google-site-verification: google0e688bd979c6ae6e.html The Preferred Life: "Mammie's House"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Mammie's House"

Adrianne's Family at her Law School Graduation

My Dear Friend Adrianne, Author of "Mammie's House"

"The Furious Five"
The Days We Had Together Were Wonderful
Lord Knows We Had A Ball
Valeta, Maurishka, Nina, Adrianne, Portia

Over the last few weeks, I have been unsettled about some events that had taken place in my life.  I had the good fortune of  being removed from the situation where I was surrounded by people that lacked ethics, good business practices and sound leadership qualities.  I talked things over with long time friends and family members that reassured me that the recent events in my life came about for a reason.   They told me God removed you from people/situations that were no good for you.  He makes a way out of no way.  

Based on my lessons learned as mentioned above, I thought you would like reading a story by my good friend Adrianne.  I think you'll appreciate it as much as I do.  

P.S. Adrianne, you're wonderful!  Thank you for being my friend.

by Adrianne Turner

My great-grandmother lived to be 102.  Her name was Jessie Gilreth, but I never called her that.  I called her Mammie and I was 11 years old before I knew what her last name was.  We had a big family that spanned 4 generations and each generation called Mammie something different, but never Jessie Gilreth, or Mrs. Gilreth.  We all knew better.  Mammie had a pair of red sandals that she could slip on and off at will, and age had taken nothing away from her aim. So, the oldest among us called her Ms. Jessie or Aunt Jessie.  Her children, all 18 of them, called her Mama.  Their children called her Mama Jess, and we, the children of her children's children, called her Mammie.

I mentioned that Mammie had 18 children.  That may be a little misleading.  Actually, Mammie only gave birth to one child.  That was her daughter Lottie who lives in New York now.  But Mammie raised the other 17, most of them from the cradle.  I figure that makes them hers.  In any case, to suggest differently would have put one in the firing line of flying red shoes.

I asked her once how she came to be the mother of 18 children and only have one herself.  She explained that times had been different for "colored folks" back then.

"Each other is all we had," she said.  "So when somebody died givin' birth, or some young prissy not old enough to take care of her own self went and got herself pregnant, somebody would always help out by takin' the child in."

She never talked about such things as though they were sacrifices, as I imagine I would consider raising 17 of someone else's children.  She always made such things sound like matters of necessity; the same thing anyone in the same situation would have done.

Though I wasn't one of her 18, Mammie played a large role in my life.  She got me when my parents divorced and my mother moved back home to South Carolina from Detroit, where my father had taken her.  I wasn't one of those children who suffer through great trauma after a divorce.  I guess I was lucky.  I didn't like Detroit because it was icy cold most of the time and the people had an air of indifference about them.  To be honest, I wasn't to fond of my father either, since he was sort of cold and indifferent a lot of the time as well.  But South Carolina was different.  It was warm and sunny.  People smiled a lot, even the ones I didn't know.  There was family and laughter and love.  Mom didn't have to cry so much.  And then there was Mammie.  Of all the things about the south, I loved Mammie best.

I guess I caught the tail-end of what Mammie must have been like during her heyday, since she had passed 80 by the time I was born.  Not that I'm complaining.  I don't think I could have survived Mammie having any more character than she did during her last 20 years.  I missed some aspects of her, I suppose, but whatever those things were, her motherly attention wasn't one of them.

I was the youngest in our immediate family, and we lived only a football field's distance from Mammie.  A small forest spanned the distance between the two houses, but there was always a narrow path beaten out that went from front door to front door.  Hardly a day went by that I didn't make my way down the path that led to her old wooden house to visit.  Sometimes I would get lost, having forgotten to stay on the path and instead followed some small animal off into the high weeds.  But Mammie could always find me, or help me find her.  We had a code.  She had made it up after the first time I had gotten lost.  She would sing the first lines of the little song she made up, then I would sing the next few, and so on until I could find my way through the woods and to her voice.  The song, as near as I can remember it, was about a little caged bird crying out for Jesus to show him the way to go home.

I went nearly every day for a number of reasons.  It was partly because she insisted that I was her favorite among all her children, though I realize now that she couldn't have loved one of us any more than the other, but mostly it was because I was fascinated with her.  I never saw her when she wasn't in a calf-length cotton dress, long black or blue socks, a checkered apron, and of course those bright, shiny red sandals.  Her house almost always smelled like the apple-cinnamon turnovers that she made for me almost every day, which I would eat hungrily while she told me about how I was just like my mother had been at my age.  I couldn't imagine my mother at my age, and I didn't like the idea of her eating my apple pies.

