Inkspots: A time in our lives that Mom made good
by RICK NORTON Associate Editor
May 11, 2014 | 415 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“Your arms were always open when I needed a hug. Your heart understood when I needed a friend. Your gentle eyes were stern when I needed a lesson. Your strength and love guided me and gave me wings to fly.”

— Sarah Malin

Ethnographer

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Somebody once said there’s no love greater than a mother’s love for her child.

Even after Googling, I still have no idea who said it first. But a lot of people have said it since, and it’s a sentiment that pops up every Mother’s Day.

Today is Mother’s Day so here’s my take on that assessment.

They’re right.

I mean, they’ve gotta be. Who else has the patience to put up with the day-to-day tomfoolery that kids can bring to any household? Vinnie Barbarino of “Welcome Back, Kotter” fame probably said it best when he reminded his high school buds, “My mother’s a saint.”

And so it is with moms everywhere.

I include my own. Here’s why.

As readers of this column already know, I was born — circa 1955 — in little Ripley, Miss., the government seat of Tippah County. A few miles away I was raised in an even smaller little town named Falkner; at least, until the fifth grade when Dad frustratedly hung up the tools of an often-unemployed carpenter and accepted a dairy inspector job offer with the Shelby County Health Department up north in Memphis.

For our family, relocating from the poverty of rural North Mississippi where every dollar counted to the southern border of West Tennessee was a godsend. But before getting there, my parents had it tough trying to raise three hungry kids on the pay of a factory worker and her part-time working husband who brought home money when he could whether by swinging a hammer to help build somebody’s barn or twisting a wrench to tune a distant neighbor’s rattling engine.

But that was our world. And Mom paid its toughest price.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Times are hard.” In those days, it was more than just words. It was a way of life. Mom and Dad lived it every day. How they survived I’ll never know. How we kids came through it ... well, it was because of our parents and the sacrifices they made. They were blue collar. They never asked for a handout. What they brought home, they earned.

But as I think back on those late ’50s and ’60s, I realize we survived on their frugal lifestyle in a life less ordinary by today’s standards.

It was a no-frills existence in a rented home with uneven floors made of wooden boards covered by worn linoleum and a roof of rusting tin.

For heat we had a fireplace in the living room and a coal-burning stove at one end of the white-painted dining room table, a scratched-up wooden rectangle that probably came to us as a hand-me-down from Granddaddy and Grandmother Norton, our landlords.

For cooling we had fans and open windows; every summer Dad mounted a large box fan in the dining room window that sucked heat out of the house. As a 5-year-old, that’s where I took my afternoon naps ... on a one-quilt pallet atop the slick linoleum just below the fan’s giant blades. Mom always said it was the coolest spot in the house.

Mom worked so hard in those days ... especially the summers. Dad did too, but as a sporadically employed carpenter and mechanic his work was mostly handyman stuff, farming and cutting wood.

After 50-plus years some of the details admittedly blur, but seems like I remember my mother worked most of those Falkner years in a clothing plant — a blue jean factory called Blue Bell. She told me once she operated a press. I think that meant a hot piece of machinery that smashed the wrinkles out of the denim with pressure and steam; in other words, a miserably hot job.

She was on her feet the whole shift. And that was just her day work ... for pay. Every Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturday morning, she had to return home — tired and hot with little on her mind but a cold glass of ice water and a rocking chair.

But that didn’t last long. Back in those days, she did what moms had to do. She got back on her feet and headed for the kitchen. My older brother and I were too young to be of any help, but I think my sister — five years my elder — tried to pitch in all she could.

I didn’t realize it then, but now I do. Mom’s cooking was always a sign of how few dollars she had left in her purse and how little Dad held in his pocket.

Sometimes the cornbread came out a little thin. I understand now that meant we were just about out of corn meal.

Sometimes we kids had to drink Carnation Powdered Milk — none of us liked it. I understand now that meant we had no real milk in the fridge.

Sometimes the mashed potatoes weren’t very thick. I understand now Mom was trying to stretch out her last few red potatoes till payday.

Sometimes we had canned meat fried hot and greasy from one of Mom’s black skillets. I understand now the big chest freezer on the back porch had no more beef from the last butchering at Uncle Norris Robertson’s farm in Macedonia, just outside of New Albany.

Sometimes we had sliced bread. I understand now the corn meal was gone. The remaining flour was being saved for biscuits the next couple mornings and there was no money for luxuries like store-bought dinner rolls.

Sometimes we had leftovers. The pantry was nearly empty or Mom was just too exhausted to cook anew that night.

God rest their souls, my parents were frugal ... more like survivors. They had to be. Life gave them little choice.

Mom never bought a new button. She kept a “button jar” which I think was an old Maxwell House glass coffee jug with the label washed off. Once one of our shirts was too worn out for further wear, she cut off the buttons and plopped them into the jar. The old shirt itself was cut up into rags.

Mom and Dad never purchased short-sleeved shirts for us kids from the Fred’s in Holly Springs; she cut off and hemmed old long sleeves for the hot months. She did the same with blue jeans and they became our summer shorts.

Mom saved every plastic bag from loaf bread to freeze homegrown vegetables from the garden.

Mom spent a lot of nights hemming loose cuffs or stitching rips and tears, either by hand using a needle, thread and thimble or the heavy electric sewing machine that sat in a far corner of the living room.

Mom worked the garden at my Dad’s side and most of the time she had us kids in tow, teaching us how to chop the weeds and pick the produce.

Mom accepted hand-me-down clothing from her sisters and their families, and in turn gave them clothing we had outgrown ... if it wasn’t already worn out or relegated to buttons and rags.

Folks today say life is hard. In its way, I guess it is. Each generation has struggles unique to its own.

Maybe that’s why thinking back on those days in Falkner I don’t dwell on the bad.

Besides, we lived a fine line between good and bad. Times might have been bad. They might have been hard. But we kids never knew it.

That’s because of Mom and Dad.

As I look to the heavens, I can see Mom stitching a rip in one of my old shirts, her silver thimble gliding back and forth with each stroke of needle and thread. Dad’s there too, sitting back in his old recliner reading an outdated edition of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I so wish I could talk with them again. Just once.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You too, Dad.

You gave life a name. We called it “good.”