imagine there’s no underwear
by terry barr
“I already knew what you were up to. Remember, I do your laundry.”
--“The Kids Are Alright”
Fill in this blank: “When I die, I want you to promise me that you will…”
No matter how you answer, I promise I won’t judge you. I bet that whatever you say, though, can’t top what my mother said from her hospital bed the week before she passed away from liver cancer.
Speaking of passing, it’s hard to believe that it’s been over three months on this side of her passing. I dreaded its coming for years—when a loved one hits eighty, people like me can’t help counting—and now that this coming is in the rear view, I don’t know how to feel. I’m not relieved except that she’s no longer suffering. I’m still grieving, though my grief is no longer debilitating.
My good memories still shine, and though there are sixty-two years’ worth to cherish, it’s these moments from her last week that sustain and level me. They even make me smile.
I don’t know what external or internal prompt pushed my mother to pronounce what would be her dying request. My wife, daughters, maybe a good friend, and I were gathered round her bed. This was the night that my mother’s oncologist had predicted Mom would leave us. Still, the hospice nurse that afternoon told us that she didn’t think a passing was “imminent.” Who knows what to think in such times? Any turn might take us all elsewhere. Yet looking at Mom propped in her bed, eating a meal of fried chicken tenders, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese, such a turn that night seemed remote. Between bites, Mom told stories in chains that in those minutes made me believe that she might just get up from her hospital bed and live on for weeks or months.
Though maybe she sensed something else.
To keep her talking and to distract us from the end, my daughters requested that Mom help them order their lives. My older daughter Pari urged her to draw a landscape design for Pari’s home in Hot Springs, Virginia. We have that sketch, full of the various plants that would border and complement the house, with instructions on when to plant, when to dig up, and when to fertilize. My younger daughter Layla was more interested in recipes to carry on: frozen strawberry salad, chicken pot pie, and Mom’s macaroni and cheese that somehow I could never duplicate well enough.
Home design and cooking were certainly two of Mom’s strengths. As a little boy, I ran afoul of the neatness and order of her house, but I put myself in the kitchen every night to learn how to cook like she did—which ingredients to use, which brands, and how to coordinate the meal so that everything appeared on the table at the same time, all hot and fresh. This food was so delicious that it would make you drop to your knees and wonder why you ever asked for salad dressing on the side, a “vegetable medley” instead of scalloped potatoes, any pot of greens not cooked with side-meat, and tofu, quinoa, or “vegan cheese” as a substitute for anything.
Once I brought some friends home to spend the night. The next day we would be heading for a New Orleans food frenzy. That night at supper I kept bringing up all that good restaurant food we’d soon be sharing, and one of my friends, over a seven-layer salad and shrimp creole, looked at me in disbelief,
“How could it ever beat the food we’re having here in ‘this restaurant?’”
I felt like such a fool.
I know now that raw and undercooked vegetables are better for me, but please, season and cook my peas and beans and collard greens to death. And don’t spare the pork. You can bet I won’t.
I’m going on about food instead of telling the story I’m bound to tell, but a good food digression is in perfect keeping with everything my mother was, believed, and did when she told all those stories of her life.
So though I don’t know the prompt for her next words, I do know it found its motivation somewhere and somehow in these supper moments.
Amidst our clamor, she cleared her voice, then announced to everyone, even the nurse who had stopped in to see if Mom wanted a Coke:
“Now y’all listen to me…”
We looked at her, all forgetting to breathe out.
“Now when I die…”
I can’t begin to write the rush of fears and expectations of what I thought might follow. She and I had briefly discussed her funeral that morning. To indirectly get to the service I never wanted to plan, I asked about a good friend who passed the previous year and what music that woman had requested for her service.
“She chose ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ It’s a good song, but I don’t want anything like that at my funeral!”
“Well, what would you like?”
She thought a moment.
“That Beatles’ song, ‘Imagine.’”
I didn’t correct her--“Now Mom, John Lennon did that one”--mainly because I had no idea she loved this song and wanted it to send her off from this world, especially with that opening line. As far as I knew, Mom believed in heaven, and certainly her fellow Methodist church members did. I thought she might have chosen Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
“And I want Sally Vines to play it on her saxophone.”
At least the instrumental would keep the peace, especially coming from Sally, who was not only a professional musician, but also the daughter of the man Mom kept company with for fifteen years after my father passed. John Vines, another good man who, like my Dad, loved Mom’s cooking and, of course, her.
“So, when I die, I want you to promise me something.
