One of the most enjoyable things I remember about my mother were the few occasions on which she told stories of her childhood. She told of walking through a field of tobacco late at night, on the way home from working in a silk mill, probably as young as the age of 14. She was always a bit nervous, she said, as she passed one tumble-down house where men sat drinking on the porch. But there was a man there she knew, and she did not worry when she saw him present, as he knew her family and made sure the other men didn’t bother her. She liked to repeat that story, and so I suspect it was a reassuring one to tell herself, that someone was watching over her.
One story she told only once, to my knowledge, was how her older brother accidentally shot his younger brother of three or four, playing with a rifle and not knowing that it was loaded. She said she ran and met her Daddy walking back from the mill, and he didn’t say anything all the way back. Nothing at all. One can only imagine how that kind of family tragedy plays out in a child’s psyche, unwinds in a life of over 80 years.
Even during the Great Depression, she and her siblings always had enough to eat, she said, even if not much else. They played on the dirt road with an old bicycle tire rim and a stick to push it. Picked wild strawberries and blackberries. Did the wash with a hand-cranked strainer. Ploughed the garden. Slept three to a bed. One night, she remembered, giggling, the picture above the headboard of their bed fell off the wall in the night, scattering them, scaring them laughing. They used an outhouse. Washed their faces in a bucket of water that in winter iced over, in the house, before the wood stove was lit. She went to school, did well, and graduated, a mark of pride for her.
But mostly my mother said very little of her life, which I suppose is a mark of the quietness of her generation. After she died a few years ago, I looked through the pages of each book in her library of two to three hundred volumes, mostly Christian books, looking for things she underlined, notes she made, papers inserted. But the best I received were multiple bookmarks, indicating something that gave her pause on that page, perhaps, and which so made me pause on that page. But that’s like trying to read a life in tea leaves. “What were you thinking?,” I’d say to myself. ‘Why here?”
She left me with aphorisms aplenty. “Everything happens to you and Dick Tracy,” she would said, of those prone to calamity, one she often used of her older sister. “Those houses are so close together they can swap wives through the windows,” one that took me by surprise but made me smile. About my longish stint in the hospital: “A hospital is a good place to be from.” I asked her why the shades in her home were always drawn, except for an inch or two of light. “I might see something I don’t want to see.”
She stood ramrod straight. Even when elderly, she didn’t slouch. She hated to cook, but I never knew that because she never told me until much later in life. She disliked gardening. She liked to read. She was an avid watcher of David Janseen’s “The Fugitive,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Ponderosa,” and any other Western. She read Louis L’Amour books. As a family, the only movies I remember seeing were John Wayne movies, even Patton, even through his swaggering, swearing soliquoy at its beginning, during which time she wouldn’t look at me. My parents didn’t tolerate swearing and cussing, but John Wayne could be forgiven.
But as I said, these are snapshots in an epic personal history she was living and not telling. Most of my mother’s life is and will remain a mystery and even though my siblings and I might piece together more of her story via our collective memories, it still wouldn’t fill the gaps. All we have are a few tea leaves. But that’s OK. She loved both God and family well. She wasn’t effusive in her love, but when I was young and fell off my bike or got in a fight or broke the dish on the coffee table jumping up and down on the sofa, I’d run up and throw my arms around her, an embrace I can feel the shape of even today. And she would hang on tight. She always did.