Things My Mother Taught Me
Mom passed away September 2014 after living almost 84 years and going through a thankfully short illness. All four of her sons were there with her when she took her last breath, and she waited until her two sisters arrived before she decided to give up the struggle. Momma was an amazing woman in many ways, and the lessons she taught us go far beyond the normal table manners and polite forms of address and behaviors she expected but didn’t always get. Raising our Dad and four boys at the same time gave her an inner core of steel hidden by a soft spoken demeanor that could be deceiving to those that didn’t know her well.
She graduated at the top of her class at good ole Ruleville HS, was responsible for raising her sisters and her brother, played French Horn and Bass Drum in the band, played girls basketball, was Class President and went to Delta State before she married Dad and I came along. She read constantly until her eyesight started failing, and exhibited an innate curiosity about things I never would have imagined she was interested in and showed an understanding of people and their curious motivations that I found to be consistently accurate, amazingly observant and borderline prescient. “Seems to me” she noted once and seemingly out of the blue, “that spending all that money to get a man on the moon was a better investment than LBJ’s Great Society.” “Why do you say that Mom?” I asked innocently.“Those social programs are helping a lot of people.” I was 18 at the time and thinking about the upside of socialism, and she was, without my knowledge, waging a quiet but persistent war to undermine my intolerance for all things establishment. “Kennedy understood” she said quickly, “that giving people a national goal was better than giving them money. Look at the technology and inventions that have come out of NASA that have improved our daily lives, not to mention the national pride in what was accomplished. Giving people something they haven’t earned just pisses them off in the long run, and doesn’t really help in the way it’s intended.” I mentally marked that moment down as one not just to remember but to learn from and looked at her in amazement. “Don’t stare with your mouth open” she said. “Being a mother helps me notice things about people I might not have noticed otherwise. Go clean up your room.” I started to ask her how she knew my room needed cleaning, but realized she would have characterized that as a stupid question. Momma for President would have been a much better choice than some of the bozos we’ve voted in.
Mom was a teacher without a license. She adapted the lesson to the individual, and realized that her 5 guys didn’t learn in the same way or at the same rate. She understood and used differentiation when conformity was cool. She never hesitated to let us try almost anything - band, football, baseball, cooking lessons (oh yes she did give us cooking lessons), boy scouts - and when we got discouraged and wanted to give up we heard countless times “can’t never could do nothing.” With her Mississippi drawl that we inherited it came out “cain’t never culd do nuthin’” but we knew what she meant, and kept on trying. I didn’t know it until the retrospection brought on by age and experience kicked in, but I developed most of my educational philosophy and teaching methods from her. She always managed to teach us things without us realizing we were being taught.
She cooked every day for our family. I remember going to a drive in restaurant or an actual sit down eat inside restaurant maybe three times with the family growing up. There wasn’t money for that. Together Mom and Dad, as a bookkeeper and policeman, made $26,000 in their best year together financially. We weren’t gonna pay $10 for everyone to get a hamburger and fries when “we have stuff on the stove at home.” I don’t remember a morning we didn’t have biscuits or oatmeal, and I don’t remember a Sunday we didn’t have fried chicken or chicken fried steak. I loved her fried chicken with the crispy little crumbles on it and was always surprised she seemed to choose a wing or a back and leave the breast or legs for us. There was always something to eat in a pot on the stove, right next to her jar of bacon grease. I never knew leftovers were supposed to be refrigerated until after I left home and got married. We were expected to be a part of her cooking arrangements and remember the recipes she kept in her head. She only began writing them down when she was in her 60’s after we pestered her to do so. My favorite instruction was “use just enough but not too much.” She didn’t measure anything, eyeballed everything and it always turned out like it she intended it to. Writing down her recipes was a chore since she had to actually measure stuff to make up the recipe where we could follow it. She was gifted - we were the slow class. She had us watch and help while she made cookies and fudge and dressing and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and 2000 different kinds of pies and cakes and divinity. Ours never turned out like hers, but we knew the steps to follow.
She was a pea shelling fiend, and would never buy them already shelled, but had to have bushels of crowders or lady peas or butterbeans in the hull. We all tried to convince her it was easier to buy them already shelled, but she would have none of it. “I can think when I shell peas” she said, “and I can remember.” I believe she had discovered one of the secrets of life. She did things for others and expected nothing in return. For her it was putting up vegetables and canning. She put up tons of the things, along with jellies and jams. We were expected to bring a cooler on our visits and carry bags and bags of frozen vegetables and jars and jars of stuff home with us. We did, partly because she expected us to but mostly because it was good. I learned to make her pepper sauce and think of her every time I put it on peas or collards or turnips or meatloaf. I think of it as Momma manna. I think of her when I do it, and like her, I remember.
