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  • Don’t get above your raising!

    2011 - 08.11

    A few days ago I created a new Facebook page for people to reminisce about our hometown in Tennessee. I was shocked how quickly it filled with new members, each one sharing funny, sad or quirky memories. One that still makes me laugh is when the football team put one of the cheerleaders’ car inside the school hallway. Yes, the car was small and the boys were large, so it was easily removed after they got the anticipated laughter and appreciation of those that can take a joke.
    This brings me to a point I want to make. We are where we came from. One of the things I like most about Dolly Parton is she has always been proud of her roots, where she came from. By the way, my hometown isn’t too far from where she was born and raised. It’s a beautiful part of east Tennessee and I will always be grateful that’s where my family is from. We had our odd “sayings”, our “different” beliefs, our own sort of linguistic shorthand, all of which makes us an original people. I’m blessed to have the heritage I have.
    No matter what part of the country you’re from, you have, I hope, fond memories of your childhood. And probably like many of us, the very thing you kept insisting you wanted to get away from as you grew up is the very thing you treasure most now. I’d like to see more people express pride in their hometown, their family, the idiosyncrasies that made each family special. I want to share one of the stories from my book, Saturday Night Cocoa Fudge, a book about my family. You think I’m not proud of them?
    I nestled into a corner of the room where Aunt Onita’s bed crowded the wall. I’d learned to play silently when other people were in the room. Mommy told me that talking out loud to my paper dolls was sometimes cause for other family members to keep asking her something about my head.
    “Oh lord, Ruby, what in the world are you talkin’ about?” My mother’s throaty, husky laugh caused short little bursts of cigarette smoke to come out of her nose and between her lips.
    “Oh Midge, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m a-talkin’ about now. Law ha’ mercy, girl! I wasn’t born yesterday, you know, and neither was you.”
    Even through the haze of hairspray I could see how red Momma’s face was. She slid her eyes toward me as if just then remembering I was in the room.
    “Now Ruby, you just watch that big ol’ mouth a-yours. Lil pitchers have big ears, y’know.”
    I hated those words. Those words were usually followed by the demand that I leave the room and I so wanted to stay. This was my favorite time of the week. Saturday nights were like a special holiday to me, like a joyful rite of passage for a little girl that desperately wanted to be included in the “grownups’ talk”. It always happened when my mother, aunts, and older cousins all got together.
    Tonight was a larger than usual group of women. A couple of the neighborhood women had joined us, their laughter blending in so well with the others, all in symphony with the crickets that sang just outside the opened, unscreened windows.
    We were in the “front bedroom”, meaning the one closest to the living room. There were only two bedrooms in my grandmother’s house. I had a grandfather but it just seems as if he was always a hazy memory, an “also-ran”, to these forages into the trials and tribulations of being an adult woman in the mid fifties in the Deep South. Papaw was in the living room, smoking his unfiltered Pall Malls, a deep frown on his face that would vanish when I stood by his rocking chair, as long as I didn’t block his view of the black and white images maneuvering their way across the television screen.
    Mamaw, the matriarch of this extended family, was sitting on “her end” of the couch, suffering through the news, waiting on “her program” to come on TV.
    As I waited for my marching orders, I watched Mommy dip her fingers into a glass of water, raising her arms to wrap small, tight loops of curls around her moistened fingers. She locked each strand into place with a black bobby pin. The rubber tips must’ve come off her old ones because there were a couple of new cards of them on the dresser. The woman’s smiling image on the rectangular piece of thin cardboard was interrupted by the long straight rows of black metal pins.
    The sweltering summer air was redolent with various scents that represented these rituals. Perfume, some of it just the cheap dime store variety, wafted past my nose when any of them moved across the room.
    Momma was still laughing when she reached over to dip her fingers into the water, knocking it over. All the women shrieked, and giggled at the same time.
    “Lawsie, just look what you done went and did now, Midge! God, what a mess. Susie, hurry-quick, go grab us a towel.”
    Fifteen year old Susie did as she was told. No one questioned a grown up in this family. It never occurred to us “younguns” that we could register a complaint. It’s just the way things were done. A grown up told you to do something-you did it. It was very simple. Besides, I’d seen a cousin or two dare to question a member of our family. After he or she handed Mamaw, or Momma, or Aunt Anyoneofthem a switch with shaking hands, they never again had a problem with doing as they were told. Who said Southerners were slow?
