Her name was Juanita. She grew up in a Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas. It was not a kind and gentle place. She and the other children were beaten sometimes.
“Those people were ignorant,” she once said to me.
She had a gift for playing piano, and started out as a child playing for all the orphanage and school shows. In her early teens she was singing songs and playing the mandolin for the Salvation Army on the street in El Paso. The last time I heard her play piano was three weeks before she died at age 86. She was playing and I was singing old songs we both knew. Actually, it was a perfect way for us to say good-bye, going out on the best aspect of our relationship. I got the music genes from that side, not to mention my mother’s mandolin and my aunt’s guitar.
My mother was angry all the time when I was growing up, but if you’ve been a parent yourself, you understand that. When I was the age she was when I was a teenager and had teenagers of my own, I thought: my mother went through this without therapy or antidepressants.
Most parents in the 1950s thought it was okay to hit children. That’s the way it was. My parents hit. Maybe when you’ve been beaten bloody in the orphanage when you were a child, merely hitting or slapping your child doesn’t seem that serious to you. Most parents believe it is wrong to hit children now. Oh, I know it still happens, but it’s not as accepted.
My mother must have had at least a qualm or two about her parenting. Sometime in her later years she asked me, “Was there anything I could have done better as a parent?”
I thought for a minute, and said, “It would have been nice not to have been hit so much.”
“I never hit you!” she exclaimed. “And I only hit your brother once!”
I was stunned into silence by this revisionist history, but it turned out that wasn’t all – when I listened to her reminisce about my brother and me, she said how fortunate she’d been because we were such good kids and never got into trouble.
I decided then that selective memory wasn’t so bad.
I assume it gave her a more peaceful old age than she might have had if she remembered what I remembered. In my case, all the smart mouthing, marijuana smoking, hitchhiking up and down the coast, folk singing, and hanging out with men, Socialists, Catholics, and Jews. So much for my Baptist Republican upbringing. I will not mention exactly how my brother, the present Republican business owner and family patriarch, got into trouble in his youth. I will only say I was surprised to hear her talking about how we never got into trouble.
When my mother was in her 80s and I was in my 50s, we would have long telephone calls about things that were happening, or about family members. Everyone agreed that one particular aunt was a piece of work, for example, so that was always common ground. Those phone calls were some of the best times I had with my mother. Perhaps we had both accepted that we would never accept each other as we were, and we accepted that.
The night she died, after I got the phone call, I woke Rick and told him she was gone.
“She gave me music,” I said sadly.
“She gave you hell,” he said sternly.
Well, yeah. It’s tempting for some of us to make excuses for people who hurt us. But she did give me music. And hell.
She also gave me the recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. If there’s anything I’d like to pass along to you from my mother, it’s this recipe, as she typed it on the index card I still have in my recipe box:
Juanita’s Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup sifted enriched flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups quick rolled oats, uncooked
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Cream shortening. Add sugars gradually & cream well. Beat in egg until fluffy. Stir in water & vanilla. Sift together flour, soda & salt and add to creamed mixture. Add rolled oats, chocolate chips, & nutmeats. Drop from a teaspoon onto greased baking sheet and bake in a moderate over (375°) for 12 minutes. Number of cookies depends on how big you make them.
Baking time can vary widely! Start checking at 8 minutes to avoid burnt cookies. Enjoy.