Where Are My Sewing Scissors? (And other scary questions such as Where is my broom?)


PICT0015(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.


Sent from my iPad


Bully in the Playhouse


Image(My oldest sister, Pam and me.  In the background is the home I lived in until I was 8 or 9.)

In my 52 year history, I only have a few true regrets. Things I would choose to rewind and do over. Things that in the big picture may have seemed really small, but over the years have continued to cloud into my thoughts. Things that I can not forget. Like most parents, I have some guilt and regrets over things I wish I had done differently or had done or not done, but overall I am content with the way my husband and I raised our three sons. They have grown into human beings that are caring, responsible, educated and living their truths (to use a popular phrase). I have not committed any criminal acts, or violence against an animal (except maybe a Guinea pig, but it wasn’t on purpose) or a human. For the most part, I think that I show kindness and understanding. I can typically put myself in another person’s shoes and understand their feelings and actions. (Not necessarily a skill I use with my husband, but that is another post!) I am sure there are many times I have said things that in the few moments following those words, I would take it back or change it, but not true regrets….things you would push the rewind button on.

Until I was eight or nine, my family lived in the house that had belonged to my father’s parents in the small town of Grand Cane in Northwest Louisiana. I did not know either of his parents, in fact, the only grandparent I knew was my mother’s father, John Olin Thornton. I grew up with two sisters; I am the baby. My sisters are five and six years older than me. I remember playing with my middle sister, Ann, because we had some friends that were sisters and we often all played together. I remember doing some things with my oldest sister, Pam, in fact, she was a great older sister who did not mind me hanging out with her and her friends at times, but we didn’t really play together.

The house sat on a large corner lot near the edge of town. There was a large barn that was filled with glass front cabinets from an old store, stacks of army trunks, boxes of furniture that my husband and I raided after we got married, and floor to ceiling shelves lined with old cigar boxes full of screws, nails, and bolts. There was another shed where lawn mowers were kept and maybe my dad parked his truck. This was where we kept our bicycles. It was also where my sister Ann would ride her bike into the back wall because she didn’t know how to use the brakes on her bike. This barn was made from corrugated metal roof material. We always knew when Ann got home. There was another short shed attached to the large barn where baby calves were kept and probably chickens from time to time. We could climb up on the roof of this shed and lay down and never be seen by other people in the yard. I remember laying on top of that roof one day with my friend, John, the son of my emergency mom (see previous post of same name) listening to his new transistor radio. I am sure it was a hot, summer day and we were bored. There was also a horse barn where our two horses were fed. It opened out into a pasture where they grazed.

My father’s small animal veterinary clinic was on the adjacent lot to the house. My dad being a vet meant that we had some strange animals as pets from time to time. I remember a turtle. And there was a skunk that had been de-scented. It also meant we had lots of cats. If someone brought a cat into his office to be put to sleep, if it wasn’t truly sick, he would just bring it home to us. Because of this we ended up with Violet, a long hair Persian of some kind, that was nice as long as you didn’t touch her tail. We also had Timothy, a blue point Siamese, that was over weight and extremely timid… except for the time he jumped out of the second floor window of our new house when someone was putting some cat food out in the yard down below. That showed real bravery.

And in the summers, there was usually a large animal watering trough that was pulled into the yard for us to fill with water and swim in. After only a few days, the bottom of the trough would begin to grow algae and get very slippery. And then it would sit empty of children but full of lots of floating, growing “things”.

We had an awesome playhouse, however, complete with cabinets and pretend sink and oven. I do not know where it came from. I don’t know if someone made it for us, or if it was there all the time. It also had a little front porch with columns. It sat in the shade of a large tree that had vines hanging down that we could swing on. There was one very thick vine that came down from the tree and curved at such an angle that we could sit on it like a swing, or pretend it was a couch, or throw a leg over and ride it like a horse. (One night, my dad took us out to that tree and shined a flashlight into it to show us a mother possum with several babies hanging upside down from her tail…I haven’t thought of that memory in years.)

