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MY MOTHER was the most complete person that I have ever known. We thought she was beautiful. She had straight, aquiline features and kind eyes. Her eyes could quickly register displeasure, though, and they often spoke for her in place of her tongue. When our misbehavior called for a reprimand, she often had only to look sternly at us and things soon straightened out.
We took great pride in our mother’s physical appearance, and we loved the bib ball of hair she always coiled at the nape of her neck. I remembered her saying that sometimes her school children would ask her to take the hair pins out of her hair and let them see how long it was. She often complied. Her hair was magnificent. Very few people I have ever seen had hair that could match hers in length or beauty. She could easily sit on it, and she told us that when she was young, it was so abundant that she could comb it down and it would completely obscure her face.
Once Mother had quite an annoying experience with her luxuriant hair. She came home from school one day greatly perplexed and annoyed because of a fierce itching all over her scalp. None of us had ever experienced head lice, and I don’t think that she suspected them at first, but after this prolonged itching, Mother had my older sisters inspect her scalp. Sure enough, she had been infected with the pests. Perhaps someone who had lice in their hair might have put on her hat, but she never knew where she acquired the pests. She and her girls frantically went to work on eradicating them before they spread to the other female members of the family.
She used all the home remedies that she knew before sending to the drug store for something she called Red Percipicata. I’ve never seen it used since, but whatever this mixture was, it soon rid her hair and scalp of these terrible pests.
Mother had another sad experience with the little pests, but this time they were little mites that live on, bite and annoy chickens. Mother always kept a number of fowl because we had lots of table scraps to throw to them, and she was always trying to find some method to aid her in providing food for her family. She loved eggs, and a good flock of laying hens was quite a financial asset.
Mother had put one of her best hens to sit on a number of eggs in order to try to have an early brood of biddies. In caring for her hen, she discovered that the fowl had acquired mites on her body, and Mother quickly decided to try to help her get rid of them before the baby chicks arrived.
Someone must have told Mother that kerosene was useful in doing this, but perhaps forgot to tell her to touch it lightly on the hen’s feathers and not on her body. Mother was unaware of the unhappy consequences that might result from its use, so she4 took the hen from the nest and with our assistance carefully applied some kerosene to parts of her body. We turned her loose thinking that she would soon be relieved of the mites and the annoying itch. But the opposite of what we had hoped for happened. The poor hen must have been practically on fire from the burning action of the kerosene. She seemed frantic as she ran and squatted in piles of sand, ashes, or anything she saw in the yard that she could flutter or wallow in. Madly, she scrubbed and floundered her breast, wings and legs in desperate efforts to assuage the burning on her body.
Mother was deeply hurt and dumbfounded. None of us knew what to do, and, we could only regret the ignorance which led us to plunge our hen into such an unfortunate state. Our poor hen lost her feathers as a result of the application and for a long time, she ran around the yard minus any feathers except one or two left sticking up in her tail. Mother never resorted to the use of kerosene for mites on chickens again.
Mother was a very quiet type of person. She had the rare ability to work and live with various types of individuals, yet exercise a discerning restraint that seemed to draw people to love and trust her. She had scores of friends, and if anyone of them ever strayed from the narrow path, they never wanted Miss Leary to hear of it.
Mother was compassionate. The bowls of hot soup traveled from neighbor to neighbor, especially in times of need and sickness. In fact, a big pot full of soup stock was cooking on Mother’s range on most any day, particularly on days that were cold and rainy.
Mother seemed to have had the knack for making almost anything provide some element of her soup mixture. If she had a large soup bone for her soup stock, this was quite good, but if it was unavailable, meet trimmings and small pieces of fat provided the meaty taste. She added the necessary vegetables such as canned little volunteer tomatoes from the garden, corn and okra to this liquid. The pot of soup would bubble, gurgle and simmer temptingly for hours on the back of the stove until its aroma was inviting enough to make almost anyone, sick or well, delight in having a bowl.
