My mother, Eva Alene Craddock Womack Allen was born mannerly, with a vocabulary that would shame Webster. She attributed her noteworthy social skills to the Craddock family’s (alleged) direct descent from Lord Baltimore. Mother worshipped her father and tolerated her mother.
Her father, Walter Craddock, who died when I was four, was a noble figure in Nashville politics of the 30s and 40s. An intellectual, gentle man, who found his greatest joys in serving people and animals, and in consuming copious quantities of Kentucky Bourbon.
Her mother, Lily Bell Craddock was from pioneer stock and rural beginnings. Lily Bell’s father Henry Bell, and his brother Montgomery, sold gun powder to both side during the Civil War. Grandfather Henry may have been the Bell family’s salesman to the south, for his brother Montgomery became quite wealthy. Henry returned to dirt farming after the war.
As a child, Lily Bell (Craddock) lived a hardscrabble life. A mindset she carried with her into her marriage to Walter and beyond. Lily and Walter had three children. The eldest, a son who died as an infant, Mother (Eva), and her younger sister, Harriet.
When Mother was a young girl, her maternal grandfather Henry died when a rival tossed him off a bluff into the Harpeth River
Mother inherited her strong love of dogs and cats, from her father. Her dad often brought home stray canines and felines. While her mother didn’t like to pet them, she tolerated and never mistreated them. Mother’s first (and several subsequent cats) was named Blackie. Blackie number one joined the family menagerie when she was five-years old.
Diary entry: Daddy had been visiting friends nearby, while Mama and I were up at big mamma’s house. When we came home we heard Daddy talking absurdly in the living room. As we walked in, he said look what I’ve brought you. My eyes followed his fingers pointing upwards. There, about halfway up the curtain, was the cutest little solid black kitten I had ever seen. He explained that while visiting his friends, they mentioned three black kittens had been born in their barn. Since the kittens were wild, they didn’t know what to do with them. Daddy said, “I can’t take them all, but I’ll sure take one of them for my little girl.” He didn’t say the kitten was also for himself.
Even with all her social and intellectual talent, Mother was not particularly popular with schoolmates. However, in high school she wrote two poems for friends that were printed in the school paper, the Echo. The friends got the bylines. In her senior year, Mother was named class poet and wrote the class poem for the annual. That year, she was also the social columnist for the school paper.
Diary entry: One article I wrote backfired. I’d heard there were some boys in the school, who met each day in the locker room to throw dice for pennies. I wrote that I thought that was gambling. The day the paper came out, the boy who sat across the aisle from me in homeroom, tapped me on the arm and asked, “Eva don’t you write the items in the news column?” When I admitted that I did, he said, “I am one of those boys who shoots craps in there.” Handing me a sack of peppermint candy, he said, “I got this for you. You can write that you heard that the guys shooting craps has stopped.” I gladly took the bribe and wrote what he asked in the next week’s paper. I was concerned if he got caught he might be expelled.
Mother’s school, Hume Fogg, was in downtown Nashville near the best movie theaters in the city. She and close friend, Mildred Sharp, often saved their lunch money see the latest movies. Movies and reading were Mother’s favorite pastimes.
Diary entry: I didn’t miss many of the movies that came to town. We had popcorn and often sacks of candy that were sold at the nearby ten cent store. Among my favorite stars were the great actors Humphrey Bogart, Lawrence Olivier, Dennis Morgan, Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, to mention a few.
As a teenager, Mother took piano lessons from the organist at Buchanan Street Methodist Church. She could play most any popular song, as long as there was sheet music. She often filled in for her piano teacher at church. However, Mother’s clam to musical fame came when she replaced the one-armed accompanist for the Heavenaires Gospel Quartet. The lady lost her arm in a circus accident. It seems she impetuously ran off with a motorcycle daredevil to join the circus. The daredevil road a motorcycle in a sphere hanging over the center ring of the circus. The first time the lady tried to join the act, she broke her arm and it was eventually amputated.
The Heavenaires Gospel Quartet played area tent revivals that Mother often attended. It was on her third such visit to a revival that Mother realized the piano player had only one arm and was amazed at her prowess. However, when the quartet sang at Buchanan Street Methodist Church, the singers witnessed Mother playing for the service and hired her to replace the handicapped musician. Mother, always with a kind heart, was sad that she was replacing the one-armed piano player, but delighted to be asked.
Mother’s closes neighborhood friend was Elisabeth Womack. Elisabeth and her family lived three blocks away. Through her friend, Mother met Charles Chester Womack, Jr. Charles Womack was a handsome, talkative rapscallion, and the neighborhood jock. He was the eldest of the Womack brood. Mother said Charles Womack was the smartest uneducated man she’d ever met. One one snowy, winter night, after a brief courtship, Mother and Charles Womack ran off to Franklin, Kentucky and got married.
