A while back I wrote that everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. That’s not completely true. I also learned a great many things from my mother and grandmother, my aunts, from Sunday School teachers, public school teachers, the mothers of friends, and a lot of other women. The main one, though, was mama.
Mama always worked outside the home. Before I was born she did clerical work on the military bases where Daddy was stationed. After I was born she worked in an office downtown. Bad parenting? No, economics. My brother and I didn’t consider it being “deprived;” it was just the way things were.
But when mama was home in the evenings and on weekends, we were learning things. Like chores. Chores were divvied up like pieces of a pie. Our house, no matter where we lived, had white woodwork. Today a lot of houses lack woodwork around doors and windows. Saves on housework, that’s for sure. Our semi-gloss woodwork collected stray fingerprints and smudges like a magnet. Amongst laundry-folding, furniture-dusting and trash-emptying, removing “not white” marks from door jambs and windowsills was a weekly responsibility.
Washing dishes was my daily duty after school. There weren’t many plates and forks to wash but oh those pots and pans! Steel wool time. Every afternoon I dillied and dallied until it was nearly time for mama’s car to drive up before I ran the dishwater. Seldom did I get an early start and have the kitchen spick and span before her arrival home. Soon it was time to peel something like onions or potatoes, slice something like cucumbers or tomatoes, or grate something, like cheese. Cheese for cheese biscuits, cheese for macaroni and cheese, cheese for cheese grits, any of which was a favorite on the supper menu; or cabbage for cole slaw, which wasn’t.
In between chores, mama taught us the three R’s, particularly reading, from the time we could hold one of those thick-paged baby books. While my grandmother Mimi subscribed to every magazine she could think of, mama loved books. There were library books, new and used paperbacks and hardback books on many different subjects. How-to books on electricity, plumbing and math, informational books on Southern Snakes or Southern Skies, science fiction books by Isaac Asimov et al and Christian books by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale — everywhere you looked there was a book or two on an end table. Reading for themselves and reading to us was as natural to my parents as preparing meals or paying bills. You just did it.
Mama also loved piddling around the house, piddling around the yard, and piddling around the sky. That’s how she put it. She encouraged us to piddle too. “I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she stitched something up, like old draperies to make sofa cushions, or old skirts to make aprons.
“I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she planted marigolds and zinnias, chrysanthemums and asters in neat graduated rows against the front yard fence. She’d explain about ladybugs and garden snails, and why some weeds were fine and some were not. She’d never just pull up a dandelion, she’d solemnly explain if you blow the thing to smithereens and scatter all those fluffy seeds, which yes indeed did look like fun, there would be zillions of them next year stealing all the good nutrients from the pretty zinnias, see?
“I’m just piddling,” mama would say as she lugged out the telescope to watch sputnik go over on a clear night. (I wonder how many households owned a telescope in those days.) “Come look, the stars are so pretty tonight. And would you make me a milkshake and bring it when you come?” I’d carefully measure out a spoonful of vanilla flavoring, stir two spoonfuls of sugar into a tall glass of milk, drop in several ice cubes and join mama’s sputnik-watching, or Big-Dipper watching, or man-in-the-moon watching.
When I needed spending money over and above my weekly allowance, mama taught me how to do office work. She’d bring home box-fulls of envelopes and letters, show me the proper way to fold a page in thirds and stuff it in an envelope, then the easy way to seal a batch of stuffed envelopes. Fan the flaps out so only the gummed part of each one is showing, then run a damp sponge across all the flaps at once and quickly flip each flap into place. Nothing to it. She’d pronounce my work acceptable and pay me a dollar or so. We’d discuss many things while we worked, school, friends, hair styles, grades, books, newspaper articles, homework assignments — come to think of it, school got into our conversation a lot in those days.
Mama was a classroom volunteer and for some reason I don’t remember what exactly she did. Maybe she brought cookies or something, who knows. One thing I do remember, though. She was voted the prettiest mother in the 8th grade at Poynor. I was dumbfounded to learn my classmates adored my mother. I knew I adored my mama, but I had no idea anybody else’s kids did too. I was impressed!
When I was small I loved to make Mother’s Day cards for mama. Even if I had purchased something I still made the cards for her. Usually they were multi-layer creations: when you opened the first page, there was a smaller page glued inside, and another inside that. Each page featured a hand-drawn, crayon-colored picture, maybe a flower or a heart, and each page said “I Love You, Mama.” I might spend several hours with scissors, rubber cement and crayolas, sometimes starting over several times until I got my masterpiece just right.
After she died in 1970 I came across an old pasteboard box with the flaps folded into each other. Prying it open I discovered my birth certificate, baby clothes, baby book, old report cards, piano recital programs, and handfuls of those home-made cards I’d given her. It looked like she had saved every one I’d ever made. I sat there a long time, fingering those little pages and re-reading each one. I think about that a lot these days when Mother’s Day rolls around.