Family Background: Roots
What do you remember about your oldest relative(s) you knew personally?
The relative I remember the most is Mama O. Mama O is my maternal great-grandmother. I have a handful of memories of her, and I cherish them all. I remember the unique, dusty, bittersweet smell of her ramshackle home, that tin-roofed, rickety shack that did not have an indoor bathroom or running water. I remember how the front porch creaked and we thought it was creepy going to the outhouse to potty. I remember the huge tree in front of her house and how there was a hole near it. Kids were not allowed to play near the tree because of the old well. There was a white, “washing machine” (the antique kind) that sat on the porch, as well as a few rocking chairs. My mother had carved her name into the leg of one. As simple as that house was, though, Mama O had a few really unique and beautiful things. I remember her gold-leafed tree that played music. There was a lightbulb in her living room and it had a string. Mama O would let me take her cane and swat the string of the lightbulb back and forth. On a country quiet, sunny afternoon, I sat with Mama O in a plastic lawn chair in her vegetable garden and whenever we drove up to her house, she would be on the front porch, waving at us. She wrote me letters, even though I was only five years old. Her skin was a deeply tanned and wrinkled; her heritage of Cherokee Indian could be detected. Really, it all boils down to love. I remember feeling loved. When I was seven years old, my mother was working when my father put my sister and I in a car and drove to pick her up. I did not know what was wrong but I knew something was when Mama started crying. She left work early that night and took me and my sister to my grandparents. I begged to go to the funeral but Mama did not want me to see Mama O lying in a casket. Instead, I sat in the window sill of my grandparents’ house and cried. Mama O was born on Valentine’s Day and, from that day on, I would write her letters on Valentine’s Day, no matter where I was. Sometimes I would write the letters in school. Sometimes I would write them in my diary. Sometimes I would write them while driving down an interstate. But I always wrote them. It made me feel like she wasn’t really that far away. And sometimes I slept with her picture under my pillow. You see, the truth is, one person is only ever truly loved by a few individuals in a lifetime. Lots of people may like us but only a few really, truly love us. Whoever they are, no matter how long or how short of a time we know them, we never forget them. Mama O was one of those people for me.
What do you know about your mother’s parents values, philosophies and religious beliefs?
All I really know is that they were really, truly good people. They believed in Jesus and read the Bible. Grandpa was a staple in the family; one of those really, really good people that you read about but usually aren’t lucky enough to know in person. He loved to tell jokes: he told this one about this preacher and a bear. See, one day, this preacher was out walking near the woods when a bear started chasing him. He raced through the woods but the bear was right behind him, and gaining ground. Soon, there wasn’t anywhere to run anymore so the preacher started climbing a tree. He climbed as high as he could and then held on to branches while the bear circled below the tree. Seeing that the bear wasn’t walking away, the preacher started praying: “Lord, if you can’t help me, please don’t you help that bear!” Grandpa used to be afraid that he wouldn’t go to Heaven, despite having been saved. Eerie (aka: Mama O) would tell him he was being silly and say, “Noel Owen, if you’re not going to heaven, nobody is!” Truthfully, I don’t know much about their political philosophies. What I do know is that they left a powerful legacy, as evidenced by the fact that, decades after their deaths, their great-great grandchildren (my daughters) know who they were and the words to their favorite songs. One night, a few years after Mama O died, Mama taught me the words to “Gathering Flowers”, an old gospel hymn Mama O loved. I memorized it the same night and still sing it today when I am in need of comfort. My daughters sing it too and, every holiday, we still bake Mama O’s family recipe chocolate pie.
When and where were your father’s parents born and raised? What was your grandmother’s maiden name? What do you know about their childhoods?
Papa was born in Lexington, Tennessee; as far as I know, Grandmama was too.
I know very, very little about Grandmama’s chlidhood. I know her maiden name was Bridgewater but her mother had died years before I was even born; I never knew her. Papa Bridgewater lived with Grandmama and Papa in the years leading up to his death. I was a teenager when he died, so I remember him being alive but he was always very frail and bed-ridden.
Mama Nora and W.A. were my great-grandparents. They lived in Lexington, TN and I remember more of them. Mama Nora had a garden and she cooked for us whenever we stayed all night. I remember waking up to the smell of bacon. She also liked putting cornbread in milk. My fondest memory of W.A. is when my school gave us a sapling to plant. I did not want to plant my tree in my own yard because I knew we would move and I would not get to see it big and strong. W.A. allowed me to plant my tree in their yard but he did more than that. One night, there was a great storm and my little tree was in danger of drowning. So, in the rain, W.A. went outside to tie a stick to my tree, to help keep it upright during the storm. He saved my little tree and I was always very grateful to him for that.
I don’t know much about Papa’s childhood, but I know that when he was seventeen, he was chopping down a tree when the ax slipped from his hand and fell. It hit him on the head. It didn’t injure him too badly at the moment but then, one day shortly after the accident, he woke up and could not see. He was blind. But that didn’t stop Papa from being one of the most formidable men I have ever known. He was loud and sometimes brash; audacious, even. But I loved Papa, and believed he loved me.
What kind of work did your father’s parents’ do?
Because he was blind, the state of TN helped Papa; they gave him the job of overseeing the lunch room of the post office in Nashville. My grandmama did a bulk of the work and we got to help. I remember filling vending machines and washing the tables. The employees could buy candy and snacks from us during their lunch and I remember being the cashier sometimes and getting to give them change. We thought we were really grown up, getting to “work” in the lunchroom.
