Every Mother Has  a Story 

Pearl Watley Mitchell

© Copyright 2015 by Pearl Watley Mitchell


Photo of a handmade quilt.

Fannie Lee (Quinley) Watley – that was her name and she was one of the most precious human beings who ever walked this Earth. This is her memoir. She was my mother – and the mother of nine other children, eight boys and one girl, all with the same father, my Daddy. I was the oldest girl and my sister fell into third place. There was a brother between us, but after that, the boys all went down in age like door steps. She literally spent her life raising her children, with a lot of good loving help from Daddy.

She checked to make sure that everyone’s needs were met before retiring at night. She retired late and rose early. She never got too mad to forgive, loved me more than anyone ever could, except God, and she thought my faults were none. Her loving words and a hug could redeem me from myself in a heartbeat. And all ten of her children were afforded these same luxuries. There were no favorites in her eyes, just equality for all.

Mama was a loving mother and grandmother. I always suspected that one sunny day she would die from a heart attack because she had so much love and compassion in that heart that I don’t see how it kept from bursting. With ten children and later a bunch of grand-children and great-grandchildren, she opened up that big old heart full of love and took them all in. There was not a single child or grandchild who lacked for love from Mama because she spent her entire life raising kids and loving it. After the grandkids got 6-8 years old, they always wanted to spend the weekend with Grandma. By then, she had at least 10 or more grandchildren and they vied for privileges at her house.

Mama came from a large family herself. She had seven brothers and one sister. Her baby sister was only three years older than me. I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, especially in the summer. That’s where my mother learned her cooking and domestic skills – from my grandmother. When I was a child, food tasted better at her house and her quilts were warmer than anything else. Mama inherited or learned a lot of her personality from her mother. I could write almost this same essay about my Grandmother, her mother.

Mama was a tough lady. She handled measles, chicken pox, colds, and allergies like a pro. Often, when exposure started, she had 2-3-4 sick kids at one time. But, she managed it all, kept the fevers down, gave the meds on times, and handled them like a nurse. Of course, I didn’t mention that she only finished the sixth grade in school, but that didn’t deter her. Mama did what was necessary to keep her family healthy, happy, and protected from harm. Plus, she used a lot of old-time remedies, poltices, and country medicine.

Oh, I didn’t mention the mumps episode. One day there was a brother who came home from school with the mumps on one side. Two weeks later, another brother came down with mumps on one side. This continued through six boys every two weeks, and only one brother escaped the mumps. Then the first brother took the mumps on the other side and every two weeks they went from one brother to the next. Finally, at the end, the brother who had not had the mumps at all took them on both sides. Mama had mumps in her house for about three months. Mama and daddy had taught us all to share and this time the boys all shared the mumps faithfully.

Now my Mama knew how to raise some boys! Some of it, she learned along the way, and some was the instinct of a caring mother. She taught them to be real boys and have pride in their work. But, I guarantee you that each brother was given the same excellent care any time he was sick or sad. My Mama handled them like a champ, reaching every child’s needs as no one else could.

My Mama was a cooking woman. She cooked dishes that would make many international chefs feel inferior. When she set those big old cathead biscuits out on the table with a huge bowl of scrambled eggs and an army pot full of grits, a child felt as if he had “struck paydirt”. The breakfasts she made sometimes - an army pot full of oatmeal or two loaves of bread made into toast with a huge pot of hot chocolate – it would stop a tiger in his tracks. Her breakfasts were some of her best meals imaginable.

Then there were the lunches and dinners where she would make sweet potato casseroles, meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, chicken dressing, pot roasts, salmon patties, (salmon dabs), fried okra, fresh peas/beans, and a huge hunk of cornbread or hoecakes – you name it, she made it, with ingenious expertise. Mama was an expert casserole, soup, and stew maker. She could take scraps of bits of food and combine leftovers in a way that no TV cook can do. I never really thought about it, but I guess her meals were art in a way, and it was kind of artistic and imaginative the way she did it.

My Mama loved to set a feast on the table for her family, and she did a good job at it, especially on holidays. She never burned or messed up anything the way I do. Everything was almost always cooked to perfection, test-tasted by her own mouth and a lucky child or two, once in a while. She made her own sauces, chicken stocks, and gravies for her food – nothing store-bought in those little paper packets or in jars.

My Mama ate only the burnt toast and I thought she preferred it until I got old enough to use some logic. She ate it so that her children could have the good stuff. She might have gone hungry a few times to make sure that we had enough, I don’t really know. She would eat the meat with the most fat and save the lean parts for us, and her piece of pie or cake was always the smallest piece.

