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A White Corsage

Mother’s Day is all past and here I am doing a Mother’s Day blog. My daughter always gave me a corsage to wear on Mother’s Day. I remember how apologetic she was that first year after Mamma died. She was worried that I would not want to wear a white flower since I’d been so proud of wearing red carnations for a living mother so long. Mamma lived to be 93. But I loved the white orchids Julie gave me and enjoyed honoring my mother that way. Now that Julie, too, is gone I’ve let the corsage-wearing slide. But I determined when I saw others at church wearing corsages for mothers on Mother’s Day that I would write something about Mamma. It’s not an essay, just a collection of thoughts about Mamma. It’s my white corsage for Mamma three days late!

My mother was a census taker for Habersham County in 1940 two years before I, her tenth child of eleven, was born. My next older brother was the baby then and cried incessantly for his nursing mother, says our oldest sister Pat who had to wheedle him into swallowing canned milk. Daddy enlisted Orman, our oldest brother, to be Mamma’s driver as she worked the hills collecting census information. Mamma loved to tell us about the time they were climbing a steep grade approaching a house and could clearly hear voices of folks sitting on the porch. “Here come them lowlanders,” one said to another. Because of the tone of voice she wasn’t sure whether to expect hot water to be poured on her as she climbed the steps but they were really cordial people. Thirty years later in 1970 when I, too, was a census taker in another part of the state, Mamma and I enjoyed exchanging tales.

Mamma made quilts out of old coats, not for fun or beauty, but just trying to keep us warm. She was a very practical seamstress, sewing of necessity on her pedal New Home sewing machine. We little ones took turns pedaling for her. I wonder if she wouldn’t much rather have pedaled herself. She believed every woman should know how to sew. Therefore, there came the time when I, the fourth of five daughters, should learn to make a dress. The resulting dress was so pitiful that even my conservative, penny-pinching Mamma said she’d rather I didn’t even wear it around the house. She said firmly, not unkindly, “You’re just going to have to marry a rich man, I guess. You just weren’t cut out for sewing.” And then she laughed at her own pun.

Mamma loved her garden, really loved it. Wearing a wide brim straw hat she’d start out early in the morning to plant, to hoe, to harvest. Though the sweat poured off her face, I think she was never happier than out there with the smell of disturbed tomato vines and the calls of bobwhites and mourning doves. She kept a little corner of her garden for growing rhubarb so she could make rosy rhubarb pies. She always planted cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, corn, okra, and beans. Sometimes she’d try watermelons or cantaloupe, and pumpkins. It was important to her to keep neat, weed-free rows, as straight as possible.

Mamma was a letter writer. Since my Dad could hardly see, she took dictation from him writing many letters a week in the most beautiful handwriting you will ever encounter. They wrote to all their children who had left home. They wrote to congressmen about issues they were concerned with, and they had several friends with whom they corresponded. Also, Mamma wrote her own letters of encouragement and beautiful descriptions to friends and family. My Dad had died by the time I left home but Mamma was faithful to keep mail at least once a week in my box.

When it came to cooking, my mother had to be innovative and stretch her resources. With ten children to feed, plus in-laws and grandchildren, and numerous friends, making nutritious meals was a constant challenge. I remember the time we had to save up the eggs from our sparse layers so Mamma would have enough for Pat’s wedding cake. I remember the huge potato salad she made in one of those giant dishpans the first time my brother Brantley’s bride visited. Helen was particularly astonished when she realized there was none left over! Mamma’s blackberry cobblers were to die for and her fried apple pies would make you forget all your woes. But whenever I came home from college Mamma knew what I’d like best: turnip greens and cornbread.

Mamma was a homeschool teacher, a killer of snakes who invaded her hens’ nests, and a barber. She knitted sweaters for soldiers in two world wars. In her 70’s she and her sister exchanged crafts, Mamma teaching Aunt Emma to knit and Aunt Emma teaching Mamma to crochet. She then crocheted at least one afghan for each of her ten children, plus many more. She lost one little girl to appendicitis in the 1930’s but nursed the rest of us through almost every known childhood disease. She endured great hardships but on her 80th birthday she called out before breakfast, “Girls, please don’t put my name in the oatmeal pot.”

