Gossip by any other name

Gossip is usually an unsavory but juicy hot commodity at times.

Particularly among certain people.

My grandmother reveled in the little nuggets of information she would glean from people, which is probably why she loved to go to the grocery store and beauty parlor when I was younger.

She could find out all kinds of dirt on just about anyone, down to what pew they sat on in church.

Granny was a great collector of dirt; and like her sole and sometimes-favorite grandchild, people just told her stuff. Unsolicited, out of the blue, random yet glorious stuff.

Some of this stuff was about people Granny didn’t know, which was rare. I think the old gal knew everyone in our little community.

But the best tidbits were about folks she did know – especially people she did not like.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Granny’s ability to collect all this dirt is that while it came to her fairly easily, Granny was quite judicious with who she told what.

There was one exception, of course.
Granny’s best friend, LuRee.

What’s so funny is that for the longest, those two little mean women would scrapple and fuss with one another deep-fried Baptist style.

Then one day, a vortex in the Universe opened and I think Satan himself caught a chill.

The two of them walked out of their Sunday School room, arm and arm, hugging and slopping sugar on one another like they were best friends.

I remember seeing this as I stood in the hall just as plain as it was yesterday; they even moved in ‘80’s style slow motion as they walked towards the double doors to go outside.

“When did you and Miss LuRee decide y’all liked one another?” I asked from the backseat on the way home.

“What?” my grandfather perked up at this news.

“We have always been friends,” Granny lied. Look at her lying right after leaving the house of the Lord.

“Little ‘un, scoot back in your seat; lightning is about to hit your grandmother,” my Pop said. “Woman, the two of you ain’t never been friends. I have seen y’all shoot evil looks at each other across the sanctuary before. What’s going on?”

Granny twisted in her seat as she drove. “We found out we both dislike the same person.”

Nothing brings two people together more than shared hate.

“Oh, good Lord,” my grandfather muttered under his breath. “Helen, what were you doing gossiping in church?”

“It was not gossip, Bob,” she said.

“Yes, it was.”

“No, it was not.”

“Then what do you call it?” he asked.

Well, for once, the old gal was speechless which did not happen often.

She didn’t say a word the rest of the way home.

I, like my grandfather, thought that was a one-time event and they would end up back mortal enemies loathing one another over Amazing Grace and I’ll Fly Away, but the friendship stuck.

It was almost like two rival mafia bosses joining forces or something with these two. It was unnatural and scary.

Usually, it was a Sunday afternoon phone call that went on for at least an hour, Granny sprawled across the bed on her stomach, shoes off and feet in the air as she and LuRee discussed things.

My grandfather would just shake his head as he watched his football game.

“Your grandmother is in there gossiping,” he would say during a commercial break.

I nodded. It was just a fact.

“I am not,” Granny protested heatedly as she came down the hall. “I resent you saying that, Bob.”

“Well, I don’t know what else to call it.”

“We are talking about who to pray for,” she said.

“Say what?”

“You heard me,” she said. He may not have; the man was deaf in one ear.

“We are talking about who to pray for.”

My grandfather rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet.”
“We were. We were talking about who we needed to pray for and the best way to know who to pray for, is to discuss their circumstances.” She paused and gave him a look. “I think we may need to pray for men who don’t believe their wives, too.”

He snorted. “I’ve heard it all now.”

From that day on, whenever the phone rang, and it was LuRee, Granny would proceed to hold their so-called prayer discussions.

This went on for several decades, and when Granny passed away, LuRee passed six months later.

“You suppose they are allowed in the same corners of Heaven?” I asked Mama the other day.

Mama laughed softly. “Those two are together, I know they are,” she said. “And they are still talking about who they need to pray for.”

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The purple house pride

I always get nostalgic this time of year.

There was something so special and magical about the beginning of a new school year.

Brand new notebooks with clean, crisp pages. The fresh packs of pencils. The coveted big box of Crayolas that made you the queen of the classroom.

To me, the start of the school year was exciting and magical, a welcomed end to the boredom of summer.

One of my favorite things was getting to meet my new teacher.

Of course, the bar had been set high in kindergarten by Mrs. Howard. She was the litmus test by which every teacher and most humans must pass, with her sense of humor, compassion, and encouragement.

She made me love school. If I could have stayed in kindergarten with her as my teacher forever, I would have.

First grade, however, almost ruined my love for school.

This one teacher – one –tainted my whole school experience.

And she was bad enough that Mama still holds a spite and grudge against her to this day.

“She should have never been around children!” Mama will exclaim any time the woman’s name is mentioned.

I agree, but I don’t quite hold a grudge against her like Mama does. But then again, I am the child in this scenario; I am sure my perspective would be different if I was in Mama’s position.

This wretched woman did several things throughout my first-grade year that gave Mama good and justified reasons to dislike her.

“Stronger than dislike, Kitten,” Mama will remind me. “I cannot stand that woman.”

Now, what would possibly set my mild-mannered, kind-hearted Mama off like this? The woman whose favorite mantra was “there but by the grace of God go I?”

Well, let me tell you, it was not pretty, but it may not have been the most dramatic of events.
It was a primary school straw on a camel’s back.

