Things My Mother Taught Me

“You young’uns better pay attention. You’ll have to do this yourself some day!” my Dad often admonished, particularly at times when our youthful reaction to a distasteful job was less than reverent. This was the case, for example, at hog-killing time in the fall. We hated the greasy, smelly jobs of grinding sausage meat and baking the skins and other inedible parts to “render” the fat that became the lard used as shortening and for making lye soap.

My mother didn’t take her role as the perpetuator of mountain lore as seriously as Dad did. We worked with her on whatever the task was, but as we did so she would often talk to us about a future far removed from the tedium that was a part of mountain survival. She had aspirations for the four of us that we would be well educated; we would move away from the mountains and find meaningful and fulfilling lives elsewhere.

The things I learned from her, consequently, were not the tangible skills required for fitting into the role of a mountain wife and mother. Oh, I learned them well enough. I could cook and bake on a wood stove, and do the family laundry with a scrub board and water heated in an iron pot over an open fire. I could make jelly and can vegetables. I could milk cows and churn butter. All these skills and a plethora of others I learned in a matter-of-fact sort of way as my sisters and I did them with Mother. The most valuable things my mother taught me were the lessons in living.

Mom and Dad lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a few years when my oldest sister was a baby. Dad had a good job as a streetcar conductor. Mom enjoyed city life and would have been content to remain there, except that Dad felt trapped. He wanted the freedom of the wide open spaces. The opportunity to return home came when the future of the ancestral home-place was in jeopardy. Dad assumed the debts along with the responsibility of caring for his aging parents. Life on the farm was extremely hard during the first years. But complaints, if Mother had them, were never spoken.

The secrets of their years of hardship were stored away in a trunk until long after her death. After Dad died my sisters and I pieced together a moving saga of hard work and uncertainty as we studied old documents and ledgers, promissory notes, and copies of letters to creditors in Dad’s behalf by the local lawyer. Mom might have said, “If you had stayed with your job in Knoxville…” but she never did.

Instead of complaining, she became an equal partner, sharing the farm work with Dad. Together they cleared land and planted it, harvested crops, enduring bad years as well as good. I remember times when she would put my baby sister on a quilt under a nearby tree as they worked and instruct me, a preschooler, to keep watch.

The hard work took its toll on Mom. She had the weathered look of one much older than her years and she was extremely thin. In all of this, she demonstrated for us a respect for keeping one’s commitments regardless of the cost. We could say that she taught us to play whatever cards are dealt us, and to play them to the best of our ability.

But there are two specific things Mother taught me: “stand up straight” and “turn your socks down!” Strange lessons? Not really.

“Stand up straight!” This was one I heard a lot. I was a painfully shy and self-conscious child, feeling that I was certainly the only awkward, uncoordinated pupil at Major School. Surely I was the only one with oversized buck teeth and freckles! I slouched and walked stoop-shouldered so as not to attract attention to what I felt was an unsightly and too large frame. Mother sometimes found me staring critically at myself in a mirror. As if she could read my mind, she would say, “Pretty is as pretty does.” So I worked extra hard to prove my worth and compensate for my lack of self-esteem by maintaining straight A’s. “Stand up straight” was her way of saying “Believe in yourself, look the world in the eye! Know what you can do, and then show what you can do!” This is a lesson I am still working on.

“Turn your socks down” was a lesson in doing my own thinking without regard to what others might do or say. A fad during my high school years was wearing the socks turned up. I really preferred the neatness of turned down socks, to go with my clean and polished saddle oxford shoes. The dirty-shoe look that was in vogue was one I could not bring myself to accept. However, lest I be a total misfit, I wanted my socks to look like everyone else’s. Mother usually inspected us as we left to catch the bus for school, so I could not get away with turned up socks. If she was out doing the chores I would try. She always saw this from the barn or wherever she might happen to be, and she would yell “June!* Turn your socks down!” I dutifully complied, but only until I rounded the bend in the road and was out of her sight.

Mother was not moved by the plea “But everyone is doing it!” She was sure to reply with a disdainful scoff, “That is more reason not to do it.” This way of thinking was, I suppose, ingrained in her by her own upbringing. Her mother was a Roberts, a descendant of John Roberts of County Cork, Ireland. The Roberts’ were known for their deviation from the rest of Grayson County. They lived in a community accessible only by one road leading in and one leading out. In the shadow of Bald Rock Mountain, it was known as Roberts’ Cove. The story is told that when the War Between the States began the Roberts’ decided it was not their war so they would not participate on either side. Because of their neutral stand, constant pressure was put on them to join the Confederate cause. The young Roberts men finally responded to attempts to force them into the Confederate army by going north and joining the Union Army. The community church was the only one in that section of Virginia that remained with the Methodist Episcopal Church when the denomination split in 1845 and the Methodist Episcopal South Church was formed. So being different was in my Mother’s Roberts genes.

The greatest lessons Mother taught me were not ones she consciously desired me to learn. They were the ones she lived and modeled. Her life was brief, though full. She died of cancer at age forty-seven. Our pastor, conducting her funeral, said of her that he had never known anyone who packed so much living into so few years.

It is the blackberries growing in the most inaccessible places that are the sweetest. These are the ones you take risks to claim yet you find them worth the effort. And the flowers you find by chance in places seldom trodden, often never seen by anyone else, bloom the most profusely. So it is with life.

March, 1995

*I was named for my Great-Aunt Margaret, with June as my middle name. At home I was usually called June.