any store remotely resembling a Wal-Mart.)
Once a year or so she flies west to see my sisters and me. The first time she got off the plane wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots — much to the delight of her daughters — we realized that there was no longer any need to worry about our mother. It was clear that she’d finally adjusted to her new life, and was happy.
The distance between us is still tough to take, but when our mother comes to California my sisters and I make sure there is a little bit of home waiting for her in each of our houses: Jergen’s lotion in the bathroom, Lipton teabags in the kitchen, and a bottle of brandy on top of the refrigerator. One of us will drive her up the coast for the day, or into the city to see her beloved fog. We make sure she has a fireplace to sit next to during the winter, and we take her to her favorite Chinese restaurant as soon as she gets off the plane. (While there are, in fact, many wonderful things to eat in Mississippi, decent Chinese food is not one of them). We also get as many hugs as possible before we take her back to the airport.
Although both sets of adult children have long since made peace with reality, I suspect that all of us are in some ways still in denial that this marriage even happened in the first place. And yet we know that, just as on the day they drove off in my mother’s Honda, Betty and Walter remain fully in charge. As much as we might hate to admit it, we have been forced to accept that they had been right all along, and that love always, always wins.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.
I absolutely loved this story.