(My mother’s father, John Olin Thornton)
I loved coming home from school on an early Louisiana spring day, walking into the house my mom and dad built on the 300 plus acre farm where we moved when I was 9. The farm was located about a mile outside the corporation limits of Grand Cane. The same 300 plus acres where my dad built the dairy barn atop the hill that was my mother’s first choice as to where to build her dream house, but was evidently better suited for the dairy barn. We heard about this often.
Mother would have been home cleaning all day, inspired by the first warm breaths of spring, which in Louisiana we all knew were fleeting. Summer would come down upon us in a matter of days. Windows were up, curtains dancing in the breeze. The house would smell of a mixture of furniture polish and something delicious baking in the oven. I would take a deep breath.
I attended a small, private school in town. There were around 200 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. My class at one time had 24 students, I believe it was one of the largest classes to move through the school. This is my memory, it may not be fact. How I would get home from school was anyone’s guess on any given day. I was the third of three girls and I think my mother was pretty much over it by the time I was in school. She was a wonderful mother, yet typical of the time. Life was not all about providing a rich, entertaining experience for the children. Our needs were met, emotionally and physically, but it was not all about us.
My mom or my grandfather, my mom’s dad, would drive me to school every morning. My grandfather (John Olin Thornton) lived with us for many years. I remember he always drove a large, four-door luxury car which he traded in every two years for a newer model. He drove me to school. He drove about a half mile to the dairy barn where he kept financial and other records for my dad. Other than maybe a trip to the store to get cigarettes, I am not sure he drove anywhere else. But he always had a nice car. My grandfather smoked. His room was on the first floor of our house. I do not remember our house smelling like cigarettes, although he chain smoked in his room when he was not working at the dairy. My mother would go to the library in Mansfield where Mrs. Stokes, the librarian, would have gathered a paper sack (the grocery store kind) full of paperback detective stories that she had picked out for my grandfather for the week. In a small town, the librarian knows what everyone likes to read. He read, smoked cigarettes, watched television and I believe he also drank, but I was not aware of this at the time. Once, I put a poster of Uncle Sam declaring, “I want you to quit smoking!” on the back of his door so that he would see it when he closed his bedroom door. He never said anything about it. He lived with us for around 12 years, and I really do not remember having many conversations (other than the the normal daily kind of things) with him. When he died, I regretted not having gotten to know him better. There are so many questions I would ask him now. Rewind… One day when he was driving me to school, the smoke from his cigarette got so thick in the car, that I rolled down my window just a smidge (he had electric windows, not the crank kind like mother’s car). He mumbled at me to roll the window up because I was letting the cold air in. I remember trying to hold my breath against the smoke the rest of the way to school. It is funny, but I remember this story fondly, not the way it sounds at all.
At the end of the school day, I would come out of the school building. Many days, my mother’s car was there in front where she would pick me up and drive me home. But just as many days, she would not be there. If I didn’t see her, I would walk out into the middle of the street and peer towards Miss Mary Ann’s (emergency mom) house which was a couple of blocks away to see if mother’s car was parked there. If her car was there, I would walk to Miss Mary Ann’s house, where they would be having coffee or re-arranging furniture in the front room…once again. I was happy to walk the couple of blocks because Miss Mary Ann kept boxes of Debbie Cakes as after school snacks for her son, John, or she would have baked some cookies or a cake. She would serve me an after school snack in front of the television where I could watch I Love Lucy or cartoons. We didn’t usually have after school snacks at my house, at least the kind that were ready for you when you walked in the door. Our snacks were more the kind you fixed yourself…cheese and crackers, a peanut butter sandwich and chocolate milk. And then again, just as many days, I would not see mother’s car parked down the street, so I would walk around the corner to my dad’s vet office and see if he was there or out on a call. If he was there, he might ask me to wash up some needles in the sink or to start some surgical equipment in the autoclave, but at some point he would give me a ride home. If he was out on a call, my only way home was just to walk. It was only a mile, but it was up a very long, gradual hill on a country road. If I was lucky, I could catch a ride with someone heading in that direction. It wasn’t until I grew up and had children of my own, that I began to even question why my mother did not pick my up from school everyday but just assumed I would get home eventually, somehow. I can not imagine leaving a child somewhere without planning who, when and where I was picking them up. But this was in the 60s and 70s, and my mom knew I would get home. Parents did not have to know where their children were every second of the day.
