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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

RealSouthernWomen redux

                                                                                                                                         

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Welcome to my blog.  Exciting new features have been added.

In Southern Showcase, Southern women writers will share their experiences about life in the South.

Real Southern Women will present  true stories of  famous and not-so-famous southern women.

The News from Sugarmill Junction will transport you  back in time to experience life in mid-twentieth century,  small town Louisiana from the perspective of its citizens.   Look for the first installment soon.

I hope you will enjoy the stories and add your comments to our discussion.

And Sew It Goes

Vintage sewing machine

I love sewing. My mother sewed, and my grandmothers and their mothers before them. For my mother, it was cost effective, and my grandmothers had no other alternative. But there was something else about sewing; a sisterhood, a measure of womanhood. In my family, women who did not sew their own clothing, well, just didn’t quite measure up.

And their standards of a “good wife and home-maker” have stayed with me, below the level of consciousness, motivating me to sew, conjuring memories of trips to the fabric stores, of sitting with Mother at big wooden tables leafing through pattern books, matching fabric to patterns. I can see our dining room table draped with fabric, pattern pieces weighted with jelly jars, pincushions and thimbles strewn about, 50s dress Patterncolored threads in sewing boxes, buttons in mason jars, scraps and pattern pieces littering the floor. I hear the crunch of scissors slicing through fabric, the whirr of the sewing machine motor, I inhale the musty-starch smell of new fabric. All is well. It’s magic. Something wonderful is being created.

Well, sometimes. Unfortunately, more times than not, even my mother’s finished product fell short of the vision in my head. First of all, my body bore little resemblance to the whimsical drawings of hourglass-shaped models. Secondly, neither of us was very good at matching fabric to garment, so the finished product never looked quite the way we had imagined.

My mother and grandmothers were all excellent seamstresses. I was not so blessed. I don’t have their patience nor did I inherit their sense of spatial relationship. Patterns always seemed to be written in some secret code. So it’s not surprising that my finished products left something to be desired. Hems were uneven, seamlines bulged, things were a little too loose here, too tight there. But so much had been invested! The fabric, the notions, the time! The pretense had to be maintained, at least for awhile. It wasn’t that bad! And besides, hadn’t Mother said, if you looked hard enough at a store-bought dress, you’d find mistakes? And the fabric in store-bought clothes is so flimsy things never last more than a season. That’s why we sew our own clothing….it’s just the right thing to do.

Sewing RoomAnd so the charade continued through the years; untidy stacks of fabric hoarding closet space, sewing machines capable of every imaginable stitch and flourish, lavishly equipped sewing rooms, sewing classes. But still, garment after garment joined the procession from the front through the back of the closet, on its way to the charity bin. Each time I was sure this garment would be beautiful. I would build a wardrobe around it. I would be the envy of all my friends, whipping out these little fashion statements in my spare time. After all, I’m getting better at this, right?

Wrong.

Last week I began a pair of pants that I have planned for years. I bought the fabric during the Clinton administration. It was all the rage. And I had been waiting for just the right moment to whip them up. They would be stunning, long and flowing. Just the thing to set off a summer wardrobe. The pattern was dirt simple. What could possibly go wrong? I’d have it done in an afternoon.

But. It had pockets. Two of them. The first of which I put in backward. Twice. And then I sewed it in properly…on the outside of the pants leg. Once corrected, I put in the other pocket. Inside out. So now the top-stitching was on the wrong side. You get the drift. Each time I ripped out the seams, the edges frayed so that when they were re-sewn, everything got smaller. But after ripping out and re-sewing over three afternoons through countless Modern Family reruns, Viola! One slightly- smaller-than-expected-leg completed. Delighted, I held it up to the mirror. It was, well…awful. I tried to convince myself that it would look much better when the pants were finished and hemmed. Or perhaps I should just rip it out, put the pieces back together and make a skirt.

“What’s that?” my husband asked absently as I walked by carrying my failed pant-leg.

“Just something I’ve been sewing” I mumbled.

“But,” curious now, “what IS it?

“A pants leg?” I said defensively.

He looked confused. “You spent an entire WEEK on one pants leg? Aren’t there two?”

” Well, yes,” I said, “I ran into a little trouble. But now that I’ve got it down..”.my voice trailed off.

Amazingly, he didn’t laugh. “Did you enjoy doing it?” he asked, gently.

I said nothing.

“Hey! Give yourself a break! Go to Chico’s and buy some pants.,” he said, going back to his magazine.

Although the need for pants was never the point, I think I’ll take his advice. It’s been a painful lesson, too long in coming. I am just not good at this. It will be humbling to find a home for all that fabric, the patterns, and expensive dress form. But it’s such a relief to honor my limitations and give myself permission to do what I like rather than what I think someone else expects of me. For years I have tried to sew clothing to meet my concept of my mothers’ standards for a good wife and homemaker. Although I knew on a conscious level that the days are long gone when it was more expensive to buy than to sew clothes, the irrationality of my obsession to master the art of garment sewing completely escaped me. Early lessons are not easily unlearned, if ever. I bet my mothers would have jumped at the chance to shop at Chico’s. And I’m amazed that it took a week of rainy afternoons in retirement for me to realize that it was my unrealistic expectations, not those of my mothers, that have been hounding me all these years.

But I won’t give up the comforting connection with my mothers that sewing provides. I need something that doesn’t require a pattern or have to fit anything. And something I actually enjoy! Maybe I’ll try quilting. I can even use some of that fabric stash. I think my Mothers will be relieved. They must have been cringing all these years.

 

Photography from Flickr Creative Commons:  Sewing room; Kristen Roach;  Simplicity Dress: Carbonated; Sewing : plaisanter