Tuesday, January 01, 2008

You'd Better Eat Those Black-Eyed Peas!

My mother, Nina Mae Kolb Cheatham, was a sassy Southern lady. She was sassy in the way she dressed, in her mannerisms, in her choice of words, in her everyday sayings, and definitely in her New Year's Rules. This post, written on New Year's Day 2008, is my tribute to my mother. I never called her Mom, just Mother or Mema after May 24, 1963, the day that Wendy, her first grandchild, was born.

I'd have to write a book or two in order to tell readers everything that I knew and loved and sometimes feared about Mother. For right now, I'll concentrate on her everyday sayings and then her New Year's Rules. Those everyday sayings were ones that I've never heard anyone else attribute to his or her mother. I think my mother made them up. In any event, she believed in using them on me. And you can believe that I heeded them! Maybe she thought what she said would help me in some strange way.

One of them, I must admit, I used on Wendy and Jay. In fact, once when I told Jay that I was going to "skin him alive" if he didn't stop doing something, Wendy burst into tears and said, "Please don't tell him that, Mommy! It's so scary!" I never thought much about Mother's skinning me alive, but my use of the expression really did have an adverse effect on my Wendy. I don't think I ever used it again. My mother used it a lot, though. Since I always stopped doing whatever it was that she didn't want me to do, I never knew whether or not she'd really take the action.

I'd never be able to remember the number of times that she said to me, "For goodness' sake, Sandra (she always called me Sandra because, as she used to say, 'That's what I named you.'), don't cry. You look so ugly!" I know you're thinking horrible things about my mother about right now, but I'm thankful that she told me not to cry. As a result, I do try not to cry in public. After all, I work pretty hard trying to make myself presentable, so why would I want to look ugly if I can help it? I really do look ugly when I cry, unlike my friend from years ago, Linda Umphress, who I always thought looked pretty when the tears came. She never agreed with me, but, then, she never agreed with me when I told her how pretty her upper arms were . . . a lot bigger than mine . . . but I digress.

My friends now find it hard to believe that I was a shy little girl. By little, I mean "little" in years, not in size. No details here because I could write a long essay about my size when I was a child. Anyway . . . back to my shyness and also to my fear of teachers. Many a day, as I was walking out the door of our apartment, on my way to Judah P. Benjamin School in New Orleans, she'd say to me, "For goodness' sake, Sandra (yes, she began many sentences that way), quit worrying. She (the teacher) can kill you, but she can't eat you!" That saying was supposed to make me feel better about my concern over not having my homework done correctly or my fear of failing a test. Again, you may think my mother cruel; however, that's not the case at all. As her result of drumming the "kill but not eat" saying into me, I'm no longer shy, nor do I fear people nearly so much. You notice that I didn't say that all fear has been washed away. I'm just not quite so fearful in my adult life as I was in earlier years. I'm really grateful to Mother! I must admit that I used to tell our children this saying; however, it was a joke in our house because I had explained its early use on me. When I said, "Don't worry . . . she can kill you, but she can't eat you," we'd all laugh, and the fear would disappear.

The last of the everyday sayings probably made my friends more uncomfortable than it did me. Inevitably, when someone came to our house, she bombarded them with questions: How's your mother? And your dad? Have you had dinner? What did you have? Where are y'all going? Who's going with you? You get the picture. Her reason for all these questions? As she would say, "You never learn anything unless you ask!" She was so right. Questioning people is a great way to learn who they really are. It's just difficult sometimes to draw the line between curious and nosey.

I can't leave Mother's everyday sayings without telling readers that during the past couple of years, I've used the last three sayings in textbook presentations, the first two because it relaxes the audience when I begin by asking, "What kind of mother did you have? I wonder if yours brought you up on sayings the way mine did." When I get to the one about questions, that leads me exactly where I want to go . . . asking them a question: What are you looking for in a new math (or literature or science) book this year? They're putty in my hands! Well, sometimes, at least . . .

I guess you thought I'd never get to Nina Mae's New Year's Rules, but here I am. She lived by these rules on New Year's Day. As I said before, she was a Southern lady. Many of her beliefs were rooted in the Deep South; however, only one of her rules is Southern as far as I know. I'll alert you when I get to it.

She truly believed that it was bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after New Year's Day, and I never remember seeing any red and green after January 1 at her house. Where she got this one, I'll never know. Of course, I don't know where she got another steadfast rule for her . . . that Labor Day was made for washing windows. We always washed windows on that holiday, and I honestly think I was an adult before I knew what Labor Day was really for! Anyway, at our house, I've never been able to keep to the decorations rule. I try, but I'm always too busy the week after Christmas to even begin de-decorating. This year is no exception. In fact, I have the Christmas lights on right now. I'll get busy this week if I don't have to go to Denver to work early next week. If I do have to go, the beautiful decorations may not come down until mid-January. Who cares? Mother does.

Now, this one is Southern. You absolutely MUST eat black-eyes peas on New Year's Day, or you won't get rich this year. I can never remember dinner at my parents' house on this day without black-eyed peas, and I'm still not rich. Maybe I didn't eat enough of them. No matter the tradition, we don't usually have the peas because no one in my family will touch them except me. I like them, but what a waste to cook them (all that soaking of the peas, gathering of the ingredients, cooking) if no one eats them except me. I've even bought delicious chow-chow (that's Southern for great tomato/onion relish) to put on them, but to no avail. The bowl passes by everyone until it gets to me. This year is no exception for no black-eyed peas at our house. Did you know that back in the old days, the wife cooked the peas with a nickel in them, assuring that whoever got the coin would surely get rich? I think a starving dentist thought this up in order to assure him more patients!

The last of Nina Mae's Rules is this, and I love it: Whatever you do on New Year's Day, you'll do all year long. Through the years, I've enlightened many friends about this rule; however, not one has seen the encouragement that I see in it. They all groan, but I take it seriously. Back in my school-teaching days, I tried not to grade mundane assignments on New Year's Day. I'd gladly tackle a couple of autobiographies because I enjoyed reading/grading them; however, I'd stay far away from vocabulary tests. Today, I'm cooking dinner for my family and a couple of Wendy and Todd's best friends . . . and I'd love to do that all year long. Also, I'm writing this post. My only New Year's Resolution is to write more this year, hopefully every day. So I'm getting a start on my plan. By the end of 2008, I want to be able to refer to myself as a writer, not just someone who likes to write. When I'll cross the line between the two, I don't know yet. Maybe I'll determine that in 2008!

My mother was a feisty and loving little lady. She always wanted the very best for me, her only child, and I knew that even though she had strange teachings to prove it. Until I fell in love with and married Frank, she was my best friend. At that point, our friendship took a different turn. She was still A best friend, just not THE best friend that I had. We remained very close during all of her years, even when she was so ill and couldn't really demonstrate her love. I knew even through her crankiness caused by cancer that she loved me better than anyone else in the world. And I loved her! Thanks for reading my tribute to my mother!

Happy New Year to all who read!