It was about that time, that Mother developed her penchant for high drama, fueled by her habitual movie going and Dad’s whatever attitude.
On Thursday, September 29th, 1938, just after midnight, I was born in the right side of a rental duplex at the corner of Clay and Cephas Streets. Rain steadily beat on the front window. Thunder could be heard in the distance. In the corner of the darkened room, the Cavalcade of Music was playing Broadway songs on the RCA console radio. The music was briefly interrupted with the news that Great Britain and Germany had signed a peace agreement. Ending speculation of a second war in Europe.
Dr. Wyatt, his nurse, and a midwife were gathered around Mother’s bed when Dad, now a substitute city fireman, walked through the door. As soon as the doctor proclaimed, “He’s a boy,” Dad unwrapped and lit the blue-banded cigar. One of the two he’d been carrying in his pocket for over a week.
Mother groggily announced, “His name is Larry Gordon Womack. Larry, after the handsome actor, Laurence Olivier, and Gordon, after his uncle, Kenneth Gordon Womack.” Three years later brother Jerry David Womack was born; named for actor David Niven. Five years later brother, Richard Dennis Womack was born and named after movie stars Richard Widmark and Dennis Morgan.
Most every night, prior to our teenage years, Mother read to us at bedtime. Uncle Remus, The Last Mohicans, Little Women, Bambi, Grimm’s Fairytales and scores of other classics. Because of her own voracious reading habits, Mother had to abandon the neighborhood library, in favor of the larger one downtown.
During my preteen years, every Saturday morning, Mother and I listened to Big John and Sparky sponsored by Buster Brown Shoes and to Let’s Pretend dramatizations of fairy tales featuring Billie Burkes. (Burkes played Glenda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz.) Let’s Pretend was our favorite show. Cinderella was our favorite episode. My brothers and Dad usually went fishing.
Our family often engaged in sing-a-longs with Mother at the piano. Favorites were Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Ain’t She Sweet, and the Boogie, Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B. In the seventh grade I entered a talent show imitating Al Jolson, blackface and all. Mother accompanied me to a first place victory! She remained my accompanist through my high school years.
When not listening to the radio, reading a book, or insouciantly performing household chores, Mother was gossiping. Mother’s predisposition for drama made her the perfect person to lead the neighborhood gossip brigade. Her primary gossip collaborator was Alda Manus. Our kitchen was gossip central for the neighborhood.
Diary entry: When Alda told me that Boots Norton was making blue movies in his basement, even recruited neighborhood teenagers to have sex in the movies, I wasn’t surprised. I told Ada, he always seemed a bit creepy to me. My sister, Harriet dated him in high school. So I immediately called Harriet. When I began to ask about Boots Norton, I heard a neighbor listening in on the party line. Almost before I could hand up, Harriet joined us in the kitchen. She, however, said she had nothing to add.
Mother showed her true colors, when on one Christmas Day, she asked me to ride my new bicycle, six blocks, in a snow storm, to take Miss Alda’s Christmas present to her. When I disrespectfully declined, saying that she just wanted me to take Miss Alda’s present so she could get Miss Alda’s back, Mother rolled up the newspaper and beat me about the head. She was screaming at me so loudly, the next door neighbor call to see if everything was alright.
Mother’s histrionic were standard fare around the Womack household. Especially when she didn’t get her way. A dreamer, schemer and a screamer, much of the focus of our home life was on meeting her needs. She was a passionate woman who enjoyed life, friends, and the arts. She saw beauty in everyone, everything, and everywhere. Mother was also pretty, intellectual, dramatic, and musical; alternating between voluptuousness and overweight.
Because Dad, a fireman, worked odd schedules, and was an avid fisherman on his days off, he and Mother lived mostly separate social lives. They occasional went clubbing with with friends and Dad’s brother, Uncle Jack.
All the world believed that Mother regularly attend church. Reality was, each Sunday, she had me bring the church bulletin home to enhance her sanctimoniousness with her friends and Dad’s family. I never reveled her scam.
Our living room was accessed from the bedroom that brother Jerry and I shared. Often after Jerry and I were in bed, Mother and Dad would adjourn to the living room, latch the door, and turn on the radio. Eventually I surmised that were drinking alcohol and Dad was smoking his cigarettes. Occasionally, I would sneak out of bed and, to no avail, try to see them through the keyhole. Once I slipped on the rug and fell into the door. When Dad opened the door to see what the commotion was about, he had a cigarette in his mouth with the butt covered in lipstick. I was horrified! Mother was smoking. Something, according to the Scriptures, that nice women didn’t do. One evening after my disappointing discovery, they dressed to go to the firemen’s ball. Mother looked very stylish, but to my dismay, was wearing ankle strap high heel shoes! In the movies, only the bad girls wore ankle-strapped high heels. I questioned Mother’s morals.
