Saturday, May 17, 2008
My Mother, My Best Friend
I never forget my mother on May 17, always think back over special times in our lives; however, this May 17 is even more special than others in the past. Nina Mae Kolb Cheatham, my mother, would have been one hundred today, had she lived. What a celebration we would have had!
Recently, someone asked me if, every time I remembered her, I thought of those last days, when she was a resident at Baptist Manor, a nursing home in Pensacola, those physically painful days for her and mentally and emotionally painful days for me. My answer . . . Of course not. I remember funny incidents, lots of instructions on how I should behave, times when we just sat and talked as friends, and, naturally, scoldings and punishments when I was a child. Seldom do I remember how angry she was with me much of the time before she died simply because she was so ill and in so much pain. That's not the Mother who is so dear to my heart.
Fourteen years ago, I wrote my autobiography along with my students. I like the part that I wrote about Mother, so I'm just going to copy it here. It gives a pretty good picture of the woman our children called Mema. I wrote my book for Corey, our firstborn grandchild, so you'll hear me talking to her in this passage. It's a bit long, but so am I. Pretty typical of me.
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You know that I was an only child, just like you at this time in your life. Because of my "only" status, I, just like you, was very close to my parents, especially to my mother. Since my dad traveled throughout each week, my mother and I were left alone much of the time. She was a very protective mother; therefore, I was not given much freedom and managed to spend lots of time with her. First, I'll tell you some things that I know about her before I was born; then I'll tell you what I knew of her from living with her.
Her name was Nina Mae Kolb before she married my dad. From what I can gather, she was a very feisty young person. She had lots of boyfriends and almost married the man whose family owned the Chevrolet dealership in Logansport, LA. His name was Stubblefirld, I think. I can't imagine a world without cars in it or even with very few, but she grew up in such a time. One of my favorite stories of her is one that she told of taking her baby sisters (twins, Ressie and Tressie) rideing in one of these new-fangled contraptions. As she sped down a country road in north Louisiana, Ressie squealed with delight, but Tressie wept, threatening to tell Papa (her father, your great great grandfather) if Nina didn't slow down. My mother screeched to a halt, looked Tressie squarely in the eye, crossed her arms over her chest, rolled her head back and closed her eyes, then said, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead and in the grave like this." Don't ask me why that should change Tressie's mind about telling Papa, but it did. I think I'll ask Aunt Tressie and Aunt Ressie to tell me their versions of this story. It might sound diffferent from them. Anyway, that's a story from my mother's early adulthood. (5/17/08 -- I'm sorry that I never did get around to asking these dear ladies.)
I also know that she came from a family of eleven children, two of whom died before I was born. There was a little girl who died when she was about two years old, and one was a young man named Clyde. I don't recall how he died, but I believe he was around nineteen. I knew all of the others: Oma lea, whom I called Big Auntie (she was actually little; it's just that she was the oldest); Edwin, who was nicknamed Ty for Ty Cobb, a famous baseball player of his time (remember that their last name was Kolb . . . it just sounds the same), and whom we all called Uncle Ty; Ruth (don't know how an ordinary name like this appeared in this strangely named group of children); Nina, my mother; Waymon, whom I remember as always being sick; Inez, Aunt Jo's mother; Orie, nicknamed Chris because he was as mean as some man named Chris, but called Bud by all of us grandchildren; and Ressie and Tressie, the twins.
I know my mother was a very bright student. She told me so! She was never known for her humility! When she went to school, there were only eleven grades. Can you imagine that? When she graduated from high school. she moved from Logansport, LA, her hometown, to Shreveport, about forty miles away. That's not very far today, but back then, it was quite a distance. She went to business school, where she studied shorthand, filing, bookkeeping, and typing. Your great grandmother was a well-educated young woman for the times, though she didn't go to a regular college. Actually, not too many young people did back then. "Back then" was in the late 20's and early 30's, I suppose, because she had been in the big city for several years when she met Arlie Weaver Cheatham, my dad, in the summer of 1933. They married on September 26, 1933. Short relationship that led to a very long married life. (When my dad died in 1973, they had been married almost forty years.)
My mother didn't like for my dad to tell this story, but he told me that he first saw her when they were working buildings across the street from each other in Shreveport. He was attracted to her because of her figure; she was quite buxom in those days, and he, like most men, immediately noticed that. He motioned to her to give him her phone number, and she did. I guess you'd have to say that he picked her up! They had a date that evening . . . and the rest is history.
After they married, they both worked in hotels in order to have food and a place to live. Those were the days of the Great Depression, and people did lots of things to earn money. I wish I could remember the names of the people in their liv es at that time and the names of the hotels where they worked, but I can't. I didn't listen carefully enough when I was growing up. Their lives were hard, but they were happy. Now back to what I remember of my mother firsthand.
