“My devout Baptist mother taught me to be honest and to be a gentleman. She just never taught me how to do both at the same time.”
I had intended to publish a different post this week. However, since the recent book and current movie titled The Help, about the relationships between Southern black women and their white female employers in the 1960s, have both become so popular and have provoked so much discussion, I thought I would offer one of my own writings related to that subject from days gone by.
It is a piece I wrote decades ago about my mother and her “colored” washerwoman friend who was quite a natural philosopher. I had edited out the Southern black dialect as potentially offensive; however, since both the book and the movie version of The Help used such dialect, I have reinserted it in an attempt to provide the actual and authentic language used by this astute and articulate African-American lady.
“Drama is real life with the dull parts edited out.”
Back in the 1940s when I was growing up in a rural Southeast Arkansas that was yet to receive the benefits of such luxuries as electricity and running water, my mother employed a struggling black woman to help her with the weekly family washing—an arduous, backbreaking task that involved soaking, stirring, and scrubbing the soiled vestments in a soot-blackened pot outdoors over a red-hot fire. Needless to say, in the shimmering months of summer this was no easy or glamorous undertaking.
One sweltering July washday, Viola, Mama’s faithful, long-suffering friend and helper, raised up from her knuckle-scraping scrub board, wiped the sweat that was streaming down her feverish brow, slowly massaged her arched and aching back, and painfully observed: “Ooo, Miss Viv’yan, life sho’ is reg’lar, ain’t it?”
Ruminating on that very astute remark one sleepless morning about two o’clock, I was led to make this observation of my own as I too grappled with the vicissitudes of daily existence:
“Life Is Reg’lar”
Life is not a bowl of cherries,
Nor is it a cabaret.
It’s not one great long fairy tale,
Despite what the poets say.
No, life is a daily thing, you see.
It’s morning, and noon, and night.
It’s making the best and meeting the test;
It’s striving with all your might.
It’s winning some, and losing some,
And having some rained out.
It’s a time to laugh, and a time to weep,
A time to mourn, and to shout.
It’s growing up, and then growing old;
It’s growing right from the start.
Yes, life is “reg’lar stuff,” you know—
As “reg’lar” as the beat of God’s heart.
It was this same overworked and underpaid washwoman/philosopher who once poignantly exclaimed to Mama: “Ever’body tawkin’ ’bout what all dey gone do when dey gits to heb’n. Dey gone do dis, an’ dey gone do dat. Lawsy, Miss Viv’yan, all ah wants to do is jist git inside de do’ an’ sot down!”
In her later years Mama worked at the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children (now the Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes) where she died of a heart attack on Easter Day 1973. Now she and Viola are both “inside de do’ and sot down!”
In next week’s post I will continue this theme of race relations in the South in earlier days by examining Mama’s Christian character as reflected in her lack of racial bias and her nonconformity to accepted social customs of her era and area.
For now I will conclude this post with a discussion of a poem I once wrote about Mama and her Bible.
My Mother’s Bible
I make my living with my mother’s Bible,
I use it every day.
For I am a religious editor,
And with it I earn my pay.
I make my life with my mother’s Bible,
I read it every day.
For I am God’s child as well as hers,
And in it I find my way.
I wrote this poem back in 1981 or 1982 when I first started editing for a religious publisher in Tulsa and was actually using Mama’s old worn-out King James Bible. We had given it to her many years earlier. We inherited it when she passed away at the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children while we were working there as houseparents in the seventies.
When I started out editing religious books, I worked at home by typing on the kitchen table. (I banged so hard I had to stop and replace the long screws underneath it that fell out). I did that editing on an old 1936 Underwood upright typewriter that Mari’s father had bought when it was “retired” from the Missouri Pacific Railroad years earlier. I used erasable bond paper because I made so many mistakes (as I still do), because I had to type with two fingers (which I still do), because I virtually failed Typing I in high school (which I still would). My teacher was Ann Mosely, later to become Ann Peacock, my sister-in-law. She more or less gave me a C with the more or less mutual understanding that I would not take Typing II, which I didn’t.
Every evening after work, I would haul that old Underwood back to our bedroom where I kept it stored on a shelf. Besides Mama’s Bible, that old piece of junk to type on with two fingers, and the erasable bond paper, the only tools I had for editing religious manuscripts were Mari’s old Webster’s dictionary that she had used at Ouachita Baptist College twenty years or more earlier, and a copy of Strong’s concordance that the publisher loaned to me (and which I still have)—plus what English I remembered from Honors Freshman English at Ouachita in 1956-57—but with no formal training or education in English, journalism, religion, Hebrew, Greek, etc. How’s that for credentials! I say that the reason I am such a stickler for credentials is because I have never held a job for which I was qualified on paper—including the one I am doing now!
The differences between those days back in the eighties and these days in the first decades of the twenty-first century are many and varied. Of course, now I use a computer to do my writing and editing. And on my shelves I have many more versions of the Bible to use in copyediting, and even more versions on my computer Bible software to consult, if necessary. I also have the computer programs I need to research scriptural and secular reference sources. I have also gained a great deal more editorial knowledge and experience “on the job.”
But the fact is that basically all I know about religion is what I learned in forty years of Southern Baptist Sunday school—plus some additional information I have picked up over the past thirty-plus years of laboring daily “in the Lord’s vineyard.”
Note: Since I wrote this piece years ago some things in it have changed. For example, I no longer use my mother’s Bible in my copyediting, nor do I even read it any longer. Now I do my editing from more modern Bible versions, and I do my daily Bible reading in the same French Bible I used to translate French at a Tulsa international ministry thirty-four years ago.
I also no longer work on religious copyediting jobs “daily” since that work virtually “dried up” three years ago about the time Mari retired from teaching.
Now, like the Old Testament prophet who was being fed by God with food brought to him by the birds and drinking water from a stream that also dried up (1 Kings 17:1-15), I have to depend on the Lord to provide my continued sustenance. That was the basis of one of my unending self-quotes: “I have no visible means of support–I’m a writer!” (I could have also said: “I’m a Christian!”)