By Martha Cockrell Robinson © 1990
Issue: July, 1990
I remember Maw. Several years ago there was a popular television show entitled "I Remember Mama," based on a book by the same title. In this sketch I would like to remember Mama's Mama - Maw. The Reader's Digest for several years periodically ran an article entitled, "The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met." For me, Maw fits that category.
She had very little formal education, attaining third grade level when she was eighteen. Was she retarded? No! Was she lazy? No! You see, Maw's life was not an easy one. Both her parents had died when she was a young girl. She remembered traveling to Pinson, Alabama, a small community north of Birmingham, in a covered wagon. Maw never complained about the hardships she encountered in her childhood and young girlhood, but she did tell me that after her parents died the two youngest children were taken into the homes of older brothers. She was the youngest and her sister Ophelia was two years older.
Maw had to work hard on her brother's farm to earn her keep. She was required to babysit her brother's youngest child, Jimmy, who in later years said Maw "raised" him. He was always devoted to her as long as she lived and kept in close touch with her through the years. Besides housework and childcare, Maw had to work in the fields the same as the men. She could only attend school at such times as there were no crops to tend, cotton to chop or pick, etc.
When Maw was young there wasn't much money to be had. Times were hard and back then about all a girl could do with her life was to marry and raise a family. Growing up on a farm just before the turn of the century didn't afford a girl much opportunity to meet eligible young men, and besides that, back then a young man didn't ask for a girl's hand until he had his "nest egg." So - Maw's knight in shining armor didn't appear until she was well into spinsterhood (by her era's calculation) - the old, old age of 25! Maw set about making up for lost time though. She had eight children in ten years. Of those eight, three died when they were less than two years of age from diseases that now have been virtually wiped out. The other five lived to adulthood.
Maw's husband (my granddad whom I never knew) was a machinist and worked in the engine room at the ore mines. My mother remembers happy times with her family. She tells of times when Maw would fry a chicken, make biscuits, and whatever else would be good on a picnic. Then she would make a freezer of homemade ice cream (hand cranked, of course). When Granddaddy got home from work, Maw had the wagon packed with the food and ready to go. Granddaddy hitched up the team, the children climbed into the back of the wagon with Maw and Granddaddy on the wagon seat up front, and off they went to select a picnic site and enjoy a time of family fun.
The good family times lasted until my mother was twelve years old and the youngest of the family was eighteen months old. One day while my mother and the other children of school age were at school, a messenger came with sad news. Maw was told that her husband had been killed in the engine room at the mines. It seems he had shut off the machinery to work on it and someone came in who didn't know he was in the back working on it. That person turned the machinery on and Granddaddy's arm was caught and pulled into the machinery up to his shoulder. The arm was pulled loose from his body. Of course he couldn't survive. Thus Maw was left with five young children and very little education. She was only in her mid-30's. She had never been to downtown Birmingham alone. But Maw was a survivor! The word "can't" was not in her vocabulary.
My earliest memories of Maw go back to when I was probably three and a half years old. I remember her holding my baby sister on her lap and feeding her biscuits soaked in coffee! However, she had added sugar and lots of cream to the coffee before dunking the biscuit and my sister really smacked her lips while she consumed the morsel.
Unfortunately circumstances in my immediate family had necessitated a move back to the old homeplace by my mother, my brother and myself. My sister was born shortly after we moved there and most of my childhood was spent there.
The big crash came in 1929, not too long after my sister's birth in August of 1928, and thereafter the entire country was in the midst of hard times. I remember hearing Maw speak of trying to "keep body and soul together," and wondering what on earth she meant. I do not remember ever being hungry, although I'm sure the grownups were hard put sometimes to see that there was food on the table. Granddaddy had bought the homeplace for his family and so we were all fortunate to have a roof over our heads. There was hardly any money to be had, but Maw was undaunted when the time came to pay taxes. You see, she always had at least one and sometimes two cows on the lot. When a cow had a calf in the spring, sometimes Maw would raise it until it was a young heifer and then lead it by a rope to Eugster's meat market and sell it, thereby obtaining money to pay the taxes.
Maw swore by Jersey cows. That's the only kind I ever knew her to keep on the lot. They gave plenty of rich milk to drink and also to churn and make delicious butter. There was usually plenty for the household and some left to sell too. Maw always had chickens on the yard and when the hens were "laying good" the surplus eggs were sold. I remember the cracked teapot up in the corner of the kitchen cabinet where Maw kept her "butter and aig" money. Maw's garden was another source of sustenance for the household. There was always an abundance of vegetables for the table in the summertime and plenty to can and preserve for the winter. There were also two peach trees, two fig trees, and an apple tree. When it was canning time, "all hands on deck" was the order of the day. Everyone had to pitch in. Even the littlest ones could break beans that the women has already strung and could help shell peas.
One thing I like to remember is Maw's outgoing personality. She had many friends. In fact, I don't believe she ever met a stranger. And when you came to visit Maw, you were treated like royalty. People always left Maw's house feeling good about themselves. It was definitely uplifting to be around her. Gloominess had no place in Maw's life. In fact, one was expected to be pleasant around others. If a child came into the kitchen for breakfast acting grouchy or irritable, that child just might be sent back to "get up on the right side of the bed." Maw also had definite opinions about folks being "down in the mulligrubs" or "down in the mouth." She just "took no stock" in a downcast or depressed manner or attitude.
I think that what I remember most about Maw is her optimism and her "can-do" attitude toward life. She didn't spend time bemoaning the fact that her lot in life was hard or that she didn't have much of this world's goods. She just enjoyed the good times and made the best of it during the bad times. She had a saying about bad times: "It's a long road that never turns." I think Maw demonstrated by her attitude that "tough times don't last - tough people do."