My Mother, One Century Later
By Ronnie Blair
Each morning in the 1960s my mother prepared Hershey’s cocoa for my sister, brother, and me, a ritual she religiously engaged in just before awakening us, so that clear glasses filled with the chocolate concoction greeted us as we wiped sleep from our eyes. This guaranteed that every day started well, even the ones that weren’t destined to end that way.
On winter mornings when our coal stove valiantly but ineffectively warmed the house, we huddled near a small electric space heater, sipping the cocoa and wondering if those flurries visible through the window meant a snow day and freedom from the rigors of school. My mother perhaps wondered if those same flurries heralded a stressful day of finding ways to entertain three youngsters whose time would be better spent taking spelling tests and puzzling their way through math problems. But if she ever harbored such thoughts, she concealed them, perhaps under the philosophy that children shouldn’t be made overly aware of the strains of parenthood. We took the cocoa, the space heater, and any snow-day interruptions to her plans as simply the way life and mothers were meant to be.
In other words, while we weren’t ungrateful children, we likely were too absorbed in our childhood itineraries (coloring, playing, watching cartoons) to be properly appreciative of the sacrifices she made. I suspect she forgives us.
Church, TV, and Proper Attire
Oct. 20, 2023, marks 100 years since my mother, Jeanette Scott Blair, was born, arriving on a fall day in Harlan County, Kentucky, as one of the youngest siblings in a family with eight or nine children. She would live 77 years, long enough to see all seven of her grandchildren, as well as the Great Depression, a world war, television, moon landings, and the internet. Two months before her birth, President Warren G. Harding died and Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in to succeed him. Two months after her death, terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Both events give evidence that the world carries on before we arrive and after we are gone without taking much note of us.
But my mother’s life serves similarly as evidence that we can be towering figures within our own small spheres, and for my sister, brother, and me she was such a towering figure.
To visualize that figure’s image, know this: She always wore a dress or skirt; never slacks and certainly never undignified shorts. When we visited a Florida beach in 1965, she stood on the sand in a dress watching the three of us cavort in the water, waves crashing into us.
She abstained from drinking alcoholic beverages and preferred to keep her distance when anyone else drank them. Once while visiting relatives in Tennessee, she balked at going to a restaurant when she learned that the restaurant served alcohol. A niece playfully gibed her about this, saying that if she lived in their community, she would have a hard time dining out because nearly all the restaurants served alcohol. My mother just shrugged. If she lived in their community she would never dine out. It would be as simple as that.
This distaste for the very existence of beer and other such beverages sprang from her Primitive Baptist beliefs. She insisted on our regular attendance at church where Sunday school teachers regaled us with tales about Noah, Jonah, and Moses, and the preacher baffled us with stream-of-consciousness sermons. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, my mother’s strong religious beliefs never interfered in any significant way with her children’s popular-culture interests. If we wanted to read novels about zombies, buy comic books about Norse gods turned into superheroes, listen to the Beatles and other “hippie” music, and spend 35 cents at the movie theater to see Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody demise, she wasn’t one to object. At least not vociferously.
She had her own pop-culture interests anyway. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Outer Limits regularly appeared on our black-and-white TV screen as much because of her viewing interests as ours, although she did fret about the nightmares these shows might give us. She also loved scary movies, but watched them only on television, never accompanying us on our trips to our hometown’s one-screen theater. Her tastes weren’t limited to the frightening fare, though. In the early 1960s she was devoted to the television series Wagon Train, which to my childhood mind was the most boring of the TV Westerns, except for that one episode in 1964 when guest star Barbara Stanwyck showed up with a bullwhip and an attitude, refusing to take any guff from the cowboys. At the time I did not know who Barbara Stanwyck was, but a year later she was starring in her own Western series, The Big Valley, and I recognized her as the no-nonsense whip wielder from my mother’s precious Wagon Train.
Quilts, Fudge, and 13 Cents
One of my mother’s favorite pastimes was quilting, sometimes engaging in this hobby solo on our living room sofa as she watched TV, and at other times gathering with quilting buddies, making it a social activity. Over the years, she created personal masterpieces that her children and grandchildren used to keep themselves toasty when winter nights turned harsh.
She had an old Singer sewing machine, possibly from the 1930s, that was powered by a foot pedal. When I was small, I amused myself by sitting on the floor beside it and pushing the pedal up and down, an activity my mother tolerated except when she needed to spring into action with the sewing machine herself. By the 1960s, Singer no longer manufactured such treadle sewing machines, and before my childhood ended my mother moved into modern times with the purchase of an electric-powered version.
After we three children all reached elementary school age, my mother took on part-time jobs as a store clerk and waitress, bringing in extra money to supplement my father’s coal-miner salary. She carefully set out 13 cents for each of us every school day so that we could buy three-cent cartons of chocolate milk during the elementary school’s morning break and a dime soft drink during the afternoon break.
On what seemed like special occasions, but were just random Saturday nights, she revved up her mixer and soon fudge and divinity appeared on the dining room table, testing our resolve to wait until it had properly cooled.
After my mother died in 2001 and we sorted through her belongings, someone discovered a cardboard box filled with newspaper clippings. They were articles I had written when I was starting out as a journalist. Most of them were two decades old, and the subject matter in nearly every case was, I am certain, of no interest to her. It was the byline that mattered, and clipping the articles and adding them to the box was perhaps a variation of taping your child’s crude drawings to the refrigerator door.
Crude drawings. Crude articles. In her mind, if it was the work of her child or grandchild, it was worth treasuring.
Not all of us leave a significant stamp on history, but we do make a difference in our own small ways. Sometimes that way is cocoa, quilts, and memories that linger for decades.
Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.