When Wibby Returns to Me in Dreams

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There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible to make a fair living by writing personal essays, and in those days I wrote my share of them. When Ladies’ Home Journal launched an essay column called “Heart of the Home,” I wrote a piece about the house I grew up in—the house in Homewood where Wibby still lived at the time, though even then it was tumbling into ruin around her. Dad was gone, and Mom couldn’t manage it by herself, but she refused to leave. She offered no explanation for her refusal, and I struggled to understand her attachment to a place that had been charmless in its best days, and its best days were long since faded.

In writing the essay, though, I began to fathom my mother’s deep, rooted reasons for staying, and why the logic of my arguments carried no weight against them. Without meaning to, I’d written my way into seeing that house as Mom saw it.

Almost immediately after I turned it in, however, my editors reconsidered their idea for a regular column about houses. With so many writers keeping blogs—the Internet equivalent of a column that requires no subscription to read—it was becoming clear that the magazine essay was going the way of the snail darter. Still, LHJ had already bought it, so they stuck it in a file for a few years before finally resurrecting it as a Mother’s Day piece one May.

By then enough time had passed that things in Homewood had reached a crisis point. When the rental house across the street from me became available unexpectedly, we convinced Mom to move to Nashville for a year, just to give it a try. She arrived with a moving van full of furniture, but no final decision had been made about the house in Homewood, which was still packed to the rafters (and to the furthest edges of the crawl space) with all manner of memorabilia that no one in the family had found the heart to address—and that Mom refused to consider parting with. It was still her home, and they were still her belongings, never mind that it was all nearly 200 miles away, across state lines. In true Wibby fashion, she had managed to move away and stay put, all at the same time.

My essay mentioned a number of family pictures that my father kept on his bedside table as he was dying, and when the art director at LHJ began to prepare the piece for publication, she asked me to send copies of the photos to use as illustrations. Mom was always thrilled whenever a story about her found its way into something I wrote, but she had never been photographed for one of them before, and I felt sure she’d go out and buy a hundred copies of any national magazine that featured a picture of her in the wedding dress she’d designed and made herself. Maybe, I thought, I’ll wrap up a copy and give it to her as a Mother’s Day present.

But my brother had his doubts. “I’m not sure you should let Mom read this,” he said when the magazine came out. “I think it might hurt her feelings to read about how bad the house looks.” So I buried my copy under a stack of papers and never mentioned it to Mom.

You see where this story is going.

One morning a few months later, Mom went to her weekly appointment at the beauty shop. I was working when she suddenly banged open the back door, stalked into my office, and slammed a copy of Ladies’ Home Journal down on the desk. “What is this?” she yelled. Her face was so thoroughly flushed that her scalp showed pink beneath her perfectly teased hair.

Instantly I could see how it happened. Grabbing a pile of old magazines, she had sat down under the dryer to flip through them for recipes. My byline was tiny and nearly hidden in the fold at the bottom of the page, but the secret was out the second Mom saw that four-by-six picture from her wedding album.

“Mom, listen,” I started.

“No, you listen,” she said. “What made you think it was alright for you to publish my picture in a magazine without even asking me?

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” I said. “I was planning to wrap it up for Mother’s Day, but Billy thought it might hurt your feelings, and by then the magazine had already gone to press, and it was too late to pull the pictures.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. Well, that’s OK, then.”

She never told me whether reading the essay had upset her, but I think it must not have. After her death, I found a folder full of photocopies of the article. She’d discovered it too late to buy extras on the newsstand, so she’d taken the magazine from Fantastic Sam’s to Office Depot and made copies. That’s the way storms always blew up—and then blew over—with Mom.

