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Monday, October 29, 2007

Happy 76th Birthday Mom

On October 29, 1931, my mother was the tenth child born to my grandparents, Lonzo Ruff and Mable. Actually though, she was the seventh child of eight which lived. Born Bonnie Lee, she sincerely thought her middle name was Louise until she sent for her birth certificate at age 49 in order to obtain her passport to travel overseas for the first time. At that time she was stupefied that for 49 years she didn't even know her own true middle name.

By the time my mother was born, my grandmother, "Other Mother" or "Duddah" as some of us called her, had already lost three children, two at child birth and one to typhoid fever. On that day in October Duddah wasn't due to give birth to her latest child, but after a day of picking cotton she went in to labor more than a month early. They sent for the doctor to come deliver the baby which was a TINY premature infant. The doctor told Duddah, "Mable, she aint' goin' to make it through the night, but just hold her while you can". But Dudddah had a mind of her own, she held her as long as she could and then decided to put her in a box with blankets on the door of the coal stove to keep her warm. My grandfather said, "Maybe she just might make it Mable, she sure looks like a strong little hefer" And make it she did.

A skinny child, she was doted on by all until four years later her sister was born, the last to round out the family of eight living children, Lonzo and Mable. When my aunt came, my mother was horribly jealous, she kept chasing after my grandmother who had little patience for her. So my mother who had been the center of her mother's world, at that time, became just one of eight with a new baby to tend to. By this time also, my mother was already an aunt herself, with her oldest sister having given birth to her own daughter. Times were hard, it was the Great Depression, and in fact my mother had been born on the two year anniversary of the stock market crash.

There were no toys to play with, so they made their own. Balls were made out of string, and then there were all your sisters and brothers to play with. At the end of the day, they would all come in for dinner where my grandfather was served first, not much talk went on at the dinner table, but the kids liked to make their own fun even then. They would wait till my grandfather would put his head down to eat to throw biscuits across at each other. If they got caught, then they were sent away from the table hungry, because "Big Daddy" didn't take much to playfulness, especially at the dinner table after a hard day in the field.

The family always lived in rented houses, unable to afford one of their own. None of them had indoor plumbing and only one had electricity. On Saturday nights they got their weekly baths in the kitchen with the big tub brought in for the occasion. My mother being at the young end had to take her bath after her brothers finished. Bath time for my mother was at her brother's mercy, because they always told her they had peed in the water just for her. Mind you, these were the same brothers she had to share a bed with on a continuous rotating basis, because there weren't enough beds for everyone to have one of their own.

Growing up as a sharecroppers daughter during the Depression shaped my mother in ways that are hard to understand if it didn't happen to you. The family simply had no money left over for ANY sort of "luxury"- and the word itself, "luxury" is relevant to the circumstances. She either wore hand me downs, or once in a while, little cotton dresses were purchased from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Her shoes were always boy's boots, because Big Daddy did the buying and that's what he thought she needed. What Big Daddy did NOT think his children needed was any kind of handout whatsoever, so while others enjoyed free food on trucks that went around (often handing out fresh fruit) my mother and the others were forbidden to take it. Instead, at Christmas, their present always consisted of an orange, an apple and some nuts in a stocking-because these things were "expensive" and a "luxury" in Big Daddy's eyes, and he was CERTAINLY going to provide those things for his own children himself, even if it was only once a year. My mother's birthday present always was something for school, her favorite gift being pencils so she could write.

By the time she was twelve, with things being hard at home, she went to live with one of her sisters who by that time had three children of her own. "Billy" lived on a farm that also had chickens, but went to work every day to help support her own children. So my mother took over the daily care of her two nephews and niece, as well as learning to drive the tractor during the summer and on weekends. Those were happy years for my mother she says, but it was also toiling work. One day, my cousin at the age of three wandered into the chicken coop and was pecked all over his body. My mother who loved my cousin like he was her own child (even though she was only a young teenager herself) went out to the chicken coop and proceeded to kill as many chickens as she could get her hands on, because they had HURT my cousin. That night, my aunt's husband came home and was not happy one bit. Shortly after she went back to live with her own parents where she decided that all those years of hard work at school would have to pay off for her, for she was GOING to graduate high school unlike any of her siblings and go to college. But to go to college she had to earn her way by scholarship, which she did, graduating second in her high school class and winning a full scholarship to nursing school at age 16. (she had skipped second grade)

While in nursing school for three years, she earned five dollars a month the first year, ten dollars the second, and fifteen the last. Any expenses she couldn't afford, her oldest sister, nicknamed "Sister" helped out with as she could. The school she attended was a Catholic Sisters of Mercy nursing school. While there, she was baptized a Catholic for what she likes to say were "practical reasons", because according to my mother, "The Catholics got mops to mop the floor with, all others had to lick the floor clean". This of course is my mother's own unique way of saying that the Catholics were treated better, but this isn't the whole story. Ever mischievous, she had gotten into a wee bit of trouble when she took the class skeleton and placed it on the toilet with a cigarette between it's teeth. Taken to the Mother Superior of the school, my mother decided that maybe becoming Catholic wasn't such a bad idea after all. Til this day she says the Sisters of Mercy had NO mercy on her. (but she HAS been known to do the sign of the cross over her patients who have deceased and fully supported me when I became Catholic myself)

My mother worked as a nurse from the age of twenty til the day she retired on her 65th birthday. She worked her way all the way up to the corporate position in charge of all nursing at a hospital corporation which owned several hospitals.

A few years before retirement, my mother decided she wanted to go back home (East Texas) to live near her brothers and sisters. So they purchased a little house on a lake only a few miles from where the house she was born in still stands along the highway. At the time she moved back, seven including herself were still living. Since then, five have died, and my mother was by each one's side taking care of them in the hospitals where they died. She was also at the side of my beloved cousin, the one who was pecked by the chickens, my closest cousin, when he died eight years ago.

Now it's just my mother and her younger sister, the sister she was so jealous of as a child, who are left. They talk on the phone almost every day, about what is going on now with the cousins and so forth, and about their childhood adventures. Whenever I talk to my mother, which is several times weekly I get the low down on current events as well as a few "new memories" she shares when they arise. And we laugh, oh we laugh as she relates to me these stories. And sometimes I just listen. She started writing a journal several years ago about those memories which are hard for my own children to understand. They think she is making a lot of it up, but I assure them she is not, for I have heard these stories from all my aunts and uncles over the years, the stories of love and hardship, joy and loss, family.

Happy 76th Birthday Bobs (my oldest daughter nicknamed her this as a child). May you remain healthy and able to walk better with your new knee, and may you be with us for MANY years to come, smiling and bringing laughter and joy to us all with your stories. I love you with all my heart.

Song: "Coat of Many Colors" (my grandmother did not sew clothes, but she made quilts out of whatever scraps she had) This is one of my mother's favorite songs, and whenever I hear it, I think of her.)

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