(9 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)
Those of you who read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
I rarely write about living people except with their express permission, but may make an exception or two here because it might be important to talk about some of her decedents who still breathe. None of those references will be derogatory.
I introduced you to Ma a few weeks ago here. Now comes more about her.
Ma would have been 108 years old yesterday. I thought about her quite a bit yesterday, since she was a huge influence on my personality. Some parts of her contribution were positive, and many fewer were negative. I shall try to explain how she impacted me this evening.
My parents both worked, so Ma was my caregiver from when I was just little until I no longer needed one. That would have been from when I was an infant until I was around 11 or 12, but she still took care of me to a lesser extent after that. That means that she was around 48 years old, give or take, when I started to spend time with her to a large extent. I am fortunate to have an extremely persistent memory of my early days, so I can go back to some extent to when I was only two years old.
Foremost, Ma was kind. That is not to say that she did not have quite the temper, but she was, at the basis of her being, a kind person. She was also a very, VERY devout Christian, in the way that would make other, real Christians proud. “Do unto others….” was pretty much her calling card.
When I was little, I almost died from mononucleosis. Except for two outpatient trips, that was the only time that I was even in hospital. I was two, and it almost killed me. I was running 106 F fevers for a couple of days. My pediatrician, Dr. Post, was in charge and he was ahead of his time by icing me. I do not remember that personally, since I was delirious, but my family have told me about it.
Anyway, I recovered pretty fast. Ma was taking her turn in my room, still in hospital, and told me that she had brought me a candy bar. That was in character to her, comfort food for hurting people. This part I remember personally. I had been stir crazy from being in the bed, and they had just removed all of the IVs so I was free to move. She told me to go to her purse and find it, so I did. The problem was that I could not read at two, so I just looked for chocolate. I FOUND it!
However, very young children, like right wingnuts, are attracted by bright, shiny things. The blue and white label of the chocolate Ex-Lax was much more attractive than the brown Hershey bar, so I chose the Ex-Lax. It was a brand new box, and I ate the whole thing in a few minutes. When she saw what I did, she panicked and called the nurses. They took me to a room and did a quick gastric lavage (in lay terms, they pumped my stomach), and I was fine. I got to go home the next day. She was always careful to inspect anything that I ate after that.
It became a joke after a while. Even when I was much older, and I would make, for example, a milkshake for myself, Ma would get a spoon and taste it, saying, “I’m jest amakin’ sure that it fit for ye to eat.” Of course she just wanted some of the milkshake, but it was all good with us.
Sometimes I would get a bit out of hand, at least in her mind. She hardly ever spanked my by hand, but would use a switch (to which she referred to as a “keen lil hickory”) and wear out my thighs and legs with it. That is when I was little, and in the summer always wore shorts. They would leave marks, and today she would have been brought up of charges by the child welfare folks. To be honest, it stung at the time, and the marks went away an a couple of days. It was much less harmful that something like shaking me might have been, or paddling me. By the way, she NEVER did either of those. The switch was effective and caused much less physical harm than other punishments might have.
You have to remember, she was of the school, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. In all honestly, I remember only three or four switchings, and I probably deserved them. She devised a devious psychological variant for the last two (I was big enough to use a knife safely by that time). I had to go and cut my OWN switch! If I brought one that would not sting, I had to find a better one. The anticipation made the punishment much more horrible! The last time that she switched me, I made sure to get one that she would accept the first time, just to cut down the time that I had to think about it.
Please do not get the wrong idea here. At that time, corporal punishment was almost universally accepted for young children, except for those who read Dr. Spock’s seminal book. As an aside, I met him several times, even at the grocery store when we both lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was actually a pretty jolly old guy. The first time that we ran into each other at the IGA, I asked him for an autograph, using his formal name. He said, “Nah, just call me Ben!” Unfortunately, neither of us had paper nor pen, so I did not get that autograph. He asked if I had been reared by his book, and told him that I had not been. He said words to the effect, “Well, it would have been better, but neither was I. You may turn out OK anyhow.”
Now, please do not be too hard on Ma about the switchings. There were only a very few over many years, so do not for a second think that this was an every day, every week, every month, or even every year thing. Very few, likely well deserved, and I really think that she felt worse about it later than I did. DO NOT CONDEMN her for that. It was the standard in the day, and I got much more lightly than many of my peers at the time.
Ma was much more loving than punishing. I remember spending the night at her house many times. I guess I was seven or eight then. She had some flannel nightgowns that were probably used to clothe my mum and aunt when they were kids, and we would have “sleepovers”. I called the soft flannel nightclothes my “granny gowns” and we would talk and laugh until I went to sleep. There was NEVER anything sexual about it, but to this day I am grateful to Ma for allowing me to wear them. She never was aware of it, but that fabric sort of opened my mind and allowed me to consider issues of sexuality that I might not otherwise have contemplated. She did not turn me into a “girl”, but she seemed to be a bit blind to sexual preferences. I know that it was not intentional on her part, but the influence has been positive for me. That is what kindness does.