She had little money to give, but from her store of spiritual strength and large amount of good common sense, she gave freely to her family, to the woodcutter who cut her wood, to the woman who washed her clothes and to the neighbors who came to sit and talk with her.
Mother was small in stature with well-shaped hands and feet. Her voice was gentle. She reared six children, mostly alone because our father died when the oldest was only thirteen or fourteen years of age.
I never heard my mother scream at any of us. She spoke gently but firmly if the occasion demanded it. At times we received a switching with the little limbs always available from a peach tree in our yard. The switching was applied in a light but firm, positive manner. She always let us know that she required respect and obedience from each of us, and we fully cooperated.
My mother was a master of letter writing and she wrote a very beautiful hand. We always loved to receive her letters, and she made them bonds of affection that helped tie her family together. In them, she tried to keep each one aware of the others’ activities and what the doings were at home. We were never surprised to receive bits of homey advice and encouragement, and we treasured her common sense reasoning in answer to our calls for help in solving weighty problems.
Mother’s first tutoring came from her father, who seemed to me to have been a rather demanding teacher. I remember her telling of how terrible it was when her father required her to sit in her room and study her lessons for a long time when she longed so much to go outdoors and play.
She later spent years under dedicated, thorough northern teachers who taught at Scotia Seminary. Because of hardly any schooling facilities in the section where she lived, she was sent to this early missionary school when she was about eight or nine years of age. These early teachers insisted on mastering the fundamentals of English, and this training developed her into the proficient scholar that she was.
Her schoolmates, friends, relatives and, on occasion, fellow teachers discovered her many talents. She had a superior knowledge of English, the ability to write well, and a willingness to use her talents liberally to help others in need of her help. She often received requests for assistance with important letters, essays or pedagogical treatises, and she seldom failed to give her assistance.
She was always my chief literary critic as long as she lived. Her advice and criticism on important letters or other types of manuscripts always filled me with satisfaction because I had a great confidence in her ability to evaluate and criticize.
Mother was methodical. Every Saturday night, each member of the family had to undergo a full ablution before going to bed. This occurred frequently during the week, but on Saturday, it was particularly a must for the younger ones.
The matter of taking a bath years ago was not as easy as it is today. We had no bathroom at that time, and baths were taken in a big tin tub placed before the fireplace in the kitchen or a warm bedroom. The bath water was heated in a kettle or a big cooking vessel placed on the kitchen stove, brought to the bedroom and poured in the tub. In order to keep the bedroom floor as dry as possible from our liberal splashing of water, old rugs and several layers of newspapers were placed under and around the tub to help take care of excess water. But even these precautions proved ineffective at times, and the floor would get wet.
To give a bit of privacy when the bedroom was the selected spot for bathing, Mother would arrange a few chairs to form a barricade around the bather and cover them with a sheet or blanket. This kept the nude one somewhat out of the view of whoever came into the room. It also helped to eliminate the cries, Mama, she’s looking at me naked!
At six or seven years of age, I was groaning for sleep at bedtime, but Mother’s insistence on a Saturday night bath usually won out against the wishes of anyone who did not wish to bathe. Each one received a good scrubbing with special attention given to the ears and neck and then knelt to say the favorite children’s prayer, Now I lay me…, before going to sleep.
My mother was extremely neat, especially in her daily dress. Whenever she came from her bedroom to cook, her hair was neatly arranged, and she was completely dressed which included wearing her favorite brooch at her neck or perhaps a bit of ribbon. I do not ever remember seeing Mother wear a soiled dress for an extended length of time. Her dress often became soiled from scrubbing, cleaning the stove or doing other work, but she would go into the bedroom and change her attire as soon as she could.
Mother was honest and very candid,. I remember her playing the game Old Maid with us. When someone asked, Who has the Old Maid? she answered, I have it. Maybe Mother didn’t understand the game, but we rolled with laughter at Mama’s truthfulness.
