Saturday, January 5, 2013

Vacationing with a Purpose

Vacationing with Mom
Throughout my childhood my mother was a working mother. In fact, most of the mothers in my neighborhood worked. I considered it as normal for a woman to work as it was for a man. Only when I moved to New England and began hanging in conservative Christian circles did I meet people who were appalled that a mother would work outside the home. It was in those circles that I began to hear the gospel that a woman’s place was in the home. Whenever I told a conservative friend that my mother was a working parent I was always asked if felt neglected because she worked outside the home. A shocked expression would appear on his or her face when I said no. When I think about that question I am certain that if anyone asked any of my siblings if they felt neglected because she worked, they would all say no. In fact, they would probably all agree that sometimes it was best that she worked.

You see, Mom had such longevity on her job that when we were in grade school she was able to take four weeks of vacation each year. She never used all of her time at once. She would take a week off shortly after the school year ended in June. During that week she started her vacation with a purpose. I truly believed my mother created this idea long before it became popular on college campuses and with people who want to make a difference in the world. She created a vacation week that she and her children would vacation with a purpose. Her purpose was to teach proper work habits to her brood. Her June vacation was all about spring cleaning. She had a small army of six whom she would mentor, coach and coerce into becoming diligent workers.

Spring cleaning meant taking all the mattresses outside and sun-bathing them. It meant taking all the metal springs outside and washing them. It meant washing every window. It meant thoroughly sweeping every crack and crevice of dust, dirt and cobwebs. It meant taking out all the best china and carefully washing each item. It meant washing every cabinet shelf and lining it with fresh newspaper. It meant washing walls and painting every room. It meant washing all the linen whether it needed it or not. It meant cleaning the yard by getting rid of un-necessary debris.

My Mom was not a slave driver. Even though sometimes you felt that way because throughout most of your waking moments you were kept busy with one of her projects. We could have become resentful towards her. However, it was hard to become angry with this woman because she would whole-heartedly delve into those projects and work as hard as or harder than her six delegates. Each night she would bask in the accomplishments of the day. My sister, Antoinette, remembers how Mom would remark each night before bed-time: “Doesn’t it feel good to go to bed in a clean house?” The question sounded more like a statement. Of course before we could answer we would be sound asleep.

When Mom’s spring cleaning vacation was over, she would return to work the following Monday as refreshed as if she had enjoyed a trip to the Caribbean. All six of us would breathe a sigh of relief that our vacation with a purpose was over. Mom was off to work and finally we could relax and really enjoy the summer.  

Even so, before going to work Mom would “lay down the law” with a list of chores which must be completed and certain things we could not do.

-“Now I don’t want any…”
- “Yes Ma’m” we would say
-“Make sure that you…”
-“OK, Ma.”
-“And don’t go hanging around…”
-“Yes Ma’m.”

Believe me, you better follow her instructions or you would hear about it later. Or even worse, you might feel the effects of her displeasure. Those cotton-picking, tobacco harvesting black hands had power. Once when were goofing around the house, one of us broke a window pane. When she arrived home, she asked who was responsible for the damage. Since no one took responsibility, she spanked all of us.

When I reflect on those years, I have no ill feelings. I believe that Mom’s spring cleaning vacations played a major role in welding our family together as a strong unit. Her demands and expectations gave us a sense of belonging. It made each of us realize the significant role we had in this family unit. She taught us how to persevere with a task until it was completed. She built our self-esteem by helping us to rejoice over an accomplishment. And she modeled good work habits.