“Yes ma’am,” Pari and Layla answered as one. ”Whatever you want, Granma!”
I kept holding my breath, and oddly, I’m doing so now as I write these words. Would she want us to take her body “home,” to Courtland, Alabama, where all her father’s family, the Terry’s, were buried? Did she want to be buried in a certain dress? Did she want us to care for her Maine Coon cat, Pepper?
Did she want us to ban any strange, unsavory relative from her funeral?
Before Mom’s mother, my Nanny Ellen, died, she made us promise that under no circumstances were we ever to open the door should a “greasy fat man come walking up to the house.”
“Who would that be, Nanny?” I asked.
“Iron” Terry was Nanny’s husband’s half-brother. I never knew my grandfather nor had I ever seen most of his Courtland brethren, including the man whose name was actually “Arn.”
While I promised Nanny that I would honor this wish, I wondered whether I would be able to pick out this greasy fat man if it ever came to it. After all, as I mentally scanned my neighborhood, my church, and the community of Bessemer itself, I figured that I had just promised to keep out three-quarters of the older men who might want to respect Nanny at her end. And even if I did manage to sense Iron’s coming, could a fifteen year-old boy like me really deny entrance to an elder, a relative to boot?
Of course, on the day after she died, among the well-wishers was a smiling man who entered our dining room before I had a chance to do anything except shake his hand. I don’t know if he just walked in, as many were doing, or if he rang the bell and was ushered in by my well-meaning father.
“Hey Buddy, I’m your Uncle Arn.”
Internally I screamed; externally I said “Nice to meet you.” I thought of Nanny, and though I didn’t understand it then, I accepted later that in times of death, grief, and mourning, not all promises make it past the proprietary gatekeeper.
Maybe he drank too much, and maybe he cheated somebody out of something. I was never sure of Nanny’s grudge against him, but on this day, as we broke a near deathbed promise, all I saw was a nice man who offered me his sorrow, smiling all the while.
No one has issued me a deathbed wish since, as if they knew how unreliable I was. Yet, forty-seven years to the month after Nanny passed, here we were, waiting for what was to come.
“Now when I die, I want y’all to promise me that the first thing you’ll do [before we cry and hug each other and close your eyes?] is to go into my bedroom, open up my top drawer, and throw away all my underwear.”
She looked at us then, every one of us, in the eye, as she always did when uttering a pronouncement that we better not brook.
“That’s right. I don’t want anyone else touching it.”
And it wasn’t that we didn’t take her seriously. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand that from a southern woman--one who insisted that every knife go on the right of the plate, and every fork on the left where it rested on top of the napkin; or that every bed in the house must be made by 9:00 in the morning; and that the house must be vacuumed four times a week regardless of whether only one person was still living there--this new declaration wasn’t serious.
Oh, we knew.
Knowing, though, doesn’t always reflect emotion, and the emotion we all felt was something between relief and hilarity. So we laughed, every one of us, a reaction that made Mom even more emphatic.
“I mean it now! All my underwear, just throw it away.”
“Yes ma’am Granma!”
“Of course we will Jo Ann!”
“Yes, I’ll take care of it, Mom.”
“Well okay then,” she said.
“On Sunday morning a week later, Vivian lay awake in the bed
watching the light fill the room and move up the dressing table,
over the perfume bottles, across the chest of drawers, where
Nebraska had, as always, neatly balled up and stored Edward’s
socks. Was there ever a time when it did not feel natural to have
some other woman’s hands fixing those socks?”
(Hoffman, Almost Family, 112)
As acts of intimacy go, taking care of someone’s underwear, even someone’s socks, ranks in the top five things we want only certain people to do.
When I think of my own underwear, I realize that only the following people have ever touched them:
My mother. My wife. My childhood family maid, Dissie Shepherd. Possibly my Nanny.
I guess it’s not a surprising list, and most people’s would be similar, in number anyway. My daughters have never laid a finger on my underwear, though they have no doubt handled their mother’s, since in their teenage years when it was my turn to do the laundry, I often placed the wrong underwear in the respective dresser drawers. I’d see them marching into our bedroom with bottoms that they, at least, thought only an idiot would think were theirs. My wife would laugh, wondering how I could make such a mistake. But I ask you, what father knows or should know exactly whose female underwear is whose?
