In the sentimental look toward Mother’s Day, we sometimes get caught up in a stereotype of aromas from the kitchen, perfectly kept houses, acquiescent attitudes, and servile self-sacrifice to family whims. Trust me, that wasn’t Mama. My first memories go back to about the time this photograph was taken, We were a family of five with a dog – Daddy, Mama, three sisters, and Poochie, the fourth sister yet to come.
Not long after this, Mama took it upon herself to convince the school system, before the days of public kindergarten, that I needed to learn to read (at five), and they needed to let me enroll to help their student count. They refused, pointing out the Magic-Age-of-Six Law when all children should learn to read. Acquiescent, she was not. To mollify her, they loaned her a first grade reader, and she took charge of her illiterate five-year-old. I won’t go into how this messed up their system the next year when I entered school as an avid reader.
The servile self-sacrifice and perfectly kept house surrendered to a child-rearing principle important to Mama. Believing her mission to be that of making her four girls self-sufficient and responsible, the floors were as well-swept, the furniture as well-dusted, and the dishes as well-washed as girls, who were assigned the chores, did them. (Not that she didn’t occasionally decide a task wasn’t done well enough and send a lackadaisical girl back to do it over.)
As for the kitchen aromas, quite often they were of butter beans scorching on the bottom of the pan. She never convinced us that it was only the bottom beans that burned. Meals were well-balanced and healthy, but only on days when there were chicken and dumplings or some kind of fruit cobbler would we describe the aroma and taste as good.
Mama preferred digging in the vegetable and flower garden, chauffeuring Daddy who was too visually handicapped to drive, or chatting with church parishioners over spending time in the kitchen. Consequently, when I was nine, I requested permission to learn to cook. She agreed immediately, pointed me to the cookbook, and told me where she would be if I needed her. I don’t recall ever needing her. She had taught me to read!
The summer I was thirteen, she was back in school taking classes for teacher certification which left me cooking meals for six, reading to the youngest four-year-old sister, and keeping Daddy in starched and ironed white shirts – sometimes as many as three a day in pre air-conditioned Mississippi.
So I’ve just blown the sentimental Mother’s Day. Would I have traded? Let me put it this way, when I married at eighteen and a half, I knew how to cook, keep house, and tell stories to children. The class she took my thirteenth summer – Children’s Literature, which she shared with me when she came home, began what has become one of my great passions in life. Trade for a stereotype? I think not.