Mama, Merle and Me
article and illustration by Lou Davenport
Icon. By definition, “a person or thing that is revered. A person who is very admired.”
I wanted to write this column about my personal icon, my Mom, Carolyn Turner Williams. I only got to have her in my life a little over 20 years, but every one of those are precious. In the 41 years she has been gone, I have missed her every single day. I still cry, and yes, I want my Mama!
I just cannot give a true description of my mom with words. I tried, but it all sounded too unbelievable to be true. I know I am totally biased, but, she was as close to an angel as I will ever know. She loved everybody, especially her family, her nieces and nephews and her students. I cannot do her justice. She was everything to me. I pray I am half as good a woman as she was.
She did leave her mark on me though. I am an artist because of her encouragement. I love books, and I think she would get a kick out of me writing. Most of all ,she gave me a passionate love of all music, especially country music. And, Merle Haggard.
I was “rasslin” with my column, when I heard the news Merle Haggard had died. I immediately went into mourning. How I loved Merle Haggard, and that love for his music came directly from my mom. She was a fan of Merle’s from the first time she ever heard him. He sang a lot of Bob Wills songs at the beginning of his career and of course, she loved “Faded Love” and “Right or Wrong.” I grew up listening to her sing those and danced with her in the kitchen. When Merle came out with “It’s Not Love, but It’s Not Bad,” she absolutely loved that one. She put her a “raunchy” little twist to it when she sang it and made me laugh until I cried!
“No, it’s not love… but it’s not bad… but, it keeps me from being mad”
That is when it all “fit together.” I could write about TWO Icons, especially dear to me. Bless ol’ Merle’s heart. He has been a fixture in my life as long as I can remember. His songs have carried me through so many good and bad times, all thanks to my mom. I just didn’t know at the time, Merle would almost “sing the soundtrack of my very own life.”
“her one and only rebel child… she tried to steer me right… Mama tried, Mama tried…”
My Mama would sing this one to me and laugh! And no, “I didn’t turn 21 in prison, doin’ life without parole,” but Merle did some time. It was for burglary, and he was in Folsom Prison. There he saw Johnny Cash, while he was an inmate! He decided to get into music after hearing Johnny sing. He learned guitar and, later, the fiddle! And, the rest, “is history.”
Merle grew up hard. He was born during The Depression in Oklahoma in the middle of “The Dust Bowl.” Just like in “The Grapes of Wrath,” the family headed to California in search of work. His father died. His mother was left to care for all of the kids. Merle was a wild one, and what he sings about in “Mama Tried” was true. That old guitar probably saved him, and it sure did give us all one amazing gift, Merle’s music.
He was a remarkable songwriter because he wrote about his life. Things that really happened, things he lived, things he deeply felt. When he sang, that voice could pierce your heart and make you cry. As he aged, that voice got even better. If you have never been moved by a Merle Haggard song, something is just wrong with you. You might be missing a heart.
“lookin’ for a place to fall apart… lookin’ for a place to leave my heart”
When Mama died, I was 20, newly married and pregnant. I lived 8 hours away from my hometown of Bastrop in a north Mississippi town called Aberdeen. I was so lonely and homesick. I was scared. “I didn’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies!” We had a tiny apartment but no phone. On a Friday night, about 10 p.m. there was a knock on the door, a deputy was standing there. He had a message for me to call home, my Mama was sick. I rushed to the nearest pay phone and was told my Mama was in the hospital and was going to have surgery. We threw together some clothes and took off for Bastrop.
Getting to the hospital around 3 a.m., my dad tried to prepare me. “She might not make it.” I was not having any of that! When I walked in her room and saw her, my knees gave way. I think it was a warning about how bad things were about to get. I got composed and sat with her. I held her hand. She was weak, but we did talk. She was so happy I was there, and, oh, so was I. They came to get her to go to surgery and I didn’t want to let them take her. But I had to and with God’s help, I kept it together, so she never saw how scared I was or the tears I was fighting back.
“loosin’ wouldn’t be so bad at all, but I’m always on a mountain, when I fall…”
We waited. I knew when that doctor walked in what he was going to say. “She didn’t make it.” I felt like some unseen force pushed me across the room into the wall. I couldn’t take it in. I couldn’t grasp it. I wanted to get the hell outta there and run. And scream. I knew I couldn’t. I had someone else I had to think about. My baby. When I realized Mama would never see my baby, my whole body sobbed. I had to get out of there.
“if I could only fly… I’d bid this place goodbye..to come and be with you…”
It was tough that first year after Mama died. I had my baby girl, named her Carolyn. I have told her how I believe she probably saved my life. She arrived early, but beautiful and healthy. She is now a teacher like my mother was.
Adam and Paige came along later, and my biggest regret in life is that Mama never got to be a part of their lives. How she would have adored those three.
“think about a lullaby, think about a lullaby, baby close your eyes, don’t cry, think about a lullaby.”
Finally, my family got to move to Vicksburg. “Pancho and Lefty” had just come out. That album was our “moving into our new house soundtrack.” Every time I hear one of those songs, I think of that happy time in our lives. And it was, for a while anyway.
“if we make it through December, I know things are going to get better”
Cancer walked into our lives and changed it forever. My husband, Larry, fought it for five years. An “emotional roller coaster from hell.” Five years is a long time to hear consistently bad news. You hold your breath every time they drew blood, just praying for some good news. It never came.
Larry began to decline in November, 1996. He hated hospitals. All I could do for him was not let them put him in the hospital again. I opened the house to everyone who wanted to come see him. And come they did. It was “the best of times, the worst of times.” I kept life as normal as possible for him. Christmas was coming and I prayed that we could have one more with him. God gave us the most precious Christmas we ever had together.
“what am I gonna do with the rest of my life?”
On January 16, 1997, right at dusk, Larry quietly left us. He was surrounded by family and his closest friends. Sounds a lot like Merle’s leaving, too.
“rollin’ down hill like a snowball headed for hell”
My life hasn’t been the same since Larry died. Moved to Monroe, got a job, met “Mister” and got married again. My daughter, Paige, was diagnosed with MS. I got divorced and had to start all over again. I quit a job and got fired over the phone from another job. But, the good news was, I retired. I may be alone, but, I am fine with that! My kids are grown and doing okay. Paige handles her MS well. Merle has been right there through it all with me.
“the good times ain’t over for good”
I did get to see Merle perform a few years ago. I thought I had “died and gone to heaven.” The Strangers opened the show, and later, a tiny man in a gray suit with matching fedora strolled out, picked up his guitar and launched into “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink.” The crowd went nuts! Merle did not disappoint the rest of the show either. I could even see his tour bus, the Silver Eagle out back!
I thought Merle looked tired that night, but, by his performance, he didn’t sing like he was. Later that year, I heard he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. He survived, but I’m sure it weakened him. He’s been ill a lot lately with pneumonia and that’s what finally took him. He was at home with his friends and family, and it sounded like it was quiet and peaceful. He had predicted he would die on his birthday and that is exactly what he did.
“ I just dream and keep on being the way I am”
Merle will always be with me just like my Mama is. I know what to do, happy or sad. Just listen to Merle. And, I learned this from Merle..
“if you find yourself in lock up, write a song about a jail .. don’t get mad if you lose at 21, just roll the dice and go on havin’ fun and laugh it off!”