Norma Gay Prewett
Mother loved the holidays, though she never had much “to do with”—a registered Momism. But we did our version of “little house on the prairie” stuff—made sno-cream until the news announced that there could be nuclear fall-out in the pristine-looking sno. (Recipe for sno-cream—choose snow as far away from the outhouse as possible, stir in milk and vanilla—eat.)
We made rough paper chains and strung popcorn for the tree, always a bad little shrub of the kind Greg Brown called “a ditch cedar.” There was no money for buying a pine from a lot, so Daddy cut one down on his way home from work. He and Mom stood it in a bucket full of damp sand, bored holes and stuck in branches to round it out, and made do. We baked crazy-looking square oatmeal cookies—mother did not really like cooking, probably because she never really had the right ingredients. After she died, my sisters and I found her recipe collection and were amazed at one marked “Hanukkah cookies” with GOOD written in her hand. Did she think we were Jewish? Nobody could recall ever eating a Hanukkah cookie. For weeks and maybe months before Christmas, Mother would sneak around hiding the things she had made from scratch—usually rag dolls, while Daddy would come home from various hard, dirty jobs, bone-weary, and then go to work in his shop out back or in the cold attic (I was a kid, oblivious to their lives) building and painting doll beds with his friend Ward Lawson. When one Christmas I requested something nobody could make from scratch—ice skates—and they got me the cheap kind that buckled onto shoes. I cried and sulked, having dreamed of the lovely Sonja Henie kind of white high tops. This made my mother, who would have loved to have bought the real thing, cry, while Daddy went a shade deeper red in the face.
Mother was nothing if not frugal—and also very creative and resourceful. Halloween was her tour de force, for, having no money for store-bought clothes, but having a treadle Singer and a good eye, she sewed pumpkins, fairy princess dresses, both halves of horses, and whatever else met her fancy. My sister Donna and I, fully two years apart and opposite in coloration and body type, were made to act twins in clothing. To keep the peace and reduce envy, she made us two identical everything—skorts (shorts and skirts) and chemises—straight, 20’s style shifts, full skirts, pinafores—everything but underwear and shoes—in different colors. She starched blouses by cooking the starch, she ironed non-stop with some very dangerous appliances, including the one iron she heated on the kerosene stoves that failed to heat our drafty rented farm-house, the Beitel place, so that she could pre-warm our bed (and there were always at least three of us in the same bed) so that we could, by launching ourselves through the air from the last slightly warm edge of the living room linoleum, land close to, if not in, a bed that was a few degrees warmer than the freezing floor. We were spot-cleaned (faces, hands, feet, etc.) with a rough, line-dried “warsh rag” from a pan of water atop the same stoves. I recall my first bout of having my mouth washed out with soap for declaiming in my best Tennessee Ernie Ford voice “the Tennessee stud loved the Tennessee mare.” It was the word “stud” that sealed my fate and my mouth—temporarily.
How exhausted she must have been, how that fair white skin and black, black hair must have suffered in the dry heat of the leaky house. She may have sewn for herself, but I only recall her sacrifices for us. Today, talking with my nephew and his wife, the only son of my late brother Marx, he told me something I never knew: apparently, Mom used to manufacture whole suits of clothes—from top hats to shoes—out of folded newspapers, entertaining her grandkids with these suits that must have looked like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz in their chunkiness. He said she did it without tape or fasteners, a kind of giant origami that was buttressed and held together by counterfolding and inner tension based nothing but folding. I wonder if one lucky kid got the funnies for his or her suit? It is so easy for me to imagine her, dimpling, while she outfitted them for their delight and her own.