My introduction to first grade left me wondering if one could possibly flunk out of school due to erroneous paper folding. I never successfully folded the construction paper in the certain manner this horrid teacher wanted.

I didn’t say a word to Mama; instead, I begged Granny to help me fix it.

If anyone could fix something that involved paper, fabric, or anything related to crafts, it was Granny. I am fairly certain she could have built a house with a needle and thread.

Granny helped me interpret the directions, which we followed explicitly. The teacher still said it was wrong.

“Now she’s saying I did it wrong, and I don’t make no mistakes!” Granny said. “There ain’t no pleasing this woman.”

She wasn’t wrong.

We followed the directions, but she insisted it was still wrong.

A classmate did it the same way, yet this woman did not admonish her the way she did me.

“Maybe you need to go back to kindergarten,” she said to me one day.

“Will you stay in first grade?” I asked.

“Yes,” the bitter woman replied.

“OK.”

I wanted away from her. I had no idea how or why she disliked me so. I was a chubby little woblin of a child and eager to make adults happy. Usually, teachers loved me.

But this woman hated me.

She had even told me on the first day of school she had hoped I wasn’t going to be in her class.

What kind of adult does that? What was wrong with her?

Of course, my beloved Mrs. Howard was teaching first grade that year and I had hoped and prayed, to the point of negotiating with God I would give up all things Little Debbie, to have Mrs. Howard again

Instead I got this shrew.

Mama was right, she had no business being around small children.

One day, we had to color a picture for fire safety week. We could color the house any color we wanted, as long as the fire and the fire truck were red.

My house was my favorite color: purple.

Not pink, which I have never cared for. Not white, not brown.

Purple. See, long before I fell in love with anything Prince, I loved the color purple.

So, my house was purple.

My fire was red – even though fire is really not red but more of a yellow-orange hue.

And my fire truck was red.

The two requirements were met.

The teacher refused to hang mine on the hall with the rest of my classmates, declaring in front of the class that no houses anywhere in the U.S. of A were purple.

“Your mother will not be proud of what you did because I will not hang it out on the hall with everyone else,” the woman told me.

I shrugged. “That’s okay, my Mama is proud of me anyway.”

“No, she’s not,” the woman sneered. “Your picture will not be allowed to be displayed in the hall. How could she proud of failure?”

Even though I was a kid, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, my Mama was proud of me whether my painting made the hall display or not. That didn’t earn my Mama’s love or praise.

Years later, I was standing in the drugstore with my friends Laura and Jane when that horrid woman walked by. She greeted both while ignoring me.

“She still hates you,” Jane said shocked.

As a new school year starts, this experience always comes to mind because I know there are more Mrs. Howards in classrooms than there is that horrible woman.

But, I hope, more than anything, there are more children knowing they are loved and worthy beyond just what gets hung in the halls.

 

Summer of Snoopy

Summer means different things to people.

For many, its vacations at the beach; for others, it’s trips to the mountains or on the lake.

As a member of the original staycationing family, summer meant three lazy months of going to the library and watching cartoons.

I did have one mission though: finding a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine.

This mission consumed three of the summers of my youth.

The commercial on TBS made it look like the ultimate summer treat maker.

Seeing kids put the ice in the top of Snoopy’s dog house, crushing it into little cups and drizzling the flavoring over it made me think that would make summer perfect.

Plus, if it was on TV, you knew it had to be good.

We looked everywhere for one.

The sale inserts in the paper would declare that Eckerds (the precursor to Rite-Aid) and TG&Y would have them in stock.

I would bug Granny endlessly about it, begging her to help me search.

Of course, if Mama had only bought me one off the commercial, Granny wouldn’t have needed to make the weekly treks to the stores.

But Mama refused, saying she was not doing a check by phone or a COD, nor was she going to pay $14.99 for shipping when that was more than the thing cost.

“I have probably spent over $15 in gas trying to find one of these cussed things,” Granny mumbled one evening as we ventured to TG&Y.

TG&Y was sold out. According to the manager, the little sno cone machines with the Red Baron beagle sold out the same day they came in.

“That many people want those things?” Granny asked. “They look like Snoopy is –”

I shushed her; I was only 7 and even I knew some things that came out of my grandmother’s mouth were not appropriate for my ears or those working retail management.

“We may get some more but I can’t promise. Once they come in, we sell out pretty quickly.”

“Can we get a raincheck?” Granny asked.

The manager shook his head. “I am afraid not; we can’t guarantee the product will be in and it is a first come, first sell basis because of it being a seasonal item.”

“How about if you held me one? Could you do that? Could I maybe do a layaway?” Granny was trying everything she could think of, but nothing worked.

We left the store yet again without a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine.

“I can crush you some ice with a hammer,” Bobby offered when we got home. “We can pour some vanilla flavoring over it or some cherry juice, it would be the same thing.”

I wasn’t too thrilled at his suggestion; even though he meant well, it just wouldn’t be the same.

“Why would anyone want crushed ice when ice cream is better,” my grandfather mused from his chair.

“I’ve wanted this for three summers. Three!” I said. That was a long-term commitment for someone under the age of 10. “Ice cream is good, but this is different.”

