Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Mama...I found Ida..."

It was 1999 when Mama mentioned Ida again. Daddy had been diagnosed with cancer but hadn't gotten really sick at that point so she was reflecting on getting older, how quickly things change, and just mentioned she'd like to know what had happened to her friend.

I had heard stories about my mother's friends all my life. Juanita, Deloris, and Ida had been Mama's roommates when they were seventeen. World War II was bringing bad news left and right as my mother watched the entire male representation of her high school graduating class leave and go to war, so these girls hung onto each other...for emotional and financial support...and for entertainment. They were the 1940's version of BFF's.

My mother and her friend Ida, in their younger days...
Ida on the left, Mama on the right

My mother met Ida when she was hired as a waitress at the Fairview Restaurant in Sanford, North Carolina. After that they lived together in a couple of different places, eventually leaving one house after awakening to the screams that accompanied an illegal abortion taking place in the next room. My mother has graphic memories of those screams, and of what a baby looks like when a pregnancy is terminated at six months, and that story probably kept me pure and chaste for longer than a lot of girls I know.

Not long after they relocated, a man came into the restaurant and offered to make both of them famous in New York. He was "an ugly man, with bug eyes," my mother said, and she didn't believe he was legitimate. But Ida did. And off to New York she went. She did, in fact, become a model, and soon my mother saw her picture in the newspaper: "She was standing there, holding an umbrella, looking so pretty."

My mother married a soldier, as they did in those days. "We were afraid they would go to war and die. So we married them too quickly; we didn't spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Ida 'cried and cried' when I told her I was getting married."

That marriage didn't last, but Ida's career took off. She eventually married a New Yorker and lived there until returning home in her later years. It was there I found her, after an internet search, in 1999. My mother called her, and she and Daddy visited, Ida cooking "grilled chicken on a George Foreman grill" at age 73. They kept in touch for awhile.

But then Daddy's cancer took its toll, and my mother's caregiving duties became overwhelming. After his death in 2004, Mama's health began to fail, too, as she moved more and more slowly, shuffling her feet as she went. But recently, after rehabilitation from a fall and a broken hip, she's been asking about Ida again, although her friend's phone number has been long misplaced. She says that more and more of her friends are gone now; she sometimes feels that she is the "only one left."

So a few months ago, I returned to the internet, only to find that Ida's address listed was the same place where that chicken dinner was held, about an hour away from my mother and me, but there was no phone number this time to accompany it. I searched through obituaries, finding none that matched. I even drove to Ida's house, only to find it closed up as if uninhabited. I assumed she had moved to some type of elderly assisted living facility.

A few weeks later, while driving out of town in that direction, I drove to the house again. A gentleman answered the door this time and said that the lady who had lived there before was gone, but he didn't know where. He directed me across the street to another elderly lady, one who would surely remember her friend.

The nice lady let me in immediately, with no fear for her safety, even though I was a total stranger. As I asked her about Ida, she said, "Oh, I remember her!" I asked if she knew where she went. The lady replied, "Who?" I started over. Our conversation went around like this for several minutes. Then I told the lady goodbye and reminded her not to allow strangers in her home.

Last week I went back to the internet and actually paid a small fee to search for my mama's friend Ida. This time I was given her same address, the one I had visited...but another address also popped up. I hoped it was the address for an elderly care center, a place I could take my mother to visit Ida, a place where she could make some more friends.

Today I had a chance to make the drive to that address. After driving in the rain, over and around winding country roads, I found myself in front of a beautiful, tall brick home in a residential neighborhood. A black lab barked at my approach, and I really felt that I was in the wrong place. No 84-year-old woman would live in a house like this. But I rang the bell anyway.

I said to the nicely dressed, middle-aged woman who answered the door, "I'm probably in the wrong place. I'm looking for Ida O'Neal. She was a friend of my mother's."

The lady's face fell, and she looked puzzled. "That's my aunt," she said. "I'm actually on the way out the door....to her funeral."

I almost fell off the porch.

I had looked and looked for the girl whose picture sits on my mother's end table in her den. And I had found her...on the day of her funeral.

Ida's niece went on to tell me that her aunt had been in assisted living for five years because she was suffering from Alzheimer's. She had died four days before and would be buried in the next hour, not enough time for me to drive and pick up my mother and get her back there. Not enough time for Mama to accept the news.

I was invited in, and I signed the guest book. I looked at a table full of pictures of a lady who had been on my mind for months. I kept thinking, "I'm too late, too late. I'm too late to give my mother a piece of her youth back, too late to give her someone to talk to in her last days, too late to tell Ida goodbye."

I thanked Ida's niece and told her how sorry I was. I drove away numb and shaking toward my mother's house and pictured myself sitting down beside her on her couch.

"Mama," I would say. "I found Ida..."

5 comments:

jo Display Gibbs said...

This business of caring for our ailing parents seems to put an urgency into almost everything. Today is my father's seventy-eighth birthday. Three months ago he was driving around, picking up my boys from school, and caring for my mother with her chemo appointments and gall bladder surgery. That man is just a memory now. I couldn't visit him today on his birthday because of possible flu germs that have permeated our household, but yesterday he was a mere shadow of the man I know. Bedridden for months now, having refused dialysis for several weeks, he moaned loudly and ask for pain medecine. Will not having been able to go tonight mean I won't see him again? Who knows. Everything is just so urgent.

Cindi Rigsbee said...

That's EXACTLY it, Jo...it's URGENT. You hit it right on the head. I'm so sorry for all you're going through. As you know, I've been there, done that, with the chemo...all while watching the strongest man I've ever known get to the point that he couldn't stand up to look out the window. If I think about it too much, I'll just weep.

William said...

Becca and I are sitting here balling.

I just want to hug Grandmommy right now so bad.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Aw, Cindi.

My mom's been gone for more than a decade, but we just moved to the town where her best friend Marva lived as a newlywed. They exchanged Christmas cards until my mom died.

Just yesterday, I checked the phone book--and her name is there, which likely means that Marva's husband Jack is gone. But how many Marva S's can there be? Must be her.

Gonna give her a jingle today. You're an inspiration, Cindi.

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