When was your mother born? What was her maiden name?
Mama was born on July 27, at the start of the sixities. Her maiden name was Moody. She got teased for this at school.
Do you know what her childhood was like? Do you remember any stories she told about it?
Mama is the oldest of a large family; she has three sisters and one brother. Her parents were divorced; I was nine or ten before I ever met my grandfather. She grew up in the midst of a really challenging, dysfunctional family in which a cycle of abuse exists. Despite this, there were stories of happiness. Mama loved to run; and music, she loved music. And there was a family that lived in the same town. The mother of the kids in this family had abandoned them, the father was a drunk. This left the oldest daughter, Kim, basically as a second-mother to her siblings. When Mama told me about this family, I was so touched that I ended up writing a novel in which they and my mother were primary characters called “Graduation.” Like Mama O, they did not have running water, so they had to draw water from a well in order to take baths, clean or cook. They had an outhouse and there were stories of Mama’s brother playing jokes on them late at night while they went to the outhouse.
What memories do you have of your mother during your childhood?
Mama is one of my best friends, and has been ever since I was a child. Mama is the one who inspired my love of music. She was an Alabama fan and every Summer, we would go to their “June Jam”, a weekend music festival in Alabama. I remember how fun that was, racing to get seats when the gates opened and hanging out around the lead singer, Randy Owen’s, house, hoping to get a glimpse of him. When I was young, Mama told me there was someone she thought I would like, and let me hear a song by Tanya Tucker. This inspired a great love of Tanya’s music that brought me comfort during my childhood. Mama has one of the strongest faiths I’ve ever seen and I remember learning about God through her actions; I would wake in the middle of the night and she would be putting oil on my head, or praying over me. She read the Bible to us. And she always supported my sister and I. When I came to her one day while she was cooking, being about nine, and told her that I wanted to write a book, she was thoroughly supportive. She would sit with me and help me come up with ideas. She bought me “baby name” books so that I could think of new characters’ names. She believed in me when nobody else did and I am not sure I would have wrote at all had she not been so supportive. Mama always put me and Mandi first; she devoted her entire life to our happiness and taught us critical lessons that enabled us to get through the tough times. The three of us, for example, were “The Three Musketeers.”
Have you ever seen your mother experience tragedy? How did she handle them?
There were constant tragedies and heartache. The biggest I saw, though, was my brother Nathan’s death. When he died, I saw Mama question God for the first time. That scared me more than anything I had ever experienced because I needed her to believe in a good and merciful God. I prayed, begging Him to let her keep her faith. I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so important to me that she believe in God. Eventually, she turned a corner and I knew she was going to be okay—she still believed in a loving God, even though she didn’t understand Him. Knowing that brought me peace. Mama has never had many people to turn to; she’s always shouldered heavy burdens alone. But she taught me to lean on God even when I was hurting, and that was a lesson I never forgot.
What were the greatest lessons your mother taught you?
To believe in God.
That family comes first, always and forever. My mother never got on to my sister or I much, but she would not allow us to fight and this, more than anything, taught me that my sister is my best friend. Mama would say that everyone else will come and go, but we would always be sisters, no matter what. And she was right. Mandi is my best friend, the one person I know I can safely relax with and laugh uncontrollably.
She taught me about grace and dignity. When I would be confronted with a bully at school, my mother told me I had a choice: I could either fight back or I could smile at the person who wasn’t being nice to me. She said, “it’s hard to be mean to someone who is smiling.” That simple sentence was something I never forgot. And I put it into practice. When someone was mean to me, I smiled at them. I never fought back. I never got angry. And, it worked. One of the most ferocious bullies actually responded by writing that I was “a pretty cool chick” in my yearbook after pinching me and telling me to get out of her way all year long. Mama would say, “You’re better than they are if you can listen to it and not resort to their level.” I would think of that when someone hurt my feelings and it allowed me to feel like I was the stronger person by listening to their unkind words without fighting.
What was your mother’s strongest trait?
Her faith in God and her belief in family.
What do you know about your father’s childhood? What kind of work did your father do?
My father has three brothers and one sister. Other than that, I know very, very little about his childhood. I do not remember any stories told.
My father was a criminal. He was in and out of jail my entire life for things like fraud and writing bad checks. He also set a man’s house on fire once and he would disappear like magic multiple times. Once, for example, he took us to a movie theater and dropped us off, allegedly coming back to pick us up after the movie. He did not return. He left us stranded in different cities and states more than once.
What memories do you have of your father during childhood?
This question would take too long to answer. None of my memories of my father are pleasant. Once, I wanted to meet a disc jockey who had talked to me over the phone a couple of times. My dad drove me to the station. During the ride, he said, ‘Just remember. There is nothing I can’t do.” Bottom line: I believed him. I was very scared of him.
Does your family have any myths or traditions?
Not really, except the “ring thing.” To my knowledge, it has never failed to be accurate in my family.
Basically, you thread a piece of string through a wedding band (it works with any ring). Holding the string, put the ring above your upturned wrist. Do not move the string at all. If you leave the string perfectly still, the ring will start to move by itself. It will either sway side to side or front to back. If it swings side to side, it means a girl. If it swings front to back, then you will have a boy. It will stop after swinging for a minute. Then it will start again, this is your second, third and so on child. My entire life, this thing has said that I will have a two girls, followed by a boy. I am waiting, and hoping, for the last prediction to come true.