Washing Dishes

August 29, 2018

I have never been very good at washing dishes.  My Mother, however, was tops in her W. S. Neal High School Home Economics class, circa 1964.  Her teacher, Mrs. Jane Smith, probably taught her more about life and how to do things correctly than anyone else and probably, in turn,  caused me more grief than any other human on earth.

In Mrs. Smith's class, your dishwater had to be smoking hot, nearly boiling.  This was before kids complained about getting burned, before regulators were put on hot water heaters in classrooms, and when life skills were important because women actually kept house. This was before parents chastised teachers for actually teaching their children valuable life lessons and allowed teachers to run their classrooms without interference. 

I assume that Mrs. Smith is the one who taught my mother to rub her hands on the inside of each pot and each pan to make sure that they were completely clean and had no residue, because this was the ritual in our home each night after the dishes were washed.

Keep in mind, that to this day in 2018, my Mother still has the pots and pans that she received for a wedding present in 1968, and they look almost exactly like they did the day she unwrapped them.  There is some wear, but there isn't a spec of anything on them.  They are a trophy of sorts.  Even though she has collected numerous better pots and pans throughout the years, there is one boiler that is a badge of honor that she will often pull out of the cabinet and say "I've had this pot since 1968, got it for a wedding present.  Look at it, just like brand new."

Washing dishes has never been high on my list of things I enjoy.  As far as house work goes, I hate it- all of it.  I would rather chew nails than clean.  I am a wonderful party planner, great cook, and designer, but domestic chores are not my calling in this life.  

Around age eleven, I remember dragging around with chores one Saturday morning that I didn't want to do when my Mother said "Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do in life that are necessary.  Cleaning the bathroom is necessary, and whether you want to do it or not, you will always have to do it."

None of that made sense to me.  I had plans, big plans.  None of my plans included cleaning a toilet, ever.  I imagined a home complete with a housekeeper, a cook, and a yard guy.  I had no intention of ever doing house chores, and so I responded 

"No, Mother,  I won't always have to do it, you are wrong.  You don't have to do things you don't want to do- you just make enough money to hire those things done for you.  I will never have to clean a bathroom when I grow up, because all of this is a waste of my time" to which she replied
"Well, Lizzy Louiza, you don't have that option and today you will clean this bathroom and you will stay in here until you do it."  I did it- four or five times that day I did it- until it was right.

More than anything, I hated washing dishes because it always began with some kind of game where we tested how hot we could stand the water.  Thanks, Mrs. Smith.  We had a dishwasher, but dishes weren't allowed in the dishwasher until they were properly washed.  Just because they are called dishwashers doesn't mean they actually wash dishes (at least that's what my Mother said).   

I was in the fifth grade and new to washing dishes the night that I begged for breakfast for dinner that my Mother graciously obliged me and cooked.  This was around the time that I learned the meaning of the phrase "half-ass".  My mother is not a fan of  half-ass anything and will snatch you bald-headed for half-assing any task.

I had struggled one day with a pan that I had the privilege of washing nine times because I had half-ass done it.  I should have learned at that point to do what Mother said, but I had a theory that if I did it poorly, she might not ever ask me to do it again.  I was wrong.  That breakfast-eating night, I put the pots and pans in the dishwasher and half-ass loaded it with the rest of the dishes.  I had no idea how important it was to remove grits from a ceramic boiler prior to putting it in a dishwasher, until the next morning when I was properly schooled.

6:45 a.m. my Mother began to unload the dishwasher and I heard  "HOOOOOLLLLY!!!  Get in the kitchen RIGHT NOW!"  I knew I had half-assed something, because that was the official call for half-assers.  I knew that call now, because I was preparing to win a medal in the Half-ass Domestic Olympics.  

I ran to the kitchen and she was holding the gritty pot- truly gritty- grits baked on the side.  "Give me your hand.  Give it to me.  Feel this."  She ran my hand around the entire inside of the boiler and I am quite sure my eyes were the size of saucers.   I felt it.  It was stuck.  The grits were baked on and felt like sandpaper and in her favorite boiler, oh Lord!