As we got older, Mom rarely “laid down the law”. She did not have to do so. Her expectations were instilled within us. Our deep sense of being a family member motivated us to ensure that our home was orderly and well-kept. To this day, each of my siblings attacks a chore with little effort. My brothers will clean the toilet as well as the sisters. Their attitude is “if it must be done, them someone must do it…”

Working outside the home was not a feminist statement. My mother worked for practical reasons. It was a pragmatic endeavor to help Dad put food on the table, clothes on our backs and keep a roof over our heads. Somehow, Mom was able to stay involved in the various school activities, PTA meetings, remain on numerous boards, and weld a strong family unit while working outside the home. Her ability to juggle these activities was absolutely amazing. I believed she was able to do this because she always remembered that her primary calling was Mom. Her calling was to nurture her family, teach them great values and proper work skills. For this reason she set aside a week’s vacation to teach life-long skills that helped us become the successful adults that she envisioned. What a Mom!


Antonio Booth
© 1993

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Importance of Relationships

Would You Like Some Water?A Mother’s Proverbs About Relationships

In Honor of Mildred Lee Burney Booth

Mildred Lee Burney Booth

My mother, Mildred Lee Burney Booth, once said that you never miss your water until your well runs dry. During the past weeks I’ve thought a lot about this statement. I have literally had a lot of problems with my well. It’s been low. I have had problems with the pump. I’ve replaced the filter system. I have had the plumber over at least three times. Throughout this trying experience, my mother’s proverb haunted me and I found myself constantly quoting her: “You know you never miss your water until your well runs dry.”

Mom seemed to love using proverbs about water. She would remind us “treat everybody right, because you don’t know who’s going to give you your last drink of water.” Whenever something bad happened to a person who treated people wrong, she would always say: “Well, you never miss your water until your well runs dry.” For people who were stubborn and hard-headed she would remark that to give them advice is “like pouring water on a duck’s back.”

Water was a powerful metaphor for her. I believe it was so potent because of her farm background. She grew up in eastern North Carolina on a share-cropping farm. Her large black hands harvested lots of tobacco, cotton, berries and all types of vegetables. I am sure she remembered being out in the middle of a field on a hot day without water close by.

She probably remembered the extremely dry spells when their well was low or dry. Certainly their neighbors experienced the problem at least once. I can hear my grandparents quoting the proverb when they heard about a neighbor’s well going dry: “Well, you know what they say, ‘You never miss your water until your well runs dry.’ Sho’nough.”

She also grew up during the segregation era. Basic accommodations were rare for blacks. She was not able to stop at a lunch counter for a cool drink on a hot day. Surely there weren’t a lot of fountains for ‘colored’. On a hot day when she was walking from a friend’s house she would stop and ask for a drink of water from a colored neighbor. That neighbor might not know her personally, but knew her parents-George and Harriet.

Just thinking about her background, I appreciate why water was such a prominent metaphor. She understood what it meant to be really thirsty and not to be able to have that thirst easily quenched. She understood what it meant to ask a stranger for a glass of water.

What amazes me is that Mom never used the water proverbs literally. She never used them when getting a drink. They were always used in the context of relationship. Somehow she equated the value of having water when insatiably thirsty to the value of good friendships. She knew how important it was not to bankrupt one’s relationships. Whenever she made the statement that “you never miss your water until your well runs dry” it was always related to people who had treated people badly and one day during hard times would discover there was no one around to help them.

She understood what it meant to “treat everybody right, because you don’t know who is going to give you your last glass of water.” After giving birth to me and my twin sister, she became ill. During the period of illness a wino named Lodella would visit Mom daily to perform chores such as sweeping, mopping and going to the store. To Mom this act of kindness was similar to being given her last glass of water. Throughout her life she always seemed to have numerous people similar to Lodella who would volunteer to perform an act of kindness on her behalf -whether it was escorting the kids to the sitter because she was running late for work or simply watching the house while she stepped out to visit a neighbor.

Today the water is flowing evenly throughout the house. The water pump is operating consistently. Even so, Mom’s lesson continues to remind me that it is not important whether I have water or not. What is important is whether I have a friend who will eagerly offer me a cool glass of water in my time of need.

A co-worker was surprised to hear that my mother has been dead for several years. He stated that I always talked about her as if she was alive. I stated that she is more alive now than she’s ever been. Her legacy or proverbs continue guiding me.

Antonio Booth
© 1993