Here's to Mom
My Mother, born in 1918, was a working Mother before working Mothers were cool.
She was always slightly different from her contemporaries and siblings. She was the next to last of 11 children born to my Grandmother.
Mother was the first in her generation to graduate from college. She believed in education and became an elementary school teacher in Appalachian Virginia. She taught in two and three-room school houses and was the principal, the teacher and the social worker for hundreds of children. She regularly delivered groceries, clothes, books and other necessities to the families of children whom she identified as needing such things. Because she was widowed at the age of 41, when I was 6, she did those acts of loving kindness as a single Mother of three. Sadly, my Father had not made significant plans for the financial future of his family, as he had not expected to be accidentally killed at the age of 42, so Mother was left to raise us on her own resources.
Mother was a devout Southern Baptist who deeply believed in the Golden Rule. She taught Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and generally made sure that the church we belonged to, built by her Father, was always welcoming to our rural community. I remember watching her each month writing a check for the 10 percent tithe to the church. At one point, when I was old enough to realize that she was already doing many acts of charity, I suggested to her that she might count part of that as her tithe to the church. She would not even discuss it. She was commanded to tithe, and she did. She also gave special gifts to the minister.
One memory of Mother and her religious faith is branded with neon light in my mind: I was about 9 or 10, and we arrived at the Wednesday night Prayer meeting a little bit late because Mother had made a grocery delivery to one of her families on a rainy night on a gravel road which was difficult to navigate in the rain and fog. (Mother never was a good driver.)
In the mid-60's it was expected that women, "ladies," not wear pants. Mother had long before given up that nicety as it was much easier to do her work with pants on. However, in respect to our minister at the time, who subscribed to such foolishness, whenever she wore pants, she always rolled them up above the hem of her rain-coat so that the pants would not be detected.
That night, however, she didn't roll them up quite enough. After the Prayer meeting was over, and as folks were leaving the church, the minister saw her tell-tale violation of that rule about women in pants. He called her out in front of our congregation and threatened to "de-church" her if he ever observed her dressed in that manner again.
Mother was mortified. I was outraged. Her generation had been conditioned to not question the authority of the church leaders and she did not. I was too little to come to her defense in pointing out that the work she had been doing that night required sensible clothing, and that her life exemplified what our church was supposed to be about.
Mother and I never did discuss that night. It was too painful for her, and by the time I recognized its significance in my maturity, I knew it was moot in our relationship, as she would be hurt by my bringing it up in discussion.
Mother died in the merciful Hospice of the Bluegrass-St. Joe during my first session in the KY General Assembly in l998. Though quite feeble, she had been able to attend my swearing-in in l997, and while slightly concerned that I had been elected as a Democrat, she was nevertheless tickled that she had raised a daughter who would be heavily involved in the political and legislative process as someone who would be concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable-those to whom she had dedicated her life.
Vivian June Barker Wright (1918-1998.) She's been gone for several years, but I still have the automatic response of wanting to call her on the phone whenever something significant happens in my life.
I miss her.
One of my favorite memories of the Hemphill coal camp is of Momma and me walking down the road past our row of houses. We are walking to the corner, turning left just past #2 Tipple and continuing to #1 Tipple, where we knew it would be quitting time for Daddy. We are dressed alike, me and Momma, in black-and-white plaid pinafores that she has run up for us on her peddle-foot sewing machine, and we both have on white sandals. The road consists entirely of coal dust, at least as far as I can tell. It may have been a dirt road at one time, but now there are no signs of earth anymore, just coal dust. I have begged hard to be allowed to go barefoot, but Momma won't have any of that. Civilized people wear shoes, she has told me, time and again. It seems to me, even then, that the scant leather strapping that constitutes our footwear is hardly that different from bare feet. Momma, however, is sure of her position here, so she is adamant-no bare feet for her Linda Sue.
Nevertheless, I know the freedom of going barefoot, because when Momma leaves me with Grandma Emmy, I am allowed to go for days without shoes. But Grandma Emmy's yard and garden are just full of unexpected objects that hurt my tender feet. This coal road, on the other hand, is most inviting, consisting as it does entirely of what Daddy calls "bug dust"-very fine coal dust-no stones, no bees, no lumps of coal. I know how pleasant it is to go barefoot on this very road, because whenever we go out without Momma, Daddy lets me take off my shoes. The squishy feel of the fine dust between my toes beats shoes all to pieces. Just before rounding the bend to our row of houses, Daddy will dip the corner of his white handkerchief in the narrow, black creek that runs through the camp. Then he will take that wet corner, wipe my feet, dry them with the dry parts of the handkerchief, and buckle my sandals back on me.
