Granddaughter will one day be old enough to search for her ancestors. I wish we could all live forever to tell her stories in person, but that’s just a fantasy. The next best thing to being there is to record our history so that when she goes looking, voilà, here it is. She knows her maternal grandparents personally (my husband and me). And she has met my parents, though they live a thousand miles away, and my mother’s failing health and the pandemic have prevented regular visits. So, Granddaughter, here is the story of Nana, your great-grandmother and my mother. Let’s start with the facts.
My mother (Mama to us) was born Diane Machado in 1942 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Theodore (Teddy) and Bernardine (née Palazzo) Machado. She was the third daughter of Bernardine (Mawmaw to us grandchildren) and the third daughter of Teddy (Pawpaw), who both had two daughters from previous marriages. Teddy was a widower and Bernardine was divorced. Teddy’s daughters were Audrey and Beverly, who were twelve and ten years older, respectively, than my mother. Bernardine’s daughters were Georgette and Thelma, who were also twelve and ten years older than my mother. Thelma died of pneumonia when she was only eighteen years old, and Mama tells me that Bernardine was so distraught that she would not let them bury Thelma for three days and that Mawmaw never healed from Thelma’s death. Fortunately, that was the only child who preceded Mawmaw in death.
Mama grew up in comfortable circumstances. Pawpaw was an accountant and Mawmaw was a homemaker. Pawpaw built a house in Waveland, Mississippi as a weekend camp for his family. He did not have a house built; he built it with his own hands. It was not far from the bay, and eventually, Mawmaw moved there after his death. Everyone loved that house, especially my sisters and I. We spent many happy summers there going to the bay, living the easy country life. That house withstood Hurricane Camille in 1969 but was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I’m glad that Mawmaw was not around to see Pawpaw’s dream end. When my mom was a teen, and her family spent weekends in Waveland, she met my father, who was a local from Bay St. Louis. That’s back in the 1950s when there were places for teens to go and socialize without causing trouble or making decisions that would disrupt their lives. Mama was a dark-haired beauty who marched to the beat of a different drum, a free spirit, a free-thinker in a time when that was not common for women. No one could mold her. She was Diane and she would always be herself.
Mama’s life changed forever when Mawmaw had a massive stroke at the age of forty-five when Mama was only fifteen years old. Mawmaw was not expected to survive, but she was headstrong (like all the women in our family) and pulled through, though her speech never fully returned – she always struggled to find words – and her right side was never fully functional – she walked with a limp and could barely write or use her right hand for much of anything. Mama’s role changed from daughter to caregiver. A few short years later, when I was two years old, Pawpaw died unexpectedly from heart failure.
My parents married when Mama was nineteen years old. They bought a house in River Ridge and had three daughters, my sisters Paige and Angela and myself. We had a pretty normal childhood until we didn’t. My parents split up when I was seven years old – they sold the house, and Mama and we girls moved back to New Orleans where all of us were born, and my father moved hither and yon as his jobs and fancies would allow. Mama went to work first as a legal secretary then as a paralegal to support her family. My father didn’t pay child support, but that was in a different era, and she couldn’t afford to file in state after state, so she managed on her own. We were poor, but Mama never let an opportunity slip away, if ever there was one. She valued experiences, not material possessions, so even if we had no money, we did a lot of things, and she worked tirelessly to make our dreams come true. I learned a lot about money from her. I also learned a lot about saving my opinions about people. Though my father never supported his children after the divorce, he was still our father, and Mama never uttered an unkind word about him. He visited whenever he wanted and we were allowed to love him because, though he was a deplorable husband, he was still our father. And to his credit, he never took us from Mama – he always came to see us at our home, where we were comfortable and secure, and Mama never prevented him from coming. All of this shows her strength of character. She was able to separate her disappointment in him (or fear of him) from our love for him. Mama said a lot of wise things over the course of my life, and as an adult, I asked her about my father, why he did the things he did or didn’t do, and how he could just flit around with nary a glance in our direction. “His anger was stronger than his love.” Well, that summed it up perfectly, but, being a mother myself, it’s a sentiment I cannot comprehend. There is no emotion stronger than my love for my daughter and granddaughter. None. So, though I will never understand my father, I will always admire my mother, for her strength, her perseverance, her cheerleading, her faith in her daughters in times of leanness and in times of plenty.
Though we were poor after my parents’ separation, Mama offered us the world. If there was something we wanted to do that would make us happy, Mama moved mountains to provide us with that experience. We traveled every summer to the beaches of the Gulf Coast, Walt Disney World, and camping up north, and went skiing in the winters to towns from North Carolina to Utah. She sent me to Belgium as an exchange student when I was sixteen years old between my junior and senior years of high school because I wanted to pursue French, the language of my ancestors, and she knew how important it was to me, so she made it happen. She encouraged our every endeavor – my older sister’s art, my piano and choir, my younger sister’s dance. She never missed a concert. She never missed a dance recital. She never missed an art show, a game, an open house, or a graduation. She was always there, our biggest fan, our biggest cheerleader. Her faith in us never waivered, even if we sometimes lost faith in ourselves. How blessed I am to have her.
My mother married my stepfather (my step-up father) Dale on Christmas Eve in 1975 in a small civil ceremony at her best friend’s home. They had met at the American Civil Liberties Union where my mom was a paralegal and Dale was an attorney. My mom has always been an active pursuer of justice, and has always given a voice to the voiceless, including her children. Dale was just the right man for her – he also fought for justice, and he has a big, loving heart, and has always showered her with all the love she has deserved from her husband. I won’t lie – his joining our family was an adjustment, but we became the new version of family and my stepfather has stood in as my dad throughout my life. He let me work at his law office during the summers, helped me navigate college applications, gave me away at my wedding, and became Pawpaw to my daughter and my sister’s daughters. At least the second time around, my mom chose well, and Dale has been by her side living and loving life ever since that Christmas Eve.
