Shopping with Mama

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The two women couldn’t have been more different.

Author Mena Webb, a Southern gentlewoman with Victorian mores, grew up in the belt-tightening 1930s—her daughter, Marion, in the hell raising ‘60s. Marion embodied everything Mena disapproved of: an unrepentant anti-war hippie who toured the country teaching peace education and diversity, while her mother knew that war would always be with us, and Marion’s ambitions were a fool’s errand. More than anything, Marion should “fix her hair”—so she could at least look reputable.

Mena, the epitome of duty, propriety, and wit, was an extroverted, talkative widow, lively, imperious, and critical. She never had doubts about the dependability of her family, or the excellence of her social position. She loved her schooling in the building that bore her Fuller name, had no complaints about the political or educational system, and had never been hungry a day in her life. Not for food anyway. Appreciation and applause were her primary cravings. Mena married the local newspaper editor, and made her own mark in the literary world of her time and place.

Her daughter, Marion O’Malley, was the burr beneath her saddle.

Marion hand-stitched patchwork Granny dresses out of scraps of old (expensive) clothes; made soy ice cream for sale for her latest anti-nuke project; protested sexism, racism, the war in Southeast Asia, and everything else respectable and middle class — everything her parents stood for. She flagrantly wore no bra, called herself a feminist, and joined the ranks of the latest batch of unkempt hippies who didn’t comb their hair. For the first time, the veil lifted on respectable, middle class society for Marion, and she felt these changes deeply.

Naturally, Mena’s sensibilities were affronted by her daughter’s increasingly political tirades, but no more so than by Marion intentionally letting herself go. Appearances mattered in Mama’s eyes, and her daughter’s fell far short. “Just wear navy blue!” She constantly chastised. “Your personality is far too wild already.”

Where Mena and Marion were alike, however, was that they loved to write.

“Write it down, Marion!” was Mena’s frequent refrain throughout her daughter’s life. “Put it in a box. Wait five or ten years. Get a little distance from it. Then pull it out. There’s gold in those boxes, Marion. Pure gold.” Her prospector eyes gleamed.

Wilhelmena Katherine Fuller Webb published four books—fiction and history—before she died at 97: her first novel, The Curious Wine (1969); a biography of Julian S. Carr who made Bull Durham Tobacco famous, Jule Carr: General Without an Army (1987); The Way We Were: Remembering Durham (2003); and a memoir, Out of My Mind (2008).

Marion wrote tell-all journals, fiction, and how-to manuals in her career as an educator. She got her first diary, complete with lock and key, in the fifth grade, and accumulated boxes full of notebooks and napkins and scraps of paper with dribblings and dashed-off tidbits about whatever was going on during every phase of her life, plus short stories and novellas from the time she was a girl, largely because of her Mama’s encouragement. She even kept that first diary.

Their common penchant for words and writing it down became the soil that helped their love and respect for each other grow until the end.

“There’s gold in those boxes, Marion,” Mama would say over and over. “Wait five or ten years. Get a little distance from it. Then pull it out. Pure gold.” Her prospector eyes gleamed.

In the last decade of her mother’s life, Marion visited with Mena every Thursday afternoon, and then went home to write about it. The resulting memoir, Shopping with Mama: Write ‘til the End is a mash-up of Tuesdays With Morrie and Terms of Endearment. The narrative recounts the two women’s misadventures—pot-smoking beach trips, family breakdowns, and life-long arguments about race and religion, politics and gender—while juggling frustrating shopping forays, declining health, and medical emergencies.

By turns humorous and heartrending, Shopping with Mama: Write ‘til the End reminds us that, even in the most difficult of relationships, in the end it is the care we give another that lights our own path—and it is never too late to connect.

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Also by Marion: Two Dates a Week.