Mama’s Strength

My mama is a strong woman. There are lots of definitions of strength, and she had nearly all of them. She prided herself on being able to, “pick up her end of the couch.” Those were her words not mine, and ended up being part of the criteria for me choosing a wife. But strength goes down deeper than just muscle and bone. Mama’s strength went down into her very soul.

My whole life, my mama has been a small business owner. There are few jobs in this world as rewarding, precarious, and stressful as owning a small business. It comes with a sense of freedom and the ability to grow or maneuver with the agility of the marketplace, but comes with the downside of not having anyone to bail you out if things go sideways. My mama worked all through her pregnancy with me, while getting her degree as well. When I graduated college, it was actually the second bachelor’s graduation ceremony stage I had been across. She had a fairly rough time in her pregnancy, seeing as I led to a lot of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks lost to what some people call “morning sickness.” My mama often dismisses people who refer to it as morning sickness and wanted to simply remove the “morning” word altogether. While I was younger, she also ended up making monthly trips to Texas in order to check on the franchises over in that part of the country. She confessed that those trips were difficult on a good day, but having to leave her family made them even more difficult. I would get to come along occasionally, but I was also not the best airline passenger in my infant and toddler years. My mama always projected authority and sophistication while we were in the presence of her employees. It was strange seeing that side of her, at the beginning, because, to me, she was my mama. To her employees, she was an employer who expected much and stated that clearly. People still loved her for that, though, because they realized that her expectation of excellence ended up reflecting well on them, too.

I remember one particular day after football practice when I had been complaining about the difficulties of the game. To be fair, I have never really enjoyed being an athlete, and have much more enjoyed watching others in their best form do amazing feats on the fields of battle. So, there in the yard, with my football gear still on, my mother stepped out of the car and called me over to her.

“Tackle me,” she said, her eyes narrowed, bracing for the impact.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I replied. Nothing could be further from my mind than hurting my mama. See, young men have a special bond with their mamas. You can insult them and disrespect their friends, and their patience will hold for a long while. Insult their mama, and patience will disappear into rage. With that in mind, my mama is standing there taunting me to tackle her.

“You’ve gotta be ready to take on anyone,” she said, trying to coax me into the action.

“I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore,” I said, refusing over and over to tackle her. If I remember correctly, she ended up laughing watching my terror-stricken face at the thought of having to tackle my mama. We had a conversation about not backing down and doing my best, as usual. I learned that I doubt myself overly much in physical endeavors and feel much more at home in mental ones. But the image of my mother in a linebacker’s stance taunting me to tackle her may never leave my mind.

A phrase that I often heard from the day I through the present day was, “Walk it off.” I know there are a lot of mamas who coddle, and mine did her fair share of that. However, my mama also knew that my brother and I would need to have some toughness and independence. So, if we fell or scraped a knee, and we weren’t bleeding profusely, she’d brush us off and say, “You’re fine. Walk it off.” When we faced a disappointment in school with a less-than-stellar performance, she would point out that we did our best, and, “Walk it off.” It was never a heartless, cold command meant to distance us. Each time she said it, we could tell there was a lesson to learn. Ok, looking back, we knew there was a lesson, despite the difficulty seeing it at the time. We learned self-reliance, determination, and became men that refused to quit because of one or two setbacks. And, as harsh as it may sound, I think I’ll be teaching my kids the same lesson. When they fall, or get their feelings hurt, I’ll brush them off, remind them of who they are and say, “Walk it off.”

Lastly, my mama won a battle that others have lost. Cancer is a dirty word. It’s a worse disease. My mama, though, took it on with the determination that brought her through life so far. Despite the frustrations, the treatments, and side effects, she kept fighting, and she won. She became a beacon of hope, regardless of how she feels about that status. My mama fought a battle that many soldiers would dread facing and walked out stronger for it. Mama’s strength comes from her love of her family and her faith in God. “God is good, all the time,” are words I remember from my childhood and still hear her say today. The God who started a good work in her, she believes and trusts will complete that good work. And, if I’m honest, part of that work He started in her, He’s continuing on through me. My mama is a strong woman who stands clad in the armor of God, determined to finish the race she started so many years ago. Happy Birthday, Mama.

