Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't Mess With Mama!

Okay, yesterday I shared a story about my daddy. Only fitting today I should give equal time to momma. Fact is, if I didn't, I can just imagine her coming back from the grave with a choice word or two. So momma, this one's for you.

My mother was a liberated woman when liberated wasn't cool. She grew up in a small farming community near Bearden, Arkansas. I've visited that old homestead, which is still owned by the family. It is well off the beaten path, driving some miles down old dirt roads and then turn into a yard with a house built of old aged planks cut by hand near the tail end of the 19th century. There's a nice size front porch, entering to a living area just feet from the old kitchen, and two bed rooms off to the right. There is no restroom. For that you have to take a hike about 50 feet from the house through the woods. When I was a child, I can remember going out there when we visited the old home site at night. The older folks cautioned us about "rattlers in the outhouse and each journey was made warily with stick in hand. Looking back I know they got a great chuckle about that, and that mom probably heard the same stories when she was a child.

So this was where mom and her seven brothers and sisters grew up. Discipline was strict (spare the rod and spoil the child) and the religion was too. They were Assemblies of God. My momma from what I hear was a real hellion. Beatings didn't seem to phase her. Her brothers and sisters would tease years later about her antics. Mom looked them right in the eye defiantly. "Yeah y'all were just as bad, but I was not going to be a hypocrite about it. I took a lot of whippings you all deserved." They would nod knowingly.

When she was 17, critical mass had been achieved. She had sassed the pastor, and he proceeded in church to "preach her into hell." She got up and walked out and never looked back. Soon she got a job in nearby Camden, and after making some cash, she moved to Little Rock and enrolled in business school. She worked for a fellow there who she would later categorize as the biggest bastard she ever met. "It would kill him to let go of a single penny and wages were far too low to put up with his constant ranting. By now she had cut her hair, which in conservative religious Arkansas was a major no no for women of that time. She had also taken up smoking.

Soon she packed again, this time to Amarillo, Texas where she got a job at American National Life Insurance as a clerical worker. Keep in mind all this was going on during the Great Depression. It was there she worked, and met my dad. Their first date was dancing. She was to learn later he'd canceled a date with someone else to go out with her. Mom loved to tell the story how they drove over to Duncan, Oklahoma to get married. My uncle Hilyard came along as a witness. As they walked towards the Justice of the Peace' office, Daddy had a confession. Turns out he was a couple of years younger than she was. He didn't want to tell her because he was afraid she wouldn't stay with him. Well that made her mad, so she cussed him up and down the rest of the way until they got there, then they got married.

As a child, momma made one thing clear. "I see parents that wait on their children right and left. Don't you expect that with me. When you grow up, you'll not be one of those helpless souls unable to take care of yourself." So it was by age 8 I was learning to cook, and we were expected to clean up for ourselves. I did most of the grocery shopping, riding my bike making several trips each week. When she took me along, she always made sure we talked about the price of things and how to shop for values.

She was a fiery woman, and frankly, I had inherited some of that temper myself. Now I know I'm not the only one who ever had to go cut their own switch when I did something wrong. Gracious I would go out and pick one that looked pretty flimsy, then try to break it where she wouldn't be able to tell. Of course she could tell, and I'd be sent back to get another with the assurance the punishment now would be worse.

Momma's humor could be absolutely wicked sometimes. One year my brother came home with his report card, perhaps second grade? "Momma? There is a note on my report card. I'm not sure what it means." He clearly was afraid he had done something wrong.

The note read, M-- is a tonic to the class.

Mom looked at him seriously. "It means you've been a little pill." Just that fast my brother tuned up to cry. She laughed out loud, assuring him it was a good thing.

Over many years we fought... a lot. She did not believe in praise thinking it would give us the "big head." Her expectations were high. But if she felt we were under attack, she could be fiercely protective. After we were grown, my brother and I were visiting her home in Southern Lousiana. She had moved there from Tyler to work for her brothers after dad passed away. My brother had really long hair hanging down his back, and a couple of employees in a local grocery, feeling safe behind their counter were making fun of him. Then momma realized what was going on. Her eyes clouded and she was furious. Her face turned red and she started stomping her foot. You know that stomping like a horse does before it rears up to trample someone? That was my momma in that moment. They stopped laughing and started to turn away. Seething momma said,

"You do NOT treat my son that way. I'll squash you like a bug!"

Okay, I got a bit tickled by that. "Shhhh momma, they are just a coupe of redneck crackers."

But of course she was not done. Fortunately she did not storm over the counter, but she did speak with the manager, with assurances between her and her brothers they were set to lose a lot of business. There was never any more trouble there again.

During the last four years of her life, she and I had a chance to move beyond our parent/child roles and become real friends. She shared so many stories, some of them likely to appear here. The only thing we couldn't talk about was my gayness, but just about everything else was fair game. We made peace where there'd been misunderstanding. I'll never forget the day she died. Family were everywhere. But she held on. After a time, most of the family drifted off to get something to eat. True to her nature, it was not to be a big spectacle. Only me, my brother, and my ex were there. My brother and I had laid down to take a nap just outside on some padded seating in the hospital. My ex came and awakened us. "She's ready," she whispered. Together we formed a circle holding hands, and she took her last breath. Now people will say it is impossible, or that I was fooling myself. But whatever it was, I felt her soul depart from her physical body. It was important to me to experience that, delusion or not. We sang two songs, songs customarily performed at all funerals on her side of the family since at least the forties, and they were performed at her funeral and will at mine. Her preacher sister did the sermon. She said even in death she did it her way and on her terms.

"There will be peace in the valley for me, some day.
There will be peace in the valley for me, some day I pray.
No sadness, no sorrow, not worry I see.
There will be peace in the valley for me."
"May the circle, be unbroken,
Bye and bye Lord bye and by.
There's a better, day awaiting Lord,
In the sky Lord in the Sky.

Theology can be debated, but family tradition? That's another thing entirely.

No comments:

Post a Comment