One day my friend, Nanette, came over to play. We were in the playhouse and we were talking about our dolls. I don’t remember whether Nanette was saying that her dolls came to life during the night and I was arguing with her about how that was not true even if her mother said it was, or if I was telling her that my doll came to life during the night and that my mother said that it could happen. I really can not recall which side my argument landed on, but I was very upset that Nanette did not believe me. Nanette wanted to leave and go home. I remember thinking that if I could just keep her here in this playhouse with me, that I would be able to convince her of the ludicrousness of her argument and then she would not be upset with me and she would not want to go home. I body-blocked the doorway and tried to keep her from leaving. I am pretty sure she started crying. If I had been in her situation, I am sure I would have cried. To have your friend turn into a bully right in front of your eyes is a scary thing. At some point, I relented and she ran home.

As a child and then as a young adult, I often felt misunderstood. If I could only debate my point better, then they would understand. What I had not put together, was that I was the one who did not understand. I was the one who wasn’t listening or who had put all the facts together but in the wrong formation. I am not sure when I gained clarity on this point, but I try now to stand down and see where my anger, hurt, frustration is coming from. ( Again, not something I can pull from easily when it involves my husband, but I try.)

I taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade in a Montessori school for many years, and at least once a year I told my students the story about the day I blocked my friend from leaving my playhouse. I would hear a student say or do something that would hurt another person’s feelings, it might even involve someone that was a good friend. I would tell them that most likely Nanette doesn’t even remember that day. But even after 40 something years, I remember it as though it happened yesterday. My face still burns with embarrassment when I think about it. I told my students that the person we hurt most is ourselves.

Maybe we all have these moments to relive in order to remind us to be kind. That day in the playhouse in my yard in Grand Cane, Louisiana, is a day I would rewind and do over if given a chance. Maybe if Nanette reads this, she will forgive me and I can.

Update to Emergency Mom Post


I have been trying to clean out closets and cabinets….I dream of building a tiny house on a piece of land and getting rid of most of the things we own!  In the midst of cleaning out a cabinet, I found a box of treasures from my childhood.  I thought I had lost it during some previous move.  It doesn’t have much in it…a photo album with some very old photos, some newspaper clippings, a school keepsake folder that has an envelope for each grade and there are actually things in each envelope through grade six!, and a sweet tea set from when I was probably 7 or 8.  In amongst these things, I found something that I did not even know I had.

I don’t believe in the philosophy that “things work out like they are supposed to”…I think things work out the way they do and then we make all the other pieces of the puzzle fit…therefore, things work out…like they are supposed to?  Anyway, I am not very spiritual either, or at least, I have never found a definition of “spiritual” that feels right to me.  I have, however, found that some people have a way of making things work out.  I have a friend that believes in the “put it into the universe” philosophy and I have seen things come to fruition right in front of her eyes using this philosophy.  Every once in a while, when I really, really want something to happen, I try this philosophy out and sometimes it really works!

So in the box of treasures that I had not seen for years, I found this:Image

…one of the identification cards from an old billfold like I described in my last post!!!!  LOOK!  It is exactly like I described.  So I had to share.  (Although, I think those telephone numbers are bogus.  I don’t remember ever having that phone number.)  So did this work out like it was supposed to?  Or did I put it into the universe?

Emergency Mom

Martha Ann Dunn Thornton Wilcox, my mother

Martha Ann Dunn Thornton Wilcox, my mother

I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Grand Cane, Louisiana. Grand Cane had and still has a population near 250. We lived in what had been my grandparent’s home in town until I was 9, then my parents built a home on our dairy farm about a mile out of town. I loved that old house and vowed to grow up and build a house just like it. Well, if drafty, in constant need for maintenance and inadequate closets was what I wanted…I think I managed pretty well. My husband and I live in a beautiful old home that deserves a family with much more financial caressing than we are able to give it. One day, probably within the first year we bought the house, my husband and I were in an upstairs bedroom refinishing the original wood floors. We were covered in dust, exhausted from the work but I looked at my husband and realized that I was living one of my dreams, to love and caress an old house, and make it a home. It was a good day.