As a pious young man, I was also concerned with Mother’s obsessive interest in nerve pills. Something she shared with her sister, Harriet. I overhead many phone conversations between them regarding procuring and sharing nerve pills. Some were designed to lift spirits, some to mellow the mood, and others to help in losing weight.
I shared Mother’s love of words, music, movies, and radio, but not her love of books. Though my brothers had musical talent, neither was brave enough to perform before an audience. Unlike me, they enjoyed hunting and fishing with Dad and sports. Consequently, I identified with Mother, whereas they were more connected to Dad.
Mother was conflicted when I left for college. Though she wanted to be the first in her family to experience academia, she was proud I was her proxy. She was sad that I would no longer be around to share and discuss our myriad cultural interest. Mother often wrote beautiful, spirited letters to me.
Diary entry: Dear Larry, Everything is well here at home. Everyone misses you, especially me. I’ve taken a job as a secretary at the downtown YMCA. My boss, Mr. Alexander is a very smart man, and an avid reader like me. It is exciting to have someone to have intelligent discussions with now that you are gone. I’m anxious for him to meet you. Since I often have to work on Saturday’s, I wish you’d make more of an effort to see me when you breeze through town. To that end I have composed the following:
Ode To A Silent Son by Eva Womack
Oh Glee! Oh Joy! Oh Happy Day!
My son’s among the living.
I pondered oft in days just past
With grave and dire misgiving.
No written word has come my way.
No oral information,
But I’ve surmised that he’s alive
In a place of matriculation.
Oh, shades of Sherlock in his prime
Deduction beyond compare!
You ask how did I trace him down
And fine that he’s still there?
On Saturday last, a large suitcase
At my house did arrive
And the contents which were packed therein
Made my nerves to twitch and jive.
For dirty clothes were there galore
For each day of the week,
And the evidence of survival there
Was loud enough to speak.
The moral of this poem is
Just never give up hope.
Word from your son will come to you
When He’s dirty or he’s broke.
While I was away at college, Mother and Dad drifted even further apart. And according to my brothers, their arguments accelerated and became more vitriolic. My phone calls with her were increasing peppered with derogatory remarks regarding Dad. Her speech was often slurred. I assumed it was from her nerve pill regimen. I think she was consuming more downers and uppers.
On a trip home during my senior year, I visited Mother at the neighborhood YMCA where she now worked. She introduced me to the maintenance man, Gene Allen, with whom she had established a friendship. Gene was quiet and shy until the subject of music was launched. He shared our love of jazz, crooners, and big band music. We had a lively discussion.
When I called home to tell Mother my graduation date, Dad answered. It was unusual for him to answer the phone. He informed me that Mother was now lived with my grandmother, and that a divorce was imminent. He was despondent.
Shortly after graduation, a friend and I left for California, where I was going to seek fame and fortune. Auditions had been arranged for me with several bands and a record label. Each day I called home to check on the current turmoil and the impending divorce.
During my first conversation with Mother she was upbeat. Telling me this was a good thing. On the next call the drama queen had shifted gears. She was now a basket case – screaming and sobbing. Saying Dad would kill her if she didn’t come back to him. By the third call she was even more distraught, even mentioning that life was just not worth living. I chose to leave my career opportunity and go back home to help out.
When the divorce was final, mother immediately moved into an apartment with Gene Allen, the maintenance man from the YMCA. They were married a few weeks later. The move and marriage caught me by surprise. The theatrics that brought me back from California were just a cover for a long-planned event. I was resentful.
A year later, a few months before I was to leave with my band for the New York area, Mother had debilitating stroke. The responsibility befell me to take her to daily physical therapy sessions at an area hospital. When I left for my tour, brother Dennis took over the chore.
Shortly after I returned from the road, I met Diane Van Deren. It was obvious after a few dates; we were becoming inextricably connected. I wanted to introduce her to Mother and Gene.
