Mothers Matter

 

My mother and I  weren’t close.  But we never fought, not overtly.  She was gentle and mild-mannered to a fault.  Mother didn’t raise her voice or indulge in corporal punishment.    She had very few rules  but her  “no” meant no and there was no point in challenging her.

Her tastes were simple and her needs modest.  Frugality was a way of life.  We never bought anything we could make, grow or barter for.    Collars were turned, hems let out.  We sewed our clothes,  ate leftovers. Nothing went to waste, nothing was for show. We wore our clothes until they were too threadbare to wear in public and then they were recycled into fabric for quilts.  She never went to movies or took
 vacations.  She didn’t wear perfume or go to a beauty shop. Lipstick was her only concession to cosmetics.

Farm life is  strenuous and follows a set routine with little margin for error.   Rules and boundaries are necessary to insure productivity and safety.  They aren’t up for vote.  Mother worked hard, gardening, running a household with no modern appliances, cooking, feeding livestock.   In spite of its  demands, she  seemed comfortable with her life and in those days,  it was not out of the ordinary.  Girls married, raised their families on the family homestead, and once the children were out of the house, they cared for their parents and grandchildren,  continuing the pattern of generations.  If girls went to college, it was to become a teacher or a nurse until the children came. Though we never discussed it, I knew this was what was expected of me, of all of us, and it terrified me.

I  was a boisterous and curious child, a puzzle to my parents; forever pushing the boundaries, challenging the rules, asking why.  I read everything I could find in our small library.  I was fascinated with faraway  places, exotic religions, unfamiliar life styles and beliefs.  From a small child, I ached to get out in the “real world,” and abruptly left home at my  first opportunity.  It was a foolhardy decision made with all the selfishness and confidence of youth.  Of course I expected Mother to be disappointed, but instead she was profoundly, uncharacteristically, angry. This was not a decision I could not undo, she told me.  Once I crossed the threshold, she told me,  the door would lock behind me.  That shocked and baffled me, still does.  But I knew she meant what she said and anyway, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back.

And so began our decades-long uneasy journey. Over the years, she “forgot”  birthdays, ignored awards, expressed no interest in my accomplishments.   All  contact between us was one-way.  She rarely visited; she never called or wrote.  Nothing I did seemed to interest her.  I get it, I thought. I blew my chance when I rejected her and her way of life.

It hurt, but I moved on.  I couldn’t go home again, so instead I tried to convert her to my lifestyle.  This may have been an effort  to justify my rash decision to leave home, I’m not sure.   But leaving any guilt aside,  I couldn’t believe  she could be happy, that anyone could be, with such a claustrophobic lifestyle.  She had few friends, little outside interest beyond church on Sundays and visits with relatives.  Her recreation was  limited to  crossword puzzles, soap operas and romance novels.  I was sure she would want more if only she knew about it, if it was offered to her.  Surely she would be delighted to have some of the luxuries her harsh farm life had denied her!  I was relentless. I enrolled her in exercise programs, bought her the latest labor-saving appliances, sent her books to read.  But to my frustration, she was not interested.  The appliances remained in their boxes, the gym membership expired, the books lay on the coffee table, untouched.

This distorted dance continued for years;  I pursued, she withdrew.  As much as I told myself it didn’t matter what she thought of me, it did matter.  A lot.   I believed she never forgave me for leaving home, and that her withdrawal from me was my punishment for  breaking the rules.   I thought she saw my leaving as a rejection not only of my heritage, but of her way of life.    But in my mind, I was simply choosing the way I wanted to live my life, nothing more. And in retrospect, I wonder if the same might have been was true for her.  Was her withdrawal from me not a rejection at all; but simply her way of living out her life as she saw fit?

The mother-daughter tie is primal, enigmatic, eternal, the strongest of the familial bonds.  It is Mother who breathes the  breath of life into us.  She is our first role model, the architect of those first deep wrinkles in our  developing brains.  Regardless of what we think or  what we tell ourselves, our mothers matter to us, will always matter, probably much more than we realize.

On this Mothers Day, I wish I could re-live the times I hurt and disappointed my mother. I wish we had understood each other better;  that we could have been close.   But at the end of the day,  the maternal bond  prevailed and over the years we developed  a companionable, if not affectionate relationship.  We had some good years.

My mother died over 25 years ago.  But there are still nights that she visits my dreams, mornings when I wake up thinking I need to call her.  Mother still matters, she will always matter.

