A woman born and raised in the South carries with her the wisdom of the ages. Most of us had more than just our mothers watching out for us- we had grandmothers, aunts, sisters and cousins; we had our mother’s friends and neighbors- the list was endless. Our mothers told us that they ‘had eyes in the back of their heads’ when really they had eyes and ears all over the place! They dispensed an ongoing wisdom, usually in third person- ‘I can’t believe her momma let her leave the house in that getup!’.
They taught us the rules, how to behave, how to dress and why; regularly dispensed advice about men and what to watch out for; these women were our moral compass, why, they could even foretell the future!- ‘If you keep crossing your eyes, they’re gonna stay like that!’; they taught us about consequences ‘She’s played her stunts, now she’s payin’ for it’ – or ‘If y’all don’t get down out that tree right now, I’m going to jerk a knot in you! was the first warning- the second warning – ‘Alright, if you fall out of that tree, you’ve got yourself to blame for it’, third warning, ‘Just wait ’til your daddy gets home!’. For some reason, shoe advice was important- I’ll never forget my grandmother coming home from one of her meetings saying- ‘That Edna Earle embarrassed me to death wearing those white sandals after Labor Day- looked like weinies hangin’ out of a bird cage!’ Who can make this stuff up? Change your shoes, they’re eating up your socks and no, you cannot go barefoot until June!
It was ‘coarse and common’ to be poppin’ gum, smacking while other people were trying to eat a decent meal, and for heaven’s sake! Get that hair out of your face! The fashion advice was carved in stone- don’t wear white shoes until Easter, don’t wear white clothing after Labor Day- take a sweater, you’ll need it- that dress is hiked up in the back, how did the hem of your dress fall out? and ‘How could you even think of wearing that? I will not have one of my children going to church looking like that!’ Advice to children was straightforward- ‘y’all get outside and play before I lose my mind!’ – ‘Be home before dark- and don’t go too far or the boogey man will get you!’ ‘Here, take this jar and catch some lightening bugs, we’re trying to watch for Sputnik!’ ‘Settle down, y’all are making enough noise to raise the dead…’ ‘Where’d you get those chigger bites?’ The issue of weight gain was another subject- ‘Well, Gene, she’s gained up so much, bless her heart- I had to sit between her and Thurman on the way and it was like sitting next to dough and it risin’…’her ankles are so thick- she ought to know better than to wear ankle strap shoes’ and this- ‘darlin’, her legs are like tree trunks, you can hear her thighs rubbing together- that’s why they invented talcum powder, poor thing – her momma ought to be ashamed lettin’ her get that way’. To be too skinny was just as bad- ‘honey, you’re skinny as a rail, why a puff of wind would blow you away, a little padding wouldn’t hurt one bit in the right places’. My grandmother thought there were only two things that would cure you- a dose of milk of magnesia if you felt bad and a permanent wave if you looked bad. You had to watch out for men that were ‘down at the heels’, who looked like they hadn’t shaved, who had BO and the worst of all – was if a man just looked ‘seedy’ in general. The man’s condition was of course, not his fault – it was that sorry mother of his. Men couldn’t be expected to stay nice and neat!
We were taught the basic nice things to say- thank you, please, I sure enjoyed that supper, yes sir, no ma’am, oh yes, I’m just fine (because no one wants to hear you whine). And we all knew to stand up straight (we didn’t want to end up all bent over), keep your voice down, don’t sing too loud, cover your mouth, wear clean underwear in case you had to be taken to the hospital, and for heaven’s sake keep some Kleenex or better yet, a nice ‘hankerchief’ with you at all times. But probably my all time favorite advice came at a low period in my life- I was explaining it to my grandmother- she said ‘Now, stop crying- go wash your face. Hold your head up and don’t ever forget whose child you are!’
So to all of these strong, sweet smelling prophetesses who wrapped us up with towels when we had goosebumps from running through the sprinkler, who held us in their laps, who cooked decent meals for us and passed along their sense of fashion and good taste- on this Mother’s Day, thank you! Bless your hearts, you made us what we are.
Love y’all, Camellia
*Photographs are from private collections and cannot be reproduced or reprinted without permission. Thanks to all who shared photographs! Couldn’t have done it without you!