Growing up, I must’ve had the strongest female role models of any woman alive, except maybe my sister, who was blessed with the same set.
Nanny, our paternal grandmother, lost her first husband to Nazi gunners during World War II, her eldest daughter at a tender age to a tragic accident, and her second husband to drink. She developed rheumatoid arthritis in her late thirties, the most severe case her specialists had seen at the time, and eventually died due to complications thereof, but not before seeing her remaining five children and umpteen grandchildren reared proper like.
Her faith and a lively sense of humor shored up her strength, traits she passed on to the better part of her progeny, usually in equal measures. We’re the Bible-thumpin’est, laugh-out-loudest bunch of yehaws never seen outside the South.
MawMaw, our maternal grandmother, married a man whose first wife had died upon the birth of their third child. As soon as the deed was done, he volunteered for the Navy (presumably out of patriotic duty during World War II), and when he returned, gifted my grandmother with ten additional children.
If that doesn’t speak to her strength, nothing ever will.
Then there are the aunts, a quirky bunch of women born and bred in the fine mountain arts of making hushpuppies, smiles, and mischief, not necessarily in that order.
None beat Mama for sheer obstinance. If it had to be done, by golly, she made sure it was done, and done right the first time. Or else. I was on the receiving end of or else enough to know she meant it when she said it.
Mama was a bundle of energy, not frenetic or obtrusive, but the kind of energy that sticks with a task from start to finish and doesn’t let a whole lot get in the way in between. That energy was expended on a number of endeavors over her too-short life, not least of which was a penchant for helping the people around her in ways they least expected.
She started sewing at a young age and later won the local 4H contest for a skirt she made with her own two hands. (I was never straight on whether she did that at age nine or in the ninth grade.) Alas, PawPaw thought Raleigh was a road too far for one of his daughters to travel, and so, she stayed home while her peers tarried on.
That minor setback might’ve kept Mama from showing her skill to a bunch of city judges, but it didn’t stop her from sewing. Over the next few decades she progressed from sewing for herself to sewing for others, and eventually wound up sewing wedding dresses for local brides, then organizing their weddings.
Mama had a good hand for getting people where she wanted ‘em to be and a fine eye for crafting pretty out of humdrum.
Her needlework was rarely confined to garment making. The first house I remember living in was out on Wolffork Road. The Tanner House, we called it, a one-story white farmhouse with red shutters and trim. It had wood floors and a fireplace, and an old, gray barn out back. Mama salvaged a chair from that barn, refinished it from top to bottom, then embroidered flowers on black velvet for a seat cushion.
The leftover velvet went into a vest for a costume she made for me when I was in first grade, or maybe the seat cushion was made out of scraps from the vest.
Either way, I still have the whole outfit tucked away in my closet, a tiny gypsy shirt and colorful skirt, and that black velvet vest, embroidered with musical notes and a butterfly in Mama’s fine, even hand. One day, I’ll sit her great-grandchildren down and show them that vest, but not for a good, long while as my son is only nineteen and not nearly ready to settle down yet.
Or so he tells me.
The sewing and quilting and refinishing morphed into a part-time career redecorating rooms and whole houses in partnership with Mama’s youngest sister, Debi. The two of them squeezed the extra work in around full-time jobs and full-time children. I swear, I think they must’ve redone every second house in a one hundred mile radius during those days, judging by the number of trips they took to the wallpaper outlet.
When it came time to paint or wallpaper or refinish for me and my sister, Mama headed the project from start to finish. My sister and her husband built a house when their kids were little. Mama was the one sorting through paint chips and fabric samples, matching one to the other for best effect, and that’s exactly the way my sister wanted it. Neither one of us inherited that talent, more’s the pity.
Mama always took an active role in our lives, even when her disapproval of said lives ran high. In elementary school, she was that mother. You know the one I’m talking about. If there was a school function, Mama was there with bells on and then some. One year she came to an event as a scarecrow and the next as Peter Pan. Nobody blinked an eye, especially us kids.
‘Course, that could’ve been because we didn’t recognize her as the scarecrow until we got home. She was still wearing the autumn striped, toed socks she’d worn to school that day. Otherwise, we might never have cottoned on to her guise.
Not a thing changed when me, my brother, and my sister grew into extracurricular activities. Mama still didn’t approve of the decisions we made, but she still volunteered for nigh on everything. If the Athletic Boosters or the Band Boosters needed an extra chaperone, up her hand went. She was score keeper and fund raiser, and all around morale booster, and I mean that quite literally. There wasn’t a thing Mama wouldn’t do for the people around her, nor any dare she’d refuse.