A few details that are associated with Mobile, the first place I remember living, come to me from time to time. I remember her telling me not to talk to the new neighbors until we could find out something about them and then my telling the people what she had said. Another memory is of her reading a letter while weeping as she sat on the back porch of our apartment. She told me that her parents' home in Logansport had been destroyed by flood. That's the first time that I saw my mother cry; in fact, I rrecall being surprised that she cry. I remember picking flowers from the Catholic church yard and her making me confess (though we weren't Catholic) to the priest. He, however, was happy to provide my bouquet and invited me to gather flowers any time I wanted to. Still another memory comes to me, one involving fowl. One Easter, I received two little ducks from the Easter Bunny. After I had had them for a couple of weeks, Mother set them in a box on the back porch to get a little sun and fresh air. Shortly thereafter, a cat came along and ate one of the ducks. Naturally, I cried; Mother didn't. The next day she set the one little duck out, ostensibly to catch the cat. What she was going to do with the cat, I don't know, but that's what she said she was tying to do. The cat ate the other duck. That was in 1944. In 1961, my husband to be, your Pop, doubled over with laughter when he heard the story. Somehow he couldn't buy it.
In New Orleans, our next home, I have quite different recollections of Mother. She comes to my mind as a meticulous housekeeper. In addition to keeping everything clean and neat and demanding the same of me, though she often didn't get her desires, she painted the complete apartment and varnished all the hardwood floors every spring. I can't imagine doing that, can you? She also kept those hardwood floors shiny by waxing them at least once a month. In relation to one of those waxing days, I recall one of the worst tongue-lashings I ever received. She specifically told me not to walk across the floor, yet I, faithful little only child that I was, followed her out the door so that I could be with her. Not a smart move! Nightlife also comes to mind when I think of my mother and my early years. It seems to me now at such a distance from actuality that she played bridge with the Bazins, the Nettleships, the Stipskys, and the Wests almost every night while my dad was traveling. Probably, we didn't go roaming around more than one or two nights a week. On those bridge nights, however, I can still recall the dread feelings of going to sleep in someone else's bed to the chatter of happy friends enjoying an evening together. I think that I developed an aversion to the game early on and have never had any desire to learn to play. In fact, the few times that I have tried to learn that card game, I have been much unsuccessful. The memories are not especially pleasant. i would have to be guided a block or two in the sometimes cold night air half asleep to get to my own bed, only to be awakened much too soon by the alarm clock or Mother calling out that it was time to get up.
She loved to shop, and even though she didn't have much money to spend, she and her friends would go to town on the streetcar on Tuesday to stroll through D.l H. Holmes and Maison Blanche department stores, eat lunch at Morrison's, and then hail a taxi to get them home before we all arrived from school. You know, I never recall a single day going home to an empty apartment. Every afternoon, I hit the downstairs hall calling, "Mother!" She always answered. I wish children today were so blessed.
I think that she was always the room mother for my class at Judah P. Benjamin School. That's the way I remember her, anyway. She was also the Girl Scout leader. And she was president of the Mothers' Club at least once. It seemed as though she were the perennial president, but I'm sure she wasn't. a couple of good school stories come to mind. One year, I came home and elatedly announced to her that we were getting a Thanksgiving basket together for a needy family. That was fine until I told her that I had volunteered her for the turkey. "What?" she exclaimed. "Buy a turkey for a needy family? I can't even buy one for us!" Oh, well . . . so much for my generosity. The other story involves her Girl Scout work. Once again, I was involved. We were going to present a grand play to the school. I think we were actually presenting several short plays so that everyone could perform. Mother wrote the names of the characters on slips of paper, put them into a box, and directed us to draw for our parts. I couldn't believe my luck. I had drawn the lead part! I would be the star! Alas . . . my happiness was short lived. When she discovered that I had drawn that one, she made me trade with some poor little soul who had drawn the part of the "scene shifter," an invented part just to provide enough parts for everyone. I still remember my lines even after some forty-five years. All I did was to walk onto the stage between scenes, turn the handle of a flour sifter, and say in a supposedly enthusiastic way, "I am the scene shifter; I shift the scenes." Needless to say, I won no Academy Award for that one.
from Grammy . . . Then and Now, 1994
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I realize that all of the above concerns my mother and me during my childhood years. Someday I'll write about my teen and adult years with her. The same close relationship between the two of us continued until her death. To capture the essence of that relationship, I'd say that we were best friends. Today, almost twenty years after her death, I still miss my mother.
If you've read this far and are interested in reading more about this lady, read my post on New Year's Day 2008. She was a hoot!