3rd Shift… Mama Tried

By Chad Nance

“And even though I act crazy
I gotta thank the Lord that you made me
There are no words that can express how I feel
You never kept a secret, always stayed real
And I appreciate, how you raised me
And all the extra love that you gave me…”

– 2Pac, Dear Mama

“One and only rebel child
From a family meek and mild
My mama seemed to know what lay in store”

– Merle Haggard, Mama Tried

If I have any measure of personal courage or force of will it was given to me by my Mama. Her name is Mary Louise Goins Nance, but everyone calls her “Judy”. My great granddaddy wasn’t a big fan of the name “Mary Louise” so he just called her Judy and it stuck to Mama like any good handle does. My Mama is strong, smart, beautiful, and is one of the toughest people I have ever known in my life. She is also sweet, sardonic, and passed on her somewhat fatalist view of the world to her only son.

Make no mistake, y’all, if I am anything on this planet- Father, husband, boy, man, or first class knucklehead -I am Judy Nance’s son. The love, wisdom, and affection she has given me over these forty-four years was rarely deserved and I have not even begun to repay her in kind.

My Mama chose me. She was a 24 year-old working class woman when a social worker brought a pitiful little youngin to her and Daddy’s small house on Spruce Rd in Newport News, Virginia. They made the life changing decision to take in a little abandoned baby wracked with asthma and the kind of weird allergies that required them to rework their established lives. Mama made this decision and never looked back. Through the many doctor’s visits, The 5,000 pairs of eyeglasses to replace the broken ones, the explainable fits of rage, the melancholy, and the occasional trouble-making, Mama never once even gave a hint of giving up on me. She stood by me through all my wandering travels, single fatherhood, the ugliness of divorce, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and through the little victories that have come in recent years. There has never been a single moment in my life where I didn’t feel like my Mama had my back and, trust me pilgrims, there is nothing you can do for your children that will mean more than that.

My Mama has worked hard all of her life. She was a check-out girl at a Reynolda Rd grocery, she worked the line at Hanes hosiery, she’s worked at doctor’s offices, banks, and she helped my father through his years as a residential builder and then a commercial contractor. My Mama’s hands are never still and she rarely stops moving.

mama and me
mama and me

Right before my parents hit their forties they packed my sister and I up and moved us up into Stokes County where we all worked together to grow tobacco, tend cattle, and get away from the unrelenting clamor of city living. Mama liked it about as much as I did that first year and I’m not sure she really ever loved it like Pop did, but she hung in there and worked her butt off. There was a cooked breakfast every morning and dinner steaming on the table every evening. That was just the beginning of the back-breaking farm work, though. Some of my favorite memories of Mama are working on that farm.

Late in the 1980’s Daddy took a job with a commercial construction start-up in Winston-Salem so Mama had to shoulder a big load out in the country. He quit that job shortly after Mama and I almost killed ourselves with a dump truck.

We had an ancient Ford dump truck at the time. It had a heavy, steel flatbed with sides so heavy it took a small hoist to get them off. Mama and I were moving some hay and feed around so that we could tend to the cows. I was a junior in High School and helpful only as far as a person could keep me paying attention. It was job to pull the dump truck up the hill from the small barn that held our feed bin. Mama was in the barn trying to wrestle a 50 pound bag of feed out. I parked the truck just up the hill and headed back to down to help her.

Mama was hunched over a bag of feed scooping it into a five-gallon bucket. She told me to open another bag while she was going to walk over to the hay barn to grab something. I was trying to figure out which string I was supposed to pull on to get the feedbag open when Mama yelled. “Chad! Run!”

Mama took off across the barnyard running hard. She’d warned me and now good sense required her escape. When I got out from under the barn roof I saw it coming. The dump truck was bearing down on me and the barn like a charging elephant. This particular “genius” had left the truck out of gear. In my defense I was a 17 year-old boy and stupidity is a way of life for a boy that age.

Of course, I jumped out from inside of the barn, in front of the rolling dump truck, and held out my arms as if I was going to pull a Christopher Reeve and save the barn.

“Are you stupid?” My Mother yelled at me. “Run!” Her eyes were wide with fright and more than a little exasperation.

I still hear that voice in my head, and more often than not it has remained solid advice.

I moved at the last moment when the barn and I were saved by a tree that grew up between the barns. When the truck hit the tree the ground itself shuddered and leaves fell down in a momentary shower. Mama and I looked at one another with the firm acknowledgement that we had just managed to dodge a very large bullet. “I’ll move the truck off of the tree.” I said sheepishly.

“No you won’t.” Mama answered.

Mama’s voice in my head had saved me from physical danger and other kinds of routine dumb behavior. Now there have been plenty of times over the years where I’ve ignored Mama’s voice and it has cost me dearly. Mama, however, has always been there, even when I made the worst of it. That’s just what mothers do, isn’t it?

All you sinners out there need to listen to that voice when you hear it. There are only two inevitabilities  in life – sides of the same coin. One inevitability is that we’re all going to leave this world and the other inevitability is that your Mama loves you more than herself.

Only love songs have been written more often than songs about mothers, and those are really love songs too.  This over-whelming love isn’t just because a woman gives birth to a child.  That is way too simple.  What truly engenders affection for our mothers is the work, the sacrifice, and the unconditional love given at every turn and every opportunity.   The voice I hear in my head every day isn’t the one that fusses.  The voice that has followed me all of these years isn’t just the scolding rebuke.  From the cracked earth of Death Valley to streets of Rome the voice that has followed me is my Mama singing to me while I sat in her lap when I was little.  “Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the bunny trail…”  That quiet, happy voice that has kept me company in times of sorrow and held me in the dark.  Thank you, Mama… for everything.