One of the books I enjoyed reading to my beloved offspring when they were young was called Are You My Mother? This baby bird somehow gets separated from her mom, so everything she encounters is a possible mother, so she asks just in case. Every page featured a new possibility -- I think one of them was a bulldozer, for God's sake!
Since that book is still around today, there must be some truth in it, some embedded instruction that sneaks in with the delight it offers children. Babysitters, childcare workers, teachers -- they are all ordained Surrogate Mother by the heartbroken mom who leaves the love of her life in their care. And I guess the little tyke, after a brief fit or two of resistance, accepts the new woman (usually a woman, I understand, not always) as a mother-for-now.
My first long-term substitute mom was my first-grade teacher (there was no kindergarten among the woods and pastures of north Florida back in the mid-1950s), but I had a few notable ones before her. And, whether they meant to or not, they served as teachers. I was dumber than dirt, barely a post-toddler goober, and they were old and wore dresses, so whatever they told me, I accepted as truth. And however they acted was right.
I hadn't read Are You My Mother? when I was a kid, and I must have had only a rudimentary grasp of Carl Jung's theory of the archetypal Great Mother and Terrible Mother, but I'd heard fairy tales and seen Disney's Snow White, so I knew mothers could be pretty easily divided into Fairy Godmothers and Wicked Witches.
For a while, I was privileged to keep the company of my actual mom, but it wasn't so easy for either of us. She tells me my dad was trying to farm in those days, so, through no choice of her own, she took me out in the fields where she and my dad worked in tobacco and whatever else they were growing. She tells me now that it was way too hot for me to be out there, and the mosquitoes were all over me and it broke her heart to see me like that.
But what were her options? As every farmer knows, the fields have to be worked. You turn your back on crops for a second, and they'll die on you every time. If you can't afford to pay somebody to look after your children, you bring'em with you. It ain't gonna kill'em. Didn't kill me.
Some years passed, the crops rebelled against my dad and died in their various ways, and forced him and my mom to get jobs in town. She worked in shifts at what was called the Metal Plant. Sometimes she went to work at around 4 and came back around midnight. Other times, she'd go to work in the morning and work to 4.
(As far as I could tell, at the Metal Plant she worked on an assembly line sitting in front of a very loud and very dangerous machine, and she wore gloves that attached to another machine whose job it was to pull her hands back in order to avoid an amputation.)
While she was at the Metal Plant, someone had to watch me and my sister Martha who was two years older than I. Often that turned out to be my dad's mother. Some people claim she was a twisted, deranged, repressed old witch, but I was with her many a day and so I know better: People were just being nice when they called her that.
Whatever her shortcomings, she did give me some religious education. She taught me, for example, what hell was like, using two different methods: One, by describing it in the most ghastly, Gothic, grisly way possible, and the other just by her own shrunken heart. "Hell," George Bernanos' country priest said, "is not to love anymore." Aside from the possibility that some people were going to fry in the hell she so vividly imagined, I can't think of anything else she loved. So much for my first Surrogate Mother!
|Must remember to bring this lady an apple|
About the time Martha got old enough to go to school, my mom's mother took over the childcare chores. What a nice change that was! A Southern Baptist Sunday-School teacher, she was basically a Fairy Godmother with a bit of sternness worked in just to keep it real. She sort of worked me into any chore she was doing, whether it was picking blackberries, cooking dinner, or sitting around a gigantic quilt suspended from her ceiling in what was called a quilting bee, listening to a whole bunch of like-minded women gossip away.
(I can only remember three snippets of dialogue from those long days: "Oh, for Pete's sake!" "Well I swan [or 'swanny']," and the favorite, "Bless her heart.")
There was no TV and, of course, no video games, not even a phone, and the only tablets in the house were aspirins, so I was "always under foot," as they say, probably bugging the crap out of her with my endless questions, many of them focusing on her sewing machine with its impressive wrought iron pedal and some mysterious process called "changing the bobbin." She made me promise never to touch the sewing machine when she wasn't around, so I only completely screwed up the thing a few times.
I also had many theological questions for her, but we'll wait until a future post to get to her answers.
But the female who taught me most of all during my preschool years was my sister Martha. She was, of course, no sort of godmother or witch, but rather a fairy or a wizard. Consequently, many of her lectures came from her boundless imagination. She must have been about five when she realized there were countless wonderful things to know that had little to do with what our lame five senses could perceive. She was part Dr. Seuss, part Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes," part Scheherazade. Oh, and what the heck, part Keats: Whatever her imagination seized as beauty was true.
For example, she topped me on a walk through the pastures one day to point out the rays of light issuing from behind a silver-lined cloud. She put her hand on my arm and stopped me in my tracks. "Look up there at that cloud," she said."That's where God lives." So, sure, she was a mystic and remained one -- she never left room for doubt --but she also taught me about science.
Once we were killing time in the car while our mom was grocery shopping, and I saw our doctor walking down the sidewalk. For some reason, I began to wonder what happened to doctors when they got sick. Who the heck did they go to? So I asked Martha about this, and she responded immediately. "You ever see pictures of those guys wearing Smoky the Bear hats and red coats and they ride around on horses? They're called 'mounties.' Well their job is to doctor doctors. That's who doctors go to when they're sick!"
That made such good sense! Why did I never think of that? What else would guys dressed like that do?
Martha was most helpful to me, though, by being a human "flash-forward-two-years" machine. When I was 3, in other words, her actions and teachings taught me moment by moment what it was like to be 5. I didn't have to guess about what to look forward to or to dread in the days ahead -- she showed me. I learned, for example, to dread vaccinations and to look forward to the school Christmas play.
So I was always seeing what life would be like around the next bend while she taught me everything I needed to know, from tying shoes to buttoning shirts to making up the bed to washing dishes to catching fireflies.
And when she made my days much emptier by going off to school, she brought all the exciting things she learned back home to me. She showed me what letters looked like and how they sounded. She showed how 1 + 1 equaled 2.
But most exciting of all was the afternoon she raced off the bus and up the stairs to our old house, pulled out some paper and showed my how just three letters, when put in the right order, made the sound of my own name: r - o - y. Martha glowed like that cloud she'd shown me in the pasture, while I was rapt, stunned by this alchemy.
This was more than I deserved! Those letters at school -- she brought them home to me and made my name. The Universe was a generous place indeed. And how Martha and I basked in its beneficence.
|Martha: My sister, my teacher|
Well, there's a time and a season for everything, and having learned about the magical beauty of letters -- and by extension, literature -- the abode of the Almighty, the fiery torments of Hell, and how to make a quilt, one day in early September, 1956, I approached the portal of Institutionalized Education, a portal manned by women, a veritable parade of estrogen, a stable of surrogate mothers.
A big door. A long hall, darkened at the end. No turning back, nowhere to run. Where would it all end? What kind of mothers were these, here to greet me?