But I suppose that if there was one thing that bonded me to Mammie, it was my sickliness and her ability to heal.  She told me once why I was sick so often.

"Why, it's on account of you being in such a fast hurry to get born.  You wouldn't stay in yo' mama's womb a day over 8 months.  Child, you near 'bout died 'fo you was a week into this world.  Your lungs never did get to finish developin' proper.  And you been marked by that very thing every since.  Always in such a all fired hurry to finish with a thing, goin' off in one direction or another, that you never do get through doin' it proper.  And yo' mama never did you no good by takin' you up to that D'troit and all that cold weather neither.  But she was just a babe her own self when she had you.  Didn't know no better.  But now don't you never fret wid yo' mama 'bout that there.  She done her best fo' you.  Just didn't know no better."

As a result of my premature arrival, I was fair game to every germ that floated around.  One fall I caught what Mammie called whopping cough.  My mother kept taking me to the doctor, but none of the drugstore medicines seemed to do the trick.  Whooping cough isn't your regular run-of-the-mill cold after all.  The coughs come in long spells, which cause deep gasps for air, which causes the coughing spell to start up again.  The doctor called it something I couldn't pronounce, much less begin to understand, gave me a shot and a bunch of medicines and told my mother to put me to bed.  Mammie called it whooping cough and pulled a chair up to the table so I could help her make homemade medicine to cure it.

She had all the things we needed in her crowded cupboards.  On the kitchen table she put an old mason jar, 2 bags of Halls Menthalatum cough drops, 2 lemons, 2 boxes of rock candy, and a pint of Rocking Chair whiskey.  The label of the whiskey bottle had an old lady sitting in a rocking chair on it.  I asked Mammie if she was the old woman in the chair.  

"No, tain't me in that picture.  Why if I was that wrinkled up, and looked just like any old dried out prune, I'd just go on somewheres where wouldn't nobody have to look at me.  Don't ask me 'bout no such foolishness as that."

Anyway, we poured the brown liquid into the mason jar, poured in the two boxes of rock candy, and dropped all the cough drops in one by one.  Then Mammie sliced the lemons in half and squeezed the halves until no more juice would drip into the jar.  She gave me the rest of the lemons to suck on, which watered my eyes and dried out my mouth.  Mammie mimicked my facial expression as I shivered from the sourness.  We both laughed, her at me and me at her.  Then she gave me a long spoon with a handle almost to big for me to hold, and told me to stir the medicine until the cough drops melted.  I enjoyed the stirring at first, watching the candies dance around on the bottom of the jar to whatever tune I struck with the spoon, but by the time the drops actually melted, some two hours later, the magic was gone.

When I was finished, Mammie screwed the top on the mason jar and shook it furiously.  By the time she was done shaking it, the concoction in the jar was frothy on top and had started to look rather unfriendly.  She sat it on the table while she rumbled through the cabinet for a glass.  It was right about then that a very unpleasant thought occurred to me.  I was going to have to drink that stuff.  I slid out of the chair and walked as quietly as I could toward the front door.  Mammie called me back before I got out of the kitchen.

"Where are you goin' child?" she asked.

"Mama said for me not to stay too long 'cause I had to come home and take my medicine," I answered quickly, realizing too late that I had given the exact wrong answer.

"Why, I'm yo' mama's daddy's mama," Mammie started, moving to place herself between me and the door, "and I'm atellin' you ain't no doctor's medicine gone do fo' that whoopin' cough what this here will.  Now don't you make such faces at po' old Mammie.  You knows I wouldn't do nothin' what would hurt you.  You always been my favorite out o' all the youngins.  Now you just take a good dose of this here medicine and it'll make you feel a heap better directly."

Mammie already had the medicine poured into the glass and deep down I knew there was no point in arguing.  Still, I gave it one more feeble shot.

"She's gone give me a whoopin' Mammie!" I whined.  I didn't know whether my mother would of actually done so or not, but at that moment it was my last hope.  It didn't work.

"No she ain't neither.  I won't allow no whoppin's 'cause of my doin's.  Now you just quit your wigglin' around and drink this here up."

