“I think every working mom thinks the same thing. You go through big chunks of time where you’re thinking, ‘this is impossible, this is impossible.’ And then, you sort of keep going and keep …
Since the beginning of time … well, my time anyway … memories of my mother remain the same: the lady was a hard worker.
Whether wrapped in steam while operating a heavy press on the production floor of a blue jean factory in North Mississippi, or serving hot lunches on a food line in a school cafeteria in West Tennessee, or mowing the yard in the middle of a humid August afternoon, or spending hours in the kitchen during a family Christmas weekend … whatever she was doing, my mother gave it her all.
Oh yeah, she also raised three kids … in her other job.
This blue-collar laborer of the Deep South never brought home a fat paycheck, but she earned a Blue Ribbon every day of the week for effort alone.
As a kid growing up in Falkner, Miss., in the late 1950s and ‘60s, I remember most her work at home: Working two gardens in the summer, one of which was more of a field; canning the homegrown vegetables once the crops started coming in; shelling purple-hull peas and butterbeans, snapping string beans, and shucking corn; helping Grandmother Norton, who lived just up the gravel road, churn butter; lending a hand to prepare meat for the smokehouse when Granddaddy Norton and my dad butchered a cow, a pig or some chickens; sewed buttons back on to ripped shirts and hemmed cuffs on trouser hand-me-downs; fried eggs and bacon or sausage most every morning for a hungry family, and fed the same bunch at the old wooden table at supper every night; washed dishes twice a day, and sometimes three on weekends; and swept and mopped the faded linoleum in every room.
Early on weekday mornings, after another round of cooking and cleaning, she cranked up the 1950s blue-and-white Chevy and dashed the few miles to Ripley to start her eight-hour shift at the Blue Bell clothing plant.
I never knew much about her work — 5-year-olds didn’t pay attention to the telling of factory stories — but I do recall her tired and flushed face, and can still picture her downing some pretty good-sized glasses of sweet tea at the kitchen table each night.
She worked a hot press much of the day and I do recall stories of steam clouds at her work station and the taste of cold water at break. Add throbbing feet and aching back to the mix, and that tells the tale of her work at a southern mill.
I knew nothing of the size of her weekly paycheck. Little boys weren’t privy to that kind of talk, nor did we ask. But I’m pretty sure the pay was scant, if not altogether meager. Besides, this was a tiny town in a rural county in a poverty-stricken state in the middle of the 20th century.
Yet, it paid the bills … most of them, I guess. Combined with Dad’s sporadic pay as a part-time carpenter, shade-tree mechanic and soft-spoken handyman — all of which probably paid in cash — my parents made ends meet.
To my recollection, nobody ever told us we were poor. Then again, kids in those days paid little attention to money … probably because we never had any. If there was a rattle in our pockets, it probably came from old Pepsi bottle caps or maybe smooth rocks from the gravel road that caught our eye. Speaking of jeans, I once learned the hard way not to tote nails — another source of rattling — in my pockets.
One summer evening when the scent of kudzu filled the air and the Mississippi humidity layered Falkner like a blanket, Dad took the whole family on a rare excursion. Maybe it had been payday, I can’t say.
As the sun gradually slid below the western tree line, we three kids loaded into the Chevy’s back seat, and Mom and Dad took the front. With Dad at the wheel, and every window lowered wide open, we cruised the back roads and hidden hollers of Tippah County. Along the way, we stopped off at a drive-in and Dad bought popcorn for all five.
A little later he pulled in to what might have been a Tastee Freez (a modest 1960s equivalent to today’s DQ) and splurged on milk shakes and ice cream cones for the group. Seems like I had a shake. Vanilla. It was heaven in a cup.
Maybe we were just trying to escape the Mississippi heat.
Maybe Dad just wanted to give something special to a family that lived with little.
Maybe Mom asked to get out of the house, her reddened face the sign of a long day and longer ones ahead.
Maybe my parents had planned the outing all along, knowing Dad’s latest construction gig was bringing in a few extra bucks and Mom was pulling some Saturday morning overtime at the plant.
Maybe it was just what country folks did to survive in the day.
There were no amusement parks, no fancy vacations to faraway lands and no hope of seeing anything new that we couldn’t find in a book. And even if we could, there was no money to get us there.
But that’s OK. Life was good in so many ways.
Sure, there were bad times. Every family had them. And we had our share. But we survived, and I credit it all to the perseverance of my mom who never quit, the resilience of my World War II veteran dad who turned back every demon in his path, and the will of both to do it together.
On this Mother’s Day, I am reminded of lessons learned by a family from a day and a time and a place of long ago. And I pray for the courage to live as they lived … not at play in a world of possessions, but at rest in a state of conviction.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You too, Dad. You earned it. Both of you.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at email@example.com.)
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