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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Honeymama, Dr. Pepper & Behavioral Science

My grandmother was a formidable woman. We cousins called her 'Honeymama' - a blending of my grandfather's name for her (Honey) and the name all our Moms called her (Mama). She was of Scots-Irish-Indian descent. I married a woman of Scots-Irish-Indian descent too. Like my Grandpa King, I learned early on that you don't want to mess with a Scots-Irish-Indian woman. I'm just sayin'. They will strap on a kilt, pick up a shillelagh and go on a warpath on your fuzzy hindquarters.

Mabel McClure grew up in a family of 12, the oldest daughter and, of course, the one her parents most depended on as backup substitute parent. She babysat the little ones, helped with the laundry and on Saturday afternoon when the boys went off to town to the movies to watch Lash Larue and Tom Mix, she stayed home with Nanny and cleaned house. She never quite forgave her siblings for that bit of parental injustice, but she did pay them back.

As was common in those days, all the kids worked in the cotton fields from a very early age. Paw-Paw used to give them all a bag and line them up each at the head of a row. Then he announced that anyone who got to the end of their row slower than Mabel (my grandmother) would get a whipping. Paw-Paw was a tough customer; so much so that when Grandpa and Honeymama decided to get married, they sneaked off and found a preacher in Itasca, Texas to marry them rather than tell Paw Paw. My grandpa brought Mabel home that night and they didn't tell Nanny and Paw-Paw about it for two weeks. When my Grandpa did finally fess up, he did so fully expecting to get pounded, even though Grandpa was a big strapping boy, a boxer and tough as nails. Paw Paw was about 130 pounds sopping wet, but he had a reputation as a tough and dangerous customer.

So, Honemom knew he meant it when he threatened to whip anyone who didn't pick cotton as fast as she did. Now you'd think she'd have given her brothers and sisters a break, at least the youngest ones anyway.

But, you'd be wrong. Instead, my grandmother would set a blistering pace, shoving cotton into her bag at alarming speed. And Paw paw was true to his word according to the stories and more than one got their butts warmed for not keeping pace with their sister (my grandmother).

Then, on Saturday, Paw-Paw would load them all up and leave Honeymama and Nanny behind to give the house a thorough cleaning. It was unjust, no doubt about it, but he always did take her for granted. She really hated being left behind, though. I think it ruined the movies for her. I don't think she ever went to the movie theater again for the rest of her life, except once in 1980 when "Coal Miner's Daughter", the story of Loretta Lynn came out. She made an exception for that one movie.

She didn't have much of a sense of humor that I remember. My Aunt once took her to see Jerry Clower in a futile attempt to get a chuckle out of her. She dismissed the witty Mr. Clower as "silly" and told Aunt Sandra she was glad she hadn't spent her own money on the tickets. She laughed at ordinary things, though and for some reason (probably something to do with cotton picking and the movies) she did seem to get a kick out of unhappy children throwing tantrums. Don't get me wrong, she wasn't a monster or anything. She'd laugh at family jokes and enjoyed get togethers. There was nothing she liked better than having her kids and grandkids about her and she was a genius in the kitchen. We all lived for Thanksgiving and Christmas and 4th of July and Easter - those were the big ones, but any time you could get an invitation to Sabbath Dinner, you took it. She made whole wheat dinner rolls that didn't need butter, they were that good!

But I have this picture of my son, Micah throwing a little tantrum and Honeymama is standing behind him grinning from ear to ear with this impish, almost wicked little twinkle in her eye.

As long as I could remember, she always kept a wooden case with bottles of Dr. Pepper in it down in the basement. When we went to visit, we would sometimes get a bottle to drink, but not always. It took me a while to figure out what triggered the invitation to run down to the basement and get myself a Dr. Pepper.

We were never allowed to ask for one. Mom was very strict about that. We were pretty sure asking for one would not work. You apparently had to deserve one. Except nobody ever told us exactly what we had to do to deserve one. I figured out after a while that not running or being noisy in the house was one of the criteria. Letting the grownups talk was another one.

Sometimes we would go outside to avoid screwing up our chances, timing the end of our play so we were sitting in the den looking overheated and expectantly innocent just before it was time to leave. Sometimes we'd sit on Grandpa's lap and listen to him tell stories and play his harmonica while the womenfolk talked in the kitchen. We had to be careful about giggling and laughing too much or we'd get grandpa in trouble right along with us.

Sometimes Honeymom would hint that the garden needed weeding and if Grandpa was out there working in the garden, we'd go out and give him a hand. We were lousy at weeding, but if we didn't do too much damage, we could usually count on a Dr. Pepper being offered. Of course, working the rows in the garden in the blistering Texas summer heat, you pretty soon began to wonder if it was worth a Dr. Pepper to put yourself through this misery. By then, however, you were afraid to quit without being bidden to because since you'd invested that much sweat and sore muscles into it, you didn't want to lose what reward there was likely to be, so you'd toil on.

The only ones of us ever figured out how to get out of weeding were my two boys Matt and Micah. They were 4 and 2 respectively and cute as buttons. One day, deciding they were old enough, Honeymom sent them out to "help" Grandpa in the garden. When my grandmother went out to check on them they were each halfway down a row of English peas. The vines were stripped of peas, but there weren't any peas in the buckets. The boys had been eating the raw peas as fast as they could pick them. They loved raw peas right off the vine. Honeymom sent them both inside for a Dr. Pepper so Grandpa and I could salvage at least some of the peas for cooking. My grandmother had that twinkle in her eye then too. I think she liked mischievious kids. To this day, I think I went about mooching Dr. Peppers all wrong with her.

Her favorite child was my Dad and that man was a complete rascal. Of all his siblings, he was the one most like Honeymama's brothers and sisters. He could get away with almost anything with her. She killed an entire peach orchard wearing out switches on his butt when he was a kid, but she doted over him. I do believe she'd have sent him off to the movies while she did housework if he'd wanted to go.

I, unlike dear old Dad, grew up to be an upright citizen. Most kids have a period in their lives where they go over fool's hill and get in trouble or raise a little hell. I never did. I was a good boy.

I think it was the Dr. Peppers. I never figured out how to get around being "good" to earn one. So, I never quit trying. It was kind of pitiful really. My wife had the same thing with her Mamaw only it was Coca-Cola and Sheila did housework when she stayed summers with her grandmother.

In the last few years, my wife has started keeping Dr. Peppers and Cokes in those small glass bottles in the closet. Whenever I've been working around the house especially hard, she chills a couple of bottles and then brings them out of the fridge when we're done. We pop the tops together. It's a lovely sound, that bottle cap coming off with a hiss.

She gets a Coke in the small bottle. I get a Dr. Pepper made with cane sugar and bottled in Dublin, Texas as God intended.

And we sit in our chairs under the fan or out on the porch and we drink our drinks slowly, savoring the familiar taste - a good little boy and a good little girl, rewarding themselves for a job well done as though my Honeymama and her Mamaw were still watching us to make sure we behave ourselves.

© 2009 by Tom King

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