I'm pretty sure Momma knows about Daddy's and my secret. After all, she's the one who rubs the black out of Daddy's handkerchiefs on a washboard the following Monday. Momma is also the one who insists that Daddy carry a handkerchief in the first place, instead of just blowing his nose through his fingers like most men. What's more, sometimes Daddy lets me walk barefoot all the way to Mrs. Blevins's boardinghouse, where everybody gets a kick out of Linda Sue's black feet. Of course I don't walk every step of the way to Blevins's on Pitch Holler; Daddy always picks me up and carries me across the swinging bridge over the black Tug River. We often stop in the middle and talk to the ducks. Yes, the river is coal black, but a paddling of ducks often swim fifty feet beneath the bridge.
But on this day I'm with Momma, just a few straps of leather saving us from barbarity. Our pinafores are clean, starched, and ironed to a crisp so that the rows of white rickrack trimming shoulder ruffles and skirt tails stand out from the black background. Momma's shining here, giving off that glow she had so much of in those days. She thinks we look good and I know we do, so maybe we're strutting a little. As Daddy joins us, he gets a lot of teasing from his buddies getting off his shift and comments to Momma that we might not want to walk all the way to the tipple next time because "the boys shit me about it." He's ducking his head and grinning a little, so we know he doesn't mean it.
Linda Scott DeRosier's new book is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky this fall.
People everywhere, they all want to take their own problems, usually created by themselves, and try to pass them off on someone or something else. I know my mother and father did the best they could and gave me the best they could and loved me the best they could and if anything, they are victims of me.
-James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
I have no patience or skill or even interest in the endless contemplation of exploring where my parents went wrong.
For example: did the fact that my mom and dad were on the over-protective side cause me to have anxiety attacks later? Dunno. Don't care. Can't imagine that anyone would, except possibly a therapist, and that'd be solely because they get paid to at least seem interested.
My mom and I spent a lot of my childhood fighting - arguably (if you believe the rest of the family), because we are so much alike.
I disputed that for years, but in adulthood, I've come to take it as a compliment. Though it made for some rough teen years, I now value the fact that I had a role model who was stubborn, tenacious, endlessly curious, and assertive.
My mom didn't raise me to be a mom, at a time when most other mothers in our small town raised all their daughters to be that, and that alone.
We can all agree she was on to something there.
While other girls were given dolls and played house, I was given books and a typewriter and played "boss."
While appearing as conventional as all the other moms at our small parochial school, nothing could've been further from the truth.
Sure, she did her time as homeroom mother, den mother, Scout leader, and endless field trip driver (probably because we had a station wagon), but she also ran our family and our house like a well-oiled corporation.
Other moms lived by the "wait until your father gets home" school of household management and child-rearing.
I never saw anyone (successfully) tell my mother what to do.
The men in my family don't wear suits. They are hard, physical laborers. Any one of them who held down less than three jobs at a time to support their families would be considered a shirker, a slacker, a black sheep.
But I can't imagine anyone suggesting that the women in my family didn't "work," just because they didn't bring home a paycheck.
Long before phrases like "quality time" hit the lexicon, my mom was constantly trying to broaden our world. Sometimes it was a trip to a zoo or a museum or some festival, or a never-ending supply of books.
When I settled on a college, my mom called our guidance counselor for the requisite forms and application. Sister Agnes told her not to bother - that we couldn't afford it.
That was a mistake.
My mom did two years of day and night research finding every grant, every scholarship, and every penny of financial aid that was available, and applying for it. I probably graduated out of spite as much as anything else.
It wasn't until I got to college that I realized it was somewhat unusual to have been raised in a house where I was always encouraged to think for myself. Debate, often falling just short of bloodshed, was part of the daily routine. Sure, my complicated presentations, flow charts, and graphs were sometimes shut down with "because I said so," but I always got to make my case.
The years have mellowed my mom considerably.
If you met her today, you would probably take her at face value: a gracious, generous, southern Episcopalian retiree, well-known for her incredible cooking, unfailing hospitality, and immaculate house and garden. (I should point out: this is not one of those areas where we are alike, and my own house is probably a source of considerable embarrassment, if not outright shame, to her.)
I called her one Wednesday afternoon not too long ago, only to discover that I was interrupting a wedding she happened to be hosting in her backyard. (Her friends are mostly retired, and I guess a midweek wedding isn't unusual if no one has an office to get back to.)
I do love my "kinder, gentler" momeven though she and I still scuffle on occasion, and she still pushes my buttons like no one else in the world.... probably because she installed them.
But I also have fond memories of the "tough broad" who raised me - proficient in everything from firearms, to animal husbandry, to language befitting a longshoreman (if warranted).
In fairness, I should probably point out that she'll likely deny all of the above, maintaining the same defense she does whenever I write about her, which is: "I. Am. Not. Like. That. At. All."
Luckily, gone are the days when she could ground me, and send me to bed without Chico and the Man.