“If you don’t want Bobby to bust you up some ice, Granny can put some in the meat grinder. Don’t worry, she cleans it out real good; she uses that meat grinder to crush her coconut meat,” my grandfather offered.

This was even worse than the ice being smashed with a hammer. Meat grinder sno cones?

“Why’s this so special?” my uncle wanted to know.

“It’s Snoopy,” I said wearily.

No one seemed to understand when you are a little kid, you get fixated on something because you like it, and nothing is a suitable substitute. It was a situation a hammer couldn’t fix.

A few weeks later, as summer was coming to a close, Granny and I were in Eckerd picking up a prescription. There high on the top shelf, shoved above the small appliances and pushed beside hot water bottles was one remaining Snoopy Sno-Cone machine in all its glory.

Granny and I both gasped.

I didn’t say a word; I didn’t have to. As strict as the old gal could be, she would have given me a kidney if it would have helped me. Granted, she would have fussed about it for the rest of her life, but she would have done it.

She walked over to the register by the pharmacy and asked if they could get it down for her.

“How much does it cost?” Granny asked as the lady climbed a small step ladder.

I can’t remember how much it was, but it was enough to make Granny cuss. And, it was more than the TV price with the shipping.

Granny’s glance told me what I already knew. She thought it was too much. Even though I was a kid, I thought it was too much, too. Summer was practically over, and I didn’t see myself wanting a sno cone when I would be craving burnt caramel cake in the fall.

Actually, I could eat burnt caramel cake year-round. The sno cones I only wanted in the summer.

Heading home, we drove through town and in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly was a little tiny booth with a sign declaring sno cones. Granny pulled in immediately.

“What flavor you want?” she asked.
I got a bubble gum flavored one and Granny got cherry. She declared hers tasted like cough syrup and mine was too sweet to eat. They were messy, too.

“I ain’t never paid this much for ice,” Granny said as she spooned up a bite. “Don’t get your granddaddy started on this. His trips to the Brazier are enough.”

Not that long ago, my child and I saw a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine in a store. “You should get it!” Cole exclaimed.

Nah, sometimes just the memory of something is better than the actual thing.

 

Success is paved by a nagging Mama

About a year or so ago, there was a scientific study released that determined nagging mothers raised highly successful daughters.

I am not sure where they got their study pool or what they used as their definition of “nagging,” but I would like to declare myself an outlier to this study.

If nagging had anything to do with it, I would be the Queen of the Universe. Or at the very least, CEO or Grand Poo-bah of something magnificent.

I had a double dose of nagging from both my crazy redheads.

Between the two of them, I had all my bases covered.

Granny had her own subjects to nag me about.

There had better not be any pre-made cake mixes in my cabinets and biscuits didn’t come in a can.

Thankfully, the old gal didn’t nag about housework. She hated it herself and stated matter-of-factly that she was allergic, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

“But you ought to make your bed in the morning,” she stated one day, casting a glance towards mine.

“Why? I am just gonna get back in it later.”

She grunted at me. “That logic makes no sense. Make your dang bed. Smart people make their bed after they get up.”

Where she heard this, I don’t know. Since then, it has been heralded as some indicator of success by some noted people. I am sure if she was alive, she would take credit for stating it first.

Iron your clothes, wear a slip, break in your shoes before you wear them were other nag-full reminders I received.

Sit up straight, sit like a lady, don’t smack your gum, say thank you – did you say thank you?

Call your mother when you go somewhere. Call your mother when you get home. If you don’t want to call your mother, let someone know where you’re going and expecting to be home.

Along with: do your homework and don’t wait until the last minute to do it. Chances are, you may run into an issue and need more time. Don’t miss a class, don’t count on someone else’s notes, and do your work well the first time. Measure twice, cut once.

Both of them drilled this into my head constantly.

When Mama drove me nuts, I went to Granny for coffee and sympathy.

She just gave me coffee.

“She’s trying to raise you right, lit’l un,” she told me. “And it is taking both of us to do it.”

“Did you nag her like this?” I cried.

Granny sipped her coffee. “I did. I tried to. She’s stubborn – that’s where you get it from.”
I am not so sure about that, I think stubborn is a genetic trait in the women in my family along with the freckles.

“She didn’t listen to me, just like you don’t listen to either one of us,” she continued. “Your mama is incredibly smart, she just always thought she was smarter than me or your grandfather and could do her own thing. She could be running AT&T if she had of listened to me.”

No doubt if a nagging mother could nag her daughter all the way to success, Mama could have been a telecommunication maven. But she didn’t really aspire to that. When she was offered a new position, she turned it down because it would have meant a longer commute or a move, and less time with me. The success was right within her reach, but, Mama was happy where she was.

I wish I knew what that was like. I am always feeling that restless spirit that things could, should be better than they are.

Anytime I complain about life not being the way I want it to be, Mama loves to remind me it could have been – had I only heeded her nagging.

“This is when I should maybe tell you I told you so,” she will say not so gently. “But you never listen to me or do what I tell you. If you had, there’s no telling where you’d be now. You probably would be a millionaire and retired.”

