Who’s Yo GrandMama?

Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger

Lately I have  become obsessed with my maternal ancestors.  Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood,  and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England  is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit

It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me.   Since there was no birth control  and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover,  because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common.  Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities.   All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists.  And don’t forget wars.  One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824)  lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.

Life was tough.  But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.

 

 

As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days.   At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no  radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing.  Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible  and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.

Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service.  Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day.  But really?  Internet?  This is a  problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.

My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories.   I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but  they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them.  The more  I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.

So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.

I hope it’s in the genes.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.