“In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place,
where something happened, and then there are all the other places.
Alice Munro, Runaway
Miss Kuma was my high school Latin teacher. She was my mother’s Latin teacher. She must have been near 80 when I knew her, but her kindly square face was unlined, her arms firm and strong, her legs sure and sturdy. She walked ramrod straight, and quickly. There was never a hint of any physical discomfort. Her dresses, mostly a variation on a single design, chintz print with round collars, buttons down the front, fell straight from her shoulders to where they met her stockings mid calf above black lace-up brogan shoes.
Miss Kuma was an institution. She never married; her entire life was devoted to her teaching. She lived with her sister in a two-story white house with a big porch and two swings, halfway up the hill to the high school. She was my favorite teacher; my mother’s, too. She was everyone’s favorite teacher. She never asked for respect, it was a given. Sadly, unlike today, the trust and respect we had for our teachers was a given. If the teacher meted out punishment, it was generally assumed it was deserved. We whispered and giggled behind their backs, but they had our respect. It was still “Yes Ma’m” and “No Sir. ” Even our manic English teacher who was given to fits of skipping about the classroom and the slightly daft sixty-something French teacher who flirted with the football players. But Miss Kuma was different, a cut above. She was solid, quiet, soft- spoken, authentic. There was a waiting list for her classes, even though she only taught Latin! Even at our age, we knew good teaching when we saw it. She was strict, but fair and kind. She was an undisputed authority. Her demeanor was calm, unflappable, almost bovine. Bovine… Did I think that because she told us in strict confidence in our senior year that her name “Kuma” meant “cow” in Latin? We all laughed when she said that, smug at being entrusted with her secret. We took it for gospel. Kuma was Latin for “cow.” Miss Kuma said so. And as for breaking her confidence – well, not an option.
But..I just looked it up in Merriam’s Dictionary on Google and Cuma is actually Japanese for bear!.
Wow!! All these years, one thing I knew for sure was that Kuma was Latin for cow. I knew that with the same certainty that I knew that you went to church on Sunday, that you couldn’t trust Yankees or the government, and that one’s virginity must be guarded at all cost.
What else was Miss Kuma not telling us? What if the stories she told us about her early life on a plantation, her trip to Rome, the time she went to dinner at the Governor’s mansion .. what if they weren’t true after all? Only nerds took Latin; (and we took all four years) so..OK we were a select (polite word for it) group, but we never would have questioned her. No one would have dared ask; “Hey, Miss Kuma, isn’t that word really Latin for “chair” and not “church?” Icy glares from classmates would have stopped such an upstart dead in her tracks. But in the light of this new knowledge, I have to wonder – What about all the sentences we painstakingly diagrammed, the painful recitations, the endless conjugations, all in dogged determination to win Miss Kuma’s soft benign smile? Were we really learning Latin? What if this was actually Croation? Or Latvian? Or even Greek? No one would have known, since no one spoke any languages other than English, unless you count Cajun.
What if she really grew up on a ranch in Texas and not a plantation in Louisiana? Did she have dinner with the governor or was it really his brother-in-law? And did she really go to Rome – or maybe it was really only to visit her brother in Georgia. And why did she break this to us in our senior year and swear us to secrecy? Who was she, really? And now that I think about it, what about the other teachers? Or our parents? What if they weren’t who they seemed to be either? Were they all in this together? Can Yankees be trusted after all? And what about our virginity! What weren’t they telling us about THAT!!
My faith is shaken; my confusion profound. I’m at a loss.
But before I resign this to my “Things-Are-Not-Always-What-They-Seem” file which grows exponentially with the years, there is one other possibility. Perhaps Miss Kuma knew very well that Kuma was not Latin for anything at all and was hoping one of us would actually look up the word and challenge her. That’s the kind of teacher she was, after all. Over and over she admonished us to think for ourselves. “Why do you think that?” she would ask. And even though the subject was Latin, somehow we talked about our plans, our hopes for the future. Why didn’t we get it? What does that say about us? About the times we grew up in? I’m sad for Miss Kuma if this was the case. How many students passed through her classroom doors, how many times had she hoped for one student curious enough to risk her disapproval by challenging her kind authority. How did she manage to renew her hope for each new class?
I hope it’s not the case. I hope I just got it wrong…
Today is Wednesday, ironing day. Mother washed on Monday, folded and starched on Tuesday, and ironed on Wednesday. I sometimes wonder if I’ve time-travelled; it was such a different world. She began her ironing just as “Our Gal Sunday” came on the radio and ironed on through “Stella Dallas”, “The Guiding Light” and “The Brighter Day.” I would sometimes listen with her to these stories of women whose lives were so different from ours, and she would talk about how some day she would travel. Just go all over the country with no plan in mind.
She sometimes had help with the ironing from Caroline, a black woman whose family sharecropped on my grandfather’s farm, but only if Mother was physically in the house. Caroline believed with all her heart that our house was haunted by a Civil War Captain who hated black people. But he stayed out of sight if white folks werearound. Today this seems a little alarming, but as a child in those days, it seemed perfectly sensible. No one thought the less of Caroline for it. And certainly we never questioned the reality of ghosts. Nowadays she would be on medication for panic attacks. Not to belittle panic attacks; they’re real. We just had a different way of dealing with them then. Admittedly less effective, but much more colorful.
I recently bought a new iron, bringing, I’m embarrassed to say, my iron inventory to six. The new one is cordless, and made especially for quilting. I use it for piecing along with its teeny tiny “wand iron” cousin for nooks and crannies. But I also have two big honking steam irons for down and dirty ironing (to be avoided), an ironing press for large flat items (I don’t think I have any) and my personal favorite, the vertical iron for drapes which has never been out of its box. Really.
My mother had one iron and its cord had been wrapped several times with electrical tape. The idea of replacing it never came up. I had no clue how hard she worked with so little support until long after I left home. We talked about this after she left the farm and her life became more comfortable. But she dismissed it as just the way things were. And her life was so much easier, she reminded me, than my grandmother’s. Case in point: Grandmother used a flatiron that she heated on the wood stove. I also have two of these. I use them as bookends.
I never remember hearing the women in my family complain. Maybe they did. Maybe that’s what their quilting bees were really all about. But they never complained to the children. This might seem duplicitous, maybe smack of denial. But I’m pretty sure it was not delusional but intentional. They could not have been unaware of the harsh realities of their lives. Workdays were long and physically demanding. The livlihood of the family depended on the right mix of sunshine and rain, heat and cold, to support the crops. Loss of children to childhood disease was not uncommon. The closest neighbors were often miles away. And always there was the threat of losing sons to war.
Maybe these were coping skills, passed down from their mothers. Or perhaps they shielded us because they wanted us to enjoy childhood free from as much pain as possible. Or like mothers since time began, maybe they simply wanted to protect their children. No matter the reason, I’m amazed at their strength and resiliency.
Oh, and btw, about my mother – she got her trip across the country. It lasted 10 years.