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Mama’s Advice

My mama gave me advice. She gave it whether I asked for it or not, and more often than not, she has always been right. One piece of advice she gave me was, “Never make a bet you aren’t sure you’ll win.” I took that to heart and the only two bets I’ve ever placed, I won. Granted they were against her for two rather silly things: whether the Marietta Diner’s monte cristo sandwich had a beer batter and whether or not Sicily was a part of Italy. She may have regretted giving me that piece of advice at the whopping payout of five dollars a piece on those, but she can rest assured I have still refused bets I wasn’t sure I would win.

Another piece of advice I was given completely contradicted my nature and personality. See, I am what some people would call a type-A, which translates to “anal” in Southern terminology. I am a painstaking perfectionist who despises stress and working up against deadlines. If I can get the job done several months in advance, you can be sure I will take that option. My mother, though, saw this as both a potential strength and possibly my greatest weakness. She knew that I would rub up against failure one way or another and did her best to prepare me for it. “Do your best, and then drop it.” Again, I end up paraphrasing my mother, but I still hear it in her voice. So when I came home defeated with a grade I was less than proud of, she would ask, “Did you do your best?” I would answer that, yes, I had tried as hard as I could. She would respond with, “Then I’m proud of you. Good job.” I was generally frustrated hearing that when I was younger, since it did not do much to remedy the way I felt in the moment, but the effect as I grew older helped me to cope with those moments when my best just wasn’t good enough. I have since begun to settle into my gifts, realizing that I can try many things, but some things I will always be mediocre attempting. If you haven’t heard it said to you recently, “Do your best, then drop it.”

Every parent and child have a secret dread that appears the moment that child enters the world. That secret dread builds until that child begins to enter the age of puberty and adolescence. Suddenly, the world begins to look different, and the dread weighs heavier than ever before… The talk must be delivered. Of course, we all know the talk I am referring to: “the birds and the bees.” The older I get the more I wonder why Southern culture is so afraid of talking about sex. Well, everyone that is, except my mother. When the talk happened, it almost seemed as if my mother had been gleefully awaiting the day when she could use her words to send me into a mute stupor with my eyes wide and fearful. It was a particularly clear day in sixth grade. The sun was just cresting the horizon as we pulled out to drive to school. I had a question burning the back of my skull and needed it answered if I were to have any peace. That ancient dread lay in wait, though, causing my words to stick in my throat. When I finally asked my question, my mama, became an encyclopedic lecture of clear, concise, scientific language that described the act of sex, what it was for, how God designed it, and why marriage was so important. Understand, though, up to that point, my knowledge about sex was minimal at best, and suddenly, it was as if I had taken a bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As I exited the car, I remember hearing, “Does that answer your question?” I nodded, still stunned into silence. As I sat in my desk in homeroom attempting to process the information, my friends kept asking me, “What’s wrong.” My answer, “I can’t talk about it right now.” I sounded like some soldier looking back on battles fought and hard won.

Later in life I was given another piece of advice. “Don’t be stupid.” The amount of situations this advice applies to is innumerable. The advice, though, did not stop at simply warding off teenage stupidity. “But if you’re going to be stupid, don’t be stupid.” Now, you may be wondering what the difference between being stupid and being stupid is. It’s a fine distinction, really, and one that needs some semantic exploration. See, there are two levels of stupid. There is the first level which causes one to find himself in a situation of his own making without much of a way out. For example, a hormonal teenage young man out with a similarly hormonal young lady can lead to many moments of stupidity depending on how many others are around and how much each is willing to risk. Now, if a young man were to find himself in such a compromising position, by indeed being “stupid,” he would be wise to have taken certain measures in order to not be stupid. See, we can get into situations in our control or outside of it, but the real point is how we handle the situation. My mama, ever the mama tiger, made sure that we looked out for ourselves. Sure, we cared for others and made sure we looked out for their best interest, but one verse of Jesus’ in particular describes the way she trained us: “Be gentle as doves, and as shrewd as snakes.” In other words, we should do everything from an innocent motive, not seeking to take advantage of anyone, but always on the lookout for those wishing to take advantage of us.