    The bottles of Avon liquid deodorant, cups of coffee (in that heat!), tubes of varying shades of lipstick, matching nail polish, round plastic curlers with tightly fitting covers–all of it was snatched from the rapidly advancing pool of water with stray hairs floating in the wake. The women would bump into each other in their haste, then laugh all the harder because they knew they were their own stumbling block. No big tragedy. It was only water, for God’s sake. Susie yanked the hand-crocheted doily from the top of the dresser, spraying me with water, before she dropped it on the cabbage rose linoleum.
    Momma mopped up most of the water, then leaned out the window and wrung out the threadbare cloth. She then sat on the windowsill and dabbed at her flushed face and neck, grinning at the coolness of the damp rag. She turned a look of mock disapproval toward the other side of the small room.
    “Now see, if you hadn’t been sayin’ stuff you shouldn’t a-been sayin’, Miss Ruby, that wouldn’t a-happened, now would it?”
    My aunt Ruby just stuck her tongue out at her younger sister then grinned, the red of her lipstick smudged onto her slightly crooked teeth looked like blood.
    “Well, you started it, Miss Midge.”
    “I most certainly did not! Who started that whole mess, anyway?”
    I could’ve found my way through the darkest starless winter night by the twin spots of brilliant red on Susie’s cheeks.
    “All I said was that some ol’ goofy boy at school asked me for a date. It ain’t my fault all of you’uns got crazy like that.”
    Eva from next door roared with laughter. “Well it’s for sure it don’t take much to get y’all started. Law, y’all are a mess.”
    Ruby straightened her back, puffed out her ample chest resplendent with the job her white lace slip did in holding it all back.
    “I was merely tellin’ Susie that she had to be careful, that all boys, no matter how old they are, only want one thing. And why buy the cow when they can get the milk for free? That’s all I said. Then Midge started that ‘lil pitchers and big ears’ stuff. Next thing I know we’s all runnin’ for stuff to clean up her mess.”
    Momma, her own slip a little more worn than her sister’s, threw her arms around Ruby. “You know, if I didn’t love you so much…”
    Ruby returned the embrace, laying her head on top of Momma’s head. “Yeah, I know. You’d kick my butt. Tell ya what, lil Sis…anytime you think you’re big enough, you know where I live.”
    The room erupted with laughter so loud it forced Mamaw off the couch. “What’re y’all causin’ so much commotion about in here, anyway?”
    Ruby pulled Mamaw into her arms, forcing her to share her embrace with them. “Lord Momma, it’s your youngin’ here, Midge. She’s in here causin’ all sortsa problems. You know how she is.”
    Mamaw sniffed, pulling gently free of the hold her daughters had on her, and frowned. “I know how all a you’uns are, that’s what I know. What I don’t know is where my snuff is. Did one of you’uns hide it from me again? If I find out you did…”
    Eva dared to utter the words, “Mae, what d’ya want to dip that ol’ snuff for, anyway?”
    Here at last I could do my part, avert an argument that would end in Mamaw telling Eva to get her raggedy ol’ ass out of our house and go home where she belonged.
    “Mamaw, I know where it is. It’s on the mantle in the back bedroom. I saw it there awhile ago.”
    Mamaw patted my face with callused slender fingers. “That’s my baby. Glora Lynn is such a good girl. Now y’all best behave. Don’t make me come back in here again, y’hear me?”
    Every woman and girl in the room assured her that yes, they had heard every word she had said and they knew exactly what she meant. We all knew Mamaw wouldn’t come back and do anything more drastic than to tell us to hush our mouths if we knew what was best for us.
    Mamaw was the ultimate authority figure in our family. No matter if you physically lived in her house or not, if you were related, her word was law. No matter what your mother or father may have told you, no matter that you had permission to do something, once Mamaw told you no, you better never try to sway her. There was no cajoling Mamaw once she’d put her foot down.