When Wibby visits my dreams, she’s still the mother who raised me. Everyone in a dream is supposed to be some manifestation of the dreamer’s own psyche, but when Wibby returns to my house in dreams she is heartbreakingly herself. My first reaction, whenever she appears, is always relief: Oh, thank God; I misunderstood—she’s here; she’s fine; she’s herself. And Mom is always puzzled by my reaction, always surprised at my urgency when I hug her and say, “You’re here. You’re back. Thank God.” And when I find her somewhere else, it’s always a place I’ve never actually been to, though it’s recognizably ordinary—not Paradise at all, but a plain cinder-block house with knotty pine paneling and worn chairs. Once I walked into an unfamiliar house and found Mom sitting with my father, and my grandparents, and my father’s godmother, all together, and they looked up when I opened the door, but they weren’t any gladder to see me than if I’d been there all along and had merely stepped outside to check the weather. My dead don’t seem to know they’re dead.

Not long ago I dreamed that Mom had come back to my house and was annoyed to discover her coat hangers in the closet next to our front door. “Why would you take all my nice wooden hangers without asking me?” she said.

“Because you died, Mom,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s OK, then.”

That was just like her: mad as a firecracker, and then over it again an instant later. But even in the dream it didn’t feel OK at all.

[If you’re curious, it’s possible to read the LHJ essay here.]

In Which Her Mother Tells the Story of Wibby’s birth

In Which Her Mother Tells the Story of Wibby's birth

We didn’t expect her quite as early as she came. And we were at Mother’s peeling peaches to can. Daddy had several peach trees, and they had canned some, and so they were canning for me and Max. And all along as I would peel, I was eating. So that night around 12 o’clock, I woke up and punched Max, and I said, “Max, my stomach is hurting so much I just can’t stand it hardly. I must have eaten too many of those peaches.” And so once in a while, you see, it would just get worse; then it would get better.

We didn’t wake Mother, but as soon as Max heard her up, he went in to tell her. And she said, “Oh, Max, go get your daddy right now.’” So while he was gone, she fixed the bed for me. Mama Alice came back with him, too. Mama Alice and Papa Doc. So they were both with me—Mother on one side and Mama Alice on the other, and they were holding my hand. And Olivia was born around 12 o’clock that day. Max was in and out, but they said Daddy was walking around the house, around and around the house. He’d stop every now and then and find out what was going on. And Papa Doc—when she was born, it was real quick—he jerked up and he said, “It’s a girl,” before you had time to get ready, and Max said, “Little Olivia.”

Wibby’s Daisies

Wibby's Daisies

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of my mother’s sudden death. I have spent every day since in sorrow and remembrance, and I believe I will continue to feel her absence every day I live myself. But tomorrow is also my 25th wedding anniversary, and so for Haywood’s sake I made my overt act of remembrance today by planting daisies, Mom’s favorite flower, at the Wibby Memorial Little Free Library. Remembering how much Mom loved passalong plants, my sweet neighbors brought me this one. They didn’t even know that Mom had carried daisies in her own wedding bouquet.

Wibby’s 4-H Project, 1946

When Wibby had just turned 15, she entered the Alabama State 4-H contest with a dress she had made herself. These are the pages of the booklet she put together to accompany her entry form. Its one-of-a-kind creativity is pure Wibby.

[To read all pages in order, click on the cover image ("Clothing Record Dale Co. 1946") to bring up a larger version of the page; to turn to the next page, click the arrow that appears to the right of each image.]

 

The Wibby Memorial Little Free Library

 

 

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Early in their courtship, my parents knew a tiny girl who could not pronounce my mother’s given name, Olivia, and called her Wibby instead. That’s how “Wibby” became my father’s pet name for Mom, the shorthand he used to recall their days of flirtation. Even during hardships, times of deep worry or sorrow, there was always an echo of their early romance passing back and forth between them. Whenever Daddy heard Mom laughing—even from another room, having no idea of what had amused her—he couldn’t help laughing, too. After Mom started a floral business, Dad would help with the big orders by copying every move she made: if Mom added a Shasta daisy to the center right of her arrangement, Dad would add a Shasta daisy to the center right of his. When Dad brought home a mid-life motorcycle, Mom bought a leather jacket and climbed on back.

During the two and a half years that Dad spent sick with cancer, Mom never, ever left his side, and when he died she was lost. Her friends and family, her church groups, her flowerbeds, her sewing projects—none of them could offer much comfort in the face of such cavernous grief.

