Vickie Williams grew up in Louisiana, and this tribute to her mother during the holiday season communicates on so many different levels. Her mother was a woman of faith and generosity as well as a gifted cook who plucked her own chickens. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Vickie Williams
I was always a mama’s girl. Memories of my mother are sacred to me. She was imperfectly perfect, the right fit for me. She was my hero and greatest inspiration. I praise God for her.
The aromas in my mother’s kitchen were daily blessings. Cooking was her gift and passion; however, she would beg to differ. She would say her seven children were her greatest gifts and passions.
Lucille was her name. She stirred pots with sweetness, baked pies and lopsided cakes in bent, burnt pans, beat cakes with wooden spoons, and we loved licking the cake batter and icing on her fingers. She made gumbo and hog head cheese for holidays.
When Daddy came home from hunting, she fried rabbits and smothered them in golden brown gravy in the old black cast iron skillet, the only heirloom she inherited from her mother. She raised chickens, cracked their necks with her bare hands, boiled hot water to pluck their feathers, and made savory chicken and homemade dumplings.
When rations were low, she made succulent neck bones and cornbread dressing, pounded tough ground round into submission with a knife, made it tender, and even a baby without teeth could eat her beef. The smell of roasted peanuts and pecans piped through her oven with enticing aromas.
She peeled sugar cane with her teeth and gave it as treats to us in winter and autumn. Sage, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes baking in the stove infused the air with inviting southern comfort. She demonstrated charity begins at home. Her cooking was amen to that. I loved tugging on her apron, as a toddler.
Mother kept us well fed. Breakfast was ready before school every morning. She prepared three meals a day, washed, cleaned, and made every penny count on a shoestring budget. Because of her, where we lived was more than a house, it was a cozy nest filled with love and laughter.
We had to do our homework after school before playtime, but there were always homemade treats. She made the best popcorn balls with peanuts or pecans, fried apple tarts, gingerbread, and teacakes.
She was never short on generosity. She gave food to the neighborhood kids who came knocking on our door and were hungry, passed out cups of sugar, flour, and cornmeal to the neighbors, when their rations ran short at the end of the month. But we never went hungry.
She took in God Papa when he developed dropsy, cooked meals for Sister Bess, our neighbor next door, when she became ill, and was at the bedside praying for Ms. Safronia, when death stole her last breath.
My mother reached across fences. No one was a stranger in her eyes. She won hearts and made friends when she introduced her sweet potato pies and peach cobblers to strangers.
Mother emphasized the value of education, nursed my wound with turpentine when I stuck a nail in my foot, planted kisses on my forehead, gave me snuggly hugs, always believed in me, and affectionately called me darling.
She often said, “You’ve got a mind of your own, think for yourself, be a leader not a follower.” When I made my first F ever in an English class in the ninth grade and went home in tears quite upset she said, “I know you can do much better, don’t give up, you are not a quitter.”
She reached for me and held me closely. I kept in pursuit of turning that F around. My final grade was an A in that class.
When my sister Jo complained to her about not being good in math and said she couldn’t do it Mother’s response was, “You can do it! You slap the fart out of can’t and slap the hell out of couldn’t.” We often laugh remembering her antics and folksy expressions.
Mother in my eyes was a wonder-making woman. Sometimes, she was too loud when she laughed or spoke and engaged in gossip. Sometimes, she was too impatient and wanted things done right a way, as quickly as possible.
When she grabbed her pocketbook, it was her unspoken signal that “its time to go home,,” if we were at a social function. She didn’t drive, so reading between the lines was sometimes awkward.
If you picked the wrong potatoes for her sweet potato pies, her attitude would be rough around the edges. She would volunteer my services to take her to Mother Tate’s, whose cigarette smoke, snuff, and smoker’s cough made me gag just thinking about visiting her.
Mother would feed strays on the streets. She met Bruce, a paraplegic on the bus, and he often invited himself to our house for dinner. Hearing him call my mother Mom gave me the creeps, but Mother enjoyed cooking and feeding people.
She over indulged in her own cooking and was extremely particular about hands being washed before sitting at her table. She would call people out and direct them to the bathroom to wash their hands before sitting at her table.
Mother loved high heel shoes in all colors. She wore hats, all shapes and styles, and gloves on Sunday mornings, seldom missed church, and loved her some Jesus. She sang in the choir hitting flat notes, proudly off key, singing happily, smiling radiantly. She didn’t shout like most Baptists, and thank God she was not pushy about religion. She was not a showboat Christian. She practiced what she preached and said, “An example is better than a sermon.”
Mother introduced me to God at an early age and taught me how to pray. My first prayer was, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
When I came of age to make my decision if I wanted to go to church every Sunday, she said, “Religion is man-made, God lives in the heart. It is your decision, but God will separate the wheat from the chaff.” I was fifteen at the time.
Gossip was something she battled with, but she knew there was always room for self-improvement. Patience was not one of her virtues. She appreciated quick answers and relished solutions. She kept her promises, but spoke her truth and called a spade a spade.
She was no makeup artist. She was honey mustard brown with naturally wavy hair that did not need a straightening comb. Her eyebrows were thin and the eyebrow pencil would be too high above her eyes, which we teased her about often. She would laugh just as loud, when she looked in the mirror.
Sometimes there was too much rouge and her cheeks were too red, but she wore fine threads, never at the sacrifice of her children. Our needs came first.
She dressed us before buying herself anything and put clothes on lay-a-way. Before the bills hit the mailbox, she paid them off. She worked for Betsy Sterns as a domestic, ate scrapes off our plates, and made us her priority.
She could keep figures in her head like a numbers runner. She would collect money from the sisters in the Missionary Society at her church without pencil or paper and would have me record their donations after church. Each time the donations would balance.
Her deeds were good. Her words were kind. She was all heart in my eyes. We were strongly bonded. She was pleasingly plump and tall, a wonderful cushion, my refuge, and the glue to our family. She was a mirror that validated me, an oasis of blessings, a true love, my greatest cheerleader. Her prayers were velvet whispers.
Though imperfectly perfect, her love covered a multitude of sins. She never made a promise she did not keep. Once my sister ran from her acting sassy and Mother could not chase her down. Mother was true to her promise, “If I have to wake up at 2 am in the morning, I’m going to whip your tail.” She woke up at 2 am and delivered her promise.
When I graduated from high school and college, she could not attend the ceremonies. She had a heart attack each time. Because of her spirit, encouragement, love, and prayers, though poor as an empty sack, I made it through college. I soared on the wings of her prayers. She was the breast I suckled, the hand that rocked my cradle, my sweet lullaby, and blessed assurance. She was my battle hymn, anthem, spark, and inspiration.
I sing praises to her. She was my biggest fan, my beloved mother. There would be no me without her. Though mother only had a tenth grade education and spoke broken English, I learned from her never to judge a book by its cover. She survived sharecropping and the indignities of Jim Crow, and managed to keep a sense of humor and an abiding faith in God.
She has passed on. However, looking back I am eternally grateful for the love, wisdom, and wonderful memories she left behind. What a blessing she was to me!
“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough, ain’t no valley low enough to keep me from loving you.” These lyrics from a hit song made popular by Diana Ross captivate my sentiments in memory of my mother. Affectionately, her “darling” daughter.