Photo of our sweet momma when she was young.

My momma was sweet – that’s a great gift to have in a mother.

I grew up in East Tennessee, where the summers were hotter than a half f…..ed fox in a forest fire, as my dad used to say. He was in the Navy and literally cussed like a sailor.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was little, and in the middle of a hot summer night, with a wide-open window right next to your head to try to get some cool air in, it would come a thunder storm that shook the whole house. A flash of lighting spotlighted the bedroom, and thunder cracked and boomed like an explosion.

My eyes popped open, my heart hammered in my chest, I went rigid all over. Simultaneously all three of us kids lurched out of our beds, raced through the lightning bright hallway and lunged into the full size (not queen, not king) bed my mom occupied alone because dad worked out of town a lot. Three shaking children huddled as close to her as we could. She put both arms out so our little heads had a place to rest, pulling us even closer. She always let us stay there until the storm was over, usually about twenty minutes or a lifetime, depending on how severe it was, and if we fell asleep that was okay. What a sweet momma!

Other times in the night one of us was positive we heard a burglar. We’d tiptoe into momma’s room and whisper in her ear, “Momma, there’s a burglar in the house.” She always said, “I didn’t hear anything,” hoping to stave us off. Whoever heard the burglar was absolutely one hundred percent sure that Blackbeard the Pirate or one of his kin was in our house. “No, honest, I really did hear a burglar. I think he’s in the kitchen.”

By then all three of us were in the room, awakened by the loud whispers. Momma knew none of us would settle down believing a hooligan was just outside the bedroom door. She threw her warm covers off and grabbed the baseball bat she stashed behind the bedroom door for these emergencies. She walked out in front, in a pale flowered nightgown almost to the floor, both hands clutched on the skinny part of the bat, ready to swing. Momma was strong. We knew no burglar could survive a blow from that bat. 

We lined up behind her, my brother’s hands on her waist, my hands on his waist, and my sister’s hands on my waist – the caboose. Our little train moved slowly from room to room, momma finding the light switch in each room, opening the closets and looking behind doors. “What about under the beds?” we whined. “You look under there,” she said, perhaps growing a little impatient with this ritual. “No, we’re too scared” She got on her hands and knees and looked under each bed. Luckily our house was small, but still, with her thorough survey, it took a few minutes. Then we’d whimper, “We’re too scared to go to bed,” and she’d lead us back to her room and we’d pile in, sandwiched against her – we were the bread, she was the cheese.

She did a lot of other sweet things like making us anything we wanted for dinner. My brother went through a “training” phase for some sport, track maybe. He only ate steak, potato, green beans and a small salad. So we had that meal every night of the week, a wafer-thin piece of leathery meat smothered in Heinz 57 sauce, mashed potatoes with a pool of margarine on top, canned green beans and a lettuce and tomato salad with Thousand Island dressing. I didn’t complain; it was food I liked. She kept making the same thing for what seemed like months.

When my dad came home he made gourmet-type food – a kid’s worst nightmare. We could barely eat it, although we had to because those were the days of eating all your vegetables before you could get up from the table because of the starving kids in China. We couldn’t wait to get back to regular food after he left.

Momma made the best fudge on the planet whenever we begged her to, which was often. It was that impossible recipe where you have to get it just the right temperature at several steps – a real nuisance to make. It’s not like the fudge sold in candy shops or made from sweetened condensed milk. It melts in your mouth in the most extraordinary way.

Momma mixed the ingredients and let it cook, then periodically dropped a small dollop of the chocolate into a cup of cold water, chasing it around with her finger to see if it formed a soft ball. I wish I’d paid closer attention to the process. I only know about this part because we constantly stopped playing to go to the kitchen and see how the fudge was coming, only to hear, “Nope, not quite ready.” We’d come back a couple minutes later to see her fingering another little ball in the cold water. When it was ready she’d put the saucepan full of bubbling chocolate in cold water in the sink and drop a stick of butter in. Then she waited until it was cool – again tested with her finger. She beat the mixture with a spoon for up to ten minutes until it got thick, us hovering like vultures, fighting over who got to lick the pan and spoon. What a labor of love!

Momma once told my brother that