Tough Mama love

For the majority of my childhood and some parts of my adult life, I can’t think of a time that Mama couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t fix things for me.

If someone crossed her Kitten, Mama was ready to go to battle and could go from a kind-hearted woman to full blown crazy redhead with lightening speed.

Until, that is, Mama decided to teach me a lesson.

I cannot even remember what it was, or what happened, but one day in my mid-20’s, I ran to Mama, hoping she’d fix it, but I did not get her usual reaction.

“I am so sorry that happened,” she said.

I waited.

Usually, she would ask for the offender’s name and contact information, so she could unleash her hellfire and brimstone.

This time, she simply said, “I am so sorry.”

“Aren’t you going to do something?” I asked.

“Not this time,” she replied. “I think this is a lesson you need to learn.”

I was shocked – don’t mothers live for this kind of stuff? Especially mine, who always wanted to rush in and make it all better.

But, no, she was going to let me deal with this on my own.

It was hard to swallow.

I kind of felt abandoned.

Didn’t she care? Didn’t she want to help? Did she want to see me upset and maybe the victim?

I asked her all of these things.

“You are only a victim if you think yourself one,” she said gently. “And I have raised to be nobody’s fool nor a victim. You know what needs to be done in this situation and I am not going to always be there to fight your battles. You decided to do this on your own, too. Sometimes, Kitten, you have to lie in the bed you made.”

Not the answer I was hoping for. And apparently, guilt was not going to work on her — not this time, anyway.

The only way out of the mess was in.

I had to learn to fight my own battles and, realize that sometimes, things couldn’t be fixed.

I did not like it. But I did learn to not make that kind of mistake again.

Still, it hurt, and I didn’t understand why Mama didn’t help me when she could.

She reacted the same a few years later when I was going through a divorce.

A dear friend was visiting me, and as we walked through an antique store, I shared how Mama seemed to be letting me deal with things on my own, rather than rushing to my aid. I admitted I was kind of shocked and thought she didn’t care about me.

My friend turned around and looked me square in the eye and said, “No, she loves you. And I am going to tell you a truth that will hurt: sometimes, at the very moment you need someone the most in your life, that person is not going to be there. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, it doesn’t mean they are abandoning you; it means they have a life, too, and sometimes, you have to take care of things on your own. I love you, and will always try to be there for you, but, there may come a day I can’t be. Learning this lesson now will save you heartache and disappointment in the future.”

As hard as it was to hear, it was the truth and eventually, I was glad I learned it.

I found out later, Mama stepping back and letting me learn that for myself was harder on her than it was me.

She wanted to swoop in like a one-woman cavalry and right the wrongs; she knew, though, I would never learn to do it for myself if she did.

As a mother, there is nothing harder than to watch your child, even if they are grown, go through something and let them do it.

Especially when it is a mess they got themselves in; even more so when the mess was something you had warned them about and they didn’t listen.

It wasn’t a punishment. It was love.

Tough, strong Mama love.

Just like when babies are learning to walk, we have to let them stumble a few times.

Toting them all the time does not strengthen their legs.

Granted, as I grew up and older, I realize just how much Mama has done and how sometimes, she sacrificed a tremendous amount for me. And even more, sometimes, it was harder for her let me fail – even just a little bit – to help me grow.

“Mama, you’re always going to love me, right?” Cole randomly asked one day.

“Absolutely.”

“Nothing can ever make you stop loving me, right?” he asked again.

I immediately wondered what he did that I hadn’t found yet, but assured him, nothing could or would ever make me stop loving him.

“So, you will always love me, and you’ll never stop?” he pondered again. “Even if you get mad at me?”

I assured him again, I would never stop.

“No matter what?”

No matter what.

I may have to let him learn some lessons like Mama had to let me, but that would never, not ever, stop the love.

Even when it’s tough Mama love, it’s still love.

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Entering the work force

“I can get a job when I turn 14,” my child announced one evening. “That’s just a few months away.”

“Why are you wanting to get a job?” I asked.

“Because,” he began, looking me squarely in the eye. “There are a lot of things I want that cost a lot of money and I don’t want to ask you to buy them for me.”

