Blame this post on sisters Kate and Ruth. I Skyped them last night and we got to talking about mom and the family. Kate’s down from Alaska for her yearly two-month jaunt around the lower 48. She travels coast to coast, attends her Professional Women’s Air Traffic Control Conference (though retired she still doesn’t miss a one), visits sons, siblings, cousins, and cronies. At almost every stop , she pulls out her organizing hat and gets to work, sifting through closets, going under beds and digging into forgotten drawers, tossing detritus and getting rid of stuff people no longer needs. With siblings getting older, it’s a good idea to downsize. Fewer things for the children to deal with when death comes a knocking!
Kate leaves a path of well-sorted homes in her wake. Kind of like Johnny Appleseed but without the seeds, love of apples or desire to see trees. She just wants to organize America.
I asked Ruth if she thought I was romanticizing mama in this series of blogs and she answered with a swift and decisive “No!” Mama, she says, was one of a kind. Of course all people are, really. Individuals. Unique in the world.
But there was something about Mary.
She was extremely smart and could hold a conversation with anyone. But she couldn’t/wouldn’t drive a car. She worked the keys on a piano like a virtuoso yet she got flustered operating a food blender. Mama came from the Gash family whose women were prone to be loud, outspoken even outrageous, yet I don’t remember her raising her voice.
Last night, my two sisters reminded me of two things mom would say. When she was surprised or emotional: “Oh, dear.” When she was flummoxed, on edge or vexed: “Oh, I could just smack her/him/you.”
But she seldom did– smack anyone. She struck me once on the face when, as an angry teen, I spouted off to her. I stepped over the boundaries and she snapped. She hit my cheek with her palm and, soon afterwards, apologized. Striking someone in the face was not something she ever wanted to do.
Normally she left the punishment to dad. I think they took the good cop, bad cop approach to discipline.
I was on the receiving end of the bad cop discipline quite a bit growing up. I was strong willed, determined, independent and mad much of the time. Dad and I just didn’t get along, especially in my teens and 20’s. We reconciled well before he died for which I’m eternally thankful, but there were some years there it was definitely best that he lived in Japan and me in the States.
For many years, Mom served as the middle man in my relationship with dad. She was 100% supportive of him and his decisions, at least on the surface. Should she disagreed with his responses to or discipline of me, she talked about it behind closed doors. Or in front of me in Japanese. They made good use of their second language.
They presented a united front in dealing with the children and, whether I admitted it or not at the time, I liked it. Needed it. Benefited from them being on the same team.
We have a story in the family of one of the few times mom was not completely on board with dad’s discipline. I wasn’t born yet but I love to hear it told. It’s Elsie’s story but she’s gone now. I doubt I can do it justice.
First, understand that dad and mom put a great deal of value of good table manners. No elbows on the table whatsoever. We absolutely couldn’t talk with food in our mouth. As a rule, napkins were used. Food must be cut into bite-size pieces. We could not, under any circumstances, stuff our faces. There would be no shouting or singing at the table–except for those occasions when we sang the blessing together, which was mostly on Sundays and holidays.
Be present at our table, Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that we
May feast in fellowship with thee. Amen.
As the “Amen” ended, I’d open my eyes to see which dish was closest to me so I could get first dibs. Serving bowls were passed clockwise. Guests of course were expected to be served first.
Elsie’s story took place when the family lived in the Wesco House in Missouri. It was a large, rambling two-story home with massive porches and lots of room. The older kids were still in school and I hadn’t been born yet.
Mom called the family to dinner and everyone gathered around the long wooden table. Dad said grace and the food was passed around.
Elsie was full of spirit as a girl. She loved to laugh and her laughter was infectious. That night, Elsie was extra hungry and she began wolfing down her food. Dad was not happy.
He told her to stop eating so fast. She got tickled and started laughing.
Dad said if she thought it was funny to eat like a pig, then she should really eat like a pig. He ordered her to move her plate to the floor and eat from there. She obeyed but her giggling continued.
One by one the other kids at the table got the giggles. One by one, dad ordered them to join her on the floor and eat off their plates. Out-of-control kids soon littered the floor around the table.
Only Dad and mom remained seated when mom began to laugh as well.
He gave up. Elsie and the rest of the little piggies returned to the table and dinner resumed. Dad gracefully admitted defeat and a favorite family story was born.
Mama loved to be with her family and to feed her family. She enjoyed being in the homes of her children, gathering around their tables, sharing meals and the commotion of multi-generations at play.
Mama mostly loved her stern, gracious Watson. And, oh dear, they made a great good cop, bad cop.