The Cast of Characters: Mom

Monday, October 05, 2009

My siblings and I teasingly called Mom---Violet Lee Marshall Sims Sims Barnett Sims Marshall--- to indicate all her marriages and multiple returns to her maiden name. All women think their mother/daughter relationship was complicated---mine really was. Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot because I was a week old and she hadn't bothered to name me. Perhaps she figured out already with my older brother that motherhood was not going to be her strong suit in life.

Between marriages, Mom struggled most of all to be a Mother. My fourth grade year, I went to five different schools in one year.  Mom jousted at windmills all year to find security. One house and one job created a situation wherein she had to leave for work fifteen to thirty minutes before we had to leave for school. Jumping from the top bunk on to Mom's full size bed in the same small room became the fun that filled that short span between her departure and ours. Clueless of the damage possible to children and mattress, we had fun. Soon, Mom felt the need to hire this little old lady to supervise us before and after school. I didn't like her. I found her habit of putting rags to dry in the bathroom totally disgusting. This was decades before Depends addressed her problem. However, I did like her fried apple pies.

And, then, one weekend morning, Mom said she had a secret and it was related to the box of oatmeal. She finally had to tell me that the Wedding Oats box was supposed to communicate to me that she was getting married again. Oh, my, would this mean one more person that I had to be in charge of? For better or worse, my disapproval and accompanying tantrum way laid that guy and that marriage.

My role at a very early age became parent so Mother could still be child, albeit, a charming child at times. We laughed a lot. Played games. Sang songs. But I knew and she knew that I was in charge. I didn't require discipline (okay, maybe on one or two notable occasions) so it was easy to assume the role of "adult of household." It became a bit more difficult when she married my stepfather, Norman. He didn't take well to my being in charge. But as we journeyed through my high school years, I cooked every evening meal, took care of my siblings who now included younger sisters, Bonnie, Normi and Vivian, in addition to brother, Bill.

We cleaned house on Saturdays so I was in big trouble if I went to a sleepover on Friday night and was not on top of my game for Saturday chores…not because I would be punished by a withdrawal of privileges but rather with Mom's crying and proclamation that my love for her was only 'lip service.' Only in retrospect and from my own experience of Premenstrual Syndrome do I realize Mom probably had severe PMS, mood swings and ongoing depression.

Mom also decided I would be "designated achiever." I'm not sure why that mantle fell to me rather than older brother, Bill, except that he was probably learning disabled and undiagnosed---did we even know that term in the Fifties? In autograph books that came with our school pictures one year, Mom sent clear messages regarding these assigned roles in the family. Bill was in fifth grade and Mom wrote in his book:

"As sure as the grass grows around the stump, you are my little Billy-Lump-Lump."

I was in third grade and in mine, she wrote:
"Don't wait for your ship to come in, go out and meet it."

I was hurt that his message sounded gooey and loving and I didn't even understand mine. Mom tried to explain it. She made matters worse.
By Junior High, Bill created a scrapbook recording my achievements which he titled "What Brenda's Done." How twisted is that? I don't know whether Mom ask him or told him to make the scrapbook, I just know we were both playing assigned roles.

Ironically though, Mom had no aspirations for me to attend college. Her dream for me did not extend beyond graduating from high school, going to beauty school and becoming a hairdresser. She later said that the reason I didn't become involved the drugs, music or peace movement of the Sixties was because I had blinders on about going to college---nothing mattered as much to me as getting that college degree. She was right on target and at times worked as a waitress and sent me her tips for spending money at college.

Multiple factors made motherhood a challenge for Violet Lee, but she would have made a fabulous spinster librarian. With the world events thrust upon that generation and coming from her working class family with alcoholic father, the possibility of librarian was not on her radar. Her standard joke about her generation's sibling identities was, "My sister, Juanita got all the talent; my sister, Bertha Jane got all the brains and I got all the kids." Though inaccurate, it was her perception of her lot in life. In the early forties, while waitressing at the upscale Vendome Hotel in Evansville, she had a fling with a guy who played in the band. They cut a record on which her beautiful contralto voice soared above his band. She also was not short on the brains which she ascribed to Bertha Jane. In fact, she probably had very close to a genius IQ, a natural relationship with mathematics and such a vast store of history and trivia that it took several years for my son, Mark (with the documented high IQ) to reach his goal of beating Grandma in Trivial Pursuit.