I let out a deep sigh.

She always thinks if I had only listened to her, I would be a millionaire.

Maybe she’s right.

If that study was any indication, I should be a millionaire made over, have an empire to rival Oprah’s, and maybe own my own small country.

I find myself nagging my son now, telling him some of the same things I received as a child.
Make your bed, read something new every day, say thank you – did you say thank you?

What are you going to be when you grow up? An engineer? You sure you don’t want to be a lawyer?

He sighs. “I know, Mama, you don’t have to stay on me about this.”
“Yes, I do, too,” I say. “If I had listened to Mama, there’s no telling how different my life would be right now.”

He rolls his eyes – where does he get that eye-rolling from? Oh, right. Me.

I pray he never tells Mama that little tidbit. She will never let me live it down.

A nagging mother leads to successful daughters; I wonder what the outcome is with nagging mothers and sons.

The Mother Load

“When I turn 18, I can do whatever I want, and you can’t do anything about it.”

This statement, this declaration has been uttered by probably 90 percent of the teenage population at one time or other for generations.

I said it.

The good Lord knows I said it. In fact, I am sure my guardian angels are pretty good negotiators based on the fact I survived my teenage years with this phrase coming out of my mouth on an hourly basis.

I couldn’t wait to turn 18.

Only problem was, I turned 18 in December and had until June to graduate high school.

So, I would be eighteen and a half and I would be able to be officially an adult and could do very well what I pleased.

Or so I thought.

Mama’s comeback was, “My house, my rules.”
To which I responded, “Not your house – it’s your apartment on your Mama and Daddy’s house. So, technically, you have no rules.”
“Oh, yes, I most certainly do,” the crazy redhead said, Virginia Slim 120 poised in the air for punctuation. “I am the captain of your ship, little one. You can think you are grown all you want but you are not. Not by a long shot.”

I pulled and pushed against her words, fighting for a way to be independent, wanting to be my own person and know I somehow was in some kind of control of my life and my destiny.

“I am dropping out of school,” I stated one day. “I am going to be a writer and hang out in coffee shops, experiencing life and writing about it.”

Mama gave me a sideways glance. “Don’t you think you it would be silly to quit this close to being finished? Just get your high school diploma and then you can hang out in coffee shops all day.”

She didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it. She just questioned my logic.

“So, when I turn 18, I can hang out in coffee shops, writing and experiencing life all day?”

“If that’s what you want to do,” she said nonplussed. “But, you may want to see if you can wait tables to pay for your coffee.”

Mama evidently forgot what a horrible waitress I was. My toting a tray of hot beverages would be a disaster waiting to happen.

Once, I declared I was going to go live with my father. She was an unfair and unreasonable tyrant. Keep in mind, I hadn’t talked to my father in a year and didn’t even know his number. I just needed luggage, so I could pack.

She opened my bedroom door and threw a box of Hefty bags on my bed. “These will do just fine,” she said. “I am not paying good money on luggage, so you can leave.”

Of course, I was indignant and furious. How dare she give me garbage bags as luggage. I stomped around, pouted, and rolled my eyes for several months to make my angsty point.

A few months later, when Christmas rolled around, guess what she gave me?

Yup. A set of luggage.

I cried. Did my mother – the woman who nearly died just to bring me into the world ­­­– want me to leave?

“Of course not,” she said. “But, I am not going to force someone I raised to be around me if they don’t want to be. You think you are grown. And you are of legal age to decide who you live with. If you want to leave, I think you should at least do so with proper luggage.”

Needless to say, I didn’t leave.

In fact, I stayed put for about another 11 years.

Even though I had turned 18, I still had rules to abide by.

As Mama put it, if she was footing the bill, I had to go along with her laws of the land.

I couldn’t just stay out until all hours, and when I decided to drop out of technical school after one quarter, I had to get a job. Since it was a part time job, she told me to get two.

“That is so unfair!” I cried.

“Who said life was fair, Kitten?” she asked, not even looking up from her crossword. “It’s not. But if you aren’t in school, you should be working. Them’s the brakes.”

I stomped, I had a fit, I pouted. But I was barely making enough to pay my phone bill – I couldn’t exactly live on my own, even if was 19.

I was all grown up and, quite frankly, I had it pretty dang good.

At the time, I didn’t realize it. But once I did move out, it became pretty clear and I had a new appreciation for what a donkey I had been and how she had allowed me to grow up.

Then the other day as Cole and I headed to the store, he made a declaration of intent for what he was going to do when he grew up.

I completely disagreed with this decision.

“I can do what I want when I turn 18 and there is nothing you can do about it!” he said.

I laughed. Hysterically. For about eight minutes.

“You keep thinking that,” I said. “I’m 45 and I still don’t do what I want!”

Then, I cried all weekend.

Where was the cute, precious little boy that never wanted to leave Mama? The one that couldn’t go to sleep without snuggles and Piggie? The little boy who adored me and hung on my every word?

Mama was sympathetic. She had, after all, been there.

“I survived you,” she said. “You will be just fine. Don’t fight him so much. That will make him more determined to do what you don’t want him to do.”

Had I taught her that or did she learn it on her own?