As mamas do, mine was always making sure that I was prepared for marriage. Sure, dads work to prepare their children for whatever may come their way, but mama’s want to make sure their baby is taken care of by whomever might be in their child’s life. My mother trained me in the art of not complaining during shopping trips, carrying bags and lifting furniture, and making sure that I could sit through a romantic comedy. (Though hers were more weighted on the comedy and less on the romantic side.) My mama also gave me another piece of advice when it came to marriage. “Marriage is forever, and forever is a long time.” She said those words frequently and with gravity so they would sink into our minds. It seems like this would be common sense, but my mother wanted to make sure that we understood that marriage meant something. Whatever woman we brought home to mama would be put to the forever test. Every family has the forever test. It’s called Christmas. You want to see if someone can hack it in marriage, make sure they show up for the extended family Christmas celebration. At the end, ask, “Can you live with all of that?” If they answer affirmatively, you have a keeper. If they hesitate… that may not be the one. So, if I dated a girl they all had to meet mama. I had to see how they would match up against mama tiger. Any skittishness would be analyzed and kept in memory for later. I only joke about that, but then again, I’ve never sure myself. And for the record, those of you wondering, I only ever dated three girls. Third time’s the charm, as they say, and I am currently married to a lovely young woman. That lovely young woman is also being corrupted by my mother and now finds herself ogling shoes and getting her nails done. When I met her, she was barefoot and hanging out of trees. Well, actually, when I first saw her she was fleeing campus with bubblegum pink hair due to a red-head hair dying mishap. The advice she gave me about forever, though, it forces me to think every day, “What will I do today to make sure forever is a happy place?” Now, I understand that not all married days are blissful, but so far we have been content in our five years together. I attribute that, at least partly, to the advice my mama gave me about committing to forever.

Mama’s Food

My mother loves to eat. Cooking may not be her favorite part of the process, but she can if the situation calls for it. Admittedly, she has often asked the family, “How do you like the meal I cooked?” after setting a pizza in front of us that had been ordered from the joint down the road. Sure, she may not have done the actual motions of cooking the pizza, but to her, providing a meal for everyone to enjoy was just as important as whose hands were actually involved in the preparation process. And speaking of pizza, we knew that if mama was in charge of dinner, “healthy” would not be the word we used most often to describe the meal. We were never malnourished or lacking in proper diet, but mama often handled weekend meals to give dad a break.

Understand, in country cooking there is one staple that you must be capable of making: gravy. It can be red eye, buttermilk, or sawmill, but gravy is a skill that cannot be overlooked. My mother learned from her parents how to make gravy, just runny enough, thick, and without lumps. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the culinary techniques she has mastered. In my early years, dad would get up early some weekends and make biscuits. That smell alone was enough to get a sleeping person to sit up straight in the bed, but when that smell hit our nostrils we knew one thing: gravy was not far behind. Mama would fry up some bacon or sausage and as soon as it had left the pan, the juices still sizzling, she’d toss in the flour and get to work whisking it. She would work furiously, calling for things as she needed them, “Condensed milk! Regular Milk! Hurry!” If we didn’t know any better, we may have believed that her life truly depended on that gravy coming out perfectly. The result never disappointed, though.

My parents have always had some shared tastes, but even more they had very different opinions on things. Cheese has always been one of those differing opinions. My mother was of the opinion that almost any cheese is a good cheese, even if the box said something like “pasteurized cheese product.” My dad, on the other hand, wanted anything with cheese on the label to actually be cheese, and not a by-product of the cheese process.

Velveeta, if you don’t know, makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches. Your mama may not have loved you enough to introduce you to the wonders of the quick melting cheese that allows your bread to get toasted just right. And, please, do not put anything else on the grilled cheese. Really, call it something else if you’re considering adding mayonnaise, bacon, apples, or anything else. A real grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle or tomato soup are a combination I’m sure my mother heard whispered from heaven… or maybe she grew up with it. If you have not tried that combination, I encourage you to, and you may just pass it along to your own children.

Having grown up in a poor environment, there were some ingredients that were passed down to me that people of other classes may not know about. (If you do know about them, lucky you!) First, is the classic: bologna. I cannot tell you how often my family stated, “A loaf of white bread and a pack of bologna’s all you need for a family meal.” I’m paraphrasing a bit there, but not by much. We did not just eat bologna on sandwiches, either, I still get excited by the thought of fried bologna and scrambled eggs. Every once in a while, Hardee’s will advertise for their bologna biscuit, and it’s all I can do to fight temptation and get to work on time. (Sometimes I lose that battle, but as I bite into the fluffy biscuit and crispy bologna exterior, I realize that I really didn’t lose at all.) Canned tuna fish also came down to me through my mother. With a spoonful of Miracle Whip (yes, Miracle Whip, don’t judge) and some sweet pickle relish, the humble canned tuna becomes a delicious tuna salad, bursting with creamy sweetness. Yes, I have had the boring mayonnaise and dill relish kind, and, honestly, I don’t know why people continue doing that to themselves. And, barring the Miracle Whip and sweet relish, opening a can, putting it on a piece of bread and topping that with some Swiss cheese will also, “make you smack your granny.” (I have asked about the origin of this phrase, but I cannot for the life of me remember where it originated.) Oh, I forgot to mention that the aforementioned sandwich needs to be toasted or microwaved in order to get the full effect. (Just be ready for the pungent aroma that will waft from your cooking device and fill the entire household with eau du tuna.)