Playing games was among her strongest skills as Mother. From the time we were very young, we were taught to play all sorts of games, especially card games. We played Authors when Bonnie was so young she couldn't say or remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so we all identified him as Santa Claus so Bonnie could join us. We were playing Crazy Eights when Vivian was still young and Mom would not give an inch of allowance for her. I jokingly commented, "God sure makes funny people mothers." We repeated that joke often over the years and I think we both knew it had layers of meaning.

Mom taught us to play Clabber as soon as we were old enough to grasp the concepts. Clabber was a distinctly Indiana game---a faster version of Pinocle so I've been told. Let's be generous and say, in her own way, Mom was teaching us logic, math and foresight---all required to play Clabber.  
Singing with us and teaching us her favorite music conjures up my best memories of Mom. To this day, the music of the 1940's ranks as my favorites. I could sing every word of every 40's classic right along with her. We also had the Reader's Digest Family Song Book. We sang through it so often, we would instinctively start the song on the next page without turning the pages or even looking at the book. There was not a weak voice among Mother's five children. When all five of us were still at home, the best sounds would come when we sang in the car. Hymns, classics, nonsense songs, some country and, of course, the Forties music. Sweet memories in a sea of chaos.

A friend, trying to be supportive around the time of Mom's death, asked about memories of my Mom in the kitchen. Having never lived in the same house two years in a row, the memory of kitchens requires way too much recall space. My Mother in the kitchen generates not even a blip. Donna Reed did not show up in apron and pearls with a pan of warm cinnamon rolls and my Mother didn't even bother to watch the damn show.
One day I came home from school for lunch. Mother sat at the kitchen table eating a can of peas, buttered bread and coffee. I hated that house and particularly the kitchen because when you turned on the light in the dark of night those giant, crusty-backed water bugs would scramble for cover---hundreds of them. To my nine year old mind, the water bugs, a mother who ate only peas for lunch and the shame of our poverty-stricken dysfunctional family related to each other. Surely, if my Mother could just pull off the June Cleaver act one day a week our lives would greatly improve. But she sat around in her red chenille bathrobe smoking cigarettes and working crossword puzzles looking more like a hung-over Cher than June or Donna---and she didn't even drink.

For all her inadequacies, Mom did have redeeming qualities. She intrinsically knew the value of all human beings. As a child, I truly thought racism was an historical phenomenon that no longer existed in the United States. In Mom's world, it didn't. We lived in federal housing projects during the fifties and black neighbors brought household items over to make our apartment look better when the ex-in-laws came to visit. We played on the grassless playground with children of all hues never knowing this was unusual.

During my junior year of high school, Mom was working the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Palmdale, CA. One day a young woman sat at the counter looking at the Want Ads in the local paper. Mom initiated the conversation and learned that this young woman was hiding away in the desert during an unwanted pregnancy after which she would give the baby up for adoption. The end result was that our three bedroom home which already had seven persons in it provided shelter for this young woman during the next eight months. She helped cook but mostly, because she was a hairdresser, she fixed Mom's hair and taught me all I ever needed to know about handling my hair. What a gift for a nerdy high school junior with thin, curly hair.  

To honor Mom once at a special occasion, I read the following poem titled "Violets" because it not only carries her name but captures this quality that I valued most about Mom.

Violets

By Miriam Woolfolk

I picked a bunch of violets
outside my kitchen door;
they never seem to care just
where they grow.
'Mid garbage cans and weeds,
or in my garden fair,
it matters not to them
if they will show.

I plucked them one by one
from many a different place
and laid them all together
in my hand,
and found I couldn't tell
which one had come from where—
so it is with people
of our land.

If violets could talk,
perhaps a few might say,
"We're better,
for we had a better start!"
So God looks down on us,
and who are we to judge,
for who knows
who is closest to His heart?


She said I was showing off.

updated: 7 years ago

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