My mother was in tears when she called my college roommate. She demanded to know who this Rand Hall was and why he was blackmailing me for my student library wages. I never convinced her that the numerous checks she saw to Rand Hall were the checks I wrote to the Rand Hall student union at Vanderbilt University to get cash (pre-ATMs), not some mobster who was blackmailing me. If most kids consider their mothers embarrassing, mine was the O.G. (Original Gangster) of mortification.
My mother was a penny-pincher. She could make a bottle of shampoo last an extra month by slowly adding water. She insisted on washing and re-using Ziplock bags, and she would take a spatula to any jar to scrape out the last tiny bits of its contents. This extreme frugality caused my greatest humiliations. If I were invited to a friend’s birthday party, my mother would come up with a homemade gift, which was generally glued together junk. She once made a playing card holder out of a used plastic milk carton, knitted a covering with scrap pieces of yarn that didn’t match, and then suggested I give that as a gift to my friend. She used leftover cloth to sew a pair of patchwork house shoes with a big, pink yarn pompom on top for another friend. My brother, who was ten years older, understood these gifts would lead to my schoolyard banishment, and used his lawn-mowing money to help me buy something more appropriate when he drove me to the parties.
You see, my mother didn’t go to college like I did. She didn’t go to friends’ birthday parties. She didn’t even finish high school. She grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the depression with 13 brothers and sisters. At age 14, she quit school to go to work and help take care of her siblings. She once told me she was so thin during the depression, she had to wrap towels around her waist to keep her skirts on. I saw the pictures. I believe her.
If my mother was reluctant to give expensive gifts, she was even more averse to receiving them. She usually asked for something simple like new pantyhose or some jars for canning food.
One Mother’s Day, I remember giving her a box of chocolates. When she opened the gift, she cried. She told me when she was 7, she had TB (Tuberculosis). She was sent off to a hospital, by herself. Not even her mother could come with her. She said she missed her mama so much, she cried every day. One morning, the nurse brought a box neatly wrapped in brown paper. My grandmother had scraped together enough money to send my mom a box of chocolates. My mother knew her family must have sacrificed their own meals so she could have that special treat. She bit into one of the pieces, only to see the candy had worms inside. The grief for the wasted money was still potent in her 50s as she told me this story.
There was so much about this story that I couldn’t understand. Being sick without her mom there to offer comfort and care, like she had always done for me. Isolated in a hospital far from home at age 7. And that pain over that box of chocolates. While we weren’t rich, we had never been so poor that a box of chocolates would cause someone else in the family to go without. I didn’t even know what TB was. She had to explain it to me. And worms in the candy? We’d take it back to the store and ask for a refund. How could that even happen in a world with strict food production and Health Department regulations?
When I told my mother I’d been accepted to Vanderbilt University, she wasn’t proud like most parents. She didn’t know why I wanted to go. Why would I move to Nashville for some fancy, over-priced education when Tulsa Junior College was just down the street? Mostly, I think she was afraid that she would lose me to a foreign world of money and plenty. She worried that I would never grasp what really mattered in life.
After my mother passed away, I had to clean out my parents’ house. I found little piles of money hidden everywhere. It seems she never fully trusted the banking system after living through the depression. She hid so many stashes of cash that I worry to this day I might have missed a large stack somewhere.
While I’m glad, in some ways, that my mother isn’t here for COVID-19, on the other hand, I really wish she was. This would be her moment to shine. This is the grand “I TOLD YOU SO” moment she waited for her whole life. And as it turns out, my embarrassing mother was ahead of her time. She was right to recycle old plastic (and for the record, she made my kids one of those plastic, yarn covered card holders for their games, and they think it’s awesome). She was right to grow and can her own food. If she were here today, that woman would show me how to make a jar of peanut butter or a bottle of shampoo last for a year if it had to. And she would sew you one of her special junkyard-chic pieces – a quilted mask with a pompom on it .
I wish she were still here so I could listen to all her beautiful wisdom on how to actually survive during dark times. She’d probably be writing this instead of me, lecturing you all on how you’re doing it wrong, but she will save society and teach us how to come out of this bulletproof, like she did.
The last trip I took just two weeks before the lockdown was back to Hot Springs, Arkansas to bury my mother’s next to youngest sibling. While I was there, my last living Aunt shared stories about my mom, including something I never knew about her. My mother worked at the famous Southern Club during the depression. The Southern Club was a gambling casino frequented by mobsters like Al Capone and Owney Madden. In fact, my Aunt insists that Al took a liking to my mother’s sassy ways, so he got her hired at the Club.
The job at the Southern Club allowed my mother to take care of her siblings during the day and earn money at night. However, working for the mob came with risks, such as blackmail and bribery. And that’s why she called my college roommate, afraid the gangster Rand Hall was extorting money from me. She didn’t dream it up. She lived it. My mother knew it all because she’d seen it all. And I had nothing to be embarrassed about. She was truly the O.G, and she was right about everything.