Columns » Max Brantley

A sentimental journey

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Indulge me. While many of you were feasting on Thanksgiving, I was traveling. My trip will mark the last stop on a long journey.

It began June 22, 1921, in a modest cabin, in rural Laclede, Idaho. It was there my mother, Betty, was born to George and Mabel Mueller. Both were World War I Army nurses. Mabel served near the front-line trenches of France; George spent the final days of the war sick with influenza in a U.S. camp. The Ohio natives went west after the war, but found themselves unsuited to Idaho farm life and moved, as so many others did, to Southern California.

My mother grew up in rent houses in Altadena and Pasadena, where she attended junior college with Jackie Robinson, and then struck out on her own. With money from a graveyard shift job in a Boeing plant in Seattle, she earned a degree in institutional management at the University of Washington and then went to Cincinnati General Hospital for a dietetics internship. That certificate in hand, she enlisted in the Army, entering as a lieutenant in the final year of World War II. She was soon off on a troop ship for the China-Burma-India theater, a journey that stopped in Morocco, transited the Suez Canal and eventually deposited her in India for hospital dietetics work in Calcutta and New Delhi.

New Delhi is my destination. My mother, who died in Little Rock in late 1999, will be with me. If all goes well, a bit of her will rest in the garden of the same hotel to which her future husband, a skinny radioman sergeant from Louisiana, took her to tea in 1945.

The story goes that my father saw a tall (5'9") blonde woman surrounded by Indians in a square in New Delhi. She was giving a lecture on proper nutrition. He volunteered to escort her back to the Army station hospital. She accepted. The rest — including outings to the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, bazaars and tea at Raj-era colonial hotels — is family history. The war ended, my dad went home after discharge to Lake Charles, La. My mother took longer to separate from service. They married in May 1946 — he in civilian clothes, she in Army uniform — in a chapel of Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Her home would become Lake Charles where she and dad eventually worked side by side in a mom-and-pop stock brokerage office. A full and happy married life brought three children, me in the middle. My dad died in 1991. My mother had begun failing, too. Her last five years were spent in Arkansas, where a woman who'd once been among a small number of registered Republican voters in Calcasieu Parish, La., became a supporter of Bill Clinton.

When my dad died, my brother and sister and I had a cathartic evening. We drove to all his favorite places in Lake Charles — after first stopping at a drive-through daiquiri stand for a ceremonial toast in tribute to a small enjoyment of pop's final invalid years. We scattered ashes at his elementary school, high school, college, office, favorite coffee shop, church, football stadium and more. We finished at his old homeplace, an un-airconditioned hell to my mother in the summer of 1946. A $10 fan she bought on a time-payment plan to endure her first weeks in Louisiana became one of the family holy treasures, cleaned and preserved even after central air came along.

My mother's death in Little Rock on the eve of Y2K didn't offer a similar farewell opportunity. Here, apart from my house, she mostly frequented hospitals, doctor's offices and nursing homes. (And, thanks to Ed David, she loved the chopped sirloin steak at The Faded Rose.) She also loved the sight of the city's green hills and Knoop Park. Much of her ashes I've scattered there. But a final bit will accompany me to India. There she spent the most momentous passage of her life. In the hazy world in which she marked her final days in Arkansas, she'd sometimes imagine herself in the Army again. Once, in a hospital bed, she believed herself on a train departing Calcutta and the attending doctor her commanding officer. This much is real: Without India and the genetic mixture it brought together — that tall Californian, that friendly Lousianian who loved newspapers — there wouldn't be me. She talked for years of returning to see the wonders of her time at war. Now a part of her will.

I've written before about the house fire that hastened mom's move to Arkansas. It destroyed her meticulous scrapbooks — packed with photos of troop ships, barracks, hospital wards, soldier boys, snake charmers and Indian monuments, foreign money and other relics. The few photos that I now possess she'd sent to her sister, who passed them back to me. No fire could erase the memory of a boy who pored over the scrapbooks again and again, wondering if he would ever see those amazing things, particularly the huge white mausoleum in Agra before which his then-young future parents once stood.

In a few days, he will.

Max Brantley posted this on The Arkansas Blog on Thanksgiving Day. He later reported, "Mom is at rest among the mums and marigolds in the garden of that colonial hotel."

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