Wibby had grown up during the Depression on a peanut farm in Lower Alabama, miles from the nearest public library. She attended a two-room schoolhouse with few books. For the first 71 years of her life, she had no feeling at all for stories as a source of pleasure or solace, and I never once saw her read a book. But one day, months after Daddy died, she went to the library to check out Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice because she’d seen the BBC miniseries a dozen times already and had fallen a little bit in love with Mr. Darcy. And that’s how, overnight it seemed, she fell in love with reading, too. Here, in Regency England, was an absorbing world she could immerse herself in, a grand love story she recognized in every conceivable way, though she had never been to England—had, in fact, rarely left Alabama.

After that, it was Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and the rest of Austen’s novels. Then came other books from the same period, then novels from the Victorian era, and, finally, almost anything. During the last nine years of her life, Mom read comic novels and mysteries, love stories and tragedies, and every knockoff Jane Austen novel she could find. (There is, I was startled to discover, an almost limitless supply of Jane Austen fan fiction.) She read and read and read and read. Sometimes I’d call in the middle of the day and wake her from a sound sleep, and she would explain, unapologetically, “My book was getting so good I just had to stay up all night and finish it.”

As grateful as I am that Mom lived so close to us during her last years, it’s also been very hard to face the many reminders of her absence that daily life has become. So I’ve been trying to think of a memorial our family could make for her, something to serve as a happy token of her time here in the neighborhood. And then I remembered a story I’d heard on NPR about the Little Free Library, a network of small, weather-proof boxes filled with books for neighbors and strangers alike to enjoy. No checkout cards, no due dates, no late fees—just a way to share the pleasures and the consolations of reading. It seemed like exactly the thing to do in my mother’s honor. And thanks to an absurdly generous gift certificate to a local bookstore from our neighbors, the Wibby Memorial Little Free Library has been fully stocked since it opened.

Welcome to Wibby’s Library, everyone. If you’re ever nearby, come get a book, and don’t worry about how long it might be before you can return it. Wibby didn’t pay a lot of attention to due dates, either.

Margaret

P.S. To learn more about the Little Free Library organization, please visit LittleFreeLibrary.org.

 

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Haywood’s eulogy for Wibby

One rainy afternoon, Wibby was feeling a bit blue, so Margaret had our twelve-year-old son Joe take her a milkshake. When Joe returned from her house next door, she asked him if Wibby liked it. “Liked it?” said Joe, “she loved it! She actually squealed when she saw it.” And then he said, “It’s nice to do stuff for people who squeal when they’re happy.”

For me, her son-in-law, that was Olivia in a nutshell: one of happiest people I knew in this world and someone absolutely unafraid to show it.

Many of you know Olivia’s story—how she was born unexpectedly on July 23, 1931, in her own grandparents’ bed in Bertha, Alabama, because her mother, Mimi, not quite eight months pregnant, had decided to go home for a night to help her mother, Mother Ollie, with some canning. That night Mimi woke up with what she thought was a peach-induced stomachache. The ache turned out to be Olivia, but never again would she be mistaken for anything other than herself.

The Olivia I know, from pictures and stories, was Olivia the farm girl, who learned how to grow anything; Olivia the college girl, who never met a stranger and made lifelong friends; Olivia the young professional, who learned how to dance just to catch the eye of the dashing Bill Renkl; Olivia the mother, who raised smart and creative children; and finally Olivia the vibrant grandmother, who would raise a white eyebrow at anyone who called her a grandma. The Doughtons—Sarah, Mary Ann, and John, whom Olivia loved like her own grandchildren—saved her from the dreaded G-word and made “Wibby” her favorite nickname. No other grandmother in the world has that name. I know because I looked it up on the Internet. Wibby truly was one of a kind.

Three years ago, when Wib was making plans to move to Nashville, an acquaintance asked me if I was ready for my wife’s “elderly mother” to move in next door. I didn’t say anything, but I had to smile. It was as if someone had asked if I were prepared for a little moisture, knowing that a tidal wave was about to make land. Wibby was loving and sweet, but little old lady never entered the equation.

