Mothers do have ideas about how things should be.
In her new memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Lee Smith (Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, Ordinary Grace) shares some of the things her mother taught her:
“I was not to use double negatives; I was not to say ‘me and Martha.’ I was not to trade my pimento cheese sandwiches at school for the lunch I really wanted: cornbread and buttermilk in a mason jar, brought by the kids from the hollers. Me and Martha were not to play in the black river behind our house, dirty with coal that would stain my shorts. I was to take piano lessons from the terrifying Mrs. Ruth Boyd even though I had no aptitude for it.”
“From Main Street, it was only a stone’s throw to our little Methodist Church…. ‘Ju-ust as I a-am, without one plea,’ we sang tremulously at revivals, where I always rededicated my life, to my mother’s embarrassment. ‘A nice girl does not rededicate her life at the drop of a hat,’ she said.”
“When I think of Mama, she is always at home, holding forth in her kitchen, and somebody is always there visiting…. The women lean forward, over their coffee cups, and lower their voices. Writing or drawing at my own little table in the corner, I perk right up. Now they are going to really talk, about somebody who ‘has just never been quite right, bless her heart,’ or somebody who is ‘kindly nervous,’ or somebody else who’s ‘been having trouble down there.’ Down there is a secret place, a foreign country, like Mexico or Nicaragua. I keep on drawing, and don’t miss a word.”
“One time when we all went out for bagels in Chapel Hill, she said, ‘This may taste good to someone who has never eaten a biscuit.’ Another thing she used to say is, ‘No matter what is wrong with you, a sausage biscuit will make you feel a whole lot better.’”
“When he [my husband] suddenly moves out, I am traumatized. I am thirty-seven, old as the hills, old as dirt. And now I am getting a divorce. My mother bursts into tears. ‘Nobody in our family has evah gotten a divorce,’ she weeps, though later she will admit that a numbah of them should have.”
Dimestore will pull you in as gently and smoothly as Smith’s novels. Her memoir is no mere hymn to a Southern past; she also visits the mental health struggles of her parents, her divorce, and the schizophrenia and death of her son. Throughout, she reflects on how her life informs her writing.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages to reflect on for Mother’s Day:
“My mother’s recipe box sits on the windowsill on our North Carolina kitchen where my eye falls on it twenty, maybe thirty times a day. I will never move it. An anachronism in my own modern kitchen, the battered box contains my mother’s whole life story, in a way…. On impulse I reach for Mama’s recipe box and take out one of the most wrinkled and smudged, Pimento Cheese, everybody’s favorite, thinking as always that I really ought to get these recipes into the computer, or at least copy them before they disintegrate completely. On this card, Mama underlined Durkee’s dressing, followed by a parenthesis: ‘(The secret ingredient!)’ Though I would never consider leaving Durkee’s Dressing out, I don’t really believe it is the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is love.”
(This doesn’t just apply to recipes.)
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Lee Smith will be in Nashville this week! She’s speaking at Parnassus on Wednesday, May 11th, at 6:30 p.m.
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Here’s a funny line I overheard yesterday in a nail salon waiting area. A mother was trying to make conversation with her teenage daughter, who was obviously tired. “Mom, I am not going to put up with this chit chat,” she stated unequivocally. Hysterical laughing by the mom (me) followed. Sometimes the special sauce of Mother love is embracing honesty. Xo
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