SBC Life Articles

The First First-Lady

She came before you, not in prominence but in time. Yet in every way she readied me to love you. To say this woman's image would be stamped upon your being may seem a monstrous strike against your uniqueness. Yet here I must begin. I knew her first: not just before I knew you, but before I knew anyone. First knowledge emerges unsteady in the haze of infamy. It is umbilical, inseparate. What is it I remember of her? Some husky alto lullaby? Perhaps. I remember and yet do not. Life is dim and distant when it emerges from the womb. It is separate from motherhood, yet too amniotic to be very separate … an embryonic reverie of gray amnesia … a thereness not yet there. Remembering is not the issue; it is life. Being was her gift. Still, being has to wait to understand, to know itself. Being comes from the shadows and moves ever gradually toward the light. Without a sense of being, my knowledge of myself was not "mine" but "ours." The two of us were there as far back as it is possible to probe the fringes of memory.

She was there some twenty years before you. She was there when my father left – when the bombs shattered the balmy air above faraway Hawaii. With her covey of little ones and no means of support except her two good hands, her strong intention was to serve. She vowed that her life would give life to her brood of nine.

I don't know that she was brave, but I remember her as fearless. I believe she saw fear as an unnecessary tremulous contagion. Fear was always contacted in dread and spread by those who volunteered to quake. If she was afraid, I never knew it. In her confident presence, I grew up braver than I might have been.

I never knew I was poor, either. From time to time, there are those who do spin straw to gold. She was one of those who could create a sense of strong abundance from the thinnest poverty.

The house my father left to us was unfinished. However, not knowing what a finished house looked like, I was never aware of its uncompleted state. I could tell it was small – three rooms and no indoor plumbing. We burned wood when the Oklahoma winter was short, and coal when it was not.

My mother was such a pragmatist that none of us ever viewed her as a miracle worker. Wood ranges were supposed to yield hot berry pies and overflow with yeasty loaves of bread. For countless winters I stood before that iron icon and learned that abundance is never what we have but what we suppose we have. I was rich because my mother seemed rich and I never saw the actual poverty of those days.

At Christmas, she would read the Dickens Christmas stories by the light of a kerosene lamp – which we called a "coal-oil" lamp. With never so much as a goose of our own for Christmas dinner, we all felt sorry for the Cratchits. In the midst of a life that others viewed as desperate and hard, my mother's inner wealth was a spirit so abundant that it fostered and made real a luxuriant deception: I too was rich.

Still, thrift is the kinsman to wealth. Nothing was to be thrown away. I only later saw the wonderful wealth she demonstrated. Life was an economy! Subtle were her greatest lessons. She gave dignity to thrift. She taught all her children to feel pride in constructing the indispensable from things others threw away. A rummage sale bristled with opportunities to keep the winter warm. Secondhand clothes were not vile items cast away by others. Hand-me-downs from my two older brothers were an opportunity to wear things that had already twice proven themselves worthy. There were wonderful things all about us that, in their simplicity, held usable, and left us no need to frequent pretentious shops. Those stores were for people with limited ingenuity.

She also taught us that we were only managers of heaven's gifts. The Lord provided everything. Our daily bread had come from Him, my mother said, and like manna, it lay on the ground to be taken fresh every morning.

Our house backed up to "the tracks." The great locomotives ran only an alley away from our rough-weathered dwelling. The tracks were the parallel footprints of the mammoth dragons that stalked the land in which I lived. They came day and night, and left me dreaming by the steel rails. I much romanticized the great locomotives. Enraptured, I waved at the engineers who rode the iron dragons like powerful warlords on armored beasts.

I think she knew how my reveries constructed dragons from these "puffer-bellies" that drew strings of namby-pamby cars along the silver strands. Some said the tracks went all the way to St. Louis and ended in Los Angeles, but neither of these suppositions intrigued me. The rails held a mysterious enchantment of their own. The tracks were real; so were the steel dragons. So real that their heavy iron wheels would flatten my pennies to the size of dollars. Those same iron wheels sent earthquakes up and down the line as the grumbling steam rattled every window in our tiny house.

But the tracks were not dreaming places to her. While I celebrated their intrigue, she celebrated their gravel beds in which the cross ties, splintered by the spikes, held more than rails. The old wooden cars jolted and banged around during harvest. They would leak, and their spillage was the manna – the daily bread – the windfall to our economy.

She would take a pail and a broom and go to the tracks to sweep the spilled grain, and I would accompany her. The grain we found not only fed our meager flock of chickens, but was a staple in our diet as well.

When the cars were full of wheat, so indeed were the rusty barrels behind our house where we stored the grain we had retrieved from the leaky cars. At harvest time, we worked at gathering the immense piles of trackside grain. I despised the practicality rooted in her thrift. Yet her mundane view of the tracks held life for all her little ones.

I know now it is sometimes necessary to make trains out of dragons and demythologize strings of cars until one is able to see a kind of life in them. I took the bread for granted and supposed that it only existed to nourish my imagination. Out of my mother's practical concerns came the bread for dreaming, and she knew that dreams would all degenerate to poverty if her little ones went hungry.

I was the seventh child, born just after the older children had absorbed the slow-departing pain of the Great Depression. Her firstborn was barely eight when Black Tuesday occurred. In her painful management of life during the "dirty" thirties, she tirelessly celebrated the warm abundance of even that improvident providence. She knew life could be handled; harvest would come. There would be wheat between the rails.

"We are the gleaners," she seemed to say as we crossed the fields on the way home from the "far tracks." There was a second spur a mile or so from our home, and we gleaned the distant rails as well as those at hand. The distant rails were always the most fruitful: since the old cars sat longer, their spillage was more abundant. Thus we crossed the wider fields carrying sacks or pails to gather all the grain we could.

I hated the hard work. There was too little romance in lifting the chubby burlap sacks of grain. The drudgery of such toil crushed my imagination into powder. Reluctantly I was learning to trade enchantment for bread.

They say every son marries his mother, and though I cannot prove this proverb, it does seem to me now that you and my mother were remarkably alike. You both loved things that should be, but not too much to deal with things that must be. It has always been my nature to dream the turbulence from whirlpools. You, like her, could see so well the troubled waters I denied. How much I've had to trust the both of you to tell me where my visions could not swim through cold reality. Yet your honesty, like hers, was compassionate. Her greatness once protected a child, and your greatness, the visions of a too-reluctant man.

And yet, the fond distinction between the child and the man I learned by walking the fields and crossing "the tracks." I cannot, as St. Paul suggests, "put away these childish things because I have become a man." A thousand times no! For in such childish things is wisdom rooted. I know that in the crossing of those distant fields, my manhood was defined.


Three decades past I skipped along beside
Her. Soul tired – I carried grain and grumbled.
How tall she looked! How large the fields! Her stride
Was smooth. Attempting to keep pace, I stumbled.
She sat the grain where all the grass seemed dead,
And ran her fingers through my tangled thatch.
"Some day the fields will seem so small," she said.
"When you've grown large, the fields will be no match."
"The fields are very big," I said. "You'll see!"
She grinned and kissed my immaturity.
Our shadows were El Greco-esque as we
Trudged across the endless earthen sea.
She sleeps beneath those fields where she stood tall.
And I, at last, can see the fields are small.

    About the Author

  • Calvin Miller