 

 

 

 

THE INCONVENIENT COMMUNITY

 


About 20 years ago, my husband and I bought a lake house near the small community in Louisiana where I grew up. During our working years, it was our retreat, our refuge from the stress of our fast paced lives. We loved drinking  our morning coffee on the deck,  watching the miracle of the morning sunrise over the lake:  squirrels chattering and swinging from tree to tree,  Blue jays, cardinals, finches, and sparrows competing for the bird feeder, a whooping crane perched on one twig-leg, snatching fish from the lake with a stab of his beak, and if we were lucky, one of the two resident golden eagles skimming the lake in search of  breakfast.  We watched as fisherman sped past in their bass boats headed home with their early morning catch.  And  lazy afternoons gliding over the mirror-waters of the lake in our “barge boat” (pontoon boat if you’re further north), our two Boston Terriers perched on a bench, tongues lapping the breeze.

  Nirvana.

What we hadn’t expected, however, was…..

The Community.

If not for the satellite antennas, jet skis and BMWs, a visitor might think he had stepped through a time warp into the ’60s.  The pace of life is pretty much the way I remember it as a child.  No need to rush, even when driving. (Maybe that explains my collection of speeding tickets…) Going to the grocery store is a visiting opportunity – allow at least an extra half hour.  There is a  time-honored sequence visitors must follow upon leaving; fixing-to-get-ready-to-go, getting-ready-to-go, fixing-to-go, and y’all-come-to see-us.  Allow at least 20 minutes.

Community is seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily life. There is always time to visit.  Friends, relatives and neighbors drop by unannounced, bringing  fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries (lots of) squash from their gardens, blueberry muffins, home-made bread warm from the oven, a crocheted do-dad, (“I’ve been needing me one of them” is an appropriate response).  No need for neighborhood watch or security cameras here.   If you aren’t seen leaving home, (and you always are) for a day or two, someone will come around to make sure you’re OK.  This is, of course, also a fine excuse to see what you’re up to.  Once when we pulled to the side of the road to make a phone call,  someone stopped, rolled down the  window and yelled, “Y’all OK?” Case in point.

Community is hardwired into the culture. 

Although I was unaware of it, that was my mindset when I left for California after graduating high school. I was desperate to get away,  to shed the confines and responsibilities  of community.  I was weary of the nosyness and yes, the accountability of community.  In a word it was just plain inconvenient.

But the values of hospitality, trust and honesty were so deeply ingrained in me that they were unconscious.  It was just the way I operated.  So I was bewildered when my smiles at people on the streets of San Francisco  were met with glares as they  brushed past.  (“What’s she up to…”) Confused when the cookies I took to welcome a neighbor were met with a door slammed in my face (after all who knew what was in those cookies!! )  Offended when my request to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor was  grudgingly granted with the admonition to be sure to pay it back (people can’t be trusted…)  Embarrassed at the sly chuckles as I ran after  the stranger who dropped his wallet.  (What a hick..) 

It took awhile, but eventually I got it: Trust, honesty and hospitality are naive and totally uncool.  And no way to get ahead.   Every man for himself.  Self reliance.   That’s cool. That’s how you get ahead. 

So I learned to look through people I rushed past on the street.  I was astonished, but not distressed, when a co-worker was murdered and cut into chunks by her father. (Was there a memorial service for her?  I don’t think so..)  I watched  dispassionately as a handcuffed neighbor was escorted from his house followed by EMTs carrying a body on a stretcher.  

Eventually there was no more “we”; only “them” and “us.”  And “they” were assumed adversaries until proven otherwise.  People I met daily at the bus stop were familiar strangers.   I became adept  at “working the system.”   I learned how find tax loopholes,  to badger merchants to get the best “deal,”  to rewire cables to “beat” (not cheat..)  utility companies,  to push  to the front of the line.   In short, I learned it was not about us, but about me; all about me.  After all, where had that hokey countryfied attitude got me but broke, belittled and marginalized.  “Smart” people put themselves first and if that caused problems for someone else, well, that’s life.  And this attitude was not limited to California; it was  my experience of metropolitan life in general.  

This “me first”  philosophy seemed to work well for a while.  I did, in fact, “get ahead.”  My standard of living greatly improved. I had the latest appliances; services and conveniences my mother could never have imagined. I never ironed.   My clothing came from “the right” stores, I drove an expensive car, my dog came from championship lines.   But the more  “stuff” I got, the longer my list of “must haves” grew.  Not what I expected.  Neither was I expecting that this way of doing business would leave me increasingly lonely and  isolated.  I was sure I would attract an adoring crowd once I was “successful.”   But of course,  the people around me we all just like me….expecting me to be part of their adoring crowd. This kind of success had brought anything but happiness.  And eventually, the pains of chasing mirages disappearing over the horizon became greater than the challenge of living out my own truth.  I knew better, had always known better.

