Call – Opelika-Auburn News
was one mean mama
Neva and Seth Johnson named her
Caroline, the firstborn of their 13 children. Being the oldest she had to help
raise the other 12. That was no easy task. For many years Caroline was changing
the diapers of her siblings while her mother was birthing yet another child.
Survival required toughness and
Caroline acquired it during those formative years. So by the time she gave
birth to me at age 29, she was one tough woman. Truth be known, I believe
Caroline was the meanest mama in Elmore County when I was a boy.
I use the word “mean” with tongue in
cheek of course. Mama was never cruel, callous or uncaring. But she was not a
weak little woman, sweet and dainty. Tough seems the best word to describe her.
I reckon you have to be tough when your toilet is an outhouse in the backyard.
I am sure mama was gentle with her
babies. She had five of them. I was the oldest. She wanted a family.
Though she received a good education at Huntingdon College, she never longed
for a career. She gladly embraced the role of mother and homemaker.
I wish I could remember being
cradled in the arms of my mother when I was a baby. I am sure I was; I just
cannot push my memory that far back. I do remember mama in a rocking chair,
singing softly and caressing my sisters and my brother. I remember holding my
siblings in my arms and rocking them to sleep when they were babies. My brother
Seth Henry, the youngest of us, was born when I was eleven.
Shortly after their marriage,
Walter and Caroline turned their backs on city living and made their home in
the country. They rented some river bottomland in southern Elmore County and
carved out a niche for themselves. With a seventh-grade education and an iron
will, dad bravely believed he could make a living by farming. And he did.
With the help of a day laborer, dad
built a home on high ground less than a mile north of the Tallapoosa River.
When the river flooded most of the farm, the water never reached our home. The
site was covered with thick briars. I have always felt an affinity
with Brer Rabbit because my mama birthed me in a briar patch.
Without the help of an architect, dad
completed building the home in 1930. The
house still stands, secure on the Cypress logs hewed and put in place by my
dad’s hands. Eighty-seven years later the foundation shows little signs of
decay. My sister Neva and I were both born in that home, now remodeled and home
to our son Steve and his wife Amy.
Dad added indoor plumbing in my
early years. I have a treasured picture of my dad and me taken when I was two
years old. In the background is the window through which dad poured water into
the tub where our family bathed during our growing up years.
Some folks call those years “the
good old days,” but my parents called those days “hard times.” Mama was mighty
proud to have a toilet in the house. I don’t remember using “the path” when I
was small, but I do recall the stench of the throne room long after it was torn
When I started to school my
schoolmates in town laughed about how far out in the country I lived. “They
have to pipe in sunshine out there.” Foolishly I was ashamed of being a
“country boy.” Years passed before I realized how fortunate I was to grow up
“in the sticks.”
It was during those days that I
realized my mother was the meanest mama in the county. Mama made me mind her. When
she told me to do something, she expected me to do it. Obedience was required.
I learned that yes meant yes, and no meant no.
When I sassed mama I got two
whippings – one from her with a switch and another from dad with his big, black
belt. Mama did not wait on daddy to handle my punishment. She was so mean she
even made me cut the peach tree limb she used on my behind.
Mama took me to church wearing
Sunday clothes and Sunday shoes. I hated Sunday school. The other children
intimidated me; they lived in town and I was a country boy. But mama paid no
attention to my feelings.
Mama insisted that I do chores. I
had to take the garbage out to the burning barrel. I had to bring in wood for
the cook stove. I had to make up my own bed and keep my room cleaned up. She
had the nerve to expect me to be responsible.
When I skinned myself mama poured
iodine on the hurt places. She had no compassion when I begged her not to use
iodine because it burned so badly. She said it would feel good when it quit
During school days mama insisted
that I do my homework when I got home from school. Playing was out of the
question until my homework was finished. She was so mean she demanded that I
learn to read and how to spell.
Mama was not satisfied with my
doing the basic requirements of school. She signed me up for extra stuff. I had
to take piano lessons, and voice lessons, sing in the glee club, take
“expression” (a speech class), and learn how to recite long poems.
When I became a teenager mama did
not soften up. I tried to get my way without going to dad, especially when I knew
his answer would be no. Refusing to be manipulated, she would say, “You will
have to ask your father for permission.”
She never wavered. If she disagreed
with my daddy, I never knew about it. They were always in agreement when I
tried to stretch the boundaries they had laid out for my behavior. Their
requirements were strict but I knew what they were, and I knew that I would be
punished if I crossed the line.
Mama was mean about food. She
expected us to eat what she put before us. What she prepared, we ate, and not
just some of it, all of it. You were not excused from the table until you had
“cleaned your plate.”
We were expected to work hard just
like mama and daddy did. The flowerbeds always needed work. Mama hated nut
grass. My siblings and I had pulled up tons of nut grass by the time we were
grown. It was hard work in the sunshine, but mama was unrelenting.
Mama expected me to be home when I
said I would be home. She insisted on knowing where I was, and what I was
doing. She kept close tabs on her brood.
She expected me to be honest. If
she gave me two dollars so I could bring home some bread and eggs, she expected
me to give her the exact change. Money was tight and we had to account for every
was one mean mama. But I sure do miss her and I wish I could thank her one more
time for being so mean to me. + + +