I have to admit, a lot of emotions hit me with this statement, the first being that my child was getting old enough to enter the workforce.

The second was that I admired my child for wanting to work for the things he wanted.

He recognizes what he wants is kind of pricey and he doesn’t expect me to pay for it.

I started working at 15, for pretty much the same reason.

My weekly pilgrimages to the mall had taken a toll on Mama’s finances. Her credit cards were given a better workout than her Jane Fonda tape and she could have saved a lot of time by just having a huge chunk of her check deposited in the bank accounts of Macy’s and The Limited.

Clothing, makeup, books, shoes, and music were staples and necessities of my teenage life, and unlike now, where I tend to be more frugal, everything had to be name brand and top of the line.

Now that I am paying for it, I find myself realizing L’oreal can cover my freckles as well as Lancome.

But, back then, when Mama was paying for it, was a totally different story.

Until one day, she said something she rarely said: No.

“W-what?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“That’s too expensive. I have already bought you jeans that were $100 – what made those jeans so much? Are they stitched with gold thread? I can’t get this for you this week. Maybe ever.”

I don’t even remember what it was that I was wanting. Back then, clothes were expensive and disposable. Mama would buy me something and the next month, it was considered out of fashion and discarded.

“You have to clothe me!” I cried when she told me no.

“Clothe you, yes; spend ridiculous amounts of money and go into debt over one pair of blue jeans – no.”

“What am I going to do?” I cried.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said.

And I did.

I got a job.

Granted, I had been ‘working’ since I was in kindergarten, writing up invoices for my grandfather and uncle and taking phone messages. I was paid a dollar a week and copious amounts of candy.

This was a real job, with a weekly schedule and lunch breaks, and where I paid taxes.

I was 15 but fibbed about my age. Or rather just danced around the whole age question. I started working at Cato, taking credit card applications at the door.

I think I made $10 for every application that was filled out, but more importantly, I got a discount on clothes. No, it wasn’t The Limited but it was clothing.

By the middle of the summer, I was working over 30 hours a week.

I loved it.

But, I never brought a full paycheck home.

I spent it. All of it. If it wasn’t on clothes, I was going to the Revco next door and getting drugstore makeup and hair products.

“Even though I am working, I still get an allowance, right?” I asked her one week. “And as your child and your main tax deduction, I think you should still be responsible for some of my clothing and upkeep.”

Mama laughed. She had probably expected me to burn through my paycheck in rapid speed.

Mama had mistakenly thought having a boy would be cheaper than a girl. Boys typically don’t worry about fashion like girls do or care about name brands or getting their hair and nails done. Mama was right on those things, but she failed to realize that boys tend to want bigger ticket items. Video games, cars, and electronics. Things that needed upgrades and enhancements.

Things I have no idea about and that run in the price range of car payments.

“I know the things I want cost a lot of money,” Cole explained. “I know you try your best to get me these things for my birthday and Christmas but sometimes, I don’t want to wait to get them. And, even if I do wait, some of the things are a bit more than what I would feel comfortable with you spending.”

He rattled off a list of things: a gaming computer, new consoles, video capture cards. And a corgi. He’s still wanting a corgi and knows those little herders are pretty expensive, not including the vet bills.

“Where are you thinking about getting a job?” I asked.

He took a deep breath and told me the places he was considering. “I want something that will pay me decent and be a good place to work. There may be scholarship opportunities for me, too.”

He had clearly thought this through.

“So, what do you think?” he asked.

What did I think?

I was proud of him.

Immensely full of weepy mom-pride.

“I think any place will be lucky to hire you,” I said truthfully. I know he will be a great employee wherever he works and bring a great attitude and work ethic to anything he did.

He smiled humbly. “Can you believe I am almost old enough to start working?” he asked excitedly.

No, I can’t. I really can’t.

I was proud of his initiative but really wish time would slow down.

Then I had to think of an added perk Mama had when I started working and smiled.
“Maybe when you start working, you can buy your dear old mom dinner,” I said.

He beamed. “Absolutely! One thing though.”
“What?”

“Will you let me borrow the car?”

Oh, geesh.

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.

 

A Granny-sized void

Someone commented the other day that they didn’t realize Granny had passed away.
“She did. Four years ago, on the 11th of March,” I replied.