"Why did you put this in here without washing it like I told you?"

"Um, because I was ready to go to bed?"

"Didn't I tell you to wash it before you put it in the dishwasher?"

"Yes, ma'am, but...it's a dishwasher."

"Didn't I TELL YOU that dishwashers don't wash dishes?"

"Then why do we have the stupid thing?"

"Just for being a smart mouth, I should just whip your butt with this pot."

I had just received a neon orange sticker with the child abuse hotline number on it.  It was an 800 number, and I had stuck it on a notebook in my room.

I replied with "If you hit me with that pot, I am going to call the child abuse hotline."  

"You have the child abuse hotline number?  Really?  Where'd you get that?"


"Go get the number, let me see that."

I retrieved the notebook with the sticker affixed to it...

"I tell you what, Holly, why don't you call out that number to me."  She was holding the red Bellsouth slimline telephone with the long curly cord in her hand.

I asked "Why do you need the number?"

She said "I am going to dial it for you. One, Eight-hundred...  Here.  Tell them when they get here, they can identify you by your dental records."

Thankfully, my neighbor's mom pulled up and honked the carpool horn.  I jumped down the front steps of the house without even touching a single stair.  As I went out the door she said …

"And we aren't through with this conversation.  We will finish this when you get home."

It was the last day of fifth grade.  I physically was ill and by the time she got to school to pick me up.  I missed all of the parties the last day of school.  I had a temperature of 101.  I had worried myself sick, literally.  She, of course, had forgotten all about the pot in the dishwasher and washed it by the time I got home.  

I, on the other hand, am one of the best dishwashers in the tri-state area.    

***Update...I cleaned my own bathroom tonight and scrubbed the grout on the floor.  I also washed my own dishes.  My original pots and pans look exactly like they did the day that I got married in 1990. Thanks, Mrs. Smith.

Thank a teacher this week.  They are teaching your kids more than reading, writing, and arithmetic and their lessons might stick around for 50 years or more.

Love y'all,


Bigmama's Last Day

August 28, 2018

My Great-grandparents, Betty and Julian Henley, with me- 1975

I remember the Easter this photograph was taken.  My mother made the dress I am wearing and it had trim with strawberries on it.  I remember The Midnight Special being on the Friday night before Easter as Mother sewed the ribbon trim onto the white eyelet fabric.  She made a hairbow out of silk flowers and red ribbons that I did not want to wear.  My Easter basket had red cellophane to match and a red and white gingham bow.

Bigmama made chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, peas, corn, butterbeans, some kind of greens, cornbread, biscuits, a ham, the usual fare she prepared on holidays, and I am sure there was a cobbler of some kind and pies galore!  She made the best sweet potato pie in the universe.

Nine years after the Easter of 1975, Bigmama was gone.  She had been sick for years when she finally passed from a brain hemorrhage.  I tell you that she died from a brain hemorrhage, because we have to do that in the South.  Dying of old age isn't enough, we need details- how long it took once she went down, did she suffer, who was there, what'd we eat while she lingered, who brought the food, what we were wearing at the time she went to Glory,  and how many times did the preacher come by to pray before she passed- all of this somehow is important, because I have remembered it since I was twelve, nearly thirteen years old.

The Morning She Left Us

We had all been up for days sitting with her around the clock. Willie Fred had bathed Bigmama and rubbed her down with good smelling lotion.  Willie loved Gloria Vanderbilt, so I am assuming that is what she used.  I had on a boat neck, three-quarter sleeve t-shirt that was blue with skinny stripes on it that were white, red, and green.  I remember what I was wearing,  because my Mother worked as the office manager at the shirt factory my cousin Jimmy owned and he had given me two of the same shirt.  I had slept in it from the night before, in my jeans, fully dressed, because we knew the time was upon us.

I don't remember there ever being a second that one of us wasn't holding Bigmama's hand until she sat up in the bed, opened her eyes, and gasped her last breath.  What I do remember about the moment she passed, was that something woke me up, out of a dead sleep, and I ran out to where she was.  We all woke up like we had been shaken- my mother, my cousins, my Grandmother- we all were there.  It's almost like Bigmama wanted us to see her open her eyes as she left for heaven so that we would have faith that we will see her again.  She died on a Sunday morning around six o'clock, just in time to make it to the big piano in Heaven to crank out Keep on The Firing Line.