Olivia was infamous and even beloved for keeping a wildly cluttered house, but she was mostly unself-conscious about the wreckage. Lori remembers a beat-up old magnet hanging on the family fridge that was printed with the following verse:

When I die, if God should say,

“Did you clean your house today?”

I will say, “No, I did not.

I played with my children and I forgot.”

Wibby placed little priority on inconsequential things like tidiness. Instead she made sure that every kid, teenager, or young adult in a thirty-mile radius felt comfortable hanging out at her house. Visitors felt welcome because of Bill and Olivia’s genuine interest in them. There was always a hot supper and heated conversations waiting for us, and in the mornings always a big breakfast, highlighted by Wibby’s special waffle batter, which she mixed with Sprite. On Sunday nights after the six o’clock mass, when most parents are settling in for a new work week, Bill and Olivia invited dozens of teenagers—literally dozens—over to their house for burgers and beans and potato chips. Eventually Father Muller asked the Renkls to move the party up to the CYO house, where they opened the doors to all the youth of the parish. They must have grilled thousands and thousands of burgers during those years. Olivia and Bill were enthusiastic hosts, but most of all they were unflagging encouragers of young people’s dreams.

They were simply a team—they parented together, served the church and served the poor together, entertained together. Both of them were fully committed to being partners, and they were equally committed to being parents. As Billy says, “Maybe the greatest gift a parent can give kids is to make them feel valuable. I don’t recall ever being aware that she wanted anything (like a new car or a bigger house, or better clothes or appliances) other than us. She always made me feel like she was so proud to be my mother.”

Any account of Olivia’s life would be incomplete without remembering her garden. Wibby wasn’t interested in hot-house flowers or tea roses that had to be coddled—she wanted plants that could be easily divided and shared. There’s a cutting from a Dr. Van Fleet rose, for example, that has made its way from Mother Ollie’s farmhouse in Bertha to Clopton, Andalusia, Birmingham, Nashville, and Clarksville. There are now phlox and bearded iris and daylilies living in Middle Tennessee that began their lives in Lower Alabama more than a hundred years ago. To Wibby, flowers were about sharing the beauty of the world.

Olivia wasn’t much impressed by the digital age, but if you Google her nickname, you will find that she’s on the web in a blog called “The World According to Wibby.” Margaret started it so Olivia’s Birmingham friends would have an easy way to stay in touch with her in Nashville, but it became a place to record Wibby’s absolutely joyful approach to life, as well. Now this journal of her witticisms will remain online as a remembrance.

In her memory and honor, I hope everyone will try a recent tactic of Wibby’s that her sudden death gave Margaret no time to post on the blog: next time you place an order in restaurant, say, “I’ll have the chicken salad, but for my side, instead of the fruit cup, I’d like the chocolate cake.”

We should all do it to get a sense—for just a moment in our routine-driven lives—of what it’s like to be Olivia.

One post on the blog is titled “Wibby, Role Model.” Our son Joe had again had gone next door to deliver something to Olivia, and upon returning he said, “Wibby gets so unbelievably happy about little things like flowers and ice cream. I think we should all be more like Wibby.”

Like Olivia’s unexpected birth eighty years ago in her grandmother’s bed, her sudden death this week has been a shock. But of everyone I know in this life, Olivia was the most ready for the next one. She even mentioned to an emergency-room nurse that she wasn’t afraid to die, that every night she told God she was ready to see Bill again. And I suppose that’s the reason why my favorite words of wisdom from Olivia are the ones she spoke one Easter morning: “I’m so happy. Jesus is risen, and I can wear my white pants.”

Godspeed, Wibby. We’ll miss and love you always.