My mom and Dale were always looking for the next adventure to take us kids on in this journey called life. When I was thirteen years old, they bought an old mansion in Kentwood, Louisiana. It was their desire to give us a place outside the city where we could explore and roam and just breathe. Mama knew that my real self was a country girl trapped in the city. Laura Ingalls was my hero, and that my deepest soul yearned to be free of urban life. Kentwood was the answer to that, and we spend most weekends up there. Mama moved Mawmaw up there, too, and we were able to have a grandmother’s love and attention wrapped around us as often as our hearts desired. It was a fantastical place. As our teen years approached, Mama encouraged us to invite friends for slumber parties and home cooking and the freedom to be ourselves. The old place was magical for as long as it lasted. While I was in college, they sold the Kentwood house, bought a sailboat, and taught themselves to sail. Who else’s mom does this when the nest is close to being empty?
As I said, I went to a private high school because I wanted a sound education. That was priority number one with me, and Mama helped me achieve my dream of a university degree. When my father died, she took his SSI benefits and saved them for our future. We didn’t get new (or old) cars, designer clothes, or expensive material things that teenagers crave. No, she saved every penny, and paid cash for our educations. I worked part-time while I was in college to pay for my car and my clothes and rock concerts, but my books and tuition were paid in full every semester by my mom. I, a child from the wrong side of the tracks, graduated with a college degree without a penny of debt, thanks to my mom. And when I wanted to major in French, Mama didn’t tell me the same old hackneyed line that everyone else said, “You’ll never make a living with that degree.” She told me that if it was my passion, then pursue it and doors will open. What sage advice, because my degree led me to become a volunteer translator for the American Red Cross and eventually a high school French teacher, a diplomat assigned to francophone countries, and a writer of two novels on the French history of Louisiana. Thank you, Mama, for encouraging what made me happiest, which has always been the intangible joy that has nothing to do with money. A life lived deliberately is a life lived richly, that’s the wisdom of my mom. She lived this example, she didn’t just talk about it.
After I graduated college, married Norm, and moved away, Mama and Dale sold the shotgun double where we were raised and bought a bigger sailboat. It was difficult for me to leave home because I knew I would miss her, but my mom told me, “I’m glad you married the man you did because I will never have to worry about you.” She always knows the words to say to calm my frazzled soul. And her love of my husband meant the world to me. There is a James Taylor song that expressed my longing for her, and Norm and I listened to it on the cassette deck in the car on our way to our new life in Virginia. Norm didn’t know that every time that song was played, I had to hold back my tears. Why does the happiness of pursuing one’s own dreams come in tandem with sorrow for those whom one leaves? I suppose that only the lucky ones know that sweet brand of sadness.
By the time we were transferred back to Louisiana, they were grandparents – Nana and Pawpaw – and were the delight of their granddaughters. But the bliss of home didn’t last for long. Soon after our return to Louisiana, Mama and Dale started to ready themselves to set sail for parts unknown in the never-ending quest for more of life. Mama got her captain’s license and started her career as the water taxi driver on the Florida panhandle. I missed her desperately and longed for the days when we went to the Quarter for beignets with no change left for an extra order – the days when I saw her every day, whenever I wanted. My coming home and her leaving shone a spotlight on my loneliness for her because I had the feeling that we would never live in the same city again. And sadly, I was not mistaken in this assumption.
Mama and Dale pursued their own dreams once we were on our paths. They weren’t ready for the rocking chairs yet. They set sail and traveled around the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Central America. They chartered passengers around the area for years, gathering friends along the way. I didn’t get to see Mama often – only as often as she came home, but I was home anytime she was ready to visit, and that had to be good enough for me. You see, my mom is like air. You need air to survive, but you can’t hold onto it. You just have to breathe and let it fill your lungs, your essence, and then you have to exhale and let it go to wherever its destiny lies. To hold onto it would kill it. To hold onto it would burst your soul, even if its what your soul wants.
When Mama finally returned to the States, she moved to Colorado where my younger sister was living. That was the next adventure – one opposite the tropical sailor – that of the mountain woman, the skier. I didn’t complain because I saw her much more often than when she was in Central America, and the bonus was that, by then, Jillian was old enough to learn to ski and experience snow and winter fun. Mama still skied in those days and we got to spend our days on the mountains, together, as a family again, even if it was only for a week at a time. And then like most adventures, at some point, it’s time to move on. She and Dale moved further south and now live quietly together on a lake, camping, fishing, hiking, hunting for mushrooms, and they (finally) live a slower pace of life. Covid interfered with most lives, ours included, and it’s been years since I have spent the time that I want with her. But she has met my granddaughter, her great-granddaughter, and my sister’s grandchildren have spent many summers with her exploring – she has given another generation the gift of her time, her love, and her sense of adventure. She has given the next generation the gift of themselves.
If I could have anything right now, this moment, today, it would be another lifetime with my mother. Time goes by too quickly, and things get left unsaid. So, Mama, this is for you, for everything I have ever wanted to say to you, but didn’t, for one reason or another. All of it. Everything. How much I love you. How much I admire you. How much you have enriched my life because I never doubted for one second of my life that you loved me. All of that and everything else that is too sacred for words – the sentiments of the heart and soul that only a mother and daughter understand.
I love you, Mama. Everything.