Work in Progress: A Boy and His Mom
[Independent Institute, the Beacon, April 2011]
Anyone who knows me well also knows that I revere my father. Two years ago, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I wrote a short remembrance of him as a tribute to the most important man in my life, the kind of man who might well inspire others, as he inspired me. In view of how greatly I esteem my father, someone might infer that I do not have a great deal of appreciation for my mother (Doris Geraldine Higgs, née Leiby, May 14, 1917 – May 25, 1980). Such an inference, however, would be a mistake. Although my mom was in many ways a different sort of person than my dad, she also had a great influence on her younger son (Bobby Larry, as she called me). As I have reflected on my relationship with her, I have come to believe that in an extremely important regard she influenced me in exactly the same way that my dad influenced me — which is to say, she gave me an appreciation of the joy of working, and of doing one's work readily and well, rather than grudgingly and carelessly.
Most important, perhaps, mom set a good example: she was a hard worker in her own daily life. Because the town in which she grew up had no high school and her father would not allow her to leave home to continue her education, she had no schooling beyond the eighth grade. When she was 16 years old, she married my father (who was eight years older), and during the 45 years of their marriage (ended by his death in 1977), she kept house as if being a good wife and mother constituted a vital and worthy occupation.
Even if she had other things to do, she prepared three full meals (each almost always from scratch) every day. Meal preparation might be a fully integrated production process, starting with killing a chicken, then plucking and gutting it, and cutting it into pieces for frying. I sometimes brought home fish or crawfish I had caught or a cottontail rabbit I had shot, and, with my help in cleaning, shelling, or skinning, as the raw material required, she cooked them for supper. (I also raised rabbits for our table.) After each meal, she washed and dried the dishes (though after supper my dad often dried) and swept the kitchen. She cleaned the entire house daily, keeping it neat and spotless even though we lived in a dusty rural area during most of the years when I was growing up. Monday was laundry day for her, which meant that she labored in the garage with her old-fashioned wringer washer, hanging the damp clothing and other items on the clothesline to dry, and later gathering and carefully folding them and — for items such as shirts, sheets, and pillow cases — ironing them before putting everything away in its proper drawer.
Cooking, cleaning, and washing, however, hardly composed the whole of her work. As a young woman, she had "felt the call" to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and by the time I was four or five years old, she had become the pastor of a backwoods Pentecostal church somewhere beyond McAlester, Oklahoma, the town near which we lived at the time. Later, after we moved to California in 1951, she was again a pastor at several different churches in succession. This ministry demanded a great deal of work from her, for preparing sermons, conducting services several times each week (sometimes every night, when a "revival meeting" was going on), and attending to the spiritual and personal needs of her congregation in times of sickness, bereavement, and other troubles. Her natural compassion and sincere sympathy, as well as her religious faith, served her well in this calling.
Although being a full-time housewife, mother, and pastor might have been enough, or even too much, for most women, she found time for a great deal of additional activity — her secret was that no matter what task she tackled, she worked very fast. She crocheted and embroidered decorative items, especially doilies and pillowcases, for our home. Once each week, for several hours, she met with other ladies at the church to make quilts in a team effort to help support the church. (I still have some of these beautiful works of folk art.) She tended a large vegetable garden in the spring and summer, as well as her beloved roses and other flowers. At certain times of the year, she went out to the cotton fields, which in those days still required a great deal of hand labor, to work with gangs of laborers in "chopping" (weeding) and "picking" (harvesting) cotton.
Because as a young boy I went everywhere she went — I can't recall ever having a babysitter, as such, although I sometimes spent time at a neighbor's house with my friends — I accompanied her in her work outside the house. The earliest such experience had to do with picking cotton, when I was perhaps four or five years old. I was too little to have my own sack, so I would go ahead of her in the row, plucking out the fluffy lint and building up a little pile in the row. When she had picked her way up to my pile, she would deposit it in her sack, and I would move farther ahead of her to repeat the process, again and again. I loved this work. Besides enjoying the picking itself, in good-natured company with a group of other pickers, I had a fine time tossing unopened bolls at other kids, who naturally tossed bolls back at me. By the time I was six years old, I had persuaded mom to make me a sack of my own, which she did by using a potato sack, attaching a strap that I could place over one shoulder, in the standard manner for cotton pickers. When my little sack was stuffed full, I would take it to the scales, have it weighed, collect my per-pound payment, dump the contents of my sack into the trailer (sometimes adding a swan dive into the cotton if it had piled up high in the trailer), and return to the field to fill it again. As I got older, my sacks got bigger. By the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I had graduated to the standard 12-foot sack the adults used, and I was able to pick as much as 200 pounds or so in a day. By the late 1950s, however, picking machines had displaced hand pickers almost completely in our area of California, so my cotton picking with mom ended when I was about 12 or 13 years old.
Mom also took me on a variety of ad hoc work outings. In the late summer, we would visit peach and apricot orchards at which the commercial harvesting had ended, notwithstanding that a great deal of fruit remained here and there on the trees. It was going to rot unless someone took the trouble to collect it, so the owners allowed anyone and everyone to come into the orchards to pick it without charge. We would bring home big boxes filled with fruit, which my mom would can for our consumption during the following year. We would also go along the banks of the San Joaquin River where wild blackberries grew profusely and pick great quantities of them. Again, the haul would be canned and — best of all — made into my mom's mouth-watering blackberry cobbler. Also along the river, in season, we found and picked wild mustard greens, a delicacy in my mom's taste, though intolerable in mine.
Mom taught me to drive a car. When I was 10 years old, I began to drive on the country roads, and when I was 15, she took me to get a driver's license (six months before I had reached my 16th birthday, which in those days was permitted because I had taken a driver's education course in school). She cringed but did not prevent me from getting my first shotgun at age ten. With my little .410 single-shot gun and an endless expanse of game-rich fields, sloughs, and marshes as my hunting ground, I became a great hunter — in my own mind, at least. (I confess that I was considerably more careful with the gun than I was with the car, and the end result tested my dad's patience on more than one occasion.) Mom taught me how to dress, how to "behave," how to write a check, and how to carry out a thousand other tasks an adult must master. I learned how to cook by watching her and helping with simple jobs in the kitchen, such as cleaning fish and grinding cabbage with the hand-cranked grinder to make coleslaw. Sometimes I helped with the dishwashing after supper.
Starting when I was 14, during school vacations in the summer, I worked full-time in regular jobs, alongside the men, first on the ranch where we lived and later at a local box factory. My parents did not demand or even suggest such employment — "you'll have plenty of time to work later," they said — but I had learned from their examples to value earning my own way. So, from my sophomore year in high school onward, I did not need to take any money from them, although I continued to receive my room and board from them, as always.
When I was a kid, mom allowed me to roam far and wide across the countryside, and my boyhood was occupied not only with attending school and playing on school sports teams — and with working, as I've described — but also with exploring, fishing, hunting, and swimming in the canals. In the evening, when supper was ready, I was often still outside somewhere, and my mom's voice would ring out across the darkening fields to call me in, "Bobby Laaaaaaareeee." In my memory, I hear it still as clearly as I heard it then.
Any boy would be fortunate, as I most certainly was, to have such a mother: loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, good-humored, hardworking, dedicated to her family and loyal to her friends, at home in her world, and at peace with her place in it.