She made every grandkid a Christmas stocking with their name on it. She crocheted blankets and afghans, made quilts, did needlepoint and made sure everyone in the family had at least one of her needlepoint angels holding a baby. She loved children and they loved her. Momma wasn’t really a singer, but knew one song that every kid responded to - Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man….you know the rest. One of our relatives married someone the rest of the family did not approve of, and there was talk of not welcoming them or their child in some family homes. I remember Momma’s response - “don’t you dare say or do anything bad about that baby. Whatever you’re mad about is NOT that baby’s fault, and I won’t have it.” That pretty much decided the question for everyone.
Every year there were family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house or one of Momma’s sisters’ homes. Relatives showed up from all over, and playing with cousins and shirt tail relatives and sleeping on a pallet on the floor was great fun for a couple of days. I wasn’t allowed to sit at “the big table” until I was over 21, and that did hurt my pride until I saw that the kids got to eat first and the big table folks were always busy making sure the little people had full plates several times over before they were sent out to play in the yard and the adults could eat in relative peace until somebody came in crying from a skinned knee or a bruise or to tell them that “Glenn said a bad word.” Momma sensed my disappointment and said “stay a kid as long as you can, son. Being an adult is not nearly as much fun as you think.” She was right, and, once again I find myself wishing I had taken her advice sooner.
She corrected us often but almost always quietly and one at a time. She didn’t use global threats but identified the culprit of any given misdeed and dealt with them one on one. I don’t remember ever being spanked more than two or three times, but the threat was always there and I would not have put it past her. I do remember having to select a switch from the bush by the front porch a time or two, and the walk of shame there and back is still a vivid memory. The thought processes and inner debates I used in deciding which switch to select could have led to a career in Mississippi politics, but thankfully I was steered in a more positive direction.
She was a tall woman, never really heavy but strong. Momma was slow to anger and only rarely let us get to her in that fashion. She was smart enough to know that anger wasn’t a prime motivator for her and wouldn’t be effective on us either. She rarely used Dad as a threat and almost always took care of the problem herself. “You’re too smart to be that stupid” she said quietly. Her voice was rarely raised but we didn’t have any trouble hearing her. Tone and inflection said what was needed to stop or correct almost any behavior. We hated to disappoint her, and she let us know quickly when it happened. The only way I could tell if one of my brothers was in trouble was if I had been there when he committed whatever deed he wasn’t supposed to have done or if I saw his face later because she was smart enough not to compare one of us to the other or use one’s bad behavior as a lesson to the others. She was also smart enough to know us better than we knew ourselves. She was an artist at turning our dumbass behavior into teachable moments, and we are better people for her having done that.
Being boys we engaged in what was recognized generally as boy behavior. We were fascinated by fire, played army at every opportunity, were all involved in baseball, played church basketball and softball, ran with the neighborhood kids playing football, flashlight, racing bikes around the block and chasing each other through the fog of the the “skeeter dope man.” It’s a wonder we weren’t killed a thousand times over. My brother burned down a paint shed once, and even tried to set the woods behind our house on fire by burning a dead tree. She handled the situations and kept the neighbors from killing him. I thought it would be great to set one of my plastic model planes on fire and swing it around on a string in the back yard. I managed to set the grass on fire and discovered that burning plastic hurts a lot when it gets on your skin. She didn’t yell or scream or “go off” on us when we did stupid stuff, she just took care of the problem and let us know some things were just stupider than others. Mom created instant solutions for what to us seemed to be insurmountable problems. One of the neighborhood Moms told us we couldn’t play war with our BB guns because - you guessed it - “somebody might get their eye put out.” We were heartbroken. Killing each other was one of our favorite pastimes. Mom’s solution for us was quick and almost painless. “Wear your jeans” she said, “and only shoot each other in the legs.” That woman had the wisdom of Solomon. She knew we weren’t going to stop shooting each other, and found a compromise the other neighborhood Moms could live with and so could we. The killings continued.
