13 July, 2019

Mattie Jo Tomaso

My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso.
My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso, died a few moments ago. It was sudden. I was told yesterday afternoon that she might be put on hospice today; apparently she didn't last even that long.

Mattie Jo Thompson was born on July 19, 1928, in my home state of Alabama, to Manning and Frances Gray Thompson. She had only one living grandparent during her childhood, Lewis Gray.

My grandmother grew up in Forest Home, Alabama, in Butler county. The family had been in this area for quite some time, as Warren Thompson, Mattie's paternal great great grandfather, was an original settler of the area. Warren settled in what is now the unincorporated area of Pine Flat, the first part of Butler county to be settled by white people.

I can remember several stories from my grandmother's childhood. She never strayed far from Forest Home as a child, and so honestly believed that rainbows ended in nearby Greenville. "How lucky kids there must be," she recounted, "for when rainbows come they could play in the part that touched the ground." Except this is not how she said it. It's been too long since I heard these stories for me to have true quotes, and I never bothered to record her stories on audio. So many such stories are lost.

Not everything was idyllic back then. She had a black childhood friend who could only enter the house from the back kitchen door. Later, when Facebook came out, she wanted to search for her to try and reconnect. But when I asked her childhood friend's name, all she could remember was what they called her way back when: "nigger".

Once, she recounted being with a group of her fellow classmates in grade school. They had a friendly custodian there who would always smile and wave as the kids strolled by. One day, he hid in the bushes and jumped out, crying "Boo!" just as the girls walked past. Like little girls do, they all screamed happily in fright and ran down the road. As they ran, they passed by Mattie's father, Manning Thompson. He asked why they were running, and, as soon as he received a short answer, he left quickly for the school in anger. Manning beat that black custodian that day, and Mattie said that he walked with a limp forever after and never again smiled or played with the kids.

Thankfully, my grandmother escaped the worst of these racist memories by falling in love with an Air Force man, Salvatore "Ralph" Tomaso. They left the United States to live in AF bases across the globe, from Pakistan to Okinawa to Panama. The bases were integrated, and my grandmother happily raised her children side by side with the black children of the base. When riots broke out in Selma, she and her kids watched from a television in South America, and her kids did not understand why the black people were being treated so poorly. I give my grandmother a lot of credit for successfully raising children who did not have the same prejudices that were so prevalent in just the single prior generation.

In Pakistan, Mattie was invited to a wedding off-base. She and Ralph went to a town with large sand walls, all uncovered by roofs. The men split from the women, and she went into an area where the females could finally remove their facial coverings. There they helped put way too much make-up on the bride, while the males in another area helped to bring out the bed for the new couple. Mattie felt the entire situation was surreal.

Eventually, Mattie and her husband returned home to Mobile, Alabama, to finish raising their kids. When she was younger, she had been an operator for the phone company, but I'm unsure what she did once she returned to Alabama. I think she may have just been a housewife. Her husband was in a car accident the year I was born, in 1981, and he was mostly relegated to the bed from then on. I think they survived on his pension and disability ever after.

When I was seven, my family moved onto the same street that my grandmother lived on, some dozen houses away. I would often walk to her house as a kid, and I have many memories of spending time with her. I was an active child, so I spent more time in the living room with my grandmother than in the bedroom with my grandfather. She would watch boring soap operas and exciting game shows. I can remember building not forts with pillows but a stage for The Price is Right, where I had imaginary contestants attempt to guess the price of yet another pillow.

My first word was said to my grandmother. Every time we came to visit, my mother would hold me up to my grandmother, who would meet us in her doorway. She would loudly exclaim: "My pumpkin!",  and then take me from my mother's arms to hold me and take me inside the house. I have no memory of this, but apparently one day, as I was taken to the front door where my grandmother stood, I spoke for the first time: "pumpkin", before my grandmother could say anything at all.

I loved my grandmother's sweet tea. It was my favorite drink then, and I still drink tea daily today in remembrance of what I once had in that house. Mattie and Ralph's pets also fascinated me. They had a lhasa apso named Mae-Ling (I don't know the origin of this name, but I imagine it had to be named after someone that my grandfather met while in the service.), which I adored, and a parakeet named Pretty Bird, who would sing the intro to those damned soap operas way too often for my tastes. I loved playing with Mae-Ling while my grandmother sat in her chair, watching me. She was a friendly dog, and she never harmed me, although she did once bite a friend of mine (who probably had it coming, to be perfectly honest).

The backyard held a screened-in porch, a pool(?), and a shed that my grandfather used for carpentry when he had enough energy to actually walk outside. I don't have actual memories of the pool, because at some point they covered it up with a deck in the middle of the backyard where the pool once was. Plants were everywhere there, as were birdhouses. My grandmother did much of the gardening, while my grandfather did much of the birdwatching. The backyard was fully fenced so that Mae-Ling could run free, but there was plenty of unowned land behind the house -- maybe one or two acres worth before you got to the next house on the street. In this unowned area, fruit trees lined the other side of the back fence. I loved climbing in those trees, and picking fruits to show my grandmother. It was a fun place to play, and I spent much of my time at my grandmother's house rather than at my own.

When I got older, I didn't spend any time keeping up with family in Alabama. The last time I saw my mother, things did not go well, and since my grandmother soon moved in with my mother, the fact that I didn't really spend time talking with my mother turned into me not spending any time talking with my grandmother either. The last time I spoke with my grandmother was in 2006 or so.

Earlier this year, my sister, Anh, requested that I send my grandmother a note. I planned to record an audio message for her, to be played by my sister, who lives in Alabama and still regularly sees her. But I didn't quite get around to finishing it. I still have unfinished drafts sitting in a text file on my desktop. It was hard to know what to say, after thirteen years of silence. Of course, now it is too late; she is dead. I'll still write that letter, but I suppose it will be more for me than for her at this point.

Thank you, Grandma, for being there for me when I was younger. You influenced my life in so very many ways. Although most of my mannerisms have turned out to resemble Papa (my unconscious verbalisms in the car, the way I breathe when out of breath, and how I sigh when tired all remind me of how he sounded), I've always attributed so many happy thoughts from my childhood to experiences I've had with you. Thank you for giving me these experiences. I hope your life had happiness and enjoyment all the way until the end.

I promise to write that note to you soon.

[Edit 15 July: An obituary has been posted online.]

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