“You still talk about her like she is still here,” they said.

It dawned on me that maybe I do.

And there’s times, believe me, that it feels like the old gal is still with me.

I told Mama it was as if she had been so much larger than life that her presence still lingered.

Mama agreed. “There’s days it doesn’t feel like she’s gone and some days, the void is all around,” she said.

A void.

That’s what it was.

She had filled such a huge part of my life, that now there was an emptiness.

Part of this gaping hole was due to my own stubbornness and grudge-holding the last few years she was alive.

“I do believe you were both equally to blame on that,” Mama said gently when I told her how I felt. “Granny was angry because you moved to the mountains and not home. She thought you were moving here. I thought you were moving here. And when you didn’t, she thought being angry was the best way to deal with it. You were her favorite person in the world.”

I didn’t feel that way when she passed away.

But growing up, she was my biggest fan and strongest ally, even when I feared her the most.

On Saturday mornings, she had been up for hours by the time I woke, cleaning and getting things done so we could go ‘loafing’ as she called it.

This just meant we went grocery shopping and to her mother’s house in Bold Springs, where the smell of fresh hay bales drifted through the house as I sat on the old metal sliding swing on the wrap around porch.

When I got older, Granny was often the one chauffeuring around an Oldsmobile full of teenage girls around, getting us pizza, burritos and junk food for low-budget horror movie binges.

She never complained.

If anything, she loved it.

She loved having a house full of laughter and squeals, no matter how late we stayed up.

If Mama was shushing us and telling us to go bed, Granny was the one sneaking down the hall to watch videos with us.
“I think Roger’s the cutest,” she would whisper as we watched Duran Duran videos.

“I like Nick,” I said.
She looked at me. “Of course you do, he’s got on the most makeup.”

After I got my driver’s license, Mama reneged on letting me drive her car.

“You promised!” I cried.

“I had no idea on God’s green earth you would pass!” was her reply.

In all teenage drama, I flung myself across my bed and cried.

Granny came in there to comfort me.

“You can take my car anytime you need to,” she said.

Granted, she didn’t know I put her car and our family friend who was teaching me how to drive in a ditch a few months earlier.

“I want my own car, Granny. I am just going to drive to school and home. That’s it.”

A few hours later, a car pulled down the driveway.

Granny and Pop had gone to town and bought me a beige ’77 Chevy Nova.

“I still have to pay for it,” Mama said as I squealed my thanks to my grandmother.

“I wouldn’t have got it if it hadn’t been for Granny,” I said.

“Darn right about that!” Mama replied.

Even though that car was far from perfect – she had to make me a cushion so I could see over the steering wheel – it was mine and my grandmother had made sure I got it.

During most of my teenage years, if it ticked my Mama off, Granny seemed to be the biggest supporter of it.

When I had Cole, she stayed with me for two weeks to help me figure out this whole motherhood thing.

The day she was leaving, I begged her to stay.
“Please, Granny, we have an extra bedroom. Please. I am not going to know what to do.”

“Oh, you’ve got it figured out,” she said simply. “You just needed to rest and get acclimated to having a baby.”
She made it sound like it was no big deal, but she had helped a lot. She cooked breakfast every morning and did laundry and swept. Keep in mind, she was 83 at the time.

Of course, she had called everyone, including the church to make sure no one had usurped her throne as president of her Sunday school class to announce she was seeing after her great-grandson for two weeks.
“Y’all put that in the bulletin,” she ordered over the phone. “Don’t y’all even think of moving any of the chairs around in the Sunday school room. I mean it. But y’all make sure everyone knows I’ve got a great-grandson.”

I was telling Mama all of this the other day.
“She was proud of him. She was proud of you,” Mama said.

“She never told me that,” I said.

“She didn’t have to tell you, Kitten. She told everyone else.”

Granny, the little redhaired girl out of a slew of children, had spent all of her life, wanting to be special to someone. She wanted to be the best at something and to have recognition, like we all do. But she had never really got that from her own mother. So, sometimes, her methods of getting that recognition may not have been the best way to go about it. But she had tried to give me the very things she didn’t have, the best way she could.

“I hope when I am gone one day, you will remember everything I have done for you,” she said one day, so many years ago.