Walking into the house after school on such a spring day…you were unsuspecting, lulled into a false sense of “everything is right with the world”. The first inkling that anything was wrong, was the noise coming from upstairs…maybe a vacuum cleaner, not a bad sound itself, but if the noise was coming from my room, the dread would start to rise from the bottom of my feet which were suddenly as heavy as concrete. “Oh no” it would hit me, mother was in my closet. In the bedroom I shared with my sister, Ann, until she went away to school, we had two closets that extended under the eaves of the roof. They were large enough to play in, which we did often, and they were definitely big enough to put lots of stuff in! Walking into my bedroom, all I would see was mother’s arm, appearing to be 5 feet long, extending out of the closet door. In her hand would be either her good sewing scissors, or a half-eaten sandwich or a utensil from the kitchen that we had used for something other than its intended use in a game or as a tool and had forgotten to return. And you could tell just from the hand, not yet accompanied by a voice that it was not a happy gesture. This hand was saying, “what are my good sewing scissors doing in your closet when you have been told over and over again that they are only to be used for cutting fabric and they are to be left with my sewing things?” This hand was saying, “you better quickly get over here and get these scissors and return them to their rightful place”. This hand was saying, “don’t let me ever find these laying around in your closet ever again.” This hand said a lot.
Consistency was not one of Mother’s strong suits, something she and I have in common. Most of the time, weeks could go by, without her caring what stuff we piled into our closets or the fact that you couldn’t open the closet door without things pouring out into the room. But when she took a mind to clean them out, everyone be ware. It was a tense hour or so, until all the contraband was found and returned to its proper place. It most certainly involved some crying, most likely from everyone. You were never really sure what would ignite the process or to what degree the heat would rise. Generally, it ended as it started…quickly extinguished. Painful none the less.
Sometimes it might be an unsuspecting Saturday evening, when the question arose, “Where is the broom?”. Not a scary question in and of itself, unless you had been playing in the woods all day building a fort out of fallen limbs. Not a scary question, unless you had taken the broom out into the woods to sweep the pine straw out of your newly built fort. Mother’s household broom. It was almost always too late to redeem ourselves…dart out into the darkness, find the broom and return it to its rightful place. No, by the time the question came out of her mouth, I am sure she knew the answer. There was no escaping. Spanking was definitely a part of the Wilcox discipline philosophy, however, it wasn’t often, and this would not have been a spanking offense. But many times, a spanking would have been easier. Mother was queen of the fussing and lecturing with a raised voice at times like these. We all ended up feeling bad, shedding tears… As a mother myself, I know she hated hearing those words coming out of her mouth as much as I did when I fussed at my boys about something that didn’t really matter in the end.
I vowed never to strike terror into my boys lives, at least not through cleaning frenzys that could never be predicted or questions that I knew the answer to already. I pretty much let the boys keep their rooms as clean or as messy as they wanted as long as they kept the door to their rooms closed. If it got too much for me and I could not stand the mess anymore, I would wait until they left and go into their rooms and clean it up. I could throw away things as I wanted to. I would returns things to their proper places. I actually enjoyed being able to peer into their lives through their messy rooms and I enjoyed reestablishing order amongst the chaos. I may not have taught them the consequences of keeping a messy room, but I hope that they enjoyed at least once or twice, the wonderful feeling of walking into the house on an early spring day and smelling the mixture of furniture polish and something delicious baking in the oven.
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