I find it impossible to think of Mother's Day as anything other than a gimmick. I have no interest in hothouse flowers, or store-bought cards, or jewelry (which I can't wear anyway since the baby yanks away from my skin anything that dangles and shines). For me a genuine holiday would involve sleeping late, lolling around all day with a good book and a good kisser, going out to dinner, maybe taking in a movie where women wear long white dresses and picnic in the English countryside. The thing is, none of these decadent pleasures is available with small children as companions, and it would be downright dastardly to request a vacation from one's own children on Mother's Day of all days.
Besides, I've already experienced the most triumphant Mother's Day possible to imagine, the most glorious, sun-filled celebration of hope and new life that good luck ever bestowed on an ordinary mortal, and it happened more than 25 years ago, when I was 12 years old.
I was a child lonely for playmates. My family lived a 45-minute drive from the school I attended, far away from most of my friends, and no children even remotely near my age lived in our crowded apartment complex. To pass the time on long weekend afternoons, my brother and I would walk a mile or so down the road to visit an old man who ran a plant nursery in the back of which he kept an enormous array of fowl-various kinds of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and guinea hens. Wildlife-starved city kids, Billy and I would spend hours in Mr. Frerret's back lot.
Mr. Frerret kept an incubator in his office for the hatching of eggs abandoned by their irresponsible mothers, but there was only so much he was willing to do to protect the interests of domestic animals bred into abject stupidity. It was my great desire to take up where Mr. Freret left off, to become a foster parent to any version of the adorable, fuzzy, peeping little infants I saw scooting all spring and summer over the nursery yard. With Mr. Frerret's advice my father and I fashioned a makeshift incubator from a volleyball box.
I began in early February with a clutch of large, white eggs abandoned by a Peking duck. I woke several times each night to check the temperature in the box. For 28 days I was unfailingly faithful to my volleyball-box nest.
On the eve of the twenty-eighth day I could not sleep. But in the morning, nothing. It was Saturday, so I kept watch all day, determined to miss no moment of the final splendor. Noon came, nothing. Suppertime, not a peep.
Finally giving up hope, I trudged back to Mr. Frerret's for another batch of abandoned eggs, but I had no better luck with the mallard eggs, or with the Rhode Island Red chicken eggs. In April, when Mr. Frerret offered me a final opportunity, one small egg from a Bantam hen, I almost didn't have the heart to try.
It was deep into April, and I'd spent the last part of winter and all of spring preparing for an event that seemed destined not to happen in my family's little apartment. Best leave nature to the natural world, I was beginning to think, but Mr. Frerret convinced me I was that little egg's only hope, that he couldn't justify running his huge incubator for a single egg. Of course I took it home, hoping this time to become not only a surrogate mother but nothing less than a messiah.
I was not exactly the picture of parental obsession that time around, but I did my job and kept an eye on the calendar. At least, I thought, chicken eggs require only twenty-one days of incubation. Finally bedtime of the twentieth day arrived, and as always I reached into my incubator to turn the egg before I went to sleep. As my fingers closed around it, I suddenly felt it shiver and heard a muffled little peep coming from inside the shell. Heart pounding, I brought the warm solidity of the egg closer to my eyes and observed the tiniest little x-shaped crack in the broad end. Instantly I was screaming: "MOM! DAD! MOM! DAD!"
It was a restless night. I kept getting up to check the progress of the hatching only to find the egg still and silent. When Mother's Day morning finally dawned I was sleepless and alarmed, sure the infant chick was going to die trapped in that cramped little egg.
It took some persuasion, but Dad finally convinced me that all by themselves baby birds have been managing the matter of hatching for a very long time. Placing the egg in the center of a folded towel on our patio table, we began the wait. Sure enough, in the backyard of our apartment on Mother's Day, my family and several curious neighbors all watched as the chick painstakingly chipped its way around the circumference of the egg. Every time the tiny beak broke through, I would flake off the resulting bit of broken shell, the only help my wiser father allowed.
In an hour the egg was neatly encircled by a fine-line fissure, but the chick itself had stopped moving. With my family I waited breathlessly for some sign of life, some indication that the exertion of hatching had not been too much for an artificially nurtured chicken to manage.
Finally, finally, the egg lurched. Appreciatively, the audience gasped and collectively leaned forward. After another moment's rest, the egg gave a gigantic shudder, and the ends popped apart. There, looking up at me in the mild May sunshine of Alabama, lay a skinny, wet, exhausted, half-bald little brown chicken, the most beautiful creature in all the world.
I thought almost instantly of that chick nearly twenty years later, the day my husband lay our first-born child in my arms. That pointy-headed little baby was long and thin, covered with blood, and his eyes seemed puffed entirely shut by the hard work of labor. At birth he made one small sound-ack!- and then was silent, lying quietly in the crook of my arm before summoning the nerve to open one eye and peek at me. It was a glance of pure recognition, and never once in the Mother's Days since then have I forgotten it.
The truth is, I don't need Mother's Day. I understand every day the marvel of the gift I already have, and just exactly like that little girl waiting so hopefully on a warm morning in May for the advent of a small brown chicken, I thank heaven for the miracle.
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