And I do. Every single bit of it, I do.

 

The (super)power of common sense

Granny always considered common sense a rare, priceless thing.

“You got book learning,” she told me one day. “I ain’t so sure about the common sense yet.”

“Isn’t book learning good?” I asked.

“It depends on what you are doing in life,” she said. “Look at this one,” she gestured towards my Mama as she stood at the stove.

“This one is real smart when it comes to the books. Likes to act all fancy-pants smart-alecky about things. And look at her. She can’t boil a hot dog to save her life.”

Sure enough, Mama had boiled the water out of the pot and was trying to unstick the burned carcass of whatever parts the animal could live without from the bottom.

“She ain’t got no common sense,” Granny muttered.

I thought she was being horribly unfair towards my Mama.

Granted, the younger redhead was and still is slightly naïve about some things, but I didn’t think it was necessarily a matter of not having common sense.

It was more like she was easily distracted and, maybe she didn’t pay attention like she should sometimes.

I told Granny I thought she was being awfully mean towards Mama, to which I was promptly met with a grunt.

“Well, we’ll see. If you was in an emergency situation, who would you want? Me, or Miss Marketing Degree over there?”

Considering Granny made Clint Eastwood look weak, that was a pretty easy answer. But still – it felt unfair. Mama had many traits that were just as useful, just as important.

“She’s real smart,” Granny commented one day about someone.

I could tell by her pause, she was wanting me to take the bait and ask her to elaborate.  I never liked to give in to her when she did that, so I didn’t ask.

“Don’t you wanna know how she’s smart?” she asked.
“Not really,” I answered.

Granny snorted. “Probably because it don’t involve stuff you think is smart.”
She had made her stance real clear.

Granny put a high prize on common sense, lavishly praising those who had it.

Book smarts, she figured, wasn’t really something that had a purpose at times.

Yet, this is the same woman that had a full-grown, adult size hissy fit when I made my first B — in Geometry.

“How in the sam hill did you make a B in Geometry?” she yelled.

“I just did,” I said. Actually, I was proud of that B. I earned that B.

“Jean, what do you think of this?” she asked.
“I think if she did the best she could, I am fine with it.”

“Well of course you are,” Granny said sarcastically. “If you had a lick of sense you’d know she needs to get a good education, so she can get a job. You don’t get good educations making B’s.”

“I think I failed Geometry and I have a good job,” Mama said quietly.

I was confused.

Granny thought you had to get a good education to get a good job? What about all of that common-sense stuff she preached and praised all the time?

“Your grandmother wanted to go to college,” Mama said gently when I asked.

“But back then, girls didn’t. They quit school early to work the farm and take care of their younger siblings. That’s what happened to Granny. She wanted to be a nurse and couldn’t. So instead of learning about medicine and how to take care of people, she did the best she could with what she had. And that was understanding how the world works a bit better than most.”

“She seems to think we aren’t too bright in the common sense department,” I said.

“It’s her way of trying to toughen us up,” Mama said. “I think you have plenty of common sense; Granny thinks you do, too, she just doesn’t brag on you to you. She brags to everyone else though.”

She didn’t think Mama had common sense and that still bothered me.

“It’s OK,” Mama assured me. “I am smart in other ways, and it may not be something Granny appreciates but that’s fine.”

Mama could do just about anything with a computer when I was younger; she worked on one all day, after all. But, she also had a car engine explode because she didn’t know you were supposed to change the oil every now and then.

One afternoon, Cole sighed and stated he wanted to be smarter. This came after reading about Tesla.

“Cole, you are extremely smart.”

“You keep saying that,” he said. “I think you are blinded by the mom-goggles you wear. I just want to be really, really smart – Tesla smart — and am worried I am not as smart as I want to be.”
“Well, the good thing is, you can learn more and expand your knowledge base,” I told him. “There’s always measures you can take to increase your knowledge which translates to feeling smarter. But I think you have something that is far greater than just book smarts.”

“What’s that?” he said, not exactly convinced.
“You have common sense,” I said. “Trust me. It’s not something everyone else has. But you have both.”

He frowned, not liking my answer.

I didn’t think he would.

