Living

Turning into My Mother

          

Me and Mom, 2015

The older I get, the more I feel my mother inhabiting my body. I’ve recently cut my hair in an attempt to gray gracefully, and when I look in the mirror, I see my mother. When I’m working in the kitchen and stop to wash my hands, it feels like my mother washing her hands. She was an inveterate handwasher long before the pandemic. Her hands did the dirty work around the house when I was growing up, from cutting a whole chicken into parts to scrubbing bathrooms or handling laundry, to cleaning up the messes we children made. We were three sisters born eighteen months apart, and I was the oldest. We were always squabbling, fighting, and running through the house until my mother would threaten to spank us or tell our father. We knew she loved us too much to do either of those things. It was her love that made me want to be good. My mother practiced free range parenting, and it never felt like she was holding me back.

Once my sisters and I were all in school, my mother went to work part-time to buy us extra things we wanted or needed. She did seasonal work at Mary of Pudding Hill, mixing the most delicious fruitcakes in the world by hand. The company hired mothers whose children were in school and adjusted their work hours accordingly. Next my mother worked sewing pajamas and undergarments at Shirey, a clothier famous around our small town and beyond. You can find vintage Shirey pajamas on eBay. She worked in the accessories department at K-Mart when it opened, where she loved calling blue light specials. She tried babysitting one summer, but other people’s children got on her nerves. Eventually, she went to work at Billy Cook Saddlery, where she learned to tool leather, a profession she practiced for the next ten years. My father built her a tooling table that sat in the corner of the family room; she contracted piece work and tooled leather at home.

My mother when she was a Navy WAC, 1961

My mother’s dream when she was young was to be a nurse. When she was eighteen, she joined the Navy and applied to enter nurse’s training. She missed the score she needed to get in by points. She was instead assigned to maintain records of the movies sent to ships-at-sea for sailors’ entertainment. After all, no one wants to see the same movie twice. It was her job to keep the movies circulating. She tells me the Navy got the newest Hollywood releases, and her sergeant always let people in the office watch them first. Once we were grown, my mother pursued her earlier dream and went back to school to earn her L.V.N. in a two-year program. By then, grandchildren were coming along. She decided to stay at home and help raise our offspring rather than going to work for a hospital or doctor.

As for her advice about men and love, my mother never really trusted men in general, and she wanted her daughters to be skeptical. She always said a man is either a great husband or a great father, and that it was difficult for a man to be both. She and my father have been married sixty years, if that tells you anything about who he is. They’re so attuned to each other that they know when to listen closely, and when to pretend to be deaf. My mother is the kind of Christian who strives and prays to walk the walk. She has a generous soul disciplined by a strong moral sensibility. She never hesitates to speak her mind, and she doesn’t like to hear bad news. What she doesn’t know can never hurt her. At seventy-eight, almost seventy-nine, she wants to simply love her family, which now includes nine great-grandchildren. She uses her everlasting energy to quilt and gift the whole world with blankets, holiday throws, and Christmas stockings.

Hand-appliqued cat quilt made by Shirley Chapman

My mother’s energy is legendary in our family. When she was sixty, she amazed the grandchildren by going into the woods on my parents’ property with a hatchet and a chainsaw. Later, she emerged dragging branches and small trees to toss on the burn pile. In my earliest memories, my mother is almost always in motion: dust-mopping, gardening, changing the linens, washing windows, or other chores. My mother knew how to solve problems, like when the battery terminals were corroded in our old station wagon, and it wouldn’t start when she picked us up at the Y.M.C.A. She opened the station wagon’s hood and poured Coca-Cola on the terminals, which fizzed the corrosion away. My mother even knew how to work on cars, that’s how amazing she was.

She grew up very poor, and it has always been important to my mother to have a beautiful home. Our living room colors were green and gold when I was growing up, and in the bedrooms, all the curtains matched the bedspreads. Her delight in beautiful things led her to be a collector of Avon figurines, Precious Moments figurines, carousel horse figurines, snow bear figurines, thimbles, and spoons. The collection she has invested the most in over time are Christmas houses. She owns over five hundred, which are on display in three permanent buildings on my parents’ property, five acres, half of it wooded and crossed by a natural creek bed. Each building is a ten-by-twelve shed, and all have electricity, AC, and heat. The buildings are lined with shelves, in turn lined with artificial grass and snow with wallpaper backgrounds. When you flip a light switch, the Christmas houses light up, play music, and some houses have little figures inside them that dance or turn in circles. My favorite was always a gothic church with a bell tower, and two monks at the base who pulled the ropes. During the holidays, my parents invite members of their church and the community to celebrate Christmas with a tour of the property. They string colored lights in the woods and serve non-alcoholic, hot cider.

One of the Christmas house buildings, 2008

As a kid, the only time I remember my mother being still was when she was lounging on the couch reading a paperback. My mother was a reader who enriched our lives with books. She subscribed to a children’s book-of-the-month club and took us to the library every week. She never cared how much I read, even late into the night. She only censored my content once, when I became obsessed with smutty women’s magazines like True Confessions. For years, she subscribed to Readers Digest Condensed Books, and every month, I read selections. My mother still always has a book-in-progress, a paperback splayed on the end table next to her recliner at their home in Texas.        

The one thing my mother never really cared about was culinary arts. She was the oldest of eight children, and I think she viewed kitchen work as a trap for women. She told me she preferred roaming outside all day with her next two younger brothers when she was a girl. They swam in creeks and ponds and made trails and hideouts. She called her young self a “tomboy.” She considered food as nourishment more than as delight or pleasure. Our staple supper growing up was a protein, a carbohydrate, and a canned vegetable. When I complained the food was boring, my mother told I should be grateful that our family had meat at every meal. When she was a child, she got meat once a week, mostly ground beef or fresh chicken that my grandmother butchered herself. Over the years, my mother developed a few culinary specialties for company, like pepper jelly and cream cheese on crackers.

She still loves to be outdoors, and she and my father work hard at mowing and taming their land. In recent years, a colony of cats has taken up residence on the property. People are always dumping animals in the country in Texas, and at some point, a few wild cats made a home beneath one of the Christmas house buildings. My mother feeds them, and she has managed to capture a few favorites over time and have them spayed or neutered, but she can’t capture them all. Cats come and go like the squirrels and the seasons, and sometimes roving raccoons steal their food. I’ve seen road runners on my parents’ property, and rabbits, armadillos, and a variety of birds, from painted buntings to turkey buzzards. My mother grows flowers, including beds of irises, canna lilies, and a circle of crape myrtles. There’s a wild persimmon tree on the property, which she says reminds her of childhood.

If turning into my mother means I’ll inherit her energy and passion as I get older, it’s a gift I can look forward to. My mother taught me to give everyone the benefit of the doubt when possible, that appearances and character are two different things, to get up in the morning ready to get busy at something, whether it’s reading or sweeping, to honor my loved ones, and to count my blessings. She taught me to speak honesty, even when a lie is easier to tell. She taught me how to thread a needle and many other important things. There’s an old saying: “If it’s in the cat, it’s in the kitten.” I can only hope it is so.

4 replies »

  1. This is so very lovely! At first I couldn’t believe the Christmas houses in sheds, but when I read that your parents invite friends over to enjoy them during the season, I thought it was absolutely perfect. Your mother sounds like a true original!

    Liked by 1 person

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