I remember the day Mama cried as though her heart would break in two.
I had seen her get mad at Daddy or at my brother, and at me more times than I could count. When she lost her temper, she never used the four-letter “S” word, and she never cried. Instead, she yelled SHITE! I grew up thinking of that particular non-word as an expletive.
Apart from the strangeness of seeing her tears that day, I sensed something else but at my young age, how could I possibly have understood?
“Mama, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
Gazing at her only daughter who still smiled with baby teeth, more tears fell and were followed by a ragged intake of breath.
I crawled into her lap, reached up and wiped her wet cheek. She squeezed me so hard I thought my ribs would break. I let her hold me close, intuiting even in my naiveté her need to hold someone.
After supper while she visited with Daddy’s sister, I overheard the reason behind Mama’s tears. My young aunt, still in nurses training, had not yet married and she and Mama were close friends.
Daddy had left for the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to train. My parents scrimped and saved in order for him to realize his dream of becoming not merely a policeman like his father, but a top detective. We had very little money and none coming in after he left, but they were young and willing to make the needed sacrifices.
Before she married Daddy, Mama had had a sad life. Forced to quit high school at sixteen after her mother died with Typhoid Fever, the family expected her to help raise the other children. In 1930, only a year after the Crash, nobody had any money to spare and there were no jobs. Mama grew vegetables, raised chickens and milked the one cow they owned. While helping the family to survive, my mother was able to develop a strong work ethic.
Her education, by necessity, had to be cut short but she was bright and eager to learn, so she kept her mind open to new ideas and possibilities.
When Daddy set off to make his dream come true, Mama asked Mrs. Willie Berry for a job as a waitress at Berry’s On the Hill, a popular restaurant located not far from our house. Mama might not have been educated, but she knew how to serve food. With Daddy gone, there were bills to be paid, children to be fed.
Mrs. Berry, a gentle woman, hugged her. “You’re a godsend! Not thirty minutes ago one of my waitresses up and quit. You can take her place.”
So why had Mama cried like her heart would break?
On Saturday night, she put on her new uniform, got my aunt to babysit and then struck out on foot for the restaurant. She had never held a paying job before so landing one filled her with a sense of pride.
Wearing a big smile, she walked over to the table of eight women seated in the large dining room. The hungry customers were busy talking as she approached with her pad and pencil all set to take their orders.
Mama knew the women. All of them. Some were her neighbors; others were friends she had met at church or at Eastern Star meetings.
While telling my aunt what happened that night, she began to cry again.
“They looked down their noses at me,” Mama said. “The minute I put on that waitress uniform I ceased to be their friend. I was only their servant.”
My aunt patted my mother on the hand.
Mama said, “I took their orders and when I turned to go back to the kitchen, they giggled and said spiteful things behind my back. I heard it all. What did I do wrong? Why did they make fun of me? Cappy needed shoes and Boo needed a Scout uniform. How else could I have paid for them? What did I do that was so terrible?”
In my bed that night, I cried for my mother. At the time, four-year-old Cappy had no idea that
grownups were occasionally mean or unkind to each other. I only knew that women she’d thought were her friends made her feel bad about herself for doing whatever she could to take care of her family.
And knowing that, my heart broke for her.