My mother was a truly beautiful lady. She taught me to enjoy flowers and birds, to look on the bright side, to conjugate Latin verbs, to use dictionaries and encyclopedias, to pull feathers from a hen, to make jelly and bread, to write in cursive, to peel a peach, and to memorize poems and scripture. She taught me that God is love.

Thank You, God, for Mamma.

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Mamma’s Fried Okra

Mamma always had a crowd to feed. By the time the oldest ones of we ten flew the coop, they started returning home with friends and then with spouses and then with children. There were always so many of us that we left nothing in the pot at the end of a meal. Or, in the case of okra, no nibbles in the bowl.

Picking, or cutting, okra was a very itchy job. We were given gloves to wear and long sleeves. But I never could bear to wear gloves and I hung the extra shirt on a sourwood limb as soon as I was out of sight of the house. Grasping the okra pods, conscious to leave the tiny tender ones until the next day, we’d snip them right at the stalk. Morning glories glistening with morning dew brightened the scene, trying to overtake Mamma’s neat garden. There were cucumbers to pick, too, a favorite of mine since, to me, picking cucumbers was like looking for Easter eggs. And there was crook-neck squash hiding like sleeping babies under big umbrella leaves. There were onions, too, and, even, in a special corner of the garden, a small patch of rhubarb. But, back to the okra, however much we found and packed into our buckets, that’s how much Mamma would cook for supper.

She showed us how to slice the okra the thickness of three nickels, no more, and then she’d dredge the little circles in cornmeal or flour. She’d put a big spoonful of lard in her largest iron pan and set it on the woodburning stove. (Yes, in those days lard was part of our regular fare. Mamma bought it by the bucket, wistfully remembering when her family had hogkillings and made their own lard.) We were not to stir the okra until the bottom pieces would have browned to a crisp. “If you stir it too quickly, you’ll make the whole mess turn mushy,” she warned.

Mamma’s okra always turned out delicious, though sometimes crisper than others according to how much okra she cooked. Smaller batches were always the best. With larger batches she sometimes had to set the pan in the oven and bake the okra for a while. Either way, as I said, not one nibble would be left in the bowl. If one of us started to be greedy and take too much, knowing we might not have a second chance, Mamma would give us a look and we’d dutifully pass the bowl along.

Once, when my sister Jackie’s fiancé was visiting, Dad, who was inordinately proud of Mamma’s cooking, and who was also hoping to make Fred’s visit memorable, urged Fred to have some okra. Fred took a modest helping, though he later confided he detested okra. Wishing to enjoy the rest of his meal in peace, he ate the okra first. Dad noticed his plate. “Eula, the boy really likes your okra, give him some more.” Fred consumed at least three helpings of okra that day, but never wanted any again!

But he was about the only one who didn’t like Mamma’s crisply fried okra.

And today I make it, too. I still use an iron pan, but I use olive oil now. I still slice the okra thinly and dredge it in flour. And I still carefully wait for that bottom layer to crisp before I start lightly stirring. We have a standing tradition that no okra be saved until the next day. My grandson Charles D will grab the bowl if he has half a chance and dump the last circles on his plate! But he has learned to look around the table and politely ask if anyone wants more before he takes it.

When I go to the market to choose okra, I always select tender pods, not great big ones. As I do, I remember Mamma’s morning gloried garden and I can just smell the mixture of dew on disturbed leaves, the greening smell of squash vines, and hear the buzzing of a june bug. I can’t help thinking, too, of my father-in-law, JB, who farmed in south Georgia and peddled his beautiful vegetables in Coolidge and Thomasville. He had quite a clientele of bank clerks, dental hygienists, grocery managers and more. It was always a privilege to receive his generous gifts of vegetables–cantaloupes, squash, all kinds of peas, corn, and his wonderful okra!

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