“When will it get better?”

“Boys may be different, but you? Somewhere around 30.”

I had been a horrible daughter. I cried even harder.

“I feel like I owe you an apology for everything I said and did from age 13 through 29,” I said.

Silence. Two solid minutes of silence.
“I accept,” she said.

 

Something to cry about

Maybe the worst phrase I ever heard as a child was “Keep crying and I will give you something to cry about.”

The second worst phrase was, “We’re having oyster stew for dinner and you are most certainly going to eat it.”

The latter was usually said before the former and was the direct causation of the former being said.

Both phrases can be attributed to my grandmother.

I have zero proof of this, but I am pretty sure Granny was the originator of the dreading crying phrase.

It’s a horrible, dreadful thing to say to a child.

I wasn’t even quite sure what she meant the first time I heard it.

Wasn’t the fact that I was evidently in some kind of distress or turmoil enough?

She thought I needed something else to cry about?

Was what she was going to give me make me wail against the wall?

But, being the smart alecky, sassy little girl I was, I of course had to poke the bear.

“W-what are you going to give me?” I asked between my sobs.

The old gal tightened her jaw and said, “You keep carrying on and you will find out.”

The threat – even though it was of unknown severity – was enough to usually make me suck my lip back up and get quiet. I may have been sassy, but I wasn’t stupid.

She held the promise of giving me something to really, truly cry about over my head most of my life.

It’s probably why now, I am one of those closet wailers, crying in private and never wanting anyone to see my tears, least the promise was made good.

One day, when having a teeny, tiny hissie fit, Granny reminded me she could give me something to really cry over.

“Like what exactly?” I asked. “You have been saying this for years. What exactly are you going to do? You are just all talk.”

I had done the unthinkable. I had shocked the old gal into silence.

She glared at me full of venom.

“You have no idea what I am capable of,” she said before she stormed away.

I somehow had sassed and lived to tell about it.

Counting myself as lucky, I tried to stay out of her way for a while. Like about a year.

I lived in fear, because there was no telling what kind of Granny-meanness she had in store to prove me wrong.

One day, I got brave and was sassing her about something – I can’t even remember what it was, but a sass had been invoked.

I didn’t cry though. I knew better.

“What did you say?” she asked.

That was not a request to repeat it. No, she was giving me the opportunity to apologize or maybe even a five second head start to run.

Not being the brightest at times, especially when my sassy mouth had overtaken any common sense, I repeated it.

“I’ve got a right mind to wring your neck,” she said.

“Oh, you wring necks? Is this like giving me something to cry about?”

The look she gave me would have stopped a charging bull in its tracks. Probably because the bull would have had the sense to be scared.

“Hateful, spiteful child,” she seethed.

I retreated to the sanctity of my room.

She couldn’t wring someone’s neck. That was just a saying, I was certain.

A few days later, Granny declared she was going to get chicken from one of her brothers for dinner.

She came home with chicken, but, it was not fried or baked. Nope, this chicken was still alive.

I still wonder how she got that thing in the car.

Pop looked out the back door.

“I thought you was getting a bucket of chicken, Helen,” he said. “What is this?”

“It’s going to be dinner, Bob,” she said as she tied her apron around her waist.

“It’s still got feathers on it,” my grandfather stated.

“For now, it does,” she said.

My grandfather and I watched her head outside to take on the chicken.

Surely, she wasn’t serious? This was a joke, right?

Granny stood in the middle of the back yard, with the chicken frantically running around her.
She told it to stop, which it didn’t. It was a chicken, after all. And probably knew her plans for deep frying.

Of course, the fact the chicken not doing as she told it made her angry. She watched it stealthily before she reached out and grabbed it.

Given the voracity and torque of her grip, that poor chicken may have been on the receiving end of some the anger that was directed towards me.

It took me a while to eat chicken after that.

I didn’t tell Mama about all of this until recently.

“If it makes you feel any better, she used to say that to me and Bobby,” she said when I mentioned the crying phrase. “Sometimes, she liked to blow a lot of hot air.”

“Yeah, but she threatened to wring my neck one day,” I began. “Let me tell you about what she did to that poor chicken…”

Mama was horrified.

We both agreed – it was a good thing we never did find out what it was she was going to give us to really cry about.

Don’t tell Mama

I learned quite early, certain things you just didn’t need to tell Mama.

Not just my Mama, mind you, but mamas in general.

‘Cause even my Mama was scared of hers.

One afternoon as we came through town, Mama wasn’t paying attention as closely as she should have and ran through a red light.

“Mama!” I cried, expecting the police to appear out of nowhere to arrest her.

“Shhh,” she quieted me. “That light changed too quickly on me. It didn’t even turn yellow.”

I wasn’t sure of the facts; I was just in shock my Mama broke the law.

“Are you going to go to jail?” I asked her.

“No. I would just get a ticket,” she said. She was worried though, I could tell. More than likely, she had been trying to find her cigarettes and hadn’t realized she was approaching the light.

“You sure you not going to go to jail?” I asked. I only got $3 a week allowance; I didn’t know if it would be enough to bail the redhead out or not.

“I’m not, Kitten,” she said. “But, do me a favor, OK?”