Diary Entry: For several weeks Larry had been mentioning Diane with increasing frequency, so it was not a complete surprise when, on Saturday, he told Gene, I’m going to bring Diane by after church for a short visit. When Larry was out of the room, we cast knowing looks at each other. Gene said this could be the girl. And I replied I have a strange feeling she is. Already running over in my mind, just what she would think of an invalid mother-in-law. Gene dressed me with great care in my laciest, prettiest pajamas and robe and fixed my face and hair. Just before time for them to arrive, he ensconced me in a big chair in the living room. I was as nervous as if Larry had said: I’m bringing home a bride today. Gene kept walking back and forth looking out one window and then another, to see if they were arriving. I am prone to make first impressions and abide by them, so I kept warning myself not to be too hasty in deciding whether or not I liked her. I could have saved myself the trouble, for when she came in with a shy, sweet smile and a soft hello, I felt a tiny warm glow inside me. Looking at Gene, I could see he was smitten too. They didn’t stay long that first day. The minute the door closed behind them, a spate of words came pouring forth from both Gene and me; telling of things we liked about her.
After Diane and I married, we moved into an apartment very close to where Mother and Gene lived and visited them often. Mother was more content than I had seen her in years. Gene was very nice to her. It was obvious they loved one another very much. She continued, however, to have drama fits to get her way with Gene. Exacerbated by her incessant prescription drug use. The stroke gave her permission to expand her medication horizon.
One afternoon, Diane and I dropped by, unannounced, for a visit. When Gene came to the door, we could hear Mother screaming in the background. Gene said that she was in one of her moods again and that we might want to come back later. I suggested that I calm her down and we entered her bedroom. She was standing by the bed waving her good arm and blaspheming Gene for one reason or another. I just walked to her and pushed her back on the bed. I said, “Bette Davis, 1938. I’ve seen that movie and I don’t care to see it again!” Mother broke out laughing and we all joined it for a great visit.
When Gene died from exhaustion from his joyful, yet turbulent years as Mother’s servant, I put Mother into a nursing home. She loved the place and the people for they treated her like to queen she always hoped to be. The nurses and aids called on her for advice. She had a phone by her bed that allow her to be demanding of every member of her family and her friends.
Two years in, her doctor came to me with the news that she was dying of Pancreatic Cancer. It was my job to tell her. I told the doctor I would wait until after Christmas to tell her because Christmas was her favorite time of the year. On the first Sunday after, I went to the nursing home. Mother’s thinning, yet still beautiful grey hair had been recently combed by one of the aids. And she had on fresh lipstick, all in preparation for my visit. She greeted me with a beautiful smile and asked where Diane was. I said, I was coming for church choir rehearsal and Diane was at home.
“I’m so happy you started singing in the choir. I remember those days at Buchanan Street. I was so proud seeing you up there. Just like me when I was your age. And, when you’d sing those solos, all the ladies would cry,” she opined.
Sitting in the chair beside her bed and propping my feet up on the rail, I said that I had some good news and bad news for her.
“Mother, you have Pancreatic Cancer and the doctor gives you about two months to live.”
With a shy smile, she said, “Oh my, I presume that’s the bad news. What is the good news?”
“The good news is we are not going to let that get in the way of us having a good time until the end.”
I stood, leaned over and held her close as we cried together.
She pulled away and said, “Great, I’m going to get to see Gene sooner than I thought. That too is good news.”
On the way home to tell Diane about what happened, both pride and tears welled up in me. I realized again just how much joy my mother always held in her heart. She was appreciative of everything and everyone. She lived a sometimes hard, but always joyful life. Worthy of imitation.
Most days after work, I’d drop by to see if she needed anything. On one visit I suggested that she and I write a play together. She thought it was great idea. We decided to make it like one of those Orson Wells’ plays, where everyone dresses in black and when they speak a spotlight identifies them.
I said, “We’ll call it The Other Side. It will start with me in this room after you die, packing up your things and then switch to Heaven where you’ll be reuniting with your dad, Gene and other dead people you know.”
“I can see the lights on Broadway!” she said.
“Me too! The Other Side by Larry Womack and Eva Allen.”
“Hey, how come your name is first?” she asked.
“Because you’ll be dead and there will be nothing you can do about it!” I exclaimed.
We shared a laugh and a tear.
A couple of days later, I walked into her room as she said, “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
My entrance startled her.
She asked, “What did I say?”
I repeated the scripture.
She said, “I’m afraid that I won’t make it to that holy temple.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I haven’t been good enough,” she replied.
“Mother,” I said, “Isn’t that what the Good News is all about. No one is good enough. Therefore, all get in. But if you get there and you have a problem with Saint Peter, just tell him you are Larry Womack’s mother and you’ll walk right through the pearly gates.”
We were laughing when Diane walked in.
She asked. “What are you two laughing about?”
I told her.
Diane then walked to Mother’s bedside, patted her on the forehead and said, “Eva, if I were you I’d get a plan B.”