One memorable baseball game, she promised Little S. she’d do a rain dance on the pitcher’s mound if he hit a homerun on his first at bat. Danged if he didn’t hit one over the fence on his first swing. As soon as he rounded home, Mama handed her score book and pencil over to another mama, walked out onto the field, and in the tradition of the finest shaman this side of the Great Mississipp’, proceeded to whoop and holler her way through a rain dance on the pitcher’s mound.
My hand to God, y’all, that’s exactly the way it happened, or the way I remember it, which amounts to the same thing.
Mama was also the one sitting in the back of the bus with the kids, laughing up a storm to a tape of Bill Cosby while the other chaperoning parent sat in the front behind the bus driver, none of which should come as a surprise to anyone.
The years rolled on, aging as they do, and so did we. Mama wasn’t shy of expressing her dislike of my budding flirtation with music during high school. She wanted me to be a cheerleader and hang with the popular crowd. I wanted to bury my nose in a book and leave socializing where it belonged, with someone else’s crowd. Anyone else’s. I wasn’t picky.
In spite of our difference of opinion, she made my costume when I was chosen as the marching band’s assistant drum major (it now hangs in my closet beside the black velvet vest outfit), and she dutifully fulfilled her role as the Band Boosters’ secretary. I found some of the cassette tapes of the minutes a few years ago, after she died, and haven’t the courage to listen to them, knowing darn good and well her voice is recorded on there.
Maybe someday, but not until the heartache of losing her far too soon fades a mite.
Mama’s energy was seldom confined to costuming and decorating and keeping an eye on her young’uns, which often included any child foolish enough to stand still long enough for her and Daddy to claim ‘em.
As the offspring of farmers, Mama knew a fair bit about growing and preserving. She collected daylilies of every size and color, and planted them up and down the rock wall behind the house she and Dad built when we kids were teenagers. Shoots of her mother’s favorite roses were nestled into their own spots at the bottom of the yard, along with a sprig or two of roses salvaged from Nanny’s house before she died.
Try her best, but Mama couldn’t hardly get thrift to grow below the roses. In the eight years since her passing, it still hasn’t taken off good, but like Mama, it’s hanging in there, too stubborn to wither away.
Mama was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about a decade before her death. That didn’t stop her from doing a blasted thing she wanted to do, though it did slow her down a bit. She still found time to piece quilts for all the grandkids, attend all their games, home and away, and mix up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when the occasion called for it.
Which happened to be quite often. Of course, it was. What are grandchildren and rainy days for besides PBJs, the Little Rascals, and a good cuddle with MeMom?
To a mountain-bred woman, cooking means preserving your own food. Daddy never wanted a garden (he’d had enough of that growing up, thank you very much), so Mama helped with MawMaw’s garden or bought fruits and vegetables in bulk from local farmers. Spring time brought strawberries for shortcake and jams. In summer, she rounded us up in the cool, early morning hours and herded us into overgrown fields to help her pick blackberries. Our fingers were purple by the end of the humid mornings, and we were covered in sweat and ticks, like every young’un should be in the endless days between one school year and the next.
Fall was for vegetable soup and slaughtering hogs, not usually at the same time, and everywhere in between, we canned. Younger kids with small hands were responsible for washing the jars while the grown ups boiled down fruit and peeled, chopped, sliced, and strung all manner of homegrown vegetables.
I was roped into both for a good long while, along with my sister and cousins, just as we were charged with clean up after meals and such. It was a fair trade for a hot breakfast on a cold winter morning. Canned sausage, refried on the stove, served with fresh-from-the-oven, scratch biscuits and piping hot applesauce seasoned with sugar and butter. I miss those days.
Mama continued canning and preserving throughout her life. The summer before she died, she put by enough food to do her family for half a decade after, at least. She never got a chance to cook from a single jar. One cloud-swept October day, Daddy took her to the hospital yet again for the endless pain her doctors never found a way to control. He came home for the night, thinking, as we all did, that they’d fix her up as best they could (again) and send her back home, if not better, then at least not suffering such debilitating pain.
I wish to God we’d been right that time.
Mama never came home. Her body was sent from the hospital to the funeral home, and we were left to wear the shoes not one of us could possibly fill alone.
Family and friends flooded into Dad’s home, sharing with us the love Mama had so freely given them. The visitation lasted more than an hour after the time set aside for it. So many people came by, I only remember them as a blur of teary smiles and commiserating handshakes.
After the memorial service, Mrs. Gillespie, my third grade teacher, pulled me aside and said, “I will never forget the time your Mama…” Sadly, we were interrupted before she could finish the thought, and I will never know what Mama did to embed that particular remembrance in Mrs. Gillespie’s head.
Though I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if it had something to do with scarecrows and rain dances and a good woman living life, and loving.
This month would’ve marked my mother’s 69th birthday. Happy birthday, Mom.