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Bettye Johnson

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Homage to My Mother
By Bettye Johnson
Last edited: Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2010

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Sunday, May 9, 2010 is a national designated day to celebrate our mothers. Every mother should be honored because a mother gave life to each of us. It does not mean we have to love them. Only honor them for giving life.

I want to share something about my mother. She was one of the unsung heroines who stayed home and were called ‘homemakers’. This is a tribute to my Mother.


My mother was born in 1902 to a fairly well to do farmer and his wife who lived on a farm outside of Grandview, MO. Grandpa belonged to the Masons and was also a strict Methodist meaning there was no playing allowed on Sunday, no playing cards allowed in the house and definitely no dancing allowed.  She, her mother and her two older sisters cooked three meals a day for farmhands. I was told that breakfast consisted of eggs, ham, sausage, bacon, hot biscuits and potatoes.  Lunch was also a large meal with home cooked cakes and pies with the evening meal also being a large one.  Her life was quite restrictive. 


She almost fell from grace when she went to Texas to visit a sister married to a Methodist minister and at a church social met my father. He had a winning way and chemistry happened. The love affair blossomed through their letter correspondence and in 1922 they married much against her father’s wishes. This marriage almost alienated her from her father when she and my father moved to Texas.


My sister was born three years after they married and I came along five years later – the middle child because five years after my birth, my brother was born.  My mother was a high-spirited young woman according to my father’s side of the family. However, through his temper and verbal abuse, my mother became docile and afraid of him.  I never saw him physically abuse her, but she was definitely verbally and emotionally abused.  I grew up thinking she was a doormat because in the mornings she would bring him coffee and his newspaper to him while he was still in bed.


My mother always wore a ‘house dress’ to do the cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, sewing, mending and so on.  She wore stockings also known as hose rolled down to just below her knees and tied in a knot.  Most of the time she also wore an apron.  She had one dress for Sunday. It wasn’t until the late fifties that she began wearing pantsuits and then it was hard to get her back into a dress.


She taught me to wash and dry dishes by hand. We had nothing resembling a dishwasher. It was all manual labor.  There were no Laundromats and therefore our laundry was done by hand or using the wringer washer. For our ‘delicates’ we had a washboard and a dishpan in the sink. Gently we would rub them using either Dreft or Ivory Flakes.  Washing was done on Monday except for delicates and they were done on Saturday when my sister and I were home from school. Clothes were hung out on the clothesline to dry. Tuesday was ironing day and it entailed ironing everything, and this included sheets, pillowcases, towels, dishtowels, my father’s underwear plus our outer clothes. There was no perm press – therefore everything had to be sprinkled with water because there were no steam irons.


Cooking was comprised of simple foods. Her dessert specialties were fudge squares, a forerunner to brownies, and a one-egg sponge cake that was multi-purpose. It could be smeared with frosting or used as the basis for strawberry shortcake.  We ate a lot of beans and cornbread or Spanish rice. Sundays were reserved for fried chicken or chicken and dumplings or a pot roast.


I never saw my mother with a book in her hands. Her hands were busy. All of this was before pre-WWII.  We had no television, and our only source of home entertainment was the radio and when she did sit down, she was mending clothes or darning socks. Oh how I hated to wear darned socks!  She sewed most of our clothes on a treadle Singer sewing machine.


Our house was always clean. We had no vacuum cleaner and the hardwood floors were oiled – not waxed. Our throw rugs were hung out on the clothesline and we beat them with a broom. 


My mother was a subtle influence in my life. Around age four, she enrolled me in a class called Expression or as some would say Elocution. I would memorize poems and act them out before audiences.

Sometimes I would be in a play.  I lost my fear of public speaking. She also saw to it that when performing artists came to our small city that I always attended. I fell in love with opera from the singers I heard. I became enthralled with the piano when a famous pianist came to play at our city auditorium. I loved the ballet. Mother never verbally encouraged me.  She just presented opportunities. This was her major gift to me.


World War II came and my mother went to work as a bookkeeper.  I didn’t even know she had this kind of skill. She had worked briefly in a bank in Missouri before she married my father. Whereas she had always worn her hair in a bun or a knot at the back of her head, my older sister managed to get her to cut her hair. When my father saw her new hairstyle, he threw a ‘fit’ as we said in Texas.


Mother stood her ground and she learned how to drive a car.  Mother’s emancipation came about due to WWII.  In fact, WWII was a turning point for many women.  Her emancipation came with a painful price.  At the closing of the forties, my father divorced her in order to marry a rich widow and he moved into her house only three blocks from where we lived. My mother’s pride and sense of sacrifice was deeply wounded.  Never before, had any member of her family been divorced. She had been brought up that it was a definite no-no. I was there when Mother had her nervous breakdown. Her recovery was slow and difficult because every time she went to work or to drive anywhere, she had to pass by his house where he lived with his wealthy wife.


Mother had no support group because she never had any women friends and even though she and my father occasionally had friends, the friendships did not last. Not even her church was her support group. Perhaps her salvation was her work and the fact that my young brother lived with her. This was another painful thing for her because my father had legal custody of Jim. My father had threatened to commit suicide if she did not give in. Being an abused woman, she agreed with the custody with the  provision that my brother could live with her.


I moved away and gradually she began to come out of her shell. She joined the Eastern Star – the female counterpart of the Masons and began to make women friends.  Her blossoming was gradual. She joined a seniors’ group at the YMCA where she learned to dance.  Now, I want to tell you that my Mother came into her own. She could waltz, foxtrot, two-step, put-your-little-foot with the best of them.  Dancing became a passion for her and through this dance group she met a man who had the same interest for dancing and they married.


Her closet became filled with evening dresses because they entered dance competitions. She now joined the Rebecca’s while he joined the Oddfellows Lodge. She became an officer and within a few years was the head of her lodge. Mother and her husband became gad-abouts and it was rewarding to see her alive and perhaps happy. Their other common interest was playing dominos with Mother becoming an expert.


Mother was not a hugger or one to kiss her children however, she was always there to rub Vicks Vapor Rub on our chests when we got chest colds and to doctor our cuts and scrapes with mercurochrome. She had given birth to three children. We did not become drug addicts or alcoholics and we grew up and blossomed because she was the giver of life and a gentle soul holding her own pain inside of herself.


Mother passed in 1976 from a long siege with cancer and other side effects. I arrived at the hospital soon after she expired and I did not recognize the shell lying on the hospital bed. The people at the funeral home dressed her body in one of her evening gowns and placed a wig on her head.  Her skin had been smoothed out and when I viewed her body, she looked like a princess dressed for a ball. I have an idea that somewhere on the other side, she did go to a ball and wherever she is, she is probably dancing.


In addition to my Mother, I pay homage and honor to all the wonderful women who have lived before us. A few became famous but many were similar to my mother. They are the unheralded ones.  Our inherited history is rich due to them. It does not matter the color of our skin, religion or our ethnic background because we are all women striving in our way to evolve to a greater life not only for ourselves, but also for our children, grandchildren and the world. 


I honor each and every one of us – female and male alike.  None of us could evolve without the other because we just would not be here. If your mother was not kind and loving, please honor her because she did the best she could with the awareness she had. It is time to let go of the pain of the past and move forward


May each of us celebrate our life.

May each of us promote love and compassion where there is hate.

May each of us be lights to others and give a helping hand.


This is a great time in history to be alive and it is a bad time to die.

Life is a celebration

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