With that, the glass was in my hands and my fate was sealed.  I smelled the liquid and drew back as if it had jumped out of the glass and tried to bite me.  I looked up at Mammie to see whether she'd changed her mind, or even moved from in front of the door.  Her facial expression hadn't changed, except to become a bit more impatient, and she still stood directly  in the path of an escape.  I took a deep breath, pinched my nose with my free hand, and drank the whole half glass at once.  It was hot.  Real hot.  I opened my mouth wide and fanned wildly to put out the fire in my throat.  When that didn't help, I hopped around the kitchen; first on one foot, then the other, with my eyes shut and finally fell spread eagled on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor and lay still.

"Is you dead child?" Mammie was bending over me, poking me in the stomach with her finger.

"Yes Ma'am," I answered.

"Well then you'd best get on the couch.  Ain't proper for a person to die on nobody's kitchen floor," she advised.  

I got up then, figuring that the medicine was going to kill me so I'd better get on the couch like Mammie said.  I could see the couch through the kitchen door, but for some reason it seemed a very long way away.  To make things worse, when I started to walk, the floor tilted crazily to one side so that I almost fell back down.  Mammies couch had never felt so soft as it did that day, which was a good thing since it came rushing up at me when I went to sit down.  The fire in my throat had changed into a warm tingle that reached all the way down to my fingers and toes, and made sleeping very easy.

When I woke up it was dark, and it seemed very late.  Mammie was sitting in her easy that we'd gotten for her one Christmas.  She was asleep, and in the yellow moonlight from the window she looked very much like the lady on the bottle of whiskey.  I could feel that something was wrong with me, something different than just the cough.  It was something about the way I was breathing.  It sounded like I was breathing under water, like I did in the bathtub sometimes.  The warm tingle that had put me to sleep was gone.  I started coughing again, and I was still gasping for air.  But now I was throwing up too.  Mammies medicine had made me sicker.  Mammie woke up not long after I did, and brought me a white plastic pail to lean over.  The stuff I coughed up was clear.  Mammie said it was phlegm.  She didn't seem at all alarmed that I was dying again.

"You got to get all of that out of your system before you can get any better.  Throw up just as much of it as you can."

So we sat up, Mammie and I, for a very long time with me coughing, gasping and throwing up, and Mammie rocking back and forth in the chair sing about a chariot that was going to come one day and give her a ride home.  When the coughing finally slowed down, Mammie gave me another dose of medicine.  I was too tired to argue the point or even pinch my nose.  I just swallowed.  It wasn't long before the warm feeling came back and I went back to sleep.  The last thing I heard was Mammies song about the chariot.

I went home early the next morning, greeting my mother with Mammie's message about whippings and innocent children.  I didn't tell her about the medicine Mammie and I had made, even when she said that sounded a lot better.  She told me that my breath smelled funny and that I wasn't to forget to brush my teeth before we left for the doctors office.  It made me laugh when the doctor said that the medicines had done wonders and I sounded much better.  I decided then that Mammie should have been a doctor.

That afternoon, when I set out for Mammie's, my mother made sure I had my bag of medicines with me, and strict orders to take them every four hours until bedtime.  When I gave the medicines to Mammie, she considered them carefully, tasting the cough syrup with her finger and shaking the bottle of aspirin.  Then she gave an indignant "humph" and put them all the way in the back of the cabinet behind a jar of pickled beets.

It was colder that day than it had been the day before, but Mammie made a fire in the wood stove that sat in the kitchen, so the whole house was warm.  She made us some corn bread that afternoon in heavy black cast iron skillet.  We ate corn bread and milk, talked, and sang church songs that afternoon, but the doctor's medicines were never brought up again.

I took our medicine willingly from then on, and kept my pail by the couch.  I never told my mother about my other medicines being pushed to the back of the cabinet.  It didn't matter anyway, since my whopping cough was cured before my next visit to the doctor's office.

I still got sick a lot during childhood, but Mammie always kept an ample supply of Rocking Chair whiskey on hand.  Over the years her cabinets and cupboards became crowded with bottles of cough syrup, antibiotics, and children's aspirin.  All of them full, all of them forgotten.  I never told my mother, not even when I got older.  But somehow I think she knows.  I have a feeling that somewhere there's a cabinet full of medicine she never took either.  If, after all, she had eaten my apple pies, she had probably taken my medicine too.

1 comment:

Denise Gabbard said...

What an awesome story:) I grew up in Cleveland, so I know about the cold and ice Adrianne mentioned. My Mom and Dad moved south just after our first child was born, so I have spent lots of time in Tennessee...wish I could have seen it 20 years earlier, though. This is a great story of growing up in the south, and family...she is writing a book, I hope?