August 15, 2007

Big Mama



Big Mama was my grandmother. She wasn't real big, or anything, but when I was a little girl, my mother and I lived with her, and I called them both, "Mama." Now, when I'd say "Mama", either the wrong one would answer, or they would both answer at the same time.

One day when I had called out, "Mama!", my mother answered. She was not the one that I wanted at the time, and since she was much shorter than my grandmother, I said, "I don't mean you...I mean my Big Mama." So from then on, my grandmother became my Big Mama.

Big Mama was pretty. I remember she seemed so tall to me, then, but really wasn't. She was probably just average. She was slender and graceful. Her eyes were dark, and twinkled when she was amused. She had the high cheekbones of an Indian...which she was. Cherokee.

I remember the things she told me about coming to Georgia from Tennessee on a wagon, when she was just a little girl. She said her father had whipped her with a chain when she was a child. I heard later that he was a very cruel-hearted man, and a strict disciplinarian.

Her family arranged a marriage for her when she was only fourteen years old to a grown man, and she had cried, and cried. But he loved her, and was good to her, and they had a good and happy marriage until he died at the age of fifty-one years old, leaving her a widow in her thirties with eight children. One of which was my mother, Sarah HattieMae.

My real grandfather died before I was born, and some years after that, Big Mama married again. I called him, "Papa."

Big Mama was such a lady. So dignified. She always looked dressed-up to me. Always a dress, or a two-pieced outfit, which she made from pretty flowered material. Always shoes with heels, and stockings rolled over elastic garters, to just above the knee.

Everyday I would watch her arrange her beautiful long hair, dark, streaked with silver, around, and around, and around in a circle, over a "rat", finally becoming a neat and pretty bun at the back of her head, secured with lots and lots of hairpins.

Having done this, she would go about her business of the day--cleaning, and dusting, and sweeping--singing all the time, beautiful old hymns.

She always had time for me--and talked to me--and really listened to me when I talked to her.

Some days she would bake several pies, or cakes, or make bread pudding. Everday she would make just for me, "do-lolly", which was red jello with sliced bananas.

On wash day, which was Monday, she would go out into the yard early in the morning, and build a fire under the big, black washpot, and get the water which had been filled with home-made lye soap, boiling and bubbling.

She would put in the white clothes first, punching, and poking, and prodding, with a long, wooden paddle, until they were blindingly white and clean. Then she used the paddle to lift them out into another pot of water, to be thoroughly rinsed before being hung on the line to dry. After the white clothes, came the colored ones, into the same wash water, to go through the same process.

Wash day was an all-day project, and I loved it!

My mother was divorced when I was a baby, and that's why we lived with Big Mama. Mama had to work, and she had to work in a mill in another town, but she would come to see me on her days off.

Papa worked for the railroad, and was gone most of the time, too, so it was mostly just me and Big Mama, and what a great time we had! Sometimes walking to town to go to the show, picking polk salad along the side of the highway, or picking bucketsful of juicy, fat, blackberries for pies, and blackberry jam.

I always had to wear the sunbonnet with the quilted brim when we went blackberry picking, because Big Mama said too much sun on your head gave you sunstroke.

Oh, she was just a storehouse of knowledge and good advice, and she was always passing this good advice on to me--such as "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins", and "If you don't have anything good to say about somebody, don't say anythng at all," and "You can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar." And all of that knowledgeable stuff, laced with subtle warning, like "Whistling girls, and crowing hens, always come to some bad end."

I spent a lot of time tying to figure out how many miles I wanted to walk, or how many flies I wanted to catch, or deciding if I wanted to say anything at all--or not! While I was thinking about all of this, I was always on the lookout for a crowing hen. I thought I had found one, once, but it just turned out to be a very effeminate rooster--which was almost as good as, in my opinion!

I also had to remember to draw an "X" in the dust and spit in it, if I had to turn around and go back to the house for something I forgot, and I mustn't forget to go in the same door that I came out of, and I had to remember not to put my hat on the bed while I was there. These were serious superstitions, and not to be taken lightly, if you didn't want to have bad luck!

Sometimes, I would just spend the time pondering the profound things of life, like, "I wonder if cows give chocolate milk, sweet milk, and buttermilk," or "I wonder what makes people get old."

Of course, while doing all of this, I had to be on the lookout for some big, black, sneaky, "coach whip" snake, which at any minute might grab his tail in his mouth, and roll like a hoop, chasing me until he caught me, and wrapped 'round and 'round me, pinning my arms down, and beating me to death with his tail! Besides that, I had to be extra cautious, because running with that good luck penny in my left shoe might have slowed me down some!

And I never knew when, while berry picking, I would come up on a snake wrapped around a tree, who could hypnotize me if he caught my eye, and I didn't run away fast enough!

I was always glad when it was time for supper, because after that, Big Mama read to me the latest adventures of Alley Oop from the funny paper, while I sat on the arm of her big, wooden, rocking chair.

After that, I had to wash my feet, and go to bed, and to remember to ask the Lord to take my soul, in case I died before I woke up, because if I did, I wanted him to be reminded.

Now, I could go to sleep, and all I had to do when I woke up, was not get up on the wrong side of the bed, and to remember not to put my left shoe on first. And I had to remember to keep a pleasant look on my face, and not frown, just in case it came a hard freeze during the night, and my face would be stuck like that.

Now, I know that was an awful lot of stuff for a little kid to have to do, and remember everyday, but I have to admit that I received an answer to one of my very profound questions about life--I found out what makes people get old!

As tired as I was, or as worried as I was, it just all faded away as I drifted off to sleep, listening to my Big Mama pray for her family, or sometimes, listening to her beautiful, sweet voice in the next room, singing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved......"

3 comments:

rockync said...

What wonderful memories and it sparked some of my own childhood memories. Fun to remember those days of pickin' berries and runnin' barefoot! You reckon Big Mama told you all those things to keep your mind busy and your mouth closed? She may have been wiser than you ever imagined... :)

Jan said...

LOL..yes, she was a wise woman, indeed. Although she must have been a superstitious person, many southeners are, much of it was said in jest...such as the frowning face possible being stuck that way if it came a hard freeze.

My days with Big Mama were some of my happiest childhood memories, and some of my saddest one, too.

I just try to remember all of the details that I can when I write about them

Jan said...

shoot...I've just got to watch out for those typos, or folks will get the idea that I can't spell!