After a neighbor announced that she was having a bad day, I invited her over to dinner and promised to serve real Southern comfort food: sausage gravy and biscuits, fried potatoes and onions, and green beans that had been smothered with ham and cheese. There was plenty of butter to cover everything, too, along with home-canned grape jelly.
“OH, this is SO GOOD!” she exclaimed with her mouth full. “I feel better already. What on earth did you put in these biscuits?”
“My high school sweetheart’s mother taught me that recipe,” I said. “It’s really quick and easy. She had three sons to feed — and no daughters — and took me under her wing when it came to cooking.” In truth, back then Mrs. Sims often drove me crazy since she was constantly calling me into her kitchen (and away from the TV set) to show off yet another kitchen skill, but there’s never been a day when I haven’t thought of her. “Whip your eggs to make them fluffy; use a paper towel when wiping out a cast iron skillet; and always put a splatter-cover over bacon” were just some of the gems that she shared, and I’m grateful to her for the extra attention. Even though my own mom taught a ton of things, there are LOTS of moms out there who participated along the way ... sometimes one simply isn’t enough.
As kids, ducking in and out of each other’s houses — with our horses tied to trees outside — Missy, Stacy, Chrissy, Leigh and I got plenty of mothering whether we wanted it or not. Mrs. Bonham, for example, didn’t like dirt in her kitchen so we learned how to push a broom. Mrs. Mergens, who had moved every four years due to her husband’s job transfers, had the discipline and organization skills of a military sergeant, and always insisted that we put things back after we’d used them. Chrissy’s mom showed us how to make egg noodles but would slap at our hands if we picked at them during drying. And I never drive my truck without remembering Mrs. Hollins giving Leigh, at age 16, a driving lesson while I sat in their back seat. In her soft, Texas twang, she encouraged Leigh to “let up on the gas a little while going around a turn,” and I still do that today.
Jody’s mom, Mrs. Bigger, taught us by example how to be good-humored and patient, and remains one of the kindest and most pleasant women that I’ve ever met. Debbie’s mom, who already had six kids of her own, demonstrated how easy it was to toss extra potatoes into the pot when unexpected company showed up for a meal. And my childhood neighbor, Suzanne — a single, working mother with four boys and a girl — was a great one for what she called “random hugging.” Too busy to give each of her brood individual attention, she merely (in her words) got into the habit of “grabbing whichever one happened to be dashing by, setting it on her knee, and asking how it was doing. If someone needed to talk, we’d talk. But if they kicked their feet and wanted down to run out and play, I’d let go.” What’s most fascinating was that even as adults, her kids continued the habit. Mike, who became our town’s Mayor, eased himself onto her lap for a cuddle one afternoon about 10 years ago when I was visiting, and affectionately rumpled her hair. “Michael, darling, you are breaking my knees,” she giggled good-naturedly against his shoulder, but you could tell that she loved it.
After I’d gotten out on my own, Mrs. Frontino, was most adamant about what went into lasagne. “One should only use rrrrreal rrrricoctta!” She advised with an accent, gesturing with one hand and rolling her r’s. She also insisted that the bottom of the tray should be covered with sauce, and of course, that sauce should be entirely homemade. But when it came to serious instruction, there was no one quite like my own, Alabama-bred mother ... and although ALL of those “Other Mothers” matter, her lessons remain by far the most unique. “Never go outdoors wearing curlers. Don’t put chemicals on your hair. Always wear nylons with a dress. Match the shoes to the purse. Never wear white, black, or red to a wedding. Spray perfume in front of you and then walk into it. Hold a finger under your nose to prevent sneezing in public.” But the personal favorite of my own longtime friends was, “keep something yummy in the freezer that can be defrosted quickly” ... and whenever a visitor steps into your house, feed them. ❖