She didn’t complain. If anybody had a reason too it was her, but she chose not to be a whiner. She did note on several occasions that she had learned a lesson from her mother in law. “Mrs. Arnold was dying when I met her in 1946” she said, “and continued to announce the details of her dying every day until her death at age 99.” I think we all know people like that. When I would call Mom and ask how she was doing, the answer was always “doing fairly well” even when she wasn’t. She had learned that lesson and wasn’t about to repeat it. She had hated talking on the phone to Grandma because she knew what was coming, and must have sworn to herself never to make that mistake when she talked to us. She would only tell us her health issues after they had been resolved or after she had been to the hospital for one ailment or another. “I didn’t want any of you worrying about me” she would say, but don’t think for a second it worked the other way around. She had to know stuff about us beforehand, and wouldn’t tolerate being left in the dark about any health problems we might have. She did ask me several times if I could check and see who that old woman was that appeared in her mirror every morning. I would smile at her and think “I hope you continue to see her for a long time,” and mentioned to her I had noticed there was some old guy from somewhere appearing daily in my own mirror.
She didn’t try to jump in and solve our problems and issues for us, but let us make our mistakes when she knew what the result would be. “Sometimes a little hurt is a good teacher” she said. “It’s not fun and it’s hard for me to watch, but you boys are going to do what you’re going to do no matter what advice I give.” She always said too that a little suspicion about what folks tell you is a good thing, and not to believe everything we heard. She told us that “you can tell me something all day long but I know who you are by what you do.” She did let us make our mistakes, but she was there to offer consolation when it was needed and advice after it was over. Both were more productive and preferable to any pre-event advice we probably would have ignored anyway. I don’t remember her arguing with anybody except Dad, and he wouldn’t argue for long. He saw he couldn’t win and just left the house. One day he left one time too many and she told him not to come back. I was in college then, but have always been confident I knew who was right and who wasn’t. They both married again, both their spouses died later and they ended up getting remarried. I remember announcing to my friends that I was so happy my Mom and Dad were finally getting married. I’m convinced she made a calculated decision based on their respective finances and chose the lesser of three evils, but that’s just my suspicious nature I inherited from her.
One of her friends seemed to live by the old saying “when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” “Foolishness” Momma said, “pure foolishness.” That was pretty much her ultimate and final condemnation of most anything. She never got too excited, too worked up, too dramatic, too flustered, too loud, too drunk or too anything. She was calm in the face of adversity of any type, refused to give in to hysteria and was the Mom in the neighborhood everybody came to when they had an emergency or a problem or just needed advice. Parents in the neighborhood and relatives from all over came to her for advice, kids turned to her when they needed a little comfort or consolation and she dispensed advice to all without condemnation. She was pretty much the only person that had any influence over Daddy. She rarely cursed and didn’t have to. She was the rock against which all waves broke, and was calm reason in the face of the storm.
Our house was the center of kid activities for many years. It was a place a kid could hide when he didn’t want to be found, where he could find something to eat at any time of the day, where he could hang out when there wasn’t much to do, where he could find something to do when it was really needed, where he could spend the night if that’s what was needed and where we all gathered before and after any event like a ball game, bike race, after school, weekends, summer or birthdays. We thought it was a natural thing to have people over all the time until we noticed other Moms didn’t feel the same way. Some of them were kind of persnickety about boys and dirt and visitors in general. There was always food on the stove or in the refrigerator at our house, and nobody went away hungry...ever.
She condoned my comic book collection. “I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading” she said. That wasn’t quite true, but it did hold up for comic books. I had Batman, Superman, The Blackhawks, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, The Hulk, Spiderman...you name it, and I read it...and she was right. I remember her reading to me and to my brothers before we could read ourselves, and she believed without doubt that reading was the key to educational success. I still read every day. It’s because of her and the example she set.
When we would try to grow up too fast she was quick to tell us “don’t get too big for your britches” and when we attempted to use anger on her she would say “you can just get glad in the same britches you got mad in” and effectively end the conversation and our pitiful attempt at psychological warfare. She had a stubborn streak, and wouldn’t give in on some things. One of them was going to church, another was making sure we went to school every day and she was adamant about us “doing the right thing.” “If you can’t do something in front of your mother” she would say, “it’s probably something you don’t need to be doing.” She was mostly right on that one, too.For years I called her every Sunday, and looked forward to the conversation and advice. Sometimes I still reach for the phone before I remember I have to talk to her another way now. Her voice is still there and her advice is still good. I’m convinced God called her home because he couldn’t get his recipe for divinity candy to come out right and she, in typical fashion, said “I can’t write it down, but I can show you.” I’ve been blessed to inherit her dry wit, her sense of humor, some of her patience, her tolerance, her investigative nature, some of her heart and a little bit of her belief in the goodness found in most people. My brothers and I all picked up a lot of the good things she was. All of us did, just from being around her. She knew me when I was good, she knew me when I wasn’t, she knew me when I was sick and she knew when I needed her voice. She loved me without conditions, and I loved her the same way. Thanks again, Momma, for everything. And I mean everything.