Because of time and distance,  trips to the lake were infrequent during these years, but we managed two or three a year. And on each visit, as I reflected more deeply about  this community, I saw truths I hadn’t seen growing up, truths only visible through the lens of age and experience.  I saw how a sense of place grounds the soul.  How immutable our symbiosis with the earth and its creatures.  How the soul of the community is continuously formed and re-shaped by the spirits of each of its members.  And I get it, all communities have their problems.   But paradoxically, it is when the community thrives, that its members are nourished.  Not, as I had been led to believe, the other way round.

I might have learned these lessons elsewhere.  But it is here that I feel most grounded.   It is here that I learned that true success comes only to the soul at peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Know You’re in the South When….

 

 You order iced tea and your server responds, “Sweet or unsweet?

A stranger strikes up a conversation with you at the produce counter and you don’t look for the manager.

It’s hard to find parking in the church parking lot on Sunday.

The ONLY dressing is cornbread dressing.

 

The  “ballgame” means football.

 

 

Mama is a force to be reckoned with.

 

Men look forward all year to a weekend on a freezing lake in an outrageous contraption hoping to bag a duck or two.

If you visit, you have to eat.

 

And family is forever.

 

 

 

 

Southern Cookin’

Southerners love to cook.  Especially we love those community gatherings where everyone brings their favorite dish and we all sample “just a bite” of everyone’s.  My earliest memories of this were “Dinner on the Ground,” and it literally was on the ground.  Thinking about it now, I’m amazed we kept the kids from stumbling into the spread – and maybe we didn’t..

I have such  wonderful memories of that food – and no matter how many times I try recreating their recipes, they just don’t come out the same.  Uncle Henry’s fried chicken,  Miss Nina’s coconut cake,
Miss Ethel’s peach cobbler, Aunt Minnie’s chicken and dumplings,  Miss Edna’s buttermilk biscuits, and of course, Aunt Annie’s fabled deviled eggs.

Eventually we graduated to folding tables and chairs and finally to a real Fellowship Hall equipped with all the modern conveniences.  Much more comfortable but in nostalgic moods, I wonder if we were better off in those days.  We were blissfully unaware of the dangers of sugar, gluten, lactose, saturated fat, cholesterol, and vegetarians were, well, just weird.  There was no guilt associated with a hamburger and a coke for lunch.

We had no idea the trouble we were in.

My rational self remembers  how it was   to lose relatives to diet-related disease, especially  heart disease and  diabetes.  These could be  devastating for a family, since health insurance  was essentially non-existent in those days; health care  was pay-as-you-go.

Southerners will always   love our  community food get-togethers, although today we make at least a token effort to prepare healthful food .  However, if  the occasional slice of coconut cake happened  to sneak in, well.. just a bite couldn’t hurt.

 

DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN SMOKING WAS COOL?

 

I would definitely not light up after dinner  in my  favorite restaurant these days, but there was a time when..

Smoking was a rite of passage, a symbol of sophistication.  Movie stars smoked: James Dean, Elvis, Kathryn Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe,  Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, to name a few.  Smoke rose along the edge of the TV screen from  Edward R. Murrow’s ashtray as he delivered the evening news.   Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson smoked.  Doctors, including  the Surgeon General, smoked.   Even Fred Flintstone smoked!  Cigarettes dominated the advertising market and heavily supported prime time TV, sponsoring  such popular family  programs as    “I Love Lucy,”  “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “The Adams Family.   All, among many others, brought to us by the cigarette industry.  In this vintage Philip Morris commercial, Lucy tells us “how to keep your man happy” by choosing the right cigarette.

Click here to view.

Most  men, including my father and uncles,  in the small Louisiana community where I grew up smoked.  Sundays after church would find them clustered on the steps or under a nearby tree, hastily lighting up or stoking pipes, although it was considered immoral by some,  and especially on church property.  However, it was more or less accepted as a good man’s reward for bringing the family to church.  There was no debate, however, on the subject of smoking for women.   It

A pack of cigarettes in 1957 cost about $1.75.

was “trashy” and everyone knew it. I never smoked until years after leaving home and then never, ever, in the presence of a family member.   The only woman I knew who was able to escape the ire of the community for  flaunting the “smoking ban” for women was my wonderfully eccentric Aunt Ivalee.  But then, she was from New Orleans…

 I began smoking in earnest in grad school.  And I loved it.   I loved it all.  The ambience,  the romance  of it,  that special camaraderie among smokers.  I loved blowing smoke rings.   I loved a cigarette with a cup of coffee after dinner.  I loved the  way it made me feel.  And it didn’t hurt that it helped me keep the weight off.  And after all, I  could always quit…whenever I was ready.

