Published on October 24th, 2022 | by S. Lynn Alderman0
The Way Loretta Says Mommy
My boyfriend rolled his eyes when I told him I had a headache from crying since learning that Loretta Lynn died and I think I might have to break up with him.
He doesn’t get it. The differences in the ways our upbringings quilted us into middle-aged people are thrown into sharp contrast in this moment. Mine is a patchwork of tired coal dust–stained overalls — “bank clothes” — and threadbare housedresses, alongside neat military greens and blues. His is the tattered raiment of past generational wealth. Sometimes he learns about things I’ve been through and can’t believe I haven’t gone completely crazy. Honey, I was bred for this. There’s no room for falling apart in the mountains, in the mines. In the company houses wondering if the doctor will make it in time. Collecting water from a spring on another holler because what runs to the house is poisoned by the same company that issues the pay that sustains you. Naturally, some people do fall apart, and then your job is to survive the specters of broken family scratching at the windows, pretending to be playing a game, but actually intending you to stay scared so they can revel in the tiny bit of power they can muster. You learn to stay focused and keep going. And teach your kids the same.
Still, I was caught off guard when my friend texted me at work about Loretta, and I burst into tears and had to excuse myself and hide in the bathroom. And that continued to happen for the rest of the day: on the way home in the car, at the eyeroll dinner, and in the evening after I’d made the boyfriend go home so I could collect myself before my ex-husband dropped off my girls from their Tuesday dinner. But of course, the moment they saw me they recognized something was wrong. So, we decided to watch the beginning of Coal Miner’s Daughter before bed. Starring the lovely Sissy Spacek who listened to tapes she made of Loretta Lynn telling stories to get the lilt of her voice right. “Hard” rhymes with “tired.”
It has been a long time since my big girl saw the movie, and I don’t think the little one ever has. But both of them have been many times to the old Appalachian coal camp where my grandmother lived until she died three years ago. Those shots of Kentucky at the beginning of the movie may as well be McDowell County, West Virginia. Loretta grew up about 100 miles away and it would take, even today, close to three hours to make the drive on those rough roads. But it is pretty much the same place. At once beautiful and verdant green, and dusty, gray and hard. Loretta always seemed like some distant cousin to be proud of, who made it out and to the big time, and didn’t ever try to sound like she was from anywhere else.
It all has me thinking about my grama. And when Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn calls her mom “Mommy,” that really does me in. There’s something in the way it is said around those parts, “Mommy.” My mom used to say it to my grama on the phone, long distance. As a kid, I thought that Mommy was a word reserved for children, and it felt kind of weird to hear an adult say it. I wish you could hear the timbre of it, kind of a higher pitch, with a tinge of yearning and awe. It’s a word of great respect the way it’s used, the name of a queen, a revered ancestor. Another word for safety, and love, and solace. Of wisdom. It’s a prayer, a wish, a tribute, a cry for help, a word of gratitude, a recognition of the secret knowledge between women, all remembering their elders enduring and accomplishing all manner of hard things. Sometimes with grace, sometimes with rage, but always with strength, because is there a choice?
Actually, you can hear it. There is a video of Loretta singing and afterward her mother is briefly interviewed. She has a glint in her eye the whole performance that I have to think is because her mother is there. You can get on the Google and find it. Gentle Clara joins her on stage, good as gold and sweet as honey. The host makes a comment about Loretta being a great songwriter, and her mother agrees, and Loretta blushes and bursts, “Oh mommy!”
I guess it is the reverence that is so familiar. My grama was just a few weeks shy of eleven years old when her mother died at 32, coughing to death with something they called tuberculosis, but no one around her ever had it. Grama’s life was torn apart and she was taken out of school to help cook and clean in her uncle’s home, depression-era tough decisions in 1934. Loretta was two years old. By the time I came along, I could look up at an old photo of my great-grandmother on the wall and just try to imagine her. Grama had a snapshot that was of her mother, stepfather, younger brother and herself at age five. I’ve seen the original. Grama’s face is thin and tense. Could be the camera was unfamiliar and scary. She had the black and white photo enlarged, edited and colorized somehow long before Photoshop so it would feature just her mommy. She’d say that it wasn’t exactly her hair color. And that in the image she was squinting in the sun and looked a bit severe, but in real life she was softer, with an easy smile.
One of my greatest accomplishments was that when my Grama stayed with me for stretches of her last years, she said she felt welcome. Since her early hard days, she so easily felt like a burden. She had my girls laughing their heads off the same way we did when I was a kid. Grama knew how to turn a phrase that would leave you rolling. She bestowed upon me the highest praise, that she thought I was a good mother. She’d pined her whole life for her mommy. And her blessing of my motherhood, even if she thought I spoiled the girls a little bit, has been nourishing and sustaining in my uncertain days.
Three years ago was the last hard month of my grama’s long life. I wailed like a banshee when I learned she’d slipped away on the one night in those last disoriented days that I didn’t go to the hospital and sit with her. Maybe it was easier to leave without me there, my strong quiet brother standing by. Really, she’d already said goodbye to me a few days before. We embraced and both started crying and she said, patting my back, “This ain’t all, there’s another world a’waitin’.”
It’s the next day now. We snuggled on the couch and watched the rest of the movie and the little one asked if Loretta Lynn is on Spotify. We talked about all of us dressing up as different versions of her for Halloween in a few weeks. I’ve still felt tearful, but not so swept away. Maybe I am a little sad about Loretta, and a lot sad about my Grama. Maybe it somehow seemed like something of my Grama was still flying around those dusty hollers as long as Loretta was still with us, with her similar voice and sparkle and humble beginnings. Yesterday I felt like that part in the movie where her heartbroken father, played perfectly by Levon Helm, forlornly laments at the train station as Loretta takes off to faraway places,“I ain’t never going to see you again.” Today, I will have to stay focused and keep going. And trust that this ain’t all.