I don’t know if little girls like to get wallets these days or not, but I seem to remember this being a somewhat annual Christmas gift. They were shiny and made a plastic-y sound as you tried to open them. In the wallet, there was an information card. Now I am a rule follower and I dutifully filled out that card with each new wallet. Name:   Elizabeth Wilcox; Phone Number: 858-2549; Birthdate: June 22, 1961; Emergency Contact: Miss Mary Ann. Miss Mary Ann was my mother’s best friend and my go-to person when I couldn’t find my mother. (I grew up in the days when mothers swept you out of the house in the morning and you didn’t make contact again until the sun started setting.) Mary Ann and my mother, if not together having coffee at one or the other’s house, or running into Mansfield to get some groceries together, or heading to Shreveport to go furniture shopping, at least always knew where the other one was. And while there were not too many “emergencies”, I do remember at least one…

I don’t know where my mother was, probably had run to the grocery store or to the hairdressers, but I decided to clean out the garage. It was a hot summer day and I was not necessarily a helpful child so I had probably either wanted to ask a favor of my mom later that day, or was in trouble and wanted to get back in mother’s good graces. Sometime during the clean up I cut my thumb on a glass. (Not a good idea to turn a glass upside down and tap it on concrete to get something out.) It was a pretty good cut. After showing my sister, we decided we better call Miss Mary Ann to come out and look at it. Mary Ann showed up with a first aid kit, determined that I probably did not need stitches and wrapped up my thumb. I still have the scar. I rub my fingers over it often and am immediately carried back to those summer days as a child.

When I got married, it was a very simple affair in the small, yet beautiful church of my childhood. Neither my husband to be nor myself are religious, but at the time I would not have even thought you could get married anywhere but a church. Only family members were invited to the wedding with very few exceptions: My sister’s fiancé and her best friend; Eva Dunn who was the person I thought of as my grandmother not having known either of my grandmothers; our college friends, the Griggs, who my whole family has since adopted and we consider their children cousins to ours; and Miss Mary Ann and Mr. James. Mary Ann stayed back in the vestibule with me until it was time for me to walk down the aisle with my dad. These were my people and to this day either they or their family members continue to be my people. People you would contact if you wanted to touch home…your emergency contact.

But when my mother died very unexpectedly a week after Miss Mary Ann’s husband, James, died, is when “emergency people” were needed most.   Mary Ann, still in such shock over losing her husband of 50 years and in addition, losing her best friend of over 30 years, sent her family to help us with all the decisions and things we would need to consider for mother’s funeral. Her daughters told us about the clothes we would need to bring to the funeral home and they brought us Tylenol p.m. because they said we would not be able to sleep. Even before most people in town knew that my mother had died, we were met at the hospital (where they flew my mother) by Miss Mary Ann’s grandsons and son. She sent them directly from her house, where people had gathered after Mr. James’ funeral, to be there for us. These were our emergency people.

A year after my mother’s death, Miss Mary Ann and my father, married. They had comforted each other through their year of grief and we were happy for them both. No one wants someone they love to be lonely. Miss Mary Ann remembers more of my childhood stories than my father. She is the one who remembers hearing my laughter carry from our front porch down the block to her house. She would call my mother and ask, “What is Elizabeth laughing at?” (Apparently, I had a very husky, loud laugh!) She is much more than an emergency contact; she truly became my emergency mom.

And while nothing in life works out exactly as you think it will, and while holding someone to be your emergency mother is more than anyone should ask, it is the people we gather throughout our lives, the people that become so entangled in our memories that we know as many stories about them as they know about us, these are our emergency people. In Nick Hornby’s book, About a Boy, the main character believes humans are like islands- best if self-sufficient, not needing anyone. And while I have never felt that it is best to be an island, there are many times I have felt as though I must be floating out amongst everyone, yet not touching anyone.

Miss Mary Ann does not need an emergency daughter; she is surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But she might need me there to remind her of her friend, my mother. I shouldn’t forget that while our emergency people hold parts of our history in their hearts…We, too, hold theirs.