I hope my daughters will be spared from having to deal with my underwear. Some things should be kept from children even when they’re adults for as long as possible. Not that there weren’t occasions when I retrieved my mother’s and my underwear from her dryer. I’d fold each and carefully place hers on her bed, figuring that she could take care of placing them neatly in her bureau drawer. She’d thank me sometimes, or just as likely tell me that I didn’t have to do that, that being as close as she’d come to referring to her bras and pants. I didn’t know at the time what she thought about my handling her underthings, or if she thought about it at all.
I think I know now.
And even now when my wife and I fold clothes together, I want to snatch out of her hand every pair of boxers she takes up.
“Let me do that,” as if folding my underwear were too ugly or crude for her; as if I’m sparing her from something she shouldn’t have to do. As if she’s never touched them otherwise.
She doesn’t mind my folding hers, though she asks that I just place them on top of the dresser since I don’t have the knack for putting anything neatly into a drawer.
My wife even selects and buys my underwear, somehow unwilling to leave me to my own devices in this area. I, of course, have only dreamed of buying hers. Still, I know we’ll wash and fold each other’s till the end.
I remember laughing when my mother told me the reason that she never planned to remarry after my Dad died:
“I just don’t want to have to wash some old man’s dirty underwear again!”
It’s amusing the steps we take and the ones we don’t as we move in and out of intimacy and ingrained pride.
I think of the “Grandmother” in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who dresses as if she’s going to a luncheon at The Club when embarking with her family on a car vacation to Florida. She calculates that being dressed so primly and properly will allow anyone who finds her body on the side of the road, subsequent to the accident that she doesn’t know she’s foreshadowing, to see that she was “a lady.” No doubt her old woman’s underwear was pristinely chosen, starched, and pressed, too.
Or consider Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. Though underwear is never seen nor remarked on, another act of intimacy forces us, if not the characters, to consider subtle southern ironies. After Daisy’s maid/cook Idella has passed, Daisy takes to the kitchen to follow Idella’s recipe for nurturing fried chicken. Her chauffer/caretaker Hoke enters the kitchen as Daisy shifts the drumsticks and thighs around the heated pan.
A white woman in the 1960’s frying chicken, preparing a loving meal, for a black man roughly her age. For their supper.
It’s an act of intimacy all right, though social codes and barriers cause them to take their plates and sup in adjoining rooms—Daisy in the formal dining room, Hoke at the kitchen table. They can hear each other chewing, though the sight of each other enjoying this meal remains forbidden. Maybe the scene is heavy-handed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Toward the film’s end, the desire for intimacy causes Daisy to proclaim that Hoke is “her best friend.” I don’t know if the filmmakers thought we couldn’t handle an articulate response from Hoke, or if a man of this era answered in the way Hoke does because of those same social codes, but all he says in response is “Yassum.” And when in the film’s final scene in the nursing home, after Daisy shoos her son Booly away, Hoke lifts Daisy’s fork and feeds this dying woman her Thanksgiving pecan pie, their intimacy, if not their deep friendship, forever sealed.
For years after my father died, my mother employed a man named Robert to help her in the garden, to clean her gutters, and do any other manual jobs her body and dignity wouldn’t allow her to perform. She told me often of how she’d have to pick Robert up from his government-subsidized apartment, which a friend had pulled strings to get him into. Mom told me that Robert had been a policeman in Washington, DC, once, though what caused him to return almost penniless to Bessemer, where he was born, she never knew.
“He’s really smart,” she’d say, “and likes to read.
They discussed politics often and both lamented the decline in Bessemer’s standards of formal education. On warm days Robert rode his bicycle to work, but as he aged, those good days dwindled. Some days he wouldn’t show up at all, but Mom kept hoping that she could provide work and some income for him.
On the days Robert did come, she’d prepare his lunch, making him the fried bologna or tuna fish sandwiches she made for my brother and me when we were kids. She’d serve him on her everyday china, carrying his plate and glass of iced tea outside where he’d sit at the patio table and eat while she sat at her own kitchen table. Robert was ten years younger than Mom and always a gentleman, she said. A good companion.
Old times, though, aren’t easily forgotten. My mother and grandmother always fed the hired help, white or black. Yet none of these men was ever invited to sit at the table with the family.
It’s funny, but my mother also told me how particular Robert was about his meals, and she’d make special trips to the grocery store to buy what he liked on the days he worked. That seems like something intimate to me.
