Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
May 14, 2017
Caroline 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 down.
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 hurting.
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 penny.
Caroline 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. + + +