But, one thing was for sure, you’d better not touch any food that Mama put on the table until the Lord’s Blessing had been asked. That was not negotiable no matter how hungry anybody was, and Daddy backed her up on that.

Mama was thrifty. As I mentioned with the casseroles, she never threw anything away She always reused bread bags, and oatmeal boxes. Back then, plastic sandwich and storage bags were not around, especially the ones we have now with cute little zippers and closers on them. I remember that Mama saved all her loaf bread bags for storage. If it was a plastic covering on a food item, you’d better believe it got saved. Once in a while Mama would get a bushel of peas or beans or fruit, such as apples or pears. She would cook up that stuff and either freeze it or preserve it in quart or pint jars. Even watermelon rinds got preserved and it was good with bread, especially in the winter. She could put up some fig preserves and peach/apple/pepper jelly that folks today would die for if they ever tasted it.

Mama really liked and collected Tupperware. She had probably at least one or two of every piece of Tupperware that was ever made. She loved her Tupperware almost as much as she loved Daddy, and she lived for those Ladies’ Tupperware Parties. She was proud of her Tupperware and she always used the older bowls and containers until they wore out before she would use the new ones. I don’t think she ever threw one away. It just went into the back of the cabinet. Mama knew every piece she had. Several times she left her bowl at a church supper and she would know exactly which one it was. In my heart, even though I wouldn’t say it out loud for fear of scorn, I believe my Mama named all those Tupperware bowls and serving pieces, the way people name their pets. They were her pride and joy.

My Mama was a collector of what-nots and school pictures. Her house was neatly arranged with all her what-nots, which were mostly all presents from the kids on holidays and birthdays. There were a thousand of them, but she could name every single one and tell you who gave it to her, what year, and for what occasion. On the wall between the dining room and the living room, she had shelves on the walls that neatly held holiday and birthday presents and a few she had bought herself. There were what-nots sitting on every end table and bedside table in her house.

She also had all the kid’s baby and school pictures hanging on the wall. There were literally hundreds of pictures hanging on her walls, and she always found room to put one more. It made a child or grandchild proud to search those walls and find 7-8-10 pictures of themselves there. The fourth wall was a big picture window beside the front door. But, there was room for a few pictures on either side of the huge window and around/over the door. Her living room was solidly hung with pictures on all three walls, and how she got them that close together and still hanging straight, I don’t know. Those walls full of pictures were Mama’s masterpiece.

But, mind you – Mama’s house was not cluttered. Mama cleaned her house! All the what-nots were dusted several times a week. Mama cleaned her house. Cleaning was literally a large part of her life.

Mama was a crafty, creative woman. In her living room for the last 20 years of her life, a quilt rack hung from her ceiling. It was a wooden rack that belonged to her mother and it had been well-used over the years. Granddaddy, Mama’s dad, had made it many decades before that from wood he had cut from the woods near their house. The quilt rack had hung in Grandmother’s house until she died. Then Mama got it. It could be pulled up by the corners and set almost on the ceiling, but when she needed it, she could let the corners down and produce her treasures. She had a special gift that she gave each child or grandchild who graduated from high school. It was a quilt that she had made herself and fashioned just for each child.

Mama could take little pieces of cloth and flower sacks and old pants and make a quilt that would rival a king’s tapestry. She made patterns in each square like exquisite stars, little farmer boys and girls, and whatever that crafty, talented mind came up with. Those quilts felt good in the winter time because my Mama and Daddy never had central heat. When I was still at home, we had gas heaters. Later on, one floor furnace basically heated the house, and the stove oven got turned on if it got really cold.

We tried to get mama to sell some of her quilts because several people tried to buy them and offered good prices. But she said “No” because the quilts were her own personal gifts to her family and were not for sale. It’s been twenty years since she passed away, and those quilts are each child and grandchild’s treasure.

My Mama could sew. She made many of my dresses and short sets as I grew up. I remember that she used to make little boys’ cotton suits with matching shirts and pants as they grew up. She could make a little boy’s shirt with a collar and pockets that looked just like it came from Sears or J.C. Penney’s. That might be because she worked at a shirt factory for a few years before and after she and Daddy married. But Grandma taught her to sew and embroider before she got married.

Mama could embroider beautifully and all our pillow cases and top sheets had beautiful flowers embroidered on them in colorful patterns. The embroidery ended after a few years because too many kids came along to leave her time to embroider. She would create table covers and shelf covers from white flower sacks and embroider some of the most colorful pictures you could ever see. She was a true artist at heart – of the purest kind, created for love of family.

