Saturday, May 06, 2006
Her Children Rise Up and Call Her Blessed

She was 15 years old and had just finished 8th grade. He was 23, out of the merchant marines. When her father deserted the family they gave her away. Her mother, unable to care for her and her siblings, sent her out on her own. She needed a father and a home. I believe she found both when she married my father.

She had her first child when she was 17. And her second, 10 months later. By the time she was 24 she had 6 children. We were born so close together I don't remember having babies in our house. I do remember mountains of cloth diapers on the couch. She taught herself to drive when noone else would. She somehow cared for us, kept us fed. I remember cornbread and milk for dinner, potato soup by the gallon. We would lay out the entire loaf of bread and put the entire package of bologna on it. The sandwiches would be packed into paper sacks for tomorrow's lunches. Breakfast every morning was an entire box of cereal with an entire gallon of milk. Mountains of pancakes were a Sunday-before-church treat. I truly did not know what "leftovers" were. We were allowed to adopt stray dogs now and then, and I expect that's where the leftovers went. We had skinny dogs. I didn't know people drank orange juice for breakfast, or had fruit sitting out in bowls as part of their decor. When we were sneaky and ordered ice cream bars from the milkman she didn't scold us and somehow covered it. With no training, my mother somehow stretched the budget and made sure there was enough of whatever we needed. I felt safe, loved, content.

The laundry had to seem endless - everything was cotton. A ceiling fan in the hall of our home in southeast Texas provided little relief. If the heat didn't get you the humidity would. Ironing my father's cotton uniforms must have been brutal. My four brothers each had two pairs of jeans and one pair of tennis shoes. It was only as a teenager, getting two new dresses to start school, that I began to realize we might not have as much as others.

Being late for church every single Sunday destined us to sit in the front row. I can now imagine the magnitude of the task of getting us there at all. One bathroom did little to accomodate modesty. The built-in cubby in the hall held a big black, rotary dial phone. Conversations were short - our small home did not give us the luxury of privacy. One TV, with aluminum foil covered rabbit ears, sat in the living room; the bookshelf my father built contained games we shared. There was no toy box - individual toys were a rarity. We did have nightly neighborhood games in our front yard - red rover, hide 'n seek, crack the whip. It was safe to stay outside past dark, catching fireflies in jelly jars. We spent days making clover necklaces on blankets or drawing and cutting out our own paperdolls. There wasn't much materially but we had a richness to our life that I felt deep inside.

Mom somehow bought us World Book encyclopedias and we spent summers going over the spelling lists for our grade. I now realize the sacrifice that represents. They were likely purchased with grocery money that was already stretched too thin. We were likely unenthused about this venture, yet she made us do it. We were allowed to build forts over the clotheslines. Surely that meant mountains of laundry later. We took one family vacation in my 17 years of living at home. Sandwiches brought from home were eaten in the back of the station wagon as we drove along the highway. Camping in a tent with 5 siblings seemed an adventure to us. I now know there was no money for a hotel for us. That vacation is still a wonderful memory. I treasure the one photo I have from it.

Mom made us all finish school; for some she literally wrote papers, knowing that was the only way they would graduate. She dumped water over some to get them out of bed and on the bus. Some she threated - she's little so I doubt she could have enforced it, but we believed her. Her determination was not to be trifled with.

None of us went on to college, but amazingly, she did. With a deep hunger for learning she went to enroll in college and realized she needed to pass a GED. So she did. She was self-taught from reading; nothing was a struggle except the math she'd never learned. I still regret not realizing the magnitude of her graduating from community college. Not attending the ceremony. The photo of her in her cap and gown enforces the knowledge of what I missed. Why didn't I come home for that? Was I busy with babies myself? She went on to get her degree in Psychology, and an LPN degree. Being committed to having all my own children, her grandchildren, graduate from college has hopefully made up to her for not attending myself.

The only splurge I remember my mother making on herself was an old manual underwood typewriter. She joined a writer's group and would meet with them once a month. I can only imagine how that must have watered her soul. How it kept her going through the barreness of her life.

She moved us 24 times in 17 years. Somehow we always felt safe, loved. I did not realize we were short on money, because she was long on love. Through conversations we've had, now that I am an adult, I am more aware of the fullness of her journey, the sacrifices she's made. The dogged determination it took just to make it. Now in her 70's she has been through more than most people will experience in their lifetime. The losses she has suffered have not caused her to give up when most would. She still treasures life, stops to smell roses, has a wonderful sense of humor (she can't tell a joke!) She makes great guacamole and likes hot salsa. She is still an avid reader. At 72 she is attempting to write in a blog, Another Fork in the Road. She's struggling a bit with the mechanics of it all, but will get it. She always does. Reading anything she writes gives you a sense of someone whispering "stop, listen to this. This is a gift." She is passionate about deep conversations, politics, religion, and good books and her adult children. We still feel her deep commitment to us. She still stands by each one of us, nudging us on to the next thing, cheering for us - "you can do it!"

I've always yearned to meet Ruth Bell Graham. I imagine the stories she could tell. I will likely never meet her. If I was told I had one day left and could talk to her or my mother, there is no contest. I'd ask my mom to make us a bowl of guacamole, I'd make the margaritas, we'd tear open a bag of chips and we'd talk. I have been immensely blessed to be her child. She is my hero. I leave tomorrow to be with my daughter Sarah. She is having our third grandchild, a daughter. I sense the journey continuing. I am rushed in getting ready to leave, so this isn't perfectly written. She will see the flaws and excuse them. A week from now I will be busy helping care for this newborn, so I wanted to take time now to tell her - Thanks, Mom. I love you. Happy Mother's Day.

"Her children rise up and bless her; many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all. Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates."


  posted at 8:27 AM

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    Girl Raised in the South

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