by Patricia Thomas
My mother was a gorgeous southern beauty queen, with long brown hair and big green eyes, and my father was a dashing blond who swept her off her feet. They met on a double date and married young, right out of high school. It was a shotgun wedding, as they say in the south, meaning my mother got pregnant and so they got married. That’s what people did in the 1950s. That is how I came to be. I don’t think my mother ever really adjusted to being married and giving up her carefree days of parties and dancing, and sadly for us both, she never seemed to enjoy being a mother. However, my grandmother, to my delight and good fortune, loved being a grandmother. When I was a little girl, I spent every other weekend at her house in a small town in southern Alabama called Elba. It was built around a square, with all the merchants in shops around the sides. The town square had park benches and picnic tables, lots of grass, and best of all, at Christmas, a giant Santa Claus with a little train that tooted and blew real smoke. My grandmother knew everyone in that town and they knew her. It was the perfect place to spend time as a kid. Every weekend at her house was joyful.
We did do fun things, lots of them. She took me to the local swimming pool and watched me splash and squeal in the baby pool. We took trips to O’Neill’s corner market, dark with creaky wooden floors and a permanent Clorox smell, where we would buy our favorites – cosmopolitan ice cream, Fig Newton’s, and yellow popcorn that came in a jar full of oil. At night we would make popcorn in the spider, her shaking the pan so it wouldn’t burn, with me hovering beside her on my pulled-up chair.
It’s the daily activities at her house, however, that I remember most vividly. Every morning we watered the purple flowered African violets with leaves smooth as velvet. We took long walks to the end of the street to visit Mrs. Jernigan to look at her rock-rimmed fish pond that was full of big, orange carp. When we heard the Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! of a train approaching on the nearby tracks, we would walk to the end of the street, hand-in-hand, so we could wave at the man in the caboose.
One of my favorite memories is her teaching me the “bobwhite song.” When we heard the singsong of the bobwhites in her yard, she would stop in the middle of whatever we were doing and say, “Did you hear that? It’s the bobwhite. He’s saying, ‘Bob white, bob white, are your peas ripe? No, not quite, come back tomorrow night.” I would laugh and laugh.
My grandmother died when I was in the seventh grade. Elba withered and died over the years. I grew up and moved away to California. I raised my two boys here; there was no fish pond down the street or town square to visit. Yet the lessons I learned from my grandmother transcend place. From her, I learned that it’s not “what” you do with children that matters. It’s the time you spend with them that counts, that, and rapt attention to the smallest details of life. I’m happy to say that both my sons can sing the “bobwhite song.”
Patricia Thomas grew up in Southern Alabama and attended Auburn University. She’s taught writing for the past 30 years at Texas A&M, Loyola Marymount University, California State University and the University of Southern California. She currently teaches at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California, but says, “No matter where I go, I will always be a Southern girl.” “Bobwhites” has never been published.