Mom, second grade, 1948.
My mother is as unique as they come. At once feisty and weepy, sharp as a tack but with simple tastes, gregarious but introspective, loving but tough as nails, fiercely devout but with a wild streak. I inherited these traits and many others from my mom, including her once raven hair and blue eyes, her faith in Christ, her weakness for chocolate, her voracious appetite for books, her flair for the dramatic, her propensity to worry, her appreciation for Elvis, her proud spirit, her dislike of Yankee season, her love of music and movies, and her affinity for writing.
Mattie Pearl (a great name, I’m sure you’d agree) was born at home in 1941 in Palmetto, Florida. She and her family lived in a working class area of town called Samoset. The story of my mother’s upbringing is part Little House on the Prairie and part American Bandstand.
Mom, 18 months old.
As a child, my mother drew water from a well using a pitcher pump, battled spiders in the outhouse, and read her Bible by the light of a kerosene lamp. Though she lived in town, chickens roamed in my mom’s backyard. At the tender age of 10, she took on many of the responsibilities of running her household. She’d help her mother with dinner by chasing a chicken, wringing its neck, relieving it of its feathers, and throwing it in a pot. By age 12, however, my mom enjoyed the finer luxuries of life, like indoor plumbing and electricity. Always the teacher’s pet, mom won the county spelling bee in seventh grade, successfully spelling “disappointment,” much to the dismay of the red-headed, freckle-faced boy who came in second.
My mother’s early years, though happy, were marred by sickness and economic hardship. At numerous points during her childhood, her father became injured or sick. At one point, he was hospitalized for months and almost died. Mom, always a caretaker at heart, took the bus to the Dixie Grande Hotel in downtown Bradenton and claimed she was 16, instead of 14, to get a job working as a waitress to help support her family.
As a teenager in the 1950s, my mother grew into a lovely young woman. Not having much money, mom would sew her own full skirts and crinolines — sans poodle — so she could participate in the fashion of the day. Always full of energy, mom loved to dance. She and her younger brother Ron used to jitterbug – a wildly fun and acrobatic swing dance that gets its name from early 20th-century slang for alcoholics who suffered from the “jitters.” Mom knew how to cut a rug. She and her brother danced their way around Samoset, entering, and sometimes winning, jitterbug contests.
My mother and her dance partner, Uncle Doc (Ron)
Mom was (and is) an exceedingly smart, responsible, caring, eternally maternal, paragon of virtue. Her saintly side, however, was tempered by a scrappy, take-no-crap attitude. Once, when she was 17, not one but two girls decided to gang up on mom after she got off the school bus. According to mom, the girls were jealous because she had deigned to say hello to one of their would-be romantic suitors at the local drive-in. Mom assured the girls that she had no designs on the fellow and encouraged them to keep on walking, but they were itching for a fight. A crowd of high schoolers had gathered in the empty lot near the bus stop to watch snarky Barbara and Faye lay waste to the goodie two-shoes Mattie Pearl. Mom did not run away or cry or plead with them to leave her alone. Instead, she dropped her books, tightened her fists, and proceeded to open up a big fat can of Samoset whoop-ass on those girls.
Unbeknownst to the girls, who relied on sissy maneuvers such as clawing and hair pulling, sweet little Mattie Pearl came from a long line of fighters. Why just a few weeks earlier, my mom’s older brother Bud had come home for a visit from the military and schooled her on how to properly throw a punch, goading her into punching his tightened abdomen with her fists for practice. Those ill-advised girls, one with a black eye and the other a fat lip, hobbled home to nurse their wounds while mom went home to celebrate her victorious battle with her family, in need of little more than a comb.
Mom, in her prom dress, standing next to her brother Bud.
Soon after turning 18, when she was a senior in high school, my mom met my father. Apparently, as the story goes, mom’s friend Little Mae (so named because she was less than five feet tall), was also friends with my father Earl (who carried the stain of the unfortunate road kill nickname “Possum” due to his side business of selling possums to poor folk in Rubonia). Well, Little Mae told Mattie Pearl that she should go out with Possum and, unbelievably, she did! They went out on several dates, but my dad — who lived in the Palmetto back woods and still did not have indoor plumbing in 1959 — was painfully shy and backward.
While my father tried, unsuccessfully, to woo my mother during her senior year, she agreed to go out on a date with another young man — her friend’s cousin who was visiting from up North. He picked mom up in his fancy convertible the size of a tank and took her to the drive-in movie. But, as soon as the movie began playing, the lecherous college boy began pawing at my chaste mother like a housecat in heat. Mom jumped out of his high-falutin’ batmobile and ran to the concession stand. Lo and behold, my daddy just happened to be at the drive-in too. He offered to drive mom home and, after that night, she never dated anyone else. A few months went by and my dad invited mom out to Emerson Point for the day. He asked her to bring a very specific picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, and a chocolate cake. Later, after he proposed, my dad explained that he had asked mom to make his favorite meal to ensure that she would make a decent wife.
Mom got married at 18, giving up the scholarship she won for taking shorthand to become a farmer’s wife. Not long after, dad moved mom to Loxahatchee, Florida where he got a job managing a sod farm on Flying Cow Ranch. The farm was surrounded by acres and acres of cattle ranch and fields of fruits and vegetables that were harvested by the day laborers who lived at Ma and Pa Rich’s seedy labor camp just down the road. For ten years, my mom lived in that swampy place out in the middle of nowhere. Dad’s work kept him away from home day and night, leaving mom alone with nothing to do but have children, and more children, and more children. While living in Loxahatchee, my mom had five children over a nine-year period.
Mattie Pearl, the most glamorous lady in Loxahatchee in the 60s.