“OK.”
“Don’t tell Granny.”
“Why?” That was my favorite question for everything and this time, it was a very important one. Was Granny secretly a cop?

“Just don’t.”
“But why?”

Mama frowned. Why couldn’t I just do as I was asked?

“Because, I don’t want to get in trouble. And, she doesn’t need to know everything.”

Now, I didn’t want my Mama to get in trouble. Especially not with Granny.

But what I couldn’t understand was my Mama feared her.

Wasn’t she a grown up?

I never intended to tell on her, truly.

The slip just came out in conversation with Granny one day.

“Your Mama did what?”

Uh oh. I knew I had snitched and I felt awful about it.

“Jean!”

Oh, dang.

The tongue lashing that followed was fierce. I felt sorry for Mama and slightly embarrassed. She was in her mid-40’s and I think she was grounded.

“Why did you tell her?” she asked me.
“It was a mistake, I didn’t mean to,” I said truthfully.

It didn’t matter though; the damage was done.

A few days later, Pop broke something.
“Don’t tell your Granny,” he said, hiding the evidence.

Before I could promise I wouldn’t, he added, “And I mean it. Don’t throw me under the bus like you did your own mama. That was wrong, child. Wrong.”

I didn’t make the same mistake twice and Pop was in the clear.

No one needed to endure Granny’s wrath.

“Did she get this upset when you did something wrong as a child?” I asked Mama.

“When I was little, I would rather take a whooping than listen to her fuss,” Mama said. “It may have hurt but it was over a lot quicker.”

I could see that. Sometimes, you’d think Granny was done giving you what-for, and then she would catch another wind and come back from Round 2.

Unlike Granny’s personal brand of fire and brimstone, Mama’s weapon is the incessant worry.

After I had given Cole some soup and Tylenol and told him to rest, I gave him one firm instruction: Don’t tell Nennie.

“Why can’t I tell my grandmother I am not feeling well?” he asked.

“Because,” I said. “Trust me.”
I am sure he didn’t mean to disclose to his beloved Nennie, just as I had not meant to tell Granny all those years before, but the next thing I knew, he was handing the phone to me.
“Nennie wants to talk to you,” he said.

“What is wrong with him? What are his symptoms? Have you taken his temperature? What did you give him? Does he have a rash? Does he have an appetite? What was the last thing he ate before he started feeling bad?”

This is just a sampling.

The barrage of worry-laden questions goes on for about 20 minutes.

She follows up by texting me every 10 minutes afterwards to know if he feels better.

“Send me a picture of him so I can check to see if he looks different.”

“I am not sending you a picture,” I texted back.

Horrors upon horrors, she did the cardinal sin of replying to a text with a call.
“Can you call the doctor to see if he is OK? Or take him somewhere?”

Keep in mind, I had just answered 200 million questions only an hour earlier.

“He’s fine,” I said. “Let me parent.”
“He may have e-coli or salmonella,” she says. “What if he is allergic to something?”

To get her to stop her worry rampage, I have to pull out the heavy artillery. “You mean like the time you nearly let me die when I was stung by a bee and you didn’t believe me when I told you it felt funny?”

It was mean, but it worked.

“Cole, why in the world did you tell my Mama you weren’t feeling well? She is going to text me all night to take your temp. We both know the reason you don’t feel good is because you ate a family bag of pizza rolls.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to,” he said. I knew he didn’t, but I was the one in the hot seat.

Mama finally calmed down after a few days and things went back to as normal as they can in our world.

Until I caught the tail end of my husband and son’s conversation one day.
“Don’t tell Mama,” Cole had said.

I heard Lamar agree.

I took a deep breath and readied myself. I knew how this was going to go down. This time, the mama in question was me.

“Don’t tell me what?”

Yearning for childhood lost

I am a tad bit sentimental and I admit, I probably over-romanticize things at times, too.

Maybe that’s why I often like to remember the antics and tales of my childhood so much.

For the most part, it was a time of awe and wonder nestled between Twinkie clouds and Hostess cupcake dreams.

And there’s parts of our childhood that make us who we are and influence the adults we become, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

Mine was watching Mister Rogers.

Every evening as Granny made dinner, she usually sat me in front of the televisions with a snack of some kind. Sometimes, it was peanut butter and crackers; others, it was a bag of Bugles she had saved me from her lunch break.

She turned on Mister Rogers and hoped I would stay entertained long enough to not bother her while she cooked.

And it was enough to keep me in rapt entertainment, at least for that half hour.

I was pulled into this world where kindness mattered, where respect for everyone was given.

Where people spoke with gentle words and softer tones.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was sinking into the fabric of my soul.

The show was even enough to sooth the edges on my often loud, usually hot-tempered grandfather.

“PawPaw, who’s your favorite character?” I asked one day.

My grandfather looked at the screen thoughtfully. “I reckon I like that little tiger one the best. He seems like a neat little cat.”

My grandfather, this larger than life man, who worked in construction as a roofer and often came home covered in tar and when angered, could probably frighten the underworld, liked the shy, slightly fearful tiger. It was quite a contrast.

“Who’s your favorite?” he asked me.