She also asked Robert to help her change the sheets on my bed just before my visits. That bed was antique, the mattress tight fitting, and it hurt her back to wrestle with it. I could have made my own bed when I arrived, but that isn’t how my mother worked. I had to drive such a long way, and everything had to be just right for my arrival. She’d have a pot roast ready, with potatoes and carrots simmering next to the meat. The two of us would eat together, and later that night I’d rest in a bed that a grown man had made up for me. A man older than me. A black man, and despite all I want to believe, I cannot imagine my mother ever hiring a white man to do the same. In her last year of life, she hired a married couple to help her around the house, vacuuming, dusting, and making up my old bed. They, too, were black.
I don’t know if this couple helped Mom with her own bed, but I know Robert never did. This isn’t something my mother told me; it’s just something that I know from understanding all that was and wasn’t allowed in our world.
I also know that as with my childhood maid Dissie, Robert had full bathroom privileges. I feel funny writing this, but my discomfort doesn’t make it less true.
Maybe these aren’t startling revelations. Yet as I consider the way we lived and interacted, I understand that there was always a greater intimacy than we acknowledged, or approved publicly. Others have written more eloquently and even academically about this truth. Sometimes, though, the only way to experience a political epiphany is to realize its personal origin.
Often, Dissie brought her granddaughter Juanita (‘Nita) to play with my brother and me. We were kids reaching for adolescence, playing whiffle ball or other games appropriate to summertime Alabama, though we always played them in the back yard.
The way our house was structured, everyone passed through the bedroom my brother and I shared on the way from one end of the house to the other. Once, as I was changing clothes, Nita passed through. I was sitting in front of my dresser in my underwear, a pair of briefs. I suppose I couldn’t decide which pair of play-shorts to wear, but what I remember most is that when I heard her coming, I knew I couldn’t hide or scramble fast enough to put those covering pants on. And for some reason, my throat sealed up, too, so when Nita passed, I just sat there with a stupid smile on my face.
She smiled, too, and maybe she said “Sorry Buddy,” but neither of us spoke of that moment again.
Juanita, then, was the only girl to see me in my underwear until college, until a girl named Lisa. Something is always beyond our control: moments of intimacy that we don’t plan on but can’t forget.
So what I’m saying is that laws and society and social custom attempting to guard our blood purity and intimate feelings are pure bullshit. What we end up “protecting” and countenancing is never what we intend.
My mother died late on a summer Saturday night. My brother Mike, Sallie Vines, and my wife and me were gathered round her. My wife spoke words of love to help her pass. And then we began to mourn with Mom’s community.
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and
little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us soap
dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and
our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the
tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made
me sad’ (To Kill a Mockingbird, 321).
Aside from believing that “Scout Finch” is wrong—surely she, “Jem” and “Dill” gave Boo Radley pleasure as he watched them and saw the picture of what a relatively happy childhood was like—I love the acknowledgment in that passage of all that neighbors do to comfort and support and abide with us through our intimate sorrows.
My mother’s community fed us well in the week before and after she passed. Friends kept calling and dropping by to see her through the day that she died, and up until her last hours, my mother continued to regale her friends with the personal stories that she always loved to tell of her past and their adventures together.
I continue to see images of this community over those last hours: my oldest friend Freddy sitting by my mother’s hospital bed, holding her hand, something he never did before, though as his mother did with me, Mom embraced Freddy when we were boys, and surely changed his pants when it was called for; Mom’s next door neighbor, Helen, and her sisters coming over and praying with Mom, and then frying catfish for us on the night before Mom passed; Mom’s best friend Jane Mulkin sitting on the floor by her recliner where Mom spent the last thirty-six hours of her life. I didn’t listen to everything they said in those hours, but Jane told me later that Mom had asked her how long she thought Mom had left, something neither Jane nor anyone else could tell her.
Something my mother chose not to ask my brother or me.
The last food my mother ate with anything like enjoyment was a ramekin of baked vanilla custard Jane made for her. I sat by her as she spooned every bit of that custard herself. My mother never let nor needed me to feed her.
Had we not been there, had there been no one else, Mom would have asked Jane to throw out her underwear, something Jane would have gladly done. She asked me after Mom passed if we had done as instructed.
“Yes,” I said. “Of course. It was the first thing I did the next morning.”
An independent woman always, her final request, then, can be seen as amusing, predictable, appropriate, and even homage to old-time Southern propriety and decorum.
Yes, but it was also an intimacy she conferred on us. A last chore with which she graced us. It is only in such intimacies that we can truly measure the depth of our love and trust in each other.
An original concession to the inevitable.
A way of saying, “I’m yours.”
About the Author
Terry Barr is the author of Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Under the Sun, Flying South, Full Grown People, and Eclectica. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family. Read more from Terry at: medium.com/@terrybarr