Olivia Weems Renkl, 1931-2012

Olivia Weems Renkl, 80, was a native of Clopton, Alabama; a longtime resident of Homewood, Alabama; and a recent transplant to Nashville, Tennessee. She was born unexpectedly on July 23, 1931, in Bertha, Alabama, in her maternal grandparents’ bed—her mother, Mildred Mims Weems, had been canning fruit and mistook the early labor pains for having eaten too many peaches. The physician who delivered Olivia was her paternal grandfather, Dr. William Moses Weems.

Olivia was a graduate of Auburn University (then Alabama Polytechnic Institute) and its school of home economics. After college she loved her work as a home-demonstration agent with the County Extension Service in several rural communities in lower Alabama, including Andalusia. In 1960 she married William Bishop Renkl, whom she loved until his death in 2003 and every day afterward until she joined him again on June 11, 2012.

She was preceded in death by her grandparents, Bryant and Olivia Brannon Mims and William and Alice Hawley Weems; by her parents, Max and Mildred Weems; and by her brother and sister-in-law, Max and Nina Blalock Weems. She leaves behind three bereft children and their spouses, and her eight grandchildren: Margaret Renkl and Haywood Moxley, and Sam, Henry, and Joe Moxley; Billy Renkl and Susan Bryant, and Emily Hyams, Ian Bryant, and Will Renkl; Lori Renkl and Michael Breeden, and Max and George Breeden; one great-grandchild, Lily Hyams; and the grandchildren of her heart: Sarah Doughton, Mary Ann Doughton Wilson, and John Doughton. Olivia’s home church was the United Methodist  Church of Clopton, Alabama. For more than 40 years she was a member of the Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Homewood, Alabama. Most recently she belonged to Christ the King Catholic Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

All services will be held at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Homewood, Alabama. Visitation with the family will be Friday, June 15th, at 5 p.m., followed by a rosary service at 6 p.m. The funeral mass will take place on Saturday, June 16th, at 11 a.m.

The family requests that any memorial donations be made to the Clopton United Methodist Church in Dale County, Alabama; to the scholarship fund at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Homewood, Alabama; or to the scholarship fund at Christ the King School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rest in Peace, Sweet Wibby

The last picture of Wibby, taken June 9, 2012

Dear friends of Wibby,

Yesterday morning, Wibby suffered a sudden and catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage; we lost her at 3:30 yesterday afternoon. She was at home with my family when it happened, and we called an ambulance immediately, but the doctors at the hospital told us that nothing could be done for her except to keep her comfortable. Apart from the initial headache, she was not in pain, and she was not afraid. All three of her children were holding her when she died; her last words before she lost consciousness were “Thank you.”

All my life, people have told me that I am my father’s child, and in many ways that’s true. But since his death, it has been my great good luck to have the chance to recognize how much I am my mother’s child, as well, though I still have so much growing to do to become the kind of person she was. I hope I can also learn to be for my own children the mother she has always been to me: deeply loyal (Wibby never forgot the name of a little girl in third grade who did not invite me to her birthday party), never critical, always proud, and full to overflowing with unending love. Wibby’s mother lived to be 97, and her grandmother lived to be 96, and I have always assumed I would be deep into old age myself before I lost her. She had so many more stories I wanted to capture in this blog, so many things to say that I hoped to record here as a source of solace for when, finally, she was gone. I can’t bear to think that already her funny voice and curious mind and fierce opinions are gone from this world.

Here in Wibby’s family, we are all in terrible shock right now, but we also know that this is exactly the way Wibby wanted to go– perhaps not quite so soon, but quickly, and surrounded by great love– and we are so grateful that she was her own inimitable self right up until the very last day. But those of you who read this blog will understand how much I miss my sweet, funny mama.

With a broken heart, Margaret

In Which Wibby Extols the Side Effects of Cuervo Gold

Margaret: I can’t believe Tricia let you drink two margaritas.

Wibby: Well, why in the world not?

Margaret: Because the last thing you need is a bad fall on your way down the steps.

Wibby: I’ll have you know that I have been drinking margaritas since long, long before you were born, and I’m here to tell you that tequila does not make a person falling-down drunk. Tequila just makes a person sleep real good.

