Mama Lesh

Note: The original post appeared on my autobiographical blog, “My Own Ordinary Life.” I am reposting it here because addiction and suicide are so often in the news. The problems are both more prevalent and more widely reported these days, but addiction didn’t start with hippies and rock stars in the 1960s.

My grandmother, born in 1892, was addicted to sleeping pills and surgery. My childhood memories are punctuated with overdose scares. Uncle Jack, the eldest and most practical of her three sons, would call my father,  “Dan, I’m taking Mama to the hospital again.” (She always called just in time to get her stomach pumped.) Daddy, visibly upset, would drive to Nocona, I would be perplexed, and Mama would be mad.

Her simple bedroom with its plain gray walls was probably intended for a live-in maid. It was adjacent to the kitchen of the spacious house. The bed where she spent most of her days and nights had no decorative bedspread or pillow covers. A small dresser with a faded mirror in the corner farthest from the door held a framed photograph of my grandfather, who had died in an oil rig accident before I was born. Her dentures usually smiled ghoulishly from a glass of water on the nightstand, and an array of medicine bottles stood at attention, ready to provide relief for real and imagined pain. A few simple chairs around the bed completed the meager furnishings. The air was thick with Vicks, musty clothing, and Nina Ricci L’Air du temps. The one visible luxury was a window-unit air conditioner—the first refrigerated home air conditioning I had ever experienced. I savored the coolness of that room while the rest of the house and all outdoors sweltered.

She languished in that gray bedroom most of the time, but once in awhile we would find her freshly bathed and perfumed, teeth in place, neatly dressed and wearing an apron, busy making an abundant meal, which she would serve on the dark mahogany dining table. Unlike her spartan sick room, the dining room, living room, and other bedrooms had expensive furniture, thick carpets, brocade curtains, and fireplaces with Swiss clocks and porcelain figurines on the mantels.

Mama Lesh could cook. She made delicious fruit cobblers, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn-on-the cob dripping with real butter, beef roast baked with potatoes and carrots, salads made from hand-picked lettuce and tomatoes. If we got there at breakfast time on one of her few good days, she would treat us to thick bacon, plates of scrambled eggs, homemade biscuits with butter she had churned herself and jam she had canned and stored in the cool, slightly scary basement under the tall back kitchen steps.

I had no special affection for my grandmother, but we visited dutifully, and she sometimes drove her light green 1950 Ford from Nocona to Wichita Falls to spend a day or two with us. I would greet her with a reluctant peck on the cheek, dodging a moist kiss on the lips offered in return. She would bring a small maroon alligator suitcase, a matching necessaire, and an enormous leather purse. “Mary Ann,” she would say, “bring me my pocketbook.” I knew she meant the gigantic purse, though in my mind a pocketbook should have been a folding wallet that would fit in a pocket. I would hand her the purse, and she would reach in, pulling out a fistful of bright orange capsules, pushing them into her mouth, not bothering to chase them with water. Although seconals are sleeping pills, the dose that she retrieved from her “pocketbook” did not make her sleep. It made her feel normal, she hoped, for the rest of the day. At night, an even larger dose would, with luck, help her get to sleep. Her dealer was a pharmacist who lived in a nice brick house surrounded by shade trees on a small hill just outside of Nocona. I would sometimes go with her on errands and wait in the car while she went into that house, emerging a few minutes later, “pocketbook” refilled with her precious drugs, illegal when provided in the quantities she required.

Once in awhile, she would ask me to fix her short and professionally cut hair. I liked doing that. Her hair, unlike my own flyaway tresses, was thick and wavy. Once it had been rolled, touched up with a curling iron that had been heated over an open flame, and arranged neatly, it would stay put with no need for teasing or hair spray. My mother used to say that Mama Lesh had style. “She looks elegant and stylish in her clothes,” my mom said. “Not everyone has that quality. It has very little to do with good looks, and expensive clothes alone are not enough.” She would then point out certain pretty, well-dressed women like Elizabeth Taylor who, nevertheless, lacked style. Jackie Kennedy, Mama said, had beauty and style. A lot of style.

Ocie Mae was the least attractive sibling in the McGuire family. Great Aunt Maude, the older sister, was pleasant, practical, and hardworking with a wry sense of humor. Although I knew her only as a gray-haired widow whose much-older late husband had been a Baptist pastor, Mama Lesh told us that Aunt Maude was once a spirited girl with flaming red hair. Sister Mary had died young, leaving two small children. Her photographs, including one in which she appears to be sleeping surrounded by flowers in a satin-lined casket, are evidence that the lovely brunette was the beauty of the family. Brothers Tom and John were big-boned tall young men with broad handsome faces, flat noses, and thick lips, good features in young men, but less appealing in a young woman. Ocie Mae had inherited those features rather than the more delicate looks of her sisters.

By the time of my earliest memories she was a widow in her mid-fifties, a gray-haired woman who wore ugly expensive orthopedic shoes. She changed little between that time and her death in 1974. She seldom smiled, and I can’t remember hearing her laugh. Her face was set in a sad little smile, head slightly tilted. Looking through boxes of memorabilia a few years ago, I came across a photograph of her as a woman in youthful middle age riding a mechanical horse, her head thrown back, laughing. I thought Mama Lesh had never enjoyed life. It was comforting but disconcerting to see that there had been some fun in her life once upon a time.

We said she was a hypochondriac, but it is more likely that she suffered from Munchhausen syndrome. The hypochondriac believes she is really sick. The person with Munchhausen knows she is faking but can’t help herself because of an overwhelming need for attention. Those of us who have not regularly experienced deep needs from unsatisfied childhood longings find it easier to judge than to comprehend, and I wonder now if my grandmother suffered from something much deeper than the physical ailments she feigned. Willie McGuire Ferguson, Great Uncle John McGuire’s daughter, told family stories of a serious childhood illness when Ocie was quite small. Another sister, Lizzie, had taken sick and died within just a few days while the McGuire family was traveling from Virginia to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Rachel, their mother, terrified of losing another child to illness, watched and cared for little Ocie day and night for several months. Willie believed that was the seed of Ocie’s lifelong quest for attention, resorting to illness or self-harm to get it.

She never appeared to be seriously ill except when unconscious from an overdose, but she never professed feeling well. She traveled to Mayo Clinic for diagnosis and treatment. I don’t know what for. She had surgery whenever she could convince a surgeon to undertake it. With plenty of money that my grandfather left her, it seems willing surgeons abounded. One kidney, gall bladder, appendix—any dispensable organ was removed. She didn’t exercise or eat healthy food. She thought a lot about illness, but she didn’t think much about health. With all of that plus the heavy doses of narcotics, and who knows what other prescribed medicines she probably didn’t need, Mama Lesh lived to age 81.


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