Ma was not a Bible reader to me, but for now and then. Her teaching was more by example, like taking food to those who she could not afford it (I remember her driving her car to homes that had hungry kids and giving them food, all the while I was standing up in the front seat, another thing that would put her in jail these days). She also rented a house that she owned for little of nothing to the Chandlers, who were so poor that they could not have had a roof over their heads otherwise. That was the Christian thing to do. Their rent barely covered her insurance and taxes for the property.
However, she was not hesitant about telling me about sin and how the “Boogerman”, her name for Satan, would come and get me if I sinned and did not repent! She believed in a physical Hell where, as far as I can tell, the psychic projection of the temporal body would burn for eternity in burning sulfur. As far as I can tell. I am convinced that she absolutely believed this, and did not want either herself or me to have to suffer such a fate.
I never argued with her about that, but just “listened and nodded”. It is funny how one’s core beliefs are already pretty solidified by the age of ten, and even though I did not understand the word, I think that I was already atheist by then. Not a “preachy” one, but just a person who found the entire concept more like magic than science. I understand more complex words now, and although still an atheist, I in no way want to influence others to my philosophy in this area. Matters of faith are private, and if you happen to be very religious, I say good for you. I do not mean to offend.
Ma had been brought up a Southern Baptist, but converted to the Methodist Church long before I was born. At the time, there was no United Methodist Church, and the ones in Arkansas were pretty conservative. Her logic, and I find it brilliant, was that only members of the Southern Baptist Church could take communion, whilst in the Methodist Church communion was free for all, if they wanted to participate in that sacred ceremony. You may be beginning to understand where Ma was going here.
She was a PROGRESSIVE! By the time that she was 21, the minimum voting age in her era, in 1924, whenever she was able to get to the polls she voted Democratic, straight ticket. That had only been legal for four year! She NEVER voted for a Republican in her life, and she and I went to the voting area in Hackett in 1976 (the first year that I could vote) and we each voted a straight Democratic ticket. Remember, Jimmy Carter was on the ballot that year. She often laughed that her vote cancelled out the one from my father, who by that time was interested in the shiny, bright things that Nixon and later Ronny Raygun thought were good.
Her church affiliation says a lot about her. She wanted her religion to be inclusive, not exclusive. Although I do not agree with her religious beliefs, I fully agree with her ideas about being inclusive.
Ma had one bad flaw. She was a racist. Not nearly as racist as Dad, but still was one. However, she NEVER said any bad thing to any person. The “Do as you would…” was more important to her, and rightly so. But in the privacy of our homes, she told it as she understood it.
I remember when Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won one of his boxing rounds, boxing against a Caucasian man. Ma said, “Weel, ye know that them niggers have heads jest a hard as a gourd.” Yet she NEVER said anything hurtful to a real person, and she interacted with lots of black people in her time. That is the paradox of Ma, and the paradox of me.
I have said many times here that I am a recovering racist. This is true, because of my upbringing. When one is brought up with this kind of influence, day after day, year after year, it sort of gets drilled into one’s brain, and more influentially, ones psyche. I am not sure that I can EVER completely be exorcised of this, but I am, to mix metaphors, light years beyond my upbringing. Ma was the least racist person in my young household, my mum next, but all of them were overshadowed by my father, who had not a tolerant bone in his body. But please do not condemn him, either. He was also a son of the times and the region.
Now for the finale about Ma. I told this story in the piece to which I linked, I think that is appropriate to repeat it here to give you a better understanding about her philosophy. You can look up the link for the entire story, but in a nutshell it is just this: she and other family members were visiting, and for some reason the subject of homosexuality was a topic. This was decades before the same sex marriage debate. I think that it might had had to to with a relative, but that is speculation.
As the discussion evolved, Ma was getting a bit uncomfortable. We all thought it was about our assumed dislike that she had for homosexuals, but it was quite the opposite. It was her discomfort for my father’s mean and hurtful statements. Here are Ma’s words, and not too much of a paraphrase:
“Weel, if thats the worstest thang than them do, I thank that Jesus would say that they are OK.”
How is this from a person who should have fit into the wingnut profile? Ma was an extremely special person, and her philosophy lives inside of me: be kind to others, do not judge, and be inclusive. I was very lucky to have her as my Ma.
If you have stories to tell about growing up, please share them in the comments. I enjoy growing up vicariously through you.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith