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Choose Your Mother Carefully ~ Part 1 of 2
By Don McCauley
 
     She’s gone now. So are all the people who may have known how her nickname, Shine, originated. Certainly it wasn’t because of her sunny disposition; she was a mean-spirited, nasty tempered woman. Perhaps the name originated with her most prized attribute, her hair. Even at seventy, her hair was a bright reddish-blond, and she frequently found ways to slip some reference to her hair into the conversation.

     According to Shine, when her first child was a baby, she, her husband and the baby were vacationing at the ocean. While she was wading near the shore, a big wave rose up, knocked her down and carried the baby away. A few minutes later, another wave deposited the sputtering baby back on the beach. Afterward, Shine always told acquaintances, “Wouldn’t you know it. I couldn’t get rid of him no way.” That baby was me. Since then, she and I have had our share of disagreements.

     Mama was an expert fainter. She could faint on a moment’s notice, falling to the floor like a shot but never hurting herself. Her faints were convenience faints. They always occurred when she had to face some situation she didn’t want to face, or she had something to do she didn’t want to do, like cooking dinner. When my two brothers and I were small, the fainting spells scared us, but later, we became accustomed to stepping over her when she blocked a passageway. Our father was the most affected; when he came home from work and found her on the floor, he had to cook dinner for the family. Practice made him a good cook. His trademark was square biscuits. Instead of cutting them with a round cutter, he simply rolled them out and made horizontal and vertical knife cuts. If we were out playing and came in near dinner time, we could tell whether Mama had fainted again by the shape of the biscuits; square yes, round no.

     When I was about twelve, I ripped the back of my favorite shirt climbing a tree, and asked Mama to sew it for me. Shine, of course, refused. I had watched her use the foot treadle powered Singer and decided to do it myself. I bunched up the torn area, frayed edges out, and sewed close to the body of the shirt several times. The effect resembled a weird bunch of flowers protruding from my back. Mama never commented about the shirt and didn’t even complain that I had used her sewing machine. I continued to wear the shirt frequently. Whenever friends or relatives saw the shirt, they would inevitably ask, “Who sewed that shirt?”
“Mama did.” I replied. Shine never responded, one way or the other.

     Mama was a fair cook. She burned at least 50% of all the potatoes she tried to boil. She acted as though water was more precious than gold, but some recipes were great. I have fond memories of the warm kitchen filled with pleasant odors when she cooked fresh coconut cake. My job was to crack, peel and grate the coconut, a tough and sometimes bloody job. Years later, after I left home, I asked Mama for the recipe. She wouldn’t give it to me. Remembering how she boiled the coconut milk with sugar, tested the syrup then added the grated coconut, I experimented until I could make it better than she ever did.

     I learned a lot from my mother. The greatest lesson she ever taught me, without knowing it, was to be independent. I grew up convinced that anything can be accomplished if you gather enough information and persevere. When I graduated from the university, her comment was, “What do you need all that education for? I did all right without going to college.” But once, when she thought I wasn’t around, I overheard her bragging to a friend that her son graduated from college with honors.

     Food didn’t interest Shine much, but it played a significant role in her life because of her family. The extended family grew larger as her sons married and had families. Having had all boys herself, for some reason, she couldn’t tolerate girls, especially her granddaughters. Part of the dubious legacy she left with them involved food. “When you’re in my house you eat what I fix. You’re going to sit here until you finish your liver and turnips.” No matter that one of the kids would gag or even throw up, that didn’t soften her resolve. “You follow the rules when you’re in my house, so eat!” Sometimes they sat in front of some inedible portion on their plate for an hour or more until Shine left for a nap.

     Mama was understandably dismayed when my first marriage broke up and I married Marie. Shine refused to meet Marie and referred to her as, “That witch from Baltimore.” Shine blamed Marie for breaking up my first marriage. The relationship between Mama and me reached a climax when I drove 150 miles to pick up my two sons from the first marriage who had been visiting their grandmother and grandfather. I took Marie’s young daughter along. Before I could get out of the car, Shine came running out of the house screaming, “She can’t come in here! Get her away from here! Go away and don’t come back!”

     I rushed the boys into the car and left. After that, Mama didn’t speak to me for seven years. My father suffered the most. He had no contact with his grandchildren or me during that time. Since he had never met Marie, he knew nothing about his daughter-in-law. That situation changed in one dramatic meeting.

© 2001 Don McCauley All rights reserved Part two continues next month.


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