My mother was a quiet person, and yet she guided me through childhood and adolescence as powerfully as a commanding general guides his soldiers through a battlefield. She tempered her authority with love.
I knew I should pay attention to my mother’s commands because my father would back her up. The peach tree at the side of the porch also lent its support to Mother for disciplining purposes. So, along with my six siblings, I learned to obey.
Mother referred to the Bible to teach moral values. She didn’t read the Bible to me. She lived by its example and there was no mistaking its message. There was never a shred of doubt in my mind but that Mother would be home when I arrived from school. I knew she would be home on weekends, and I even believed she would be there forever. My parents did not quarrel in my presence. Therefore, I had no fear that my home would fall apart. And it did not. My home was always there at the end of my trek through the woods from school, and Mother stood at the stove cooking supper to have ready when Daddy came home from work.
I helped Mother pick beans from her garden, sinking my bare feet into the soft soil beside each straight row of plants. I watched as Mother pulled her sunbonnet snugly to shade her face from the hot sun. She hummed happily, as I worked beside her, but with each snap of a bean, I vowed to become a movie star. Her garden contained all sorts of vegetables. She stored ripe tomatoes in a Mrs. Tucker’s lard pail and hung it on a prong of the cedar post that cornered the back porch. The tomatoes were juicy and good, she said, sprinkled with salt, and she shared them with our neighbors.
Mother’s suntanned, wrinkled fingers picked soft, snow-white-down from ducks squawking in rhythm to each tug of the feathers. She stuffed the feathers into pillowslips and made comfortable pillows for her family. When she milked “Old Jerse,” the cow, Mother placed the fluffy foam onto the pink tongues of orphaned kittens.
When I needed the recommended dose of castor oil, for whatever ailed me, I had two choices for taking the medicine–one way or the other. I chose the “one way” and swallowed the liquid, gagging on it, but thereby leaving the peach tree to bud with all its pink blossoms.
When I was a teenager, Mother accepted the boys I liked. She never found fault with any of them, although she might have. Perhaps my memory fails me, but the only negative remark I ever heard her make about my boyfriends was that the tall, handsome, dark-haired one, “sure had big feet.” His size 11 shoes looked “like boats,” she said. He’s the one I married.
From Mother I learned how to be grateful. She taught me that life in general could sometimes be better, but that it can always be worse. If I thought I had nothing to be thankful for, she would tell me about her uncle who often reminded ungrateful persons that, “You have two eyes with which to see, and two ears with which to hear, don’t you?”
My mother also taught me to try my best at all things worthwhile. She reinforced her message with this rhyme: “Let a job be large or small, do it right or not at all.” She was a clever teacher. She would quote her elders of having said the same thing that she was teaching me. Somehow, that gave her credibility. If I felt like rejecting the lesson, there was no point in disagreeing with Mother because the idea had not originated with her. And I couldn’t rebel against someone who was not present.
From Mother I learned that all people are important, and that those who have the greatest need have so much more to offer me than anything I might give to them. She taught this without preaching. Her handwriting in bold blue ink on the pages of my childhood autograph book encouraged me to “Always do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and remember that a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
She crocheted doilies with twine from flour sacks and embroidered the flour sacks for tablecloths to make our home a lovely place but what made it truly beautiful was her presence.
My mother’s name was Laura Sephrona. My kids called her Granny. She plaited her dark, silken hair and wound it around and around her head. Her eyes were gray. She was short and plump when I knew her, but in a photo on a yellowed postcard with crinkled corners, she wore a white blouse, trimmed with tatted lace, and a black, cotton skirt with a 24” waistband. High top, lace-up leather shoes covered her small feet. She fell in love with Daddy, she said, because she liked his blue eyes.
Tempered with love, Mother’s power included an admirable ability to express her feelings and ideas with only a few words. Plain and simple words, handed down to her by other caring people.
Once when she was telling my husband and me about an item that she wanted– I can’t recall now what the item was– Mother said, “If I ever find one of those, I’m going to cabbage on it.” When my husband asked her what “cabbage” meant, she said she didn’t know but that he could look it up in the dictionary. He did, and found his answer.
When she told me to go “stop up the rooster,” I knew what she meant. But my town-dude husband didn’t get it. When he watched me close the door to the chicken house and latch it, he laughed so hard that I laughed, too, just because he did. But I had understood Mother.
While Mother taught many things as she nurtured me through childhood, she did not teach me how to cook. I learned that from my husband. He always let me know when I forgot to salt the food, and gradually I learned how to cook, at least well enough to please him, but that’s another story.
Many others have been instrumental in my walk through life, but Mother guided me successfully into adulthood, and to the position, I now fulfill as wife, mother and grandmother. When my sixth of seven grandchildren named me GeGe, it was the crowning glory to a life already blessed.
For my wonderful life, I credit my mother’s wisdom, strength, faith and her ability to command in a loving way. Without her expertise, today I might be adrift on the sea of life, unanchored, and unwilling to meet the challenges that arise almost on a daily basis. But thanks to her, I can face the challenges with confidence that life might be better than it is but that it can certainly be worse. With a humble heart, I look squarely at life with my two eyes, and listen to the merry sounds of grandchildren’s voices with my two ears—content with my corner of the world, and the family and friends within it.
© 2014, Freeda Baker Nichols, poet and writer, of the Ozarks Foothills, Arkansas, U.S.A.
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