My mother and I shared some vegetables, as well. I am sure some of you were wondering whether or not we even ate vegetables. We both enjoyed lima beans and green peas. In fact, I was shocked to learn that some people ate their fried chicken and mashed potatoes with anything but green peas (tucked neatly into the indentation of the mashed potatoes, of course.) I don’t think my dad enjoyed either of those very much, since he often excused himself from both of those, but he still made them because it made mama happy. (And if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.)

Adventure was usually the name of the game on vacation. My family’s vacation planning usually includes, before much of anything else, an itinerary of where we will be eating over the course of the trip. You might think that is silly, we consider it a necessity. Growing up, my family owned some opticals down in southern Texas, which meant we ended up down there for “working vacations.” The business part always bored me, but the food was terrific. Between Garcia’s down in Progresso, Mexico and the Sea Ranch in South Padre Island, we ate like kings and queens while we were there. I had my first taste of Oysters Rockefeller (oysters baked with spinach, cheese, and bacon) as well as escargot. My mama has always had a bit of a mischievous streak that caused her to challenge her boys, and occasionally jump out from behind dark doorways and scare us half to death. When an opportunity presented itself to challenge us food-wise, she took it, especially the younger we were. So there I was, in a lovely restaurant on the beach looking forward to some shrimp, as my family does enjoy some tasty shrimp, when my mother noticed that the restaurant had escargot on the menu. If you are unaware of what escargot is, escargot is a dish prepared with edible snails baked in special trays with garlic butter and topped with a sharp cheese. The taste is cheese and garlic butter, and the snail flavor is rather faint, but it does add an interesting, chewy texture to the mix. She placed an order for the appetizer, and we all got some. Mama, of course, had been ribbing us about whether we’d be man enough to try it, and of course we did. I actually liked it, which may or may not have surprised her, but to this day I will seek out an opportunity to get some snails in my mouth. (Granted, I prefer them dead first and cooked in garlic butter, but that should go without saying.)

Mama’s Laughter

There are four things I know about my mother. She loves to laugh, loves to eat, is full of wisdom, and is by far one of the strongest women I know. In fact, many of the choices I have made in my life have come from the strength she passed on to me. There’s also the fact that my mother allowed a doctor to cut her open to pull my indecisive butt out into reality. I’ve gotten much less afraid of the outside world, but not without both of my parents putting up with many, many trips to the doctor on my behalf.

My mother loves to laugh. Honestly, some of the best moments while working for the family business had to be the moments I could steal away from the sales floor or lab to listen to my mother and her sister talk. They would tell stories from the week, and their sense of humor is to this day a wonderful mix of biting sarcasm and joyful cynicism. Please don’t ask me how cynicism could be joyful, just listen to one of their conversations, and you’ll be rolling with laughter. Their commentary on life, and especially family, gave me insight into their personalities while entertaining me more than most stand-up routines. You may also be wondering why I am not sharing any of those stories here… I’m going to have to plead the fifth and state that I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any particular conversation.

Speaking of sarcasm, it was one of our family’s love languages. If anyone else heard us talk with one another, they might think we were full of piss, vinegar, and a lasting spite for one another hiding just below the smiles. But, really, we all understand sarcasm. Well, my brother took the longest to catch on, but he got there and was tossing it around with the rest of us. I distinctly remember some distinctly unflattering nicknames we were given in New York City for our first time there. We were not within arm’s reach of my mother at times during our introductory trip to “the big city” and, if my mother couldn’t swing her arm backwards and catch one of us in the nose, we would have our nicknames called out and we’d know it was about time to step up the pace.

We call that trip the “Running Tour of NYC” since it involved a lot of, “There’s the thing, do you see it? Ok, keep moving,” as we tried to keep pace with my mother’s city walk. She may be from the South, but she blends in pretty well up North when she has a mind to.