    The year before Mamaw had told my cousin Susie and me to do something. It seemed that Susie didn’t agree and convinced me (by pinching blue marks on my arms) to accompany her in flight to avoid persecution. We ran around the back of the house. I still remember Mamaw yelling to us, “I won’t run after you. You always have to come back, and I never forget. Go on, run your lil’ lags off. I’ll be here a-waitin’ when you get back.”
    We’d ran around to the back of the house and slipped into the kitchen door while Mamaw was still in the front yard promising us what was going to happen. We slid under one of the beds and the minute we stopped giggling we fell asleep. Mamaw was kind enough to let us take a short nap before she pushed the long, wicked switch under the bed. Swiping her arm back and forth so she could sting the legs of both her granddaughters as we came scrambling out, crying and begging, swearing we’d never, as long as we lived, ever run from her any more. It took several days for the angry red welts to fade, but we never ran from her again.
    It was by unspoken agreement that the discussion of men and all their failings was over for this evening. The ladies would kindly adjourn to the kitchen. It was time to make the candy–cocoa fudge candy.
    Making cocoa fudge was an experiment in patience for all of us. No matter how many of the women tried, no matter what different technique they may use, it rarely turned out right. I’d stand near the stove, inhaling the sweet, delicious aroma of the bubbling broth, hoping that this Saturday night it would turn out the way the box promised it would.
    Whoever was cooking would eventually declare that yes there was a hard ball formed in the cup of cold water. It was time to pour the candy into the large buttered platter waiting on the kitchen table. It was then carefully carried out to the screened in back porch so that it could “set up”.
    By this time, any neighbor women that had been present for the bedroom follies had gone home, no doubt to make their own cocoa fudge. We would all leave the kitchen to join my grandparents in the living room. The adults would suffer through “The Lone Ranger” for my benefit, the news for Papaw’s benefit, then God help us, Saturday night wrestling for Mamaw’s benefit.
    As long as I live, I’ll never forget the transformation that overtook my sweet Mamaw when she watched wrestling. It was as if some demon had possessed her faint, humped-back, pot-bellied, body. She would lean forward, seeming to get as close to the action as possible, and her eyes would become maniacal. Anger would distort her face, creating a mask of devilish hatred for whichever wrestler she wanted murdered in the ring.
    “Look out, he’s right behind you! Oh Lord…that’s what you get, you stupid fool! Oughta get your head bashed in for not watchin’ what’s a-goin’ on. C’mon, get up! Gawd, I wish I could knock that fool out myself. Hurry! Get your ugly butt off the mat!”
    As the referee counted, I could see dust motes floating through the room as she slammed her fist repeatedly against the arm of the couch. She’d bang her feet on the floor, trying in vain to make her man in the ring follow her directions. If only he’d listened, he could’ve won every bout. If only either one of them could have heard over the screaming audience, they would’ve heard everyone in the houses on our street shouting out warnings. They just never listened.
    Since Mamaw seemed as ancient as time itself, I used to worry that she would become ill with all this screaming and shouting. Momma would tell her she’d best just calm down or she’d give herself a heart attack. It never alarmed Mamaw. Papaw would just sit there, smoking his Pall Malls and looking at his wife as if she’d lost her ever-lovin’ mind. I was always thankful when wrestling was over and Mamaw was still alive, even if she was mad at the world in general and all of us in particular.
    Papaw would pull himself out of the rocker to shuffle across the room. He’d inform us he was going to bed after he’d used the bathroom. We would wish him sweet dreams, sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite, never understanding why he felt the need to tell us he had to pee.
    It was time for the movie. Late night Saturday was the highlight of the evening for me. During a commercial one of the women would run to the back porch to get the candy. After determining the condition of the confection, she would bring us the needed utensils for eating it. If I was handed a spoon, I knew the candy was thin and runny and if I was handed a fork, I knew it had “set up” like concrete and I was going to have to chisel it off the platter.
    We would get in the floor, forming a circle around the large oval platter, eating utensils in hand. Mamaw would sit in Papaw’s rocking chair, the only one with a saucer of candy that had been scooped out just for her. We’d place our bottle of RC nearby, but out of the way. The movie would begin and our eyes would be fixed on the screen. The only sound in the room would be metal against ceramic and feminine sighs of contentment.

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