What We Think About When We Think About Mama
Southerners everywhere celebrate Mother’s Day today. Here are some things to think about while you do.
Mama. Momma. Mamma.
When you are a journalist faced with a word with multiple variant spellings, you turn to a reference called a “stylebook.” There are three go-to stylebooks used by journalists: the Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and the Chicago Manual of Style. None of them tells you how to spell that word, even though it’s first one that ever came out of your mouth. When it comes to mama, you’re on your own.
I choose M-A-M-A. But when I edit stories by others, if they choose M-O-M-M-A or M-A-M-M-A, I let them go with it. The right choice depends on how you see the word in your mind, because you always see it sitting right underneath the picture in your mind of the woman who brought you into this world (and who, if you made her mad, sometimes reminded you she could take you right back out of it, too).
That vision is totemic, symbolic, iconic. It represents the one who loves (or loved) you most. Your best friend, confidant, protector. Your guiding light. Today, some of you will actually celebrate Mother’s Day with the woman herself. She will sit right there across the dinner table from you.
But there are also many of us who never knew our mamas at all, or who lost them far too early, as I did. Flora Louise Smith Reece died two months after I celebrated my eleventh birthday. I do remember her as my best friend, confidant, and protector. But I also remember the gap, those years of my youth when her presence lived only in the memories of my father, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins.
I’ve been thinking about my mama a lot lately. Yes, because Mother’s Day was coming, but also because of other reasons. A few weeks ago, I interviewed one of my favorite songwriters, Iris DeMent, who grew up singing church songs with her parents, just like I did. There is another parallel between my life and Iris’s. Her mother was named Flora, too. On Iris’s first album, which came out in 1992, the final song was an old hymn called “Higher Ground,” which she sang in a duet with her own mother Flora. Before my mother died, “Higher Ground” was one of the last songs I heard my own mother Flora sing in church. I kinda lost it when I first heard that duet — and usually do most every time I’ve played it since. (A story based on my interview with Iris is coming soon.)
I spell her name M-A-M-A and always will, because that’s how I did it when she was still with me. The truth is, she never left me. Flora Reece lives in my memory, my best friend and guiding light, standing in Pleasant Valley Church, singing like an angel.
To celebrate Mother’s Day, we’re running three of the best pieces of writing about mamas and grandmamas that Salvation South has published: “Sewing Lessons,” by Shelley Johnson, “Charlie, Y’all Come Home,” by Charles McNair, and a new poem by Marianne Leek called “4581 Miles.”
We hope y’all have a happy Mother’s Day. If she’s there with you, hug her hard and make sure she knows, deep down, how much you love her. And if she’s not, hold that memory tight, because through it, she’s still right here with you.
Chuck Reece is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Salvation South, the weekly web magazine you're reading right now. He was the founding editor of The Bitter Southerner. He grew up in the north Georgia mountains in a little town called Ellijay.