When you sign on to join up with your wife’s family, there is always a chance that you won’t impress them. It’s a tossup. And the most important consideration is the mother-n-law. I was one of the lucky ones.
The first time I rolled into Selma, Alabama, I was about 19 years old and not particularly sharp when it came to first impressions. You be the judge. I drove my Dad’s truck, which smelled like a cologne called “Manure”. I wore my bibbed overalls and boots, which had manure crusted over in the creases. Long sleeved flannel shirt. Hair that looked like a homeless sheep dog. The very fact that my wife invited me to meet the family still amazes me.
We drove out to the mall to meet Miss Gloria. She was a seamstress over at the Singer store. As I think back, she was only maybe 42 years old. What I remember most is that she wore bright red lipstick and had jet black hair rolled up on top of her head like a beehive.
In our home on Sunday mornings, the TV was always tuned in to the Gospel Singing Jubilee. The show was a parade of southern gospel groups like The Florida Boys and The Happy Goodman Family. Pancakes and country ham were on the stove in the kitchen. The aroma was heavenly. The music was, well, happy.
Vestal Goodman wore her hair like a beehive on top of her head. I’ve seen hornets’ nests that weren’t that tall. And that was the first thing that popped into my head when I saw Miss Gloria for the first time. I half expected her to pick up a mic and break out into a round of “When We All Get to Heaven.” The visit was short. I still apologize to my wife for the way I looked.
I’m one of the lucky ones because over the years she embraced me. I remember when I finally worked up the courage to call her “Mom”, which is not easy for a boy to do when he has ever only called one woman “Mama”. I changed it up a little. It was still awkward. My wife says that little gesture made her day. I never called her anything else. From then on, she was Mom.
And, oh, the lipstick. There was always lots of bright red lipstick. She was never without it. She could be in her house coat cooking breakfast, and the lipstick was there. Drink coffee at the Greystone. More lipstick. Busboys took away coffee cups with one edge smeared in red. We would walk in the door for Christmas and she would always give me a big old kiss on the cheek which made me look like I had her lips tattooed on my face in red.
“Did I get my lipstick on you? I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mom. It ain’t hurting anything.”
Pop always looked forward to my visits. Not because he enjoyed my company so much as he knew that Mom was going to keep enough food on the table to feed the Chicago Bears. She was worried that I wouldn’t get enough to eat. I really liked ham. Pop not so much. But when I came to visit, we almost always had a 400 lb. pork shoulder on the table.
“Why does he always get what he likes when he comes over here,” Pop would ask.
“You hush. He’s special,” she would say.
Looking at me, “You want a piece of lemon pie?”
“Yes ma’am.” I would give Pop a wink.
Mom has been gone now for over 20 years. Beth and I and our youngest daughter were looking at old family pictures this past weekend. We have a lot of pictures. Black and whites of Mom and Pop in their early twenties. Skinny kids with big smiles. Even without any color, you can tell that she was wearing red lipstick. Emily commented with a hint of surprise.
“Maw Maw looks just like me.”
And she was right. Gorgeous wide smile. Sleek dark flowing hair before the beehive days.
Here’s what I think I know. I wish that every son-n-law could have a Miss Gloria. I wish that every mother-n-law could be as gracious as she was. Marriages everywhere would be better for it. What she gave to me is a gift that I will always cherish. It’s more than a small miracle to know that she loved a boy that came into her home and took her daughter away to Georgia. Especially a boy that might have smelled a little like manure.