George, our neighbor, brought a sack full of biscuits from Hardee's that morning.  I remember having a steak biscuit with strawberry jelly smeared on it and thinking that I had uncovered the holy grail of culinary delights.  To this day, my favorite breakfast comfort food is a Hardee's steak biscuit.

After sitting up for weeks crying and watching our matriarch slip away, we were grateful for a biscuit and time together to love one another without the fear of impending death, because it had just come and gone like a thief.

She had been comatose for weeks, and I guess we all secretly wondered if she could hear us.  It was a relief  that Sunday morning, to know that Betty finally had her ticket to the one place she had always wanted to go- Glory. I must have played How Great Thou Art a thousand times while she lay in that bed dying.  It was all that I knew to do.  I believed she could hear it and it was her favorite song.  She had the round note version of the sheet music and could only read shape notes, so sending her off knowing that I had mastered it, was my gift to her.  Looking back now,  I can only imagine how everyone in the house probably wanted to set the piano on fire and me with it, but thankfully they did not.

Every morning as Bigmama drank her coffee in that old green mug, she would pray

"Dear Lord, I thank you for this day.  Thank you Lord for the promise of Glory.  Oh, Jesus, I want to see your face.  I want to walk the streets of gold.  Lord, if today is the day you come back, I am ready to go to Glory.  Thank you Lord for knowing that one day I will be healed and won't have the pains I have on this earth.  Come today, Oh Jesus, come today!"

I never could figure out why she was in such a hurry to go to heaven.  I was still figuring out things down here and I wasn't really excited about dying, so her prayers always perplexed me a little- until, until I saw her eyes open and her spirit leave her body, and then I knew.

Bigmama's farewell party was one of the best I had ever witnessed,  Devon Wiggins and the McKissacks sang while Miss Nelle played the piano.  Bigmama had been the piano player at the Bradley church for most of her life, so she was honored with a Southern Gospel musical celebration that the Gaithers can't rival.  My cousin Dean and I sang a song, I can't even remember now what it was, because as clearly as I can remember that Sunday morning she passed, I don't remember a thing about the Monday afternoon funeral.

Yesterday, one of my good friends lost her Mother.  It was only two weeks ago that my friend took her Mother to the hospital to find out that she had stage 4 colon cancer.  When she passed yesterday, Miss Bebe was surrounded by her family who loved her, holding her hands and loving on her,  and I have a sneaking suspicion she is having coffee with Bigmama marveling over the streets of gold.

I wish that I could walk in the joy of the unknown like Bigmama did- without stress or anxiety.  I wish I could find joy in my suffering and praise God for it, because I know it brings me another day closer to his Glory.  I wish that I had one more morning to sit on the floor in front of the space heater at Bigmama's  house while she drank her coffee from that ugly old green cup and prayed Heaven down into her dining room.

Hug your people and tell them you love them this week.

Love, y'all,



August 8, 2018

My Uncle J.B. painted this sign.  He was famous for painting homemade signs and building things.  He left the A out of Y'all, but that's alright, because he did manage to fit "Be Good" on at the end and that is something he championed, being good.  He loved his bride Betty and his children and grandchildren in a way that I have never witnessed in any other family.  He flat sure loved his tomato gravy making Mama and she sure did love him.

As much as my Uncle J.B. loved the living, he revered the dead. The Blackwater Cemetery, situated 1.3 miles off of Highway 4 in Bradley, Alabama,  is home to the graves of my great, great, great, great grandparents buried in the early 1800s.

Our people's stories are written on the 250 year old marble stones at Blackwater.   Our reason for being, it is buried there. Our blood came from the people in that sandy ground. Their struggles and their triumphs were passed down to us and we have gladly carried the mantle.