As you can imagine, mom didn’t like being left to fend for herself all day in a tiny house full of kids with nothing but snakes, alligators, and creepy crawlies to keep her company. Nor did she like living in close proximity to a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells. She worried that one of those men would get drunk at the local juke joint and try to force his way into the house one night when my father was out tending to the grass. Taking matters into her own hands, mom decided she better learn how to use a gun, so she took my father’s .22 single shot rifle and began shooting tin cans off of fence posts for target practice, in full view of the workers toiling in the fields.
One night, when my mother was about eight-months pregnant with her fourth child and my father was away, a car full of men stopped on the dirt road right in front of her house. Her heart stopped when she saw the car’s headlights slow to a halt and heard the men mumble something about “that house” as they climbed out of the car and began walking up the lane toward mom and her three sleeping angels. Never one to cower in fear, mom grabbed dad’s rifle and waddled outside to the front yard in her house coat. She fired a couple shots in the air and hollered at those men to turn around and get the hell off her property or they’d never live to see daylight. Scared senseless, the men took off running back to their car. One of them dove into the driver’s seat as the others stood behind the car and hurriedly pushed it down the dark country road back toward camp.
It was then my mother realized that the car must have broken down in front of her house, and the men probably just wanted to use the telephone. In any event, my mom left quite the impression. After the men returned to the labor camp, they warned their fellow laborers about the mad Annie Oakley who lived up the road, who shoots first and asks questions later. From then on, my mother became known as “Crazy Miss Earl,” and let’s just say she never had any more uninvited house guests.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that my mom is one tough broad. She’s like one of those pioneer women you can never keep down. No matter how bleak things are, she will always find a way to dig herself out … and up. That was certainly the case when our family’s home burned down to the ground in November of 1971. Mom and dad had returned from Loxahatchee to Eastern Manatee County to live on property they had purchased several years earlier. Mom’s dad, a master carpenter, and her brother Ron largely built the house themselves from the ground up. It was a fine home, especially compared to the little house on Flying Cow Ranch, but it lacked one essential feature – homeowner’s insurance. The day before Thanksgiving, and only five months after my family had moved into the home, it burned down to the ground. The official story was that an electrical fire was to blame, but I learned many years later that my brother, who was only three at the time, had been playing with my dad’s matches and accidentally started the fire before running and hiding under my crib where I lay asleep.
It’s not like my mom had a lot to begin with, but the few material possessions she did cherish were destroyed in the fire — like the garnet ring her parents had given her on her sweet 16 birthday, countless baby photos, and closets full of hand-sewn dresses and children’s clothes. I was just a baby then, at one-year old. Mom was outside bottle feeding some calves and tending to our German Shepard Delilah in run-down work clothes and rubber boots. When she finished her chores, she returned to find the front corner of the house engulfed in flames. Terrified, mom ran into the burning home, snatched me out of my crib and grabbed my frightened brother, saving her babies just in the nick of time. My three older sisters, who were 9, 7, and 5 at the time, were at school. On that particular day, mom sent them to school wearing one-piece jumpers she had fashioned out of feed sacks made of broad cloth. Those hog feed jumpers were the only clothes my sisters had that survived the fire.
Some neighbors saw the smoke and rushed down the dirt lane to help mom push our family’s car out of the carport, but everything else was lost, reduced to ashes. A family of seven, with five children under the age of 10, homeless, with no insurance. Such a tragedy would be enough to devastate a normal person, but not my mom. Yes, those were hard times, she says, as she recalls the years of dressing herself and her children in embarrassing hand-me-downs and living in a single-wide trailer on the property until they were finally able to rebuild. But Mom was so grateful to God that her two babies did not perish in the fire that everything else seemed small to her in comparison.
The photo of my family that ran in the Bradenton Herald newspaper along with the article about our house burning down.
At 36, when my mother thought she was done having babies, she gave birth to my younger sister. In all, she raised six children, while working much of the time as a secretary or bookkeeper.
Family photo, 1982.
On any given Sunday, from the time she was a child to today, you will always find my mom on a wooden pew praising God for his goodness. She is a creative soul with a penchant for writing and acting. She has written dozens of poems and reads them in church. She’s also written and starred in many church skits, donning an array of props and costumes and accents to spread the Gospel. She’s a teacher at heart. She used to work as a teacher’s aide at Manatee Elementary School and taught Sunday School most of her life from the age of 18. In 1981, mom taught herself how to use a computer, long before most people had a computer in their homes. Of course, the life lessons she has taught me and my five siblings are too numerous to list.
Mom and her daughters, visiting my maternal grandparents’ church, 1982.
For the last 15 years, my mother has worked as the office manager for the Manatee Southern Baptist Association. Today, she is a vibrant woman of 72. Still working, still doing drama at church, still going to the movies, still sneaking chocolate, still feisty as ever, and still teaching me important lessons about life.
I have never seen my mom dance the jitterbug, but she has always kept the pep in her step, whether it is shaking her hips to a country tune or tapping her foot to Southern Gospel hymns in church. I never saw my mom fight, but she definitely kept her six children in line and held her own with my father. I never saw her brandish a gun, but she displayed immense strength and taught me the importance of self-reliance. I don’t remember the fire, or wearing donated clothes, or living in that trailer, but mom taught me that God and family, not material possessions, are the sacred things in this short life.
Mom and Genevieve, one of her two great-grandchildren (she also has 12 grandchildren).
My singular wish is that, when my mom looks back on her life, she will be proud of her legacy, knowing how much she is loved and what a difference she has made to so many. She certainly has had a profound impact on my life — more than any other person — and I am eternally grateful to call her mother. No matter how old I get, I will never outgrow the need for my mom. Thank you, Mom, for everything. You’re amazing. Happy Mother’s Day.
Mom, walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, 2012.
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