Two weeks later, Mother died. My grandmother was alone at her bedside and called me.
I hurried over. When I arrived, her mother was standing by my Mother’s bed. At ninety-four she was already known as the incredible shrinking woman, she looked even smaller standing there in the quiet. We hugged. As she wept into my chest, she said, “She is still my little girl.
The next day, I went back to the nursing home to collect mother’s things. Rose, the nurse’s aide, walked into mother’s room ahead of me and turned on the light. I surveyed the surroundings.
“Mr. Womack,” said Rose as she picked up a blanket, “I just want you to know how much your mother meant to all of us around here. Miss Eva, God rest her soul was an inspiration to us all. Her two years with us were a blessing. She was always so cheery even with all of her afflictions.”
“She loved you too Rose. She told me that many times.” I replied.
“Mr. Womack she loved everybody. You know, Miss Eva and I saw eye-to-eye on many things, including the Bible. When I was on my shift, sometimes we would sit here at two or three o’clock in the morning and read our favorite scriptures. Her favorite was Philippians 4:11: I have learned no matter what state I am in to be content. Miss Eva said that ever since her stroke, she always tried to live by that verse. And, God bless her soul, I believe she always did. She is now in heaven with her Lord. Hallelujah, Praise His Name!”
“I want to thank you for all you and the other people here at Imperial Manor did for Mother. You took excellent care of her.” I replied.
“Mr. Womack, your mother did more for us than we did for her. She was always listening to our problems and giving advice. God love her.”
As I took a large picture of a kitten down from the wall, Rose said, “And you know she loved you and your brothers with all her heart.”
“Yeah, she did Rose,” I replied.
“Why you know how she always talked about her love for her late husband, Mr. Allen? Well I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me telling you now, but she loved your daddy too. And they’d been divorced for 25 years.”
“Yes I know Rose, I continued, “Mother and I talked about that several times.”
Rose Stanley, please come to the nurse’s desk is heard over the intercom.
“I gotta go Mr. Womack,” said Rose placing the folded blanket on the bed. “Now, you come back and visit us. Let us know how you’re doing. Is Miss Eva’s mother still holding up okay? How old is she?
“She’s ninety-four, Rose. Doing just fine.”
The voice over the public address system repeated: Rose Stanley, please come to the nurse’s desk.
“Lord Almighty I better get there before I get into trouble.”
“Thank you again for all you did for mother. You were a good friend.”
“I miss her so much,” added Rose, standing in the doorway, “If there is ever anything I can do…”
As Rose left, I continued packing mother’s stuff. I picked up the telephone and listened to it. It was dead. I unplugged it, wound the cord around it, and placed it in a box. Looking around, I sat on the bed.
Rose’s words, is there anything else I can do played over and over in my head.
No, Rose, there is not much anyone can do now. We’ve hauled her away in an aluminum box and will bury it in the ground in the Veteran’s Cemetery, next to Gene Allen She will remain there in some discernible form for many years. There’s not much any of us can do now.
You know, Rose, I think it would be a big mistake to just remember the joy. Rose, let us not forget the suffering as well – hers and ours. And, the irritations and the frustrations. Rose let’s not just remember Miss Eva as a saint. Let’s remember her as a sinner, too. God rest her soul. And Rose, God bless the soul of mother’s telephone. May it rest in peace. Lord knows, it got no rest during her earthly life. Why, in the last two years, mother must have made ten thousand phone calls. All her many friends thought they were the only one she called regularly. And Rose, God bless the call button over her bed. It would be impossible to calculate the number of times she pushed it. Most of the time it was for legitimate reasons. But often, just to hear a voice, friendly or not.
And Rose, God bless her books. One night when we were reflecting on my childhood, I mentioned memories of walking several miles to the branch library in our neighborhood. Mother said, Yes, I loved that library, but when you were about twelve I started going to the library downtown. When I asked why, expecting some falling out she had with the librarian, she said it was because she’d read all the books there and that was probably true.
And Rose, God bless her Pilot Razor Point Ballpoint Pens, the only pens with which she allegedly could write. But Rose, most of all God blessed her journals and her diaries – a storehouse of family memories. Collected by one of life’s most illustrious observers. I’ll treasure these as I learned to cherish her in those last few weeks we shared together.
These were her things. Now they belong to no one. Once treasures, now trash. Once worth protecting with one’s life; now difficult to give away. How much is this picture of a kitten worth? To her the world; to you maybe a dollar in a yard sale. Yes, Rose, God bless everything that was hers including Philippians 4:11. “I have learned no matter what state I’m in to be content.”
I pushed the cart out of the room and turned off the light.