July 19, 2009

Mama's Mortification

Today is Sunday, and down south, where I'm from, they'll be serving up a lot of chicken and dumplings. But I just can't eat chicken and dumplings without remembering Mama's mortification.

Just before my ninth birthday, Mama got married again, to a widower with six children. Now, Daddy was an uneducated man, as far as any formal training, but he was so much fun, and saw a little humor in just about everything.

In fact, he said concerning his education, or lack thereof, he did finish the first grade, and would have gone on to the second, but couldn't 'cause his daddy was still in there!

Not having been trained for much of anything, other than "hard worker" and because there was no work of any kind available, Daddy became a sharecropper. That isn't an accurate job description, because we didn't get to share in much of anything at all, except the work, and we got to live in a shack, which the owner preferred to call a house.

We worked the crops for the owner. We got some flour and beans, and a few meager commodities, and enough money for shoes when school started in the fall. This, of course, was as long as we were producing, but after the crops were in, and until we could start on the next one, we just got by the best way we could.

Mama canned all of the food that she could, and Daddy hunted, but when in the dead of winter, and the canned stuff ran out, and Daddy couldn't hunt because he had no bullets, things got pretty rough. With nine people to feed, what we had didn't go very far.

This one particular time, we were down to a little flour and lard, left over from a long period of meals, consisting of nothing but gravy and biscuits. So now, here we were with not really enough for one more meal, and it had been a long, long, time since our last one.

I watched Mama and Daddy as they stood in the kitchen, whispering intensely, Daddy, seemingly, trying hard to convince Mama of something, and Mama, obviously distraught, resisting adamantly. Finally, some agreement must have been reached between the two of them, with Daddy the victor, because he went around for the rest of the day, smiling and happy, but Mama looked extremely miserable, and quite a bit nervous.

I remember getting into bed that night-- which in itself, was hard to do, because sleeping with three others, it was quite an accomplishment, just to find a place to get into -- and I was so hungry. I just laid there thinking of food. Wishing I had some. Anything. I even thought of all the stuff I hated, like slimy boiled okra, and wished I had some of that.

I finally drifted off to sleep, with visions of tables and tables, loaded with food, in my head, and a painful, growling, feeling of emptiness in my stomach.

I could hear Daddy's voice, pulling me unwillingly, back to physical awareness. "Great Goodness! What in the world? You young'uns get up, and see what's here! Great day in the mornin', Mama, where you reckon this come from?"

Was I dreaming? Or was that really chicken and dumplings I smelled? No, it was real -- I could smell that wonderful aroma -- and daddy kept saying, "Get up, get up! Get up and eat, unless you want me to eat it all up!"

Oh, how scrumptious did those chicken and dumplings taste! There it was, two or three o'clock in the morning, and there we sat, eating chicken and dumplings, enthusiastically! Everyone except Mama, that is, who looked very pale, and more than a little nervous --which really amused Daddy, because every time he looked at her, he would get so tickled that he would burst out laughing, so loud, and so hard, that he could hardly stop.

I was too hungry, and too busy eating to try to figure it out then, but Mama told me a long time after that what it was all about.

Daddy, she told me, had been worried about us because we hadn't had much to eat for so long, so he had finally figured out a solution to the problem, although temporary. He had decided that since the man we worked for had so much, and wasn't concerned at all about whether we had anything, that it wouldn't really be stealing if he relieved him of a couple of his chickens. Now to do this, he had to enlist Mama's help, which is what all the intense whispering had been about.

He had instructed her, over and over, what to do. They would wait until late into the night, until everyone would be sure to be asleep. Then they would go across the field, up the little hill to the chicken house, and inside, where Daddy would take a hen, hand it to Mama, and then he would take one, They would make a very quiet exit, down the hill, across the field, and back home again.

He had cautioned her, throughout the day, to hold the hen in such a way that it couldn't squawk, and whatever she did, not to make any noise, which would make the whole hen house to start squawking and cackling, which would alert the owner, who, although not very generous with his food, would be very generous with a load of buckshot.

All went well for awhile. Across the field, in the pitch-blackness of night, up the hill, into the chicken house. Daddy handed Mama a hen, whispered to her to hold it so that it didn't squawk, got one for himself, and they were making their very quiet exit, when Mama kicked over a bucket, which created utter chaos!

Mama started running as fast and as hard as she could, while still holding onto the chicken. It was so dark, and she was so scared, that she sort of lost her sense of direction, missing the field, and going through the corn patch, instead. Which further added to her humiliation, because after that, every time Daddy told it, he would tell how Mama had torn up the corn patch.

"It just beat all I ever seen" he'd say. "Mama goin' through that corn patch! I'm tellin' you, she just tore it right up!"

But that wasn't all. When she did get home with the chicken, it was dead. Mama had held on so tightly, that she had strangled it to death. "Oh," she said, "When I got home and saw that poor old dead chicken I was just mortified!"

So now do you see why I can't eat chicken and dumplings without remembering Mama's mortification?

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy;
To deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waiteth for the LORD: he is our help and our shield.
For our heart shall rejoice in him, because we have trusted in his holy name.
Let thy mercy, O LORD, be upon us, according as we hope in thee.

Psalm 33:18-22