Saturday, May 10, 2014

Streetcars and Ravens- Lessons from Mama

          “Men are like streetcars, if you don’t catch this one, there will be another along very shortly.” And “Don’t mock your mother, the ravens will peck out your eyes.”. Unorthodox?, Maybe even a little disturbing? For me, these two pieces of advice rank right up there with “Always wear clean underwear, in case you are in an accident.” The oft-repeated admonitions I heard over the years reveal a lot about who my mother really was.

          My Mama spent her early years in the San Francisco, California area. Thus, the streetcar reference.  Really, it’s not like there were multiple men in her life. She married my Daddy when she was seventeen, they divorced and she raised me and my sister as a single mother. Then, she married the love of her life when she was 40. I think this unusual gem had been spoken by her own mother, and its message is a good one for young women. They mean to say to us, don’t pin your hopes, your dreams, your life on another person. Be stable enough in yourself that you can carry on. Thankfully, I have not had to test this in my own lifetime.

          The second, rather graphic reference also came via my grandmother. She was sent to a convent (what we would term today as a private school) as a youngster. I didn’t realize the origin of this “threat” until I saw the movie “The Passion of the Christ”. An unforgettable image, to be sure. Always delivered tongue in cheek, it usually followed something a bit embarrassing or funny that had happened to Granny or Mama. It was meant to remind us to be respectful (while hiding our giggles behind our hands).

          “Get mad at it, and get it done” usually followed by my full name- “Jenny Sue”. A natural born procrastinator and conflict avoider, it has always taken more than a little prompting to get me up and moving. This particular one always pops into my head as deadlines approach, or when the kitchen needs cleaning after a family dinner.

          “There’s a lot of great free stuff to do out there.” As children, she took us on a vacation every year, and  we stretched those dollars until they squealed. We travelled to California once in a VW bug, and though we didn’t camp out (recall the single parent thing), we did cook out on a Coleman camp-stove at rest areas along the way. Some attractions were pretty pricey at times, but we also entered every museum, read every historical marker, stood on the curb for every parade we could find. What great memories!

          “Enjoy God’s creation, but don’t be afraid to grab a hoe or a shovel to whack something when necessary.” Okay, these actual words never crossed her lips. But, there was a contrast that speaks volumes in my mother’s life. She loved to stand at her kitchen window to watch the birds that built their nest in the artificial flowers in the window box. However, when her faithful dog awakened the neighborhood by barking incessantly at an invading critter, she would venture out, armed with a flashlight and the sharpest garden implement she could find to dispatch the varmint, whether it was an opossum, or even a poisonous snake. This was one reason we encouraged her to wear an alert button as she got older.

          “Be creative”. Another one I learned by her example. She was an expert at brightening every corner where she lived, and on a budget. Seasonal decorations, home-made Christmas ornaments, hand painted craft items that sold like hotcakes when she and my step dad were “on the road”.  There was no limit to her imagination, and her desire to share it.

          “Be generous, even if you have to be sneaky about it.” With apologies to our frugal husbands. Mama was all about slipping some cash to you discreetly, and she had a list of charities that were the beneficiaries of what she called “drops in the bucket” each month. I’m sure they are all missing her dependability very much these days.

          “The perfect place to learn to sing harmony is inside a VW bug.” What wonderful songs emerged as we bounced along. Everything we heard at church or on the radio was fair game. If you rode along with us, joining in was a survival technique.

          “Find out all you can about your ancestors.” Books, books and more books survive to be distributed to her children, step-children, grand-children. It’s all there. The answer to every question you could ever pose. She would always remind you to look it up in your family book. Goodness knows, she spent enough time compiling them!

          “Make friends everywhere you go.” This is probably her most surprising legacy. There was not a doctor visit, a trip to the grocery store, or a walk to the mailbox that didn’t include smiling and speaking to someone, especially those who looked a little down-trodden. A quick honk on the bicycle horn attached to her walking stick broke the ice, and pleasant conversation always followed. As her time on earth ran out, we were amazed at the people that literally came out of the woodwork to bid her Godspeed. She had friends she talked to on the phone, corresponded with by mail, hugged on her way down the hall at the nursing home. These were not just token gestures of respect, but true and lasting friendships. Try as I might, I feel I will never measure up to her success in this regard. But, I owe it to her to keep trying.       

          So, for the first time in my life, I have no-one to send a Mother’s Day card to. I can only hope that my legacy will be as interesting and inspirational. This column is dedicated with all my love to Merry Lu Barnett McLeod Tuggle, November 22, 1933 to November 1, 2013.


Anonymous said...

Oh, boy! What memories! I think your niece and I have continued a few of these traditions, such as subjecting any passenger in our car to unsolicited singing. I am sure she would be proud!... Thank you for this article, Sister! <3

Jenny McLeod Carlisle said...

Thanks for the comment! This is one of those tip of the iceberg things, but I hope it gives a glimpse of the most important influence on my life.