She wanted to learn to crochet squares, something that I thought of as quite easy, so I spent one afternoon sitting beside her with the television as background noise patiently teaching her to crochet a square. We would do one and unravel our efforts. Then we would go back to it again. I learned that Cora had moved from Alabama to California and that lots of her kin still lived in the South. I learned that she didn’t like crochet patterns and had been using the single crochet stitch to make blankets for years.
Later on in that same visit, Cora would burst out, “I wish I could adopt you!” hugging me around my waist, she was shorter you know by many inches. I can remember aching at my core and looking at her and saying, “I wish you would.”
My biological family’s story is probably familiar to many. By the time I met Cora I had decided to not speak to them anymore and had cut all ties with them. They, in my opinion, are locked in a cycle of denial and abuse that time hasn’t been able to cure. I could enumerate the many ways I was violated and wronged, I would rather talk about Cora.
From the moment when I said that I wished she was my mother, she became my mother. Valentine’s Day happened while I was visiting and I got a card and candy, a card for “my daughter.” I was one of them – a Nettles, a daughter, someone that the family was proud of for the accomplishments she had achieved and for the soul she had become. I left sad to go and ecstatic to have been, my heart full of love.
In the months that would follow, I would call her and she would always say the same thing, “Hello daughter,” and the 'au' in daughter would be drug out with a long southern twang that distanced the miles and wrapped around my soul with love and unconditional acceptance.
She would ask about my son, Sam and my husband Tony. Their accomplishments and failures and any mischief they might be up to. She would ask about me, what I was doing. I would ask about her life and Robbie and sometimes we would even share concerns about Crystal and how she over worked herself and how much we both loved her. She sent me cards of congratulations and for my birthday. She never ceased to be a mom, asking when I was coming back home to see her again.
Oddly enough I think in part it was her unqualified willingness to throw herself into the role of adoptive mom that started my slow descent into severe depression. I have suffered from depression on and off since I left my parents house at 18 to go to the battered women’s shelter. This time though, the descent was pretty thorough. I was also physically ill. I went back to California and have little memory of spending much time with mom. I was sick in my soul and in my body. My husband and son got to meet her though and if I disappointed or hurt Cora she never said.
I was coming to bizarre terms with the fact that family life could be supportive and loving and caring and could cut through distance and time finding only acceptance. I struggled to shrug off my depression and decided to change my name legally in an attempt to wash away the vestiges of my damaged childhood. I asked Crystal and Cora if I could take Nettles and specifically have Cora’s last name. She was my mom and I wanted it to be like I had really been in her protective womb sometime after she gave birth to Crystal. I legally change my name to Lydia Marcassa Nettles Crabtree.
The depression crashed onto me in full force. Looking back the three surgeries and eight days in the hospital didn’t help the decline toward madness. The pain in my soul was unbearable and I distanced myself from my adoptive family ashamed of how far I had fallen. I wouldn’t share the pain and the agony of my life and I slide deeper and deeper into a nearly irrevocable depression that tried to end my life.
Now, with time and healing I see two gapping problems with what happened to me. Psychically and symbolically cut off from my biological family, I had never learned to trust the new family that so readily took me in. I truly felt alone when I wasn’t.
I know I worried Cora during the many months of my illness and depression. In truth I do not know that I even spoke to her during the last months of her life. When Crystal told me about what happened to her, my life began to take focus again. I was desperate for her to live, desperate as I figured out what I hadn’t done and should have done – cling to the family who loved me.
Crystal tried to prepare me often and I kept telling myself not yet…not yet. I haven’t had my fill of her love and acceptance. All the understanding of what you SHOULD have done never stops the march of death which came and took Cora in a hospital sparing her the agony of the fire that had consumed her.
During the days following her illness, I went and got my driver’s license under my new name and just days ago sent off for a new social security card. The bank is next on my list. I can honor her in memory by clinging to the name that represents all she gave me.
I am feeling a completion of the severance from my abusive biological family and a wholeness of being considered a beloved daughter and sister within Cora’s clan. I find it more than ironic that my parents who told me never to date niggers or they would disown me drove me into the arms of a loving and outstanding African American woman who loved Christianity and the orrishas in equal parts, just as she loved me. She validated for me the beliefs of Martin Luther King, Jr and helped me appreciate the rise of Barack Obama. Suddenly the love and respect of those people in some small way became my people, the racism I was raise with was sluiced off me like a long stuck grim that suddenly falls away under the deluge of loving water.
I have shed few tears for Cora. I also haven’t deleted her phone number out of my cell. I am not sure that I ever will. Scrolling through my contacts and seeing Cora MOM is a comfort I am unwilling to let go of. I haven’t cried I think because I didn’t get to make the connection between her actual loss and my physical world. I was unable, due to health concerns, to travel to the memorial service and I only have made-up images in my mind of her suffering in the hospital. So I keep strong the memory of crochet squares, Valentine candies and loving cards claiming me as hers and perhaps as we Southerns might say, “It’s a blessing.”
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Cora. Her death has reminded me that life is a slow progression to one resolution – separation. We can be a zombie as we move toward that result or we can actively seek out things to do, places to be, obstacles to overcome, life to live and save our soul to leave this earth with dignity and the knowledge that we had been the best we could have to all we came in contact with. As a Nettles, I strive to live that life – the life Cora lived and to ever be worthy of her love and complete adoration and acceptance.
I love you, mom, still do and always will,
Your phone number still is in my phone. Years after I had originally written this, I still can't bring myself to delete it.