My Mama had a green thumb, not because she has mashed it with a hammer, but she could grow plants and flowers like a trained landscaper. Her yard revealed that talent. Also, her house was full of house plants that not many people could cause to thrive. Her African Violets, Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti, Elephant Ears, and hanging baskets were works of art. She knew that African Violets had to be watered from the bottom and that The Cacti only bloomed once a year, either at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. She learned all this from experience over the years, by trial-and-error, and through a love of nature. She had Redbud and Sweetgum bushes that smelled heavenly when you walked through the yard, especially at night or in the evening.

Mama loved the Atlanta Braves. Anytime the Atlanta Braves played, she was sitting right there, usually with several children or grandchildren. If you think of the team from 20 years ago, that was her love – Manager Joe Torre, Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton, Glenn Hubbard, Bruce Benedict, Tom Glavine - you know the team. She was so proud of the Braves and she felt that they made Georgia proud. She was going to be there to watch every second of every game when time and a busy life allowed. She might even bless out a few umpires once in a while when they made a bad call.

Mama loved her church and loved her Heavenly Father. Mama didn’t get to attend church regularly when she had 2-3 babies at home, but she was always there when she could be. After the boys got out of the diaper and toddler stage, Mama did not miss church. She and Daddy were there when the doors opened, especially when there was a dinner after church. Everybody always looked for Mama’s dishes, especially her potato salad. She always spooned out a medium-sized of potato salad and hid it back for me to take home with me. That was quite a present.

Mama never laid down in life and quit. She was way over fifty years old when all but the last three kids married and left home. After raising 10 kids and assisting with the raising of many grandchildren, she decided to take up bowling, having never bowled before in her life. She got with some friends about her age and they created a bowling team. Mama found a few hours to bowl twice a week. She actually learned to bowl fairly well and fifteen years later, when she had to give it up due to her health, she had a shirt full of about 12-15 achievement pins for bowling.

During that time, she also played for two years on our church softball team that my husband coached. Some of the players were my two teen-age daughters, me myself, my mother, and my sister. Now not many ladies get to play with their daughters the way I did, but I bet there’s not a handful of grandmothers who get to play softball with her two daughters and her two granddaughters. It was a family affair with my husband coaching.  AND we won a lot of games!

In her mid-sixties, Mama got sick. My Daddy was sickly for a good many years. He had very bad stomach ulcers and they removed 1/3 and 1/2 of his stomach about five times. He also had open heart surgery, being left with congestive heart failure. My Mama saw him through all this, sometimes nursing him like a child, but always reserving his pride and dignity. However, he passed away in his early 60’s, leaving Mama alone after almost 50 years of marriage. One week after his funeral, Mama was having cataract surgery which had been planned since before Daddy died. Mama tried to be brave and go on with her life even though you could tell she was visibly shaken with Daddy gone. A routine chest x-ray before the surgery brought a fatal diagnosis – lung cancer. My Mama was devastated!!

Mama fought it for 7 long months, first getting better, then worse, and finally the cancer taking her down. My sister Linda and I drove her back and forth to Augusta, GA from Columbus, GA for many months. She stayed in the hospital there a couple of times. The Doctors at Medical College of Georgia did surgery, thinking they could remove the bottom left quadrant of the lung and get the cancer. But, they closed her up and left it when they saw that the cancer had invaded her lymph nodes and was rooted throughout her body. Mama never complained or felt sorry for herself. She just thanked God for every morning that she woke up from then until she passed. After 18 long months of the bravest spirit and faith I’ve ever seen, she went to see Jesus.

At the end, she was bedridden and had lost 80 of her 180 pounds. But, she never complained. I sat and watched the hands that rocked me, made biscuits, paddled me, cared for my babies and her babies, rolled that bowling ball, and swung that softball bat – those hands became a network of bones draped over a delicate hanky of flesh. Those eyes that watched over me, kept me from harm, nursed my bruises, and glowed in my successes – those eyes now searched my eyes for clues to when the pain would end. Those ears that heard my problems that I never even spoke, listened to my hopes and joys of spoken words – those ears listened carefully now for my deliberate, loving, spoken words of comfort. She never complained, but trusted and prayed and waited and longed for the arms of God.

As I said, my Mama was one of the most precious, sweetest, and most humble people that God created. When it happened, my world felt raped. Even though I was relieved to see her out of her pain and with a new body, it hurt very badly to be without her, but it was bittersweet. This woman, who had birthed me from her body, and loved me until she died had made a difference in my life just by being herself, the woman that God had created. After all, the Bible says, “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is above rubies.”(Proverbs 31:10). Mama was one of those people who was truly worth her price not only in rubies, but also in gold.

I remember when I got married, it took me a full year to learn to cook for two people instead of ten. I love you, Mama, and I’ll see you again one day. Thanks for giving me life and for making me who I am today.  

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