“I like them all,” I said. “But I hope one day when I grow up, I marry someone like Mister Rogers. He seems to be nice to everyone.”
And to a little girl, that was very important.

See, I was a chubby kid, my mother was divorced – something that was not that common back then, and my father, who I never saw or talked to, was Iranian. There were a lot of little things that made me ‘different’ and not necessarily in a good way.

But I had the sanctity and safety of childhood.

Of being surrounded by people who loved me and having friends that cared about me regardless of the fact I made a horrible choice for dodgeball or any other team sport in the gym.

I grew up and somehow, the lessons I had learned from watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood faded into the background.

It wasn’t until several years, when working in radio, my friend and morning show host mentioned it was the day that Fred Rogers had passed away.

“He died?” I asked.

I somehow had missed it a few years before and was saddened at the news.

“Yeah,” my friend said. “It hit me hard. Fred Rogers was a pretty cool guy.”

A cool guy.

I had never thought of Mister Rogers in that light before; to me, he had been soothing and comfort, a magical escape from a world that sometimes may not be quite as nice.

“You really should check out some of the stories on him,” my friend said. “Cole would really love him. There’s a book too that will really tell you how amazing of a person he was.”

“I will check it out,” I promised.

I didn’t have to. A few days later, in my mailbox was the book, I’m Proud of You, by Tim Madigan, and a few DVDs of Mister Rogers Neighborhood for Cole to watch.

I started the book that evening and was profoundly amazed at how the Fred Rogers on the show was exactly the way Fred Rogers was in real life.

Compassion, kindness, and empathy truly were his superpowers.

No wonder as a child I hid his lessons deep in my heart.

Over the years, especially the last few, I have been even more drawn to his wisdom. One of his quotes has been shared quite frequently: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I find myself looking for the helpers a lot lately. Wondering where they are, the people who somehow find ways to help those around them and give comfort, even when they are experiencing pain and trauma themselves.

But sometimes, that’s what we are supposed to do. Come together and help one another, simply because we are ‘neighbors’ and need each other.

I think of how his simple wisdom is more profound now and how in so many ways, my childhood was idyllic. I lived in a world where I didn’t understand fear, I didn’t have worries or concerns because life and the world I grew up in felt safe and secure.

Now, there’s children who will never know what that feels like.

Re-reading Fred Rogers’ words makes me see how timeless they were. And how we need them, desperately need them now.

Mister Rogers passed away 15 years ago on February 27, but thankfully, his kind, compassionate wisdom has left behind some gentle echoes.

The piano recital

Once upon a time, I dreamed of being a concert pianist.

Only problem is I am quite horrible at piano.

But I had decided when I was a little girl, I wanted to play.

Mama wasn’t so sure about this.

“Is this going to be like your dream of being a ballerina?” she asked.

She may have forgotten but she was the one who nixed that dream in the bud.

She told her chubby child – me – to walk across the floor on tiptoes without tripping.

Given the impossible task, I grabbed a Twinkie and turned on Scooby Doo.

Piano, I promised, would be different.

Granny called Miss Suzanne, not just any piano teacher but the best piano teacher in our town.

Miss Suzanne had seen me around school and probably wasn’t so sure; Granny had to do some high-pressure selling.

“She is very musically inclined,” she said into the phone. “She has always loved music. Although we don’t know what is wrong with her, she don’t like country music. But everything else she does. She’s been humming since she was in Pampers and I think she has got a natural talent for it.”

Somehow, she convinced Miss Suzanne to give me lessons.

I was excited – not only was I on my way to being a concert pianist, but, Miss Suzanne would get me out of class twice a week for my lessons!

I remember walking down that long hallway with the piano room.

Now that I think about it, they probably hid the piano room in the bowels of the school, so no one could hear some of the blood curdling sounds that came out of that room.

My first few weeks, I was actually fairly decent.

I caught on quickly and I loved the idea of learning music, begging for a piano so I could play all day and all night.

One afternoon, I came home to find an upright piano delivered.

“I wanted a baby grand piano,” I said.

“Where are we going to put a baby grand piano?” Mama asked. “This is fine.”

I was so excited. At least until I found out that meant I could now do theory.

Theory, I soon learned, was just a fancy word for music homework.

“I can’t do this!” I wailed. “It’s too much work! I am just a child!”

Mama had no sympathy.

“You are not quitting, so you just need to learn to get beyond that thinking.”

“I am giving up my childhood for this!”

In reality, it had been like three weeks. But in child years, that was an eternity.

Mama didn’t let me quit.

No matter how much I whined or carried on, Mama made me stick with it.

“It’s building character,” she would tell me when I protested.

“You could save this money you are spending on piano lessons for something else,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Mama assured me. “I don’t mind spending money on something that is enriching your life.”

Mama insisted I was going to do what I needed to; if I was supposed to do theory, then I was going to do it. Even if it meant doing it before school.

In fact, Mama was very pro-piano until she went to my first recital.

I remember thinking this was a big deal.

Sure, I had sang in group performances for school and church, but this, this was different.

I was going to have my own little solo piece.

Miss Suzanne took us all to the Methodist church downtown to practice and for a trial run.

