My mother was a slight woman, maybe five-two. When she was about eighty, she cut back on her beloved bread with meals because she had topped into the one-forties and felt she was a bit chubby. Her pants no longer fit as well as she would have liked. I’m pretty sure my bare skeleton weighs at least one-forty. “Though she be but little, she be fierce”*, however, and my mother was a force with which to be reckoned — fearless and mighty. I spent the first half of my life afraid of everything, including my own shadow. Being tiny wasn’t something I could ever do, but I could strive to be fearless. I had my first lesson when I was a few weeks shy of my sixth birthday.
July, 1979, my mom, my sister, and I went on vacation in Chattanooga. The week before, I had gotten my first stitches after gashing my leg while playing with my brother in the yard. I would turn six in just a few weeks. My sister was home from college, twenty-years-old, and my idol. Mama was 48, four years older than I am now. As many times as I’ve thought of that trip in the last few months (and it’s been a lot), that I am so close to the same point in my life has escaped me until now. There’s no way I am anywhere near as grown up as my mom seemed to be in those days which is ironic because Mama, even in her last days, was always the first one on the roller coaster, the most anxious for the weather to warm so she could walk barefoot in the yard, and the happiest to sit in the floor to play with puppies or babies. She was the definition of “young at heart,” but she never left the house without her lipstick perfectly applied.
I can still see the little motel and its pool where I watched night fall and my fingers prune. I can hear my mom decide the stitches would be fine. I didn’t often get to play in a pool, after all. I can see my sister, the coolest, most beautiful, most generous person in the world, climbing onto a Civil War canon pointed over a cliff toward the Tennessee River. She struck a pose while Mama snapped a picture and I watched, certain she was about to plummet to her death. And I can remember thinking at least a half dozen times while we toured Rock City that I just my fall to my own.
For those of you unfamiliar with Rock City, it is a park perched on the side of Lookout Mountain in southeast Tennessee/northwest Georgia. Tourists pay to wind their way through the rock formations and gardens and look out over the bluff toward the seven states that spread between there and the horizon. Stone walkways lead through, around, and between the rock of the mountain, and little stone bridges cover the gaps between boulders so they can go over them as well.
When you’re almost six-years-old and only about four feet tall, the tiny sides of these stone bridges seem to scarcely be enough to keep a person from falling into the chasm below. (Turns out that drop looks a lot less intimidating as an adult because the top of the enormous boulder actually sort of slopes away to the darkness, but it still looks like a good maiming waiting to happen.)
Naturally, my mom looked at the railing of the bridge and thought it looked like a perfect place to sit for the even more perfect backdrop of the chasm. She took a few quick steps ahead and, holding the little rectangular 110 camera in her left hand, waved with her right one for me to climb onto the side of the bridge and smile while she took my picture. Almost twenty years later I can still feel the way my chin dropped and my eyebrows raised as I looked at her, then the spot toward which she was gesturing, and shook my head “no”.
“Go on. It’s okay,” she cajoled. “Are you afraid?”
Duh. I shook my head “yes”.
“What if I sit down? Will you sit with me and let Sissy take a picture?”
Well… as long as we fall to our deaths together… Again I shook my head, “yes”.
So she plunked down on the little wall, and I sat next to her as she held me.
In my memory, that moment was when my mother became more-or-less fearless in my eyes. She would prove this theory time and again over the years. It was also one of the first times it occurred to me that I could overcome my own fears and do something anyway. Sure, I was still terrified sitting there on that wall, but I was there, and I was proud of myself for having done it.
I never became fearless, but eventually, my fears became challenges to be conquered instead of walls holding me back, and I am a better woman for it. I’ll never be quite the intrepid woman my mother was, but by watching her I found courage, and I have strived to never let my fear hold me back.
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*Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”