Those Henleys, Gatewoods, and Sweeneys  were strong people, with big families and even bigger hearts.  Their infant babies whom lived hours, and some days, are buried along side of their mothers.  Every time I see those tiny slabs, I wonder how many silent tears were cried in that graveyard after working the fields, cooking meals for ten plus people, tending to skirt-pulling children, and milking cows.

I cried millions of tears over a child that never was, so I cannot imagine burying a full-term infant and having to immediately go back to farm life.  Women didn't talk about their angst and pain in the 1800s,  life was about survival.  People were tougher, their wills were stronger, and there was no time to look back.  Looking back only allowed doubt to creep in, and survival had no place for doubt.  They got out of bed, made a wood-burning stove full of biscuits and gravy, and got on with living.

A short piece from the Blackwater Cemetery is the Blackwater River.   I have often wondered why cemeteries are often found near water.  I have heard spiritualist say that water is a conductor for the spirit world.  Maybe the Celts who came over in the 1600s brought that mythology with them?  I don't know much about all of that, but I do feel closer to my people at Blackwater than anywhere else.

The water in Blackwater is ice cold.  The smell of the sand is raw and fresh.  The bottom sand of the Blackwater is the purest in North America, and I can personally attest that there is nothing softer between your toes than the squishy bottom of our beloved swimming hole.

Although the name is Blackwater, it isn't black at all.  The ice cold water coursing through the perfect sand is the color of sweet tea and Baptisms on summer Sundays.  Driftwood and fallen trees, that have been in the same places since my Grandmother was a child,  have made diving boards and places to carve the initials of your sweetheart.  The rushing water of the Blackwater River is the final sound we all hear before putting someone we love to rest there.  It is the sound of our childhood memories with our cousins, the sound of picnics and cemetery cleanings, and if we do a good job passing down our heritage, it will be the place where our stories are told five generations from now.

Uncle J.B. is gone now.  He never drank or smoked, and maybe cussed twice in his whole life.  He loved one woman.  He worked every day like it was his last.  He loved with everything he had.  And still, lung cancer took him much too soon.

Ed Lee passed on a few years ago.   He must have been my fourth or fifth cousin but was one of my favorites.  He always called me "Good Looking" and when I gained weight as I entered my thirties, he would say "You're still good looking, but you need to come back looking like yourself next year."  Ed Lee had the biggest smile and maybe the biggest teeth I have ever seen on someone his size.  He beamed happiness from twenty feet away.  His grin, his laugh, and his hugs were infectious. Ed loved J.B. and J.B. loved him and together, they were the caretakers of our heritage.

Tom- Thomas Earle, passed away last year and I regret that I didn't visit him more often than I did.  Thomas Earle- pronounced Tomaserl- helped Uncle J.B. bury his best friend, Pup, in a pasteboard box.  They had a Little Rascals style funeral when they were about ten years old, complete with little girl mourners in their Sunday bests.  All of the little girls wailed and nearly fainted when the bottom fell out of that box as they laid Ol' Pup in the ground.

Thomas Earle later went on to become the song leader and fill-in preacher at the Bradley Church.  He had an infectious, happy smile and knew the words to every single song in the Red Church Hymnal. Like any good Pentecostal does, he marked the song page with two fingers, held the song book closed with his thumb and other two fingers and beat it with his other hand to keep time, old school.  He always slicked his reddish hair back in a Pompedour that curled on top like the Gerber baby.  He had a mole on his chin that I once asked my Grandmother about and she said "Why would he have that removed?  That's his personality."  I never asked again.

Riley is the last man standing.  He is my Grandmother's first cousin.  I need to check on Riley as well.  I haven't been nearly as good as Uncle J.B. would have probably liked me to be- checking on my relatives- but I am going to do better. As much as I love to visit them at Blackwater, now is probably as good of a time as any to visit the living.

I think when I go home this weekend, I will be good and wonder what J.B. would do this weekend?  He would probably visit kin folks that live near Blackwater, slip a hundred-dollar bill in some old widow woman's hand, kiss her on the cheek and say, "Now you be good- you sweet, purdy little thing."

We only have so many days, we have to love on our people while they are still here.

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