My sister related this incident about her to me. During my absence one evening, a supposedly old friend came to see my mother. Before she came in, he asserted how long he had known her and wanted so much to see her again. When Mother entered the room she was cordial but no look of recognition came to her face.
Don’t you know me, Little Nannie? he asked.
Mother answered, No, I don’t seem to recall you.
He then related some incidents that ordinarily might have mad Mother recognize him. But still, she had no remembrance of the visitor. After a while, he departed. My mother never did recall him. My sister said he seemed so disappointed.
Afterwards, I said, Mama, he wanted you to remember him so much. Why didn’t you say that you knew him anyway? But I couldn’t say that if I didn’t know him, she answered. And that was all.
Lean times came to our family after our father’s death, but Mother was equal to the task. After teaching all day, she would make dresses for her girls, shirts for her boys and sew until late hours of the night. Stockings were darned, and old sheets were made into pillowcases often edged with dainty handwork. Bleached flour sacks became dish towels and so on until the monthly wage of $35-$40 provided for the family’s needs. We never had extravagant things, but there was always warm, inexpensive clothing and plenty of food for our young appetites.
Mother was an excellent planner and a good provider. No matter how small the income, she knew how to save a few pennies from every dollar. Her Scotch heritage was apparent in her financial transactions, and she seemed to know innately how to get the best value from her dollars. After we were grown, she had no real need to pinch pennies. If we needed a few dollars, Mother was always a dependable source.
She was also artistic. I remember a very handsome charcoal drawing of our father she drew under the tutelage of her teacher. If she had not elected to teach, she might have done well as an artist.
Mother knew the fundamentals of music and taught each of us. She was not much of a performer herself, but at one time, she could play hymns and special selections. Her knowledge of music was the starting point of my own musical education.
Our home was never a fine one in size or appointments, but it was a roomy old-fashioned house with a big porch around it filled with children and a good mother’s love. We always had a piano to gather around for group singing in the evenings and very often on Sundays. Sometimes my oldest sister would play the music. After I learned to play well enough, I was often the accompanist. Mother loved to hear us sing old-fashioned songs.
I shall always be grateful to the while storekeeper in our neighborhood. He was a quiet, handsome young man, with a very fair but ruddy complexion. He was always very-dresses as if going to a bankers’ executive meeting rather than to work as the manager of a small neighborhood store in a community of colored people.
The store operated in a wood box-like building that was very close to the ground. I don’t believe there were any windows in the building except two small ones at the front.
His store might be compared to what is called a general store in the country, with stock consisting of almost every imaginable type of merchandise. People could buy lamps, wicks, brooms, dishes, pans, kindling wood, a few pieces of clothing and food. In fact, most of the wants of the neighborhood were satisfied from this small business.
A big molasses barrel with a spigot on it was at the back of the store because many people bought what was called black strap molasses for eating and cooking. I remember people saying that once a thief broke into a small store in the neighborhood and pulled the bunghole stopper out of the molasses barrel which caused a catastrophe that took days for the storekeeper to clean up.
There was a large container for kerosene and grown-ups as well as children would carry home a can full of oil for the lamps each evening. Our own kerosene can with a spout was always in the corner of the kitchen ready for use.
Loaves of baker’s bread were in a glass showcase at the front of the store, but there was never a great demand for store-bought bread since most housewives in Brooklyn baked hot biscuits, corn bread or light bread for their families.
As I remember, only a very few bakeries existed in town. Neighborhood stores similar to this small one dotted the area of Brooklyn before the coming of the big chain grocery stores. The population used these stores almost entirely for their weekly purchases. Many storekeepers allowed them to run food bills, and every Saturday night, you would see people come in to settle the week’s bill. This particular storekeeper with whom we traded allowed my mother to buy basic foods on credit during the summer months when school was closed and teachers did not receive summer pay. Sometimes the bill would amount to a large sum before the summer was over, but in the fall when school reopened, Mother would pay up every dime. This act of faith in Mother’s honesty by granting her long-term credit meant much to the entire family.