Forget raindrops on roses and warm, woolen mittens, my mom favored fake chirping birds, ugly dolls, pictures of dogs and recipes of any kind.
When 22-year old mom traveled overseas with dad to live in Japan as missionaries in 1929, she left behind the carefree life of a somewhat indulged daughter. They settled in the city of Sanda, close to and under the watchful eye of a very strict, highly opinionated single missionary, Miss Cribb.
Within months of living under the scrutiny of Miss Cribb, mama had lowered her hems, toned down the colors in her wardrobe, and covered up her arms (even during the hottest weather). She grew out her stylish bob and refrained from cutting her hair for the next 50 years. She became quieter in public, showed less emotion and took on the appearance of a modest, serious missionary.
My parents returned to the States before WWII broke out and dad became a minister. Mary fully supported him in his call and shared in his pastoral duties with confidence and, I believe, joy. She loved dad and she believed her role was to follow his lead in everything. That must have been hard as she was smart as a whip, opinionated, had a strong will and knew her own mind.
However, in the late 60’s, I observed a change in her. For one thing she cut her hair short. Very short. The woman we had always known wore her long, dark brown, wavy hair in braids and a bun. Suddenly she was sporting a short permed look. The loose strands of hair that constantly hung around her face disappeared and tight curls brushed her round cheeks.
One day, out of desperation, she blurted out to dad she had to get her hair cut. The reason was that her arthritis made it difficult to fix her hair. He looked at her and said, “Fine, do it.” Watson, it seems, had never had an opinion about her hair. It was probably Miss Cribb living in her head for all those 50 years.
About 10 years before she died, mom bought herself a vivid red wool winter coat. There was nothing subdued or conservative about this piece of clothing. During the holidays she’d pin a Christmas wreath made of red and green gemstones on her collar. She sparkled as she walked. She made me smile.
Then, she started wearing long pants. Pants! Our Mary was a’changing.
She enjoyed beauty. She appreciated art. But she didn’t need to spend a lot to enjoy it. Mom was known to tear pages out of magazines and thumb tack them to the walls. A glossy 8×10 of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers brought sunshine to her cooking corner until grease spots from frying chicken and sausage destroyed it. Then she simply tore out another picture, tacked it into place and proceeded to cook.
Mom also liked ugly things. She had this soft spot for anything broken, disfigured, off-kilter or unwanted.
Before leaving Japan in 1973, several of her Japanese students took her shopping for a doll. Not just any doll. These were finely crafted and costly. She was told to buy whatever she liked. She looked over all the fine porcelain dolls wearing elegant kimonos but saw nothing she wanted. Then she spied one that spoke to her. Face painted not so perfectly, she pointed it out as her choice. The students almost refused her. Too ugly. Not perfect, they said. Perfect for her. And now, it’s perfect for my daughter, Katherine.
Mom me a collection of little figurines, ornaments and ceramic animals she had assembled over the years. She stored them in her secretary, behind the glass door. Limp and ragged Christmas ornaments, misshapen objects that were well-loved. It’s a menagerie of broken toys and it’s a treasure.
She loved the comic strips. Especially The Family Circle. For decades she cut out her favorites and pasted them in her scrapbooks. She mailed them to her children. She tucked them in her Bible. They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere.
Mama loved ice cream and hated oatmeal. She didn’t care at all for seafood of any kind. But out of courtesy she would and did eat raw octopus to avoid insulting her Japanese host. “It was very, very difficult to swallow,” she told me.
Mom hated closed in, tight spaces. She loved going barefoot. She’d wear dampened hankies on her head in the summertime to help keep cool. I have a memory of mom and me walking the grounds of a Denver museum. We were visiting my sister who had just had a baby. This was some free time for the two of us. The sun was shining and the heat was intense. We were hot. Across the street from us, sprinklers in the park went on. Mom suggested we walk through the spray to get cool. Off went our shoes and my 55-year old mother held my hand and laughed as we splashed our way through Denver.
And here’s the thing I love about mama most of all.
While she dearly loved dad and was clearly still his number one fan, she eventually grew tired of him preaching and teaching. Dad was prone to wax eloquent over the breakfast, lunch and dinner table, mostly about the Bible. The older he became, the more he preached. When it was just the two of them, she had no relief. But when I was there, she had an escape. Another person in her house. Breakfast ended but dad had not.Mom got up to clear off the table. I started to get up to help but she looked at me and said, “No, stay. It’s your turn.”
Yep. My turn to be the captive audience. That statement made me love her even more. In a family that ate, drank and breathed the Bible, my mom was saying to me, “Sometimes it gets too much.”
Oh, there’s more things I want my daughter and others to know about mama. She kept horrific ceramic art in their home. And objets d’art made from coffee cans. Not because she liked them but because friends had given them to her. She always chose people over possessions. She would rather line the walls of her home with chairs for Japanese students who visited each week than have her rooms look well appointed. Her living room and dining room looked like a chair warehouse.
Mom and dad had a crazy kind of home without much sophistication or refinement. But there was always a place to sit. And everyone felt welcome.