The tight fit that was

Mother’s mold

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

    My mother was mad at me when she died - so mad that she left everything to my sisters. A message from the grave. The reason for her anger was big: I ran away from home with a civil rights lawyer and "ruined her" in the eyes of our conservative Southern town. My disaffection feels petty now, and I remember her fondly for her many talents, generosity and ingenuity.

The computer was not around when she was alive and the Internet not thought of, but you haven't seen a telephone in action until you watched my mother.

    She ordered our groceries daily, standing at the phone in the kitchen, smoking a Lucky Strike, tapping a size 4 1/2 foot, as she checked her list: How did the lettuce look? Did he have any nice ripe avocados?

    Local produce came to the back door from a man who walked our street pulling a cart and hollering: "I got corn and butter beans; I got fresh lady peas and black-eyed peas. I got turnip greens and collard greens." She'd study the day's offering and buy a half a dozen ears of corn and a quart of lady peas, measured out with a tin can.

She ordered pickup and deliveries from the cleaners. The drugstore delivered daily - cigarettes, soap, bath powder, Bufferin. No cash involved: everything charged. We got milk, cream, butter and even ice cream from the milkman. The Coca-Cola man stopped his big red truck at our house once a week to bring in a case of bottles.

Once a month, she ordered booze. Mississippi was a dry state, but that only confused the ill-informed. Mother phoned our bootlegger over in Rankin County and ordered a mixed case of bourbon, scotch and gin, which was delivered in broad daylight to our front door in the trunk of a yellow Cadillac, so heavy with illegal goods that the bumper scraped. The bill, when it arrived, read: "Merchandise."

    She was a fabulous cook. Not that she cooked everything herself. As Diane Keaton said in the movie, she supervised. Spoon bread so light and buttery that it floated down your throat; chocolate and lemon meringue pies; oysters fried in corn meal; a pot roast you could cut with a fork, served with a rich, dark gravy.

    Sardine canapes began every holiday meal. It sounds awful, but you should try it. A toast round, topped with a slice of ripe tomato, several small sardines, a half a hard-boiled egg - cut around the middle, not the long way - doused with a generous serving of homemade mayonnaise, thinned with lemon juice, and spiced with cayenne.

She made mayonnaise every week. No one else could be trusted. She stood (she was always standing in the kitchen, maybe because she was so short), dripping oil onto lemon juice and egg yolk in one of those old glass mayonnaise makers, the kind with a metal plunger that you jig up and down for about an hour to make the stuff come together.

    On our birthdays we got an amazing cake: chocolate angel food, cut into four layers, each slathered with a delicate cocoa-flavored whipped cream. She bribed a school friend to teach me to drive by promising him one of those cakes.

    When she and my father married, she supplemented her meager clothing allowance by making matching outfits for the three of us: Mother, my sister and me. I have a photograph of us in descending sizes of plaid pinafores. I loved dressing like my mother; I thought my younger sister should be put in a sack and drowned.

    As we grew older, she made our Sunday clothes. Dressed up, we drove downtown to Capitol Street to visit the fabric department of Kennington's or the Emporium. We slid our hands along bolts of silk shantung and Irish linen; we fingered pique and seersucker; we studied the Vogue Couture pattern books. Mother could reproduce the most complicated design, could take the top of one pattern and fit it to the skirt of another. She could make you a dress from a picture in a magazine. She was a genius with a needle. Nothing looked homemade.

    Back then, my tastes ran to linen sheaths with matching jackets. Stooping, Mother edged around me, taking tucks, making adjustments until the new dress fit like a second skin.

    She stood back. "You're going to butt-spring it, wearing it this tight."

    No decent girl wanted to be seen in a butt-sprung skirt. Caused by the rear end stretching the fabric, butt-springing could be prevented only by wearing the proper undergarment - a rubberized panty-girdle. On hot, humid summer days, with rare or no air- conditioning, Southern ladies put on the girdle, stockings, a brassiere, a nylon slip, topped by a nice outfit, matching purse and shoes, a hat and white gloves. Thus armored, we were considered fit to walk the streets of Jackson, Miss.

    When I started high school, my mother conjured and created amazing dance dresses: aqua organza with layers of skirt and a gold- beaded bodice; strapless black taffeta with a dropped waist and a silver sequin snake slithering down my front. Everything fitted over a merry widow tight enough for Scarlett O'Hara, and worn with 4- inch heels.

    I'd come home late and Mother would be waiting, sitting in bed beside my sleeping father. Had I been a success? How many boys danced with me? Her eyes glittered, as pleased as she ever was with me. She liked to hear that I'd been "broken in on" 10 times every dance; she wanted that dress to swing around the floor in every man's arms.

    I got married at 19. She sat in bed at night hand-beading my cream satin wedding dress with pearls and iridescent sequins. "Putting my eyes out," she said. "I hope you appreciate this."

    I did, but not enough, not as much as I do from this distance.

    The marriage didn't last and Mother died at 59, but I still have the dress. I put it on, unable to fasten the back, and look in the mirror. I think of her and of that night when she made me queen of the world.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.