Some of my earliest memories involved my mother and I playing in the rain and, more specifically, puddles. My mother had grown up in a neighborhood full of boys, so she had learned how to play rough in order to fit in. One of her tricks was a perfectly practiced sidestep that, when applied to even a shallow puddle, would sling water and dirt all the way up my short little body. I’d look at her, betrayed and soggy, and then begin to splash without the practiced finesse of my mother. I might land a few drops on her, but she would always patiently wait until approaching the next puddle before splashing again, leaving me again betrayed and soggy. Mind you, my two least favorite things in the world, even above canned menudo and cucumbers, are being wet and being cold. One is enough to make my day miserable, both are enough to send me back to bed for the day.

My mother also had a large array of “classic” movies with which to educate us. You may wonder why I put classic in quotes. The reason is, most of the movies would not be shown in a film class, but in our house growing up, they were the movies we’d be willing to watch over and over again. One of these classic films was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the one with Gene Wilder, which managed to nab me my own TV and VCR at a young age – mostly because my parents were sick of watching it with me. But the moment I loved during any classic movie night was the first time viewing. See, my mother would see a movie on TV and get the idea that my brother and I needed to see the movie. If you are aware, they heavily edit movies for television to make sure it can make it past the censors. So, armed with the knowledge that the movie was indeed safe for children, she would go out, purchase the movie and we would grab the popcorn and settle into the couch. Somewhere around the ten-minute mark, usually, the familiar sentence, “Oh, I forgot that was in there,” would begin, followed by, “We don’t say that,” or “Look away!” if things got too bad. The description always makes these viewings sound worse than they actually were. The movies were The Jerk level of questionable material, which may in and of itself show how odd our sense of propriety is concerning movies. I cannot count the times we have shown that movie to friends and have those same friends look at us with disbelief afterwards, often accompanied with, “I can’t believe you had us watch that!”

And after all of these things, we would all have a good laugh and probably quote The Jerk to one another. It may be odd, but that may be one of the movies my whole family agrees on. Oh, and just to add to the weirdness, before my wedding, my father-in-law asked me what my choice of mother-son dance song would be. I thought for a few moments, shrugged, and suggested “Hotel California” by the Eagles. When I finally got home from college to discuss the topic with my mother, I asked her what she thought, without telling her my own answer. She thought for a moment, shrugged and said, “Hotel California’s all I’ve got.” I started to chuckle and she realized that had been what I had been thinking. We laughed and finally decided on “What a Wonderful World.”

Why I do laundry and enjoy it.

I know, it sounds like a strange statement for anyone to say. You’re probably thinking, “Laundry? What? How could you possibly enjoy that chore at all. It’s a bore, a tedium, a terrible date of every week that drains precious time!”

I like laundry for the same reasons I enjoy to cook and am learning to enjoy washing dishes. (At my house, loading the dishwasher means I get to eat something.) As a minister, my job is fairly open-ended. Love people and help them grow closer to Jesus Christ. Sure, I have my own ideas about what that looks like, but going in, it’s a touch daunting. Not only that, because I work with children, whom I love dearly, I may not get to see the results of my efforts for years. And because I work with volunteers, I may not get to see the change in their lives for years, either. Basically, I get to leave my job every day going, “Well, God, I did what I could. Hope it worked.” And I have to let Him handle the rest.

I imagine this is similar to how parents feel at the end of the day. The kids have been fed, homework has been finished, and they’ve been tucked in, and as the door to that child’s room closes, “Well, God, I did what I could. Hope it worked.” And you know He’ll handle the rest.

These menial tasks let me have the satisfaction of something done. I can see the stack of neatly folded clothes and think, “I know that’s done.” I can taste the result of a few hours preparing a homemade stew and think, “I know that’s done.” But as for my vocation, what God has called me to do, I have to wait for the very end, when I see Jesus face to face to think, “I know that’s done.”

As parents, I hope you know that I can see the little things you do in your children’s lives. I see the love, affection, sleepless nights, crazy weekends, and hectic schedules. I see that your children are growing closer to Jesus. Some take longer than others, and those tend to grasp it the best. God has blessed me in that I get to go home after every event or weekend service and think, “These are fantastic kids. God, take care of them.” Regardless of what else happens, I know I’ll be able to say that.

Keep it up, parents. Play for keeps. Be present with your kids. Even if you may not see it, I can, and you are making an impact on your families.