Common sense seems basic and ordinary, when truth be told, it’s darn near a super power.

But maybe it befalls a lucky few. Even if it sometimes skips a generation.

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.

Not for the faint of heart

I remember the day I turned 29.

It was 16 years ago – yikes, that’s hard to believe.

But the day I turned 29, I took the day off from work.

I worked out twice that day, hoping to fight off the effects of gravity and the aging process.

I didn’t even eat any birthday cake, something I never skipped.

I grieved.

It was my last year in my twenties.

I felt ancient, as if my youth and life were over.

I was about to enter a new decade, my thirties.

Little did I know those years would fly by in the blink of an eye.

I went through a divorce, got remarried, had a baby, moved a couple of times, and went through about 4 different career changes.

No wonder by the time I hit my 40’s I was exhausted.

My spunk and sass seemed to have been replaced with, “Eh, it’s not worth the energy fighting over.”

Blasphemous talk for one who is a quarter Irish.

“Cole, when I was younger, I would have….”
I recount tales of my younger hot-tempered responses and how I stood up fiercely for myself and for others.

Now, I just hope to avoid any disagreements, so I don’t have to worry about it for days on end.

The aging process has not only affected my emotional response but my physical as well.

Remember when Dolly Parton declared, “Time’s marching on, and eventually you realize, it’s marching across your face?”

Yeah, well, Truvy got that one right.

She just left out the battlefield extended in all directions.

The other day in the bathroom, I saw not one, not two, but four grey hairs sticking up from the midst of a field of black, dark brown, and whatever other colors are mixed in there.

I screamed.

These had popped up overnight.

The greys could and would be covered with some liberal painting of color at my next appointment.

An easy fix, I told myself.

But some of the other things were not so easy.

For one thing, the few pounds I would gain from too much cheesecake no longer come off as quickly as they previously did.

Just five short years ago, I could just skip my afternoon bag of M&M’s and drop whatever weight I had gained.

Now, I am still struggling to lose the weight I gained three years ago.

“Once you are over 40, you will find it’s not so easy to lose that weight,” Mama informed me one day.

I told her I was already learning that.

“So, you may want to lay off the cheesecake. And the candy. I know you think they are their own food group.”

I groaned my disapproval of her advice.

“Your body is going through some changes now that you may not like and may be embarrassing, so you need to pay attention to what you eat and do.”
I was in my mid-40’s and finally, my Mama was giving me the talk about my changing body.

And as much as I hate to admit it, she was right.

“I have cut out everything that tastes good and you want to know how much I have lost?” I asked one day.

“How much?” a friend asked.

“I gained 2 pounds. Two pounds! And I think I pulled something trying to squeeze into my imitation Spanx.”

“Honey, how old are you now…?”

No response was necessary.

To add insult to injury, as if eating kale and gaining weight with multiple greys dotting my hairline were not enough, I had something else happen.

Adult acne.

As a teenager, I somehow dodged a bullet and had clear skin.

Maybe Mother Nature thought I had enough going against me and told pimples to find another canvas to land.

But here I was, trying to figure out which cream, gel or serum to apply first: wrinkle cream, lifting cream, brightening gel, or acne treatment. And vitamin C treatment. Did you know you face needs vitamins, too? It does.

“Maybe you put too much gunk on your face? Could that be it?” Lamar asked, watching me slather various things on my face one morning.

“Given the fact that middle aged women seem to blame everything on our hormones, that’s mighty brave talk for a skinny man to use,” I warned.

He got the hint and went into hiding until later that day.

But the real kicker was even more painful than the esthetic issues I was experiencing.

“It’s going to rain today,” I announced one morning.

“Weatherman on TV said it is going to be clear,” Lamar said over his coffee.

“I don’t care what they said, it’s going to rain; maybe snow.”

“What makes you think that?” Lamar asked.
“The way my neck is hurting, it is going to do something. Trust me. I may not have Doppler, but I have a neck that lets me know.”
“Good lord, you are not old enough to start sounding like Granny.”

Guess what?

Around 3 p.m. that afternoon, it started sleeting.

“Told you,” I said. “My neck knows.”

This getting older thing is not for the faint of heart.

But, it sure beats the alternative.

 

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.