MY MAMA WAS A TERRORIST
by Mariane Holbrook
I tell ya what. If my mama had raised her seven kids today instead of in the 1930s and 40s, she woulda been tossed in jail for child abuse.
Now, Mama was a godly woman for sure. She taught Sunday School for years, using those flannel boards with the paper doll Jesus and His disciples and such. Every Saturday night she’d have my sister cuttin’ out the cross or the city of Bethlehem from pictures that came with the lesson, and glue left-over pieces of flannel on the back so they’d stick to the flannelboard.
She made sure we never missed prayer meetin’ on Wednesday nights, or four services on Sunday. Count ‘em: Sunday School, morning church, young people’s meeting at 6, followed by Sunday night service at 7.
She could pray as good as the rest of them and her baked beans, fried chicken, parkerhouse rolls and spice cake were always the first to go at church suppers at the Albertson Building. No question that she was one of the best Christians in town, always visitin’ the sick, keepin’ their kids, and doin’ all sorts of things that earned her extra points in heaven. She had at least a million friends; maybe two.
Well, sir, like I said, Mama was a good Christian but she had this awful habit of scarin’ us kids half to death. She thought it was funny! There were seven kids in our family so she got lots of practice in terrorism.
She had the greatest memory I ever saw. When she was a school kid back in the hills of Pennsyvania in the early 1900s, she memorized everything she could get her hands on, including pages and pages of the poem, “Evangeline.” And when she was 96 years old and in a nursing home, would you believe she could still recite a lot of that poem word for word? It beat anything I ever saw!
She was plumb crazy about children’s poetry and her favorite poet was James Whitcomb Riley.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think those are the scariest, frightningest, most fearsome, shiveryest poems ever written for grown ups or innocent little kids like me. The book was big and heavy and green colored, all dog-eared and worn but she loved that book like nothin’ else exceptin’ the Bible. I don’t know what ever happened to it but I’d pay about anything to own that particular copy today. I’m sure Mama must have written things in the margin about how to make faces and gestures at the right time to make us scream louder.
I memorized the poem I’m gonna tell you about. I was very little then but I think I got most of the words right; at least Mama said I did.
At night while Mama was foldin’ a mountain of clothes, Daddy would scrub the tar off the bottoms of our feet from popping tar bubbles in the street barefooted. Then he’d put us younger girls together in the bathtub, wash our hair, then help us put on our pajamas.
We’d make a dash to our bedroom, jump on the bed and under the quilts, waiting for Mama to come and scare the britches off of us.
We knew what was a-comin’ but we couldn’t help it; we just had to listen.
Sometimes it would be a Bible Story and sometimes not. It’s the “not Bible story” ones I want to tell you about.
She’d start out in a nice, sweet voice, so you wouldn’t suspect what was a-coming. She’d smile and chirp like a friendly little bird to throw us off track:
"Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay.
She’ll wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other children, when the supper-things was done,
We’d set around the kitchen fire an' have the mostest fun
A-listenin’ to the witch-tales that Annie tells about,
AN’ THE GOBLINS WILL GITCHA
IF YOU DON’T WATCH OUT!"
Omigoodness, we’d scream and grab onto each other for dear life and pull the quilts up over our heads. There was just enough light from the street light outdoors so we could see Mama. She’d make all kinds of terrible faces, clap her hands at the right moment for effect, then shout real loud at the Gobblins part. It was the scariest thing you ever saw!
We’d beg her to quit but Mama just wouldn’t stop! (Truth be told, we really wanted her to continue.) All she could see of us were three pairs of scared-to-death eyes peeking out from under the covers. So she’d wait a minute to keep us in suspense, then lean toward us and whisper:
"Once there was a little boy who wouldn't say his prayers,--
An' when he went to bed at night, away upstairs,
His Mammy heard him holler, an' his Daddy heard him bawl,
But when they turned the covers down, he wasn’t there at all!
They seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
They seeked him up the chimney-flue, an' everywhere, I guess;
But all they ever found was just his pants an' roundabout:
AN’ THE GOBLINS WILL GITCHA
IF YOU DON’T WATCH OUT!"
And with that, Mama would leap on top of us, spread-eagle, trying to claw her way under the covers to kill us, we thought! We dove all the way to the bottom of the bed, our arms and even our legs wrapped around each other for protection from the wicked witch who was telling these horror stories. I’d even try to crawl in my older sister’s pajama top for extra protection!
We screamed and begged, “Stop, stop!” and covered our ears but we knew we had to listen to it all. The phrase “gluttons for punishment” was named after us.
So we’d listen through the covers as Mama would laugh this awful witch’s high-pitched laugh and then lower her voice for the third stanza of James Whitcomb Riley poem:
"An' once there was a little girl who’d always laugh an' grin,
An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;
An' once, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' she shocked 'em, an' she said she didn't care!
An' just as she kicked her heels, an' turned to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her thru the ceiling before she knowed what she’s about,
AND THE GOBLINS WILL GITCHCHA
IF YOU DON’T WATCH OUT!"
Oh, goodness. I wanted my sister to feel my heart to see if I was still livin’ but I couldn’t get the words out.
There was one more stanza to the poem but I didn’t hear a word. My sister was on top of me, burying both our heads under the pillow.
Finally Mama was finished. Then she’d laugh and say, “Tomorrow night I’m gonna tell you James Whitcomb Riley’s wonderful story about a monstrous, big, mean, ugly, man-eating, hungry black bear who chased a little boy up to the top of a tree ‘til the little boy could feel the bear’s hot, scalding breath on his heel.
We’d peek out from the covers, a combination of terror and curiosity, and ask timidly, “Did the big mean, man-eating, hungry, black bear catch the little boy and eat him up, Mama?”
“I’m not telling,” Mama would answer. “Now go to sleep!”
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