I can still remember the way the church smelled and the way the wooden pews creaked with all of us sitting on them. Even the way the light through the stained-glass windows danced on the floor.

This felt like it may be my big opportunity to be a concert pianist!

Until a friend I had grown up with arrived.

He had left our school a few years before but was still taking piano with Miss Suzanne.

Miss Suzanne had him practice first.

It was like watching a young Mozart or Beethoven play.

He made it look so effortless, so easy.

I guess she wanted to showcase her best student first – hoping the rest of us would be as good as he was.

I was a couple of kids after, and I was triumphant mess.

I had asked Miss Suzanne if I could leave after my song and she told me no; we had to be there to support our fellow pianists.

I wanted to run and hide. I considered crawling under the pews to escape.

When it was over, and I was the biggest failure of the recital, I ran to Mama and Granny.

Granny told Miss Suzanne maybe she should have saved the boy for last. “Putting him first is setting the bar awfully high,” she said. “Are we entirely sure all of these children needed to be in the recital…like Sudie?”

Miss Suzanne had hoped it gave us something to work towards, to have a goal to practice for and to have the glory of a performance.

“How much did you practice?” Mama asked me when I told her how embarrassed I was.

“I didn’t,” I said. I have never been able to tell a lie, and I wasn’t about to start then.

“I see,” she said. “Perhaps if you had practiced, you would have done better.”

“I doubt it,” I began. “I think I need to just quit.”

Mama looked at me and patted my head gently. “No.”

“What?” I was horrible, I had embarrassed myself in front of a church full of people. And she was going to let me keep playing?

“You are not giving up just because you didn’t do well in your first recital,” she said. “You’re sticking with it, Kitten.”

And I did.

For eight years.

“Did you ever learn how to play piano well?” my own child asked.

Nope, I sure didn’t. But I did learn how to never give up.

 

No one listens to the baby

I am used to being ignored.

You’d think being the only child, only grandchild and only niece would have meant I had a house full of grown-ups, hanging on my every word.

Nope.

At least not when I grew up.

Granted, when I was smaller, I may have said things they found adorable.

I was asked cute questions, like what was my favorite animal, who did I think was the best college football team, and what did I want to be when I grew up.

My answers were anything with fur, four legs and a tail; UGA; and, since I was about 3, I wanted to write ‘stories.’ Not much has changed.

But once I hit a certain age, one where I may have actually gotten a lick of sense in my head – something Granny said I was sorely lacking for most of my life – no one seemed to think I knew anything.

Somehow, I was still the baby of the family, but I was just bigger.

And my family thought I only knew about things that were pretty much along the lines of favorite animals, football teams, and television shows.

To prove this point, my uncle had an outrageous medical bill once he could not get resolved. He didn’t know why it was so high, and Granny, even with all of her tactics, could not get to the bottom of it either.

“Why don’t you let me look at it?” I offered.

You would have thought I had suggested I was going to split an atom on my grandmother’s kitchen table.

My uncle looked at my dumbfounded. “What in the world would you know about a hospital bill, baby?” he asked, shaking his head and walking off.

It was my turn to look dumbfounded. At the time, I was in college and working for two surgeons. And doing of all things – processing insurance.

“Granny, I think I can help with this,” I said.

Granny shook her head. “You’re just the baby. You don’t know nothing about this kind of stuff.”

“Actually, I do. I deal with this all day at work. Please let me look at it.”

She shook her head. “Ain’t no need in you messing with it. You may get it all jumbled up anyway.”

I rolled my eyes. They wouldn’t let me look at something I handled every day, but two days later when my uncle received a mailer from the Publisher’s Clearing House, he gave that to me and told me to figure out what magazines he needed to order to win.

“None of them,” I said. “I hate to tell you this, but it is a scam.”

“Well, I want Sports Illustrated and TV Guide, so see if their prices are good.”

I could price check magazine orders but not even see an insurance claim?

That evening, Granny knocked on my door.

“Don’t you breathe a word of this, but see what you can do.” She handed me the paperwork.

Were they really, finally, going to trust me with grown up stuff?

It took me a couple of days of making phone calls, but I managed to get the bill resolved.

When my uncle received the new revised statement, he was shocked. “The baby did this?” he asked.

“She did,” Granny said.

You would have thought that would have ingrained some level of trust in me, but no, I was still the family baby and any attempt to offer advice or suggestions continued to be ignored.

Mama sometimes ask my opinion, but then disregards it.

I have tried to tell them about things that would make life easier and they completely dismiss it.

But, let two people get the boot on my uncle’s favorite show and he knows who to ask.
“He still thinks all I know about is TV shows and frivolous things, doesn’t he?” I asked Mama.
“He just knows you can find out for him.”

“He knows I Google.”

“If I had a Google, he’d still want me to ask you,” Mama said.

You would think they would have a bit more faith in me, but in their eyes, I am still the baby.

At least to a certain degree.

When Cole was born, he became the baby of the family.

“No one listens to me,” Cole lamented one day. “I was trying to explain something to Nennie, but she didn’t believe me.”

I completely understood.

It looked like the baby torch was being passed off to very capable hands.