Life is What Happens

The title of my blog "Life is what happens" was inspired by a song which John Lennon wrote for his son. The lyrics of "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" contain the famous Lennon quote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Della, Helen, and Me

The biggest single influence in my early childhood outside of my parents was my mother's mother Della who I called Big Mama.  I don't know the origin of that name, and she wasn't particularly big, but she was certainly a giant in my mother's and my life.

Della married Handy, and they had five children as I've already said.  My mother was the only daughter, so the two of them were unusually close due to love as well as lifelong proximity.  Helen and Della spent their lives in houses which were separated only by a few acres of pasture land on Hancock Hill.  Their houses were a three minute door-to-door walk through the pasture but sometimes faster if you were dodging one of Big Daddy's bulls. 

Big Mama was Mother's "on call" babysitter.  I guess she was like my nanny as well because I spent so much time with her.  She was the only person my parents would let me spend the night with until I was much older.  Helen and Kenneth's main hobby was golf.  Mother and my Aunt Beth were founding members of the Women's Golf Association.   So for every round of golf my parents played, I was spending the same amount of time with Big Mama.  I didn't mind at all and neither did Big Mama because she lived alone and enjoyed my company. 

Big Mama taught me to play dominoes, checkers, cards, and many other games we casually invented.  She let me win until I learned to play the game then she was very competitive with me. When we had a rare big snow, Big Mama tied a rope to a metal tub and made a "sled" to pull me around in.  

We watched soap operas, mainly As The World Turns, and Big Mama believed everything she saw on her black & white television.  If a couple singing a duet happened to kiss, Big Mama was sure they were really in love. 

When Sputnik orbited the earth in 1957, I remember Big Mama's alarming response.  Because she had to drop out of school in the 6th grade to pick cotton, she didn't understand much about science.  She was intelligent in her own way but seemed backward to me when I heard her say, "They'd better not do that!  Shooting rockets out there!  What if one hits the sun and causes it to explode?"

Big Mama's phone was on the same party line as our house phone as well as several friends and neighbors "down the road".  The way it worked was to pick up the receiving ear piece and get a staticy tone, then with your other hand, crank the person's short coded number.  For example, 3822 would be "two longs and two shorts".  The person would hear their "ring" and pick up their receiver and answer.  Of course, everyone who heard the rings could also pick up and eavesdrop on whoever was talking on the line.  Certainly there were few secrets and virtually no privacy until the 1960's when people were able to get their own private lines.  I remember times when there was adult gossip based on what someone had heard on the party line.   Big Mama and Mother were no exception. 

The main things I remember about Big Mama's cooking were watching her take white butter from a package and mixing it with yellow dye to make the "butter" look real.  Thinking back, it must have been a form of shortening instead of real butter.  Also, she made the best cornbread and sweet potato pie. 

Big Mama kept a barrel under the outside roof of her house.  Rainwater drained into the barrel which she retrieved and used for rinsing her hair because she said rainwater made her hair softer. 
She also dried peaches and apricots on screens outside. 

When she planted her garden, I followed behind her and tried to stretch my reach from one of her footprints to the next in the soft soil.  One night I spent the night with her because she wanted me to accompany her to the corn field to pick corn at the crack of dawn.  It was a hot summer, and she wanted to get it done before the day got too hot.  My drowsiness made it seem like pure torture to have to help hold the sack while she twisted and plucked the ears from the stalks.  Today, however, I remember the breath taking sunrise and the coolness of the morning.

Big Mama loved to fish.  Her idea of oblivion was to sit on the banks of the Bosque or Paluxy River with her fishing pole in one hand and a can of Falstaff Beer in the other.  I never saw Big Mama drink hard liquor and never saw her drunk but she did enjoy a can of beer when she was fishing. 

Big Mama never married after Big Daddy died but I do remember and think back on the many times that her friend Mayor Henry Clark came by to see her.  He was a lifelong friend and had been a buddy of Big Daddy's.  They would sit on the porch and talk and laugh about old times.  I doubt there was ever anything else.  Its just so clear to me that she never had or wanted another man after her husband was gone, and Henry Clark was the only possibility that could have existed. 

Big Mama was a sneak sometimes.  Maybe not a sneak, but she did have a secret she tried to hide from me.  She loved to dip snuff.  Her sister-in-law, my great aunt Etta liked snuff, too.  They would sit in the living room with their snuff cans & their twig brush & quickly put their spittoons behind their chairs if I walked in. 

This is what I found when I looked up the use of snuff by women in the South.

By the latter 1830s many of the younger generation of Southern women had developed a tobacco practice distinctive to their region, especially when contrasted to the growing anti-tobacco sentiment among reform-minded Northern women.  They did not take snuff, a dry, finely powdered tobacco, in their noses, a method that had largely disappeared in both areas.  Instead, Southern women began to “dip” it into their mouths.  Daniel Hundley in his Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860) described the process:
The usual mode is, to procure a straight wooden toothbrush—one made of the bark of the hickory-nut tree preferred—chew one end of the brush until it becomes soft and pliant, then dab back into the mouth again with the fine particles of snuff adhering; then proceed to mop the gums and teeth adroitly, to suck, and chew, and spit to your heart’s content."

Now I understand a custom they had learned from their mothers.

Because Big Mama was born in 1897, I was privileged to know a women who had a foot in both centuries.  She came to Texas with her widowed mother and siblings in a wagon.  As I lay in bed with her so many nights, she told me stories from first-hand information.  Stories about hardships, Indian raids, relatives who lived in a dugout until they got a house built, swimming in rivers, picking cotton, wearing dresses made from flour sacks, wringing the necks of chickens to prepare for Sunday dinner, and more.  She fascinated me with both her wit and irritated me sometimes with her ignorance.  I know now it wasn't truly a low IQ, but her lack of education always seemed to make me want to correct her.  I wish I hadn't now, but she was never offended and always accepted me for anything I said. 

Big Mama had a little Rat Terrier dog who was her only roommate and full-time companion for ten years.  Punkin was her name, and she was a nuisance but Big Mama loved her.  Punkin met her demise when she got out in the highway and was run over by a car.  Mother & Aunt Louise took her body in a box and buried it in the pasture.  Sherry and I watched and wondered what our mothers were being so secretive about.  Most likely they didn't want us to know until the burying was done.  Big Mama cried but didn't want another dog.  Just like her one husband, she was a one-dog woman as well. 

The last four years of Della's life were spent in poor health.  She had a serious heart condition which mostly confined her to her home.  After a long illness and much agony from my mother, she died in 1962.  My mother fainted at her funeral and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.  The doctor said she was exhausted from so many years of concern and caretaking for her mother's health. The two were finally separated.

If its true that familiarity breeds contempt, that explains why my mother and grandmother certainly had their occasional moments of quarreling.  Sometimes it amused me to see how mad those two could get at each other over nothing.  I usually silently took Big Mama's side but would have not dared to tell my mother that.  How vivid I remember one particular argument when my grandmother dramatically responded to my mother's words with, "Helen, I hope some day you have a daughter who treats you as bad as you treat me!"   Years later, as an adult, Big Mama's words came back to me from my mother.  I couldn't believe it when Mother said to me, "My Mother told me some day she hoped I would have a daughter who treats me as bad as you treat me!" 

I smile and think, "How much closer could all of us have been and how fortunate we all were to have such love and support from our families?"

RIP Della & Helen.  You were quite a pair.


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