A pack of cigarettes today costs about $5.50

On July 12, 1957, the Surgeon General issued the first official, and greatly understated, warning about the harmful effects of smoking.   Seven years later, the American Cancer Society released a slightly stronger warning.  However neither acknowledged the compelling evidence of the link between lung cancer being suppressed by the tabacco industry.   A virtual war ensued over the next three decades between health care advocates and the powerful Tobacco Institute.   Eventually  health advocates won an uneasy peace, taxes were levied, warning labels required, and smoking rates declined, as more and smokers attempted to kick the habit.   But  what no one knew then,  was that the power of the nicotine addition is comparable to  that of heroin, and for most people,  more powerful than alcohol.

I eventually quit smoking in the 80s,  my resolve being fortified by the  growing public disfavor of smoking.  Secondary smoke had been implicated in lung cancer and  growing number of restaurants restricted smoking to designated areas.   Some airlines banned smoking on flights less than two hours and by 1990 all smoking on airlines was banned.

But breaking the nicotine habit turned out to be far more difficult than I had imagined.   A few days (or hours) after gathering my resolve, throwing all my cigarettes in the trash, out the window, giving them away, etc.,  would find me scrounging for cigarettes under sofa cushions,  jacket pockets, even trash cans.  Those humiliating experiences gave me a new understanding of  the power of addiction and compassion for those under its spell.

Today, with all the knowledge at hand about the harmful effects of cigarettes, smoking would seem to be a game-stopper.  However, about 15% of adults and sadly,  20% of teenagers, are smokers today.  I  would like to think that if my rebellious teenage self had known what I know now about smoking,  she  would have exercised the good  judgment not to light up.   But, sadly, good judgment  seems to be something we learn by making mistakes, assuming  we live through them.

Click here to view a history of the effects of smoking on health.

 

 

 

 

 

Hold fast to what is good (1)

I began my morning walk with Jake and Jesse burdened with the troubles of our world; the famine in Africa, the injustice visited on children in wars,  petty politics, corporate greed; all being paraded in rapid fire across the TV screen on the morning news.

The rustle of the wind through the tall pines, the sun sparkling on whitecaps on the lake,  the mallard ducks floating serenely on gentle waves,  the lush perfume  of jasmine on the fence and gardenia by the garden gate – none penetrated my mood.

Jake and Jesse strained on their leads pulling me behind them down the path like an overloaded dogsled.  I had no appetite for bringing them to heel, dimly aware that  allowing them to pull on the lead  meant more work for me in retraining.  If not for their insistent  pacing back and forth to the door when it was time for their walk, I would have bagged it  altogether.

As we started  up  the hill, a golf cart came into view heading toward us, the driver braking when he saw us.  I didn’t recognize them, but it was clearly a grandfather out with a morning ride with his two granddaughters; perhaps four or five years old.  Of course, they wanted to “pet the puppies” and PawPaw was OK with it, so over they came, squatting down to eye level,  tentative little fingers touching furry black ears and and quickly pulling back with giggles and shrieks of glee.

“Look, he LIKEs me, PawPaw,”  the oldest said as Jesse licked her finger.

“Likes me too!” from the younger.

After five minutes or so of playful chatter and pleasantries,  Grampa decided it was time to go home before Mom got worried.

“Well, you know what?” the oldest asked, swinging into the cart.

“What?” I answered.

“You can come visit me sometime. And bring the puppies!”

“I will!” I answered.

The grandfather turned the cart around and headed up the hill.  My  earlier foggy malaise slowly dissipated  as  I watched the happy little trio, the  girls chatting away and pointing out various points of interest to their grandfather as only small children can,  a squirrel, a bird perched on a high limb, a lizard, wildflowers,  until they rounded the last curve and disappeared up the hill.

Yes.  There IS that.

It is important to remember that in our troubled, broken, scary world, there are still grandfathers taking grandchildren for a ride on a beautiful spring morning.    That is good.

And what I learned in Sunday School is as true today as it was then:   “Hold Fast To What Is Good.” (1)  Don’t ignore the pain, the trouble, but hold onto the good.  With all your might.   That is what will get us through.

(1) 1Thessalonians 5:21