Young Women Today Could Use a Dose of Wibby’s Self-Confidence

Wibby: Your husband’s gone wild with the hedge clippers again, I see.

Margaret: Please don’t fuss at Haywood about that spirea bush, Mom. Haywood is your staunchest defender. You wouldn’t believe how many other men say to him, “You let your mother-in-law move in NEXT DOOR?!”

Wibby: That’s only because those other men haven’t met me yet.

In Which Wibby Reveals How a Poor Memory is the Secret to Happiness

Wibby: Dammit, I can’t ever remember how to turn off this cell phone.

Margaret: On your phone it’s easier just to turn the ringer way down. See this little silver toggle on the side? Click the top of it to make the ringer louder and the bottom of it to make the ringer quieter.

Wibby: Oh, I can do that– that’s easy to remember!

Margaret: You said the same thing the last twelve times I taught you how to do it.

Wibby: Fortunately, I won’t remember that mean thing you just said to me, either.

Big Girl Confidential

Wibby: You know that book you got me, Death Comes to Pemberley?

Margaret: Sure.

Wibby: Well, the author’s already written another one.

Margaret: What’s this one called?

Wibby: A Million Shades of Grey, or something like that.

Margaret: Fifty Shades of Grey?

Wibby: Yes!

Margaret: Mom, that book wasn’t written by P.D. James.

Wibby: But it’s by a woman with two initials for her first name and James for her last name.

Margaret: But I promise you it’s not P.D. James.

Wibby: Oh. Well, anyway, if you get happen to get a copy for free, I’d like to take a look.

Margaret: You know it’s basically porn, right?

Wibby: And you know I’m a big girl, right?

In Which Wibby Holds Forth At the Art Gallery

Wibby: This is my son’s art show. He’s been a great artist ever since he was a little boy.

Photographer: Really?

Wibby: I wish you’d take a picture and send it to my daughter. I want her to put it on my blog so people can see these great drawings or paintings or whatever they are.

Photographer: Yes, ma’am.

[Photo by Dane Carder. Find out more about the gallery exhibit here. Find out more about the work of Billy Renkl here.]

So Glad We Cleared That Up

Wibby: There’s no ice cream in this freezer!

Margaret: I know, but Haywood got you a milkshake at the drive-through not even an hour ago.

Wibby: Oh, that’s right. But, really, I don’t consider a milkshake ice cream.

Margaret: Mom, a milkshake is made of ice cream.

Wibby: I don’t care if it’s made of ice cream or not. A milkshake is a drink. Ice cream is a dessert.

The Reason Why, In Childhood, Wibby’s Daughters Would Refuse to Come Out of the Dressing Room

Wibby, to a stranger standing in front of the department-store mirror: I love it! Buy it quick.

Stranger, turning to the left and right, considering her reflection: You really think so? What about the shoes?

Wibby: Well, now, you didn’t do too good with the shoes.

Stranger: But the skirt is alright?

Wibby: Turn all the way around and and let me see your butt.

Stranger, twirling: So?

Wibby: No doubt about it – the skirt is perfect.

Stranger: But not the shoes.

Wibby. Honey, they’re the right color, but that is all in the world I can say for those ugly shoes.

In Which Wibby Throws Her Bucket Hat into the Ring

Wibby: I want you to make me an appointment to speak to the city council.

Margaret: Mom, I don’t think they’ll convene for the sake of hearing the opinion of one regular citizen.

Wibby: Well, I’m not officially a citizen of Nashville yet, and I think they ought to hear a few things from a Birmingham citizen’s perspective.

Margaret: Like what?

Wibby: Like they’re starting to make the Birmingham politicians look good, and that is really saying something.

In Which Wibby Serves as a Microcosm of the American People

Margaret: Did you watch the Republican debate last night?

Wibby: I did.

Margaret: Anybody say anything you could vote for?

Wibby: Of course not. They’re all a bunch of crooks and liars who don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

Megaret: So maybe our president is starting to look a little better to you these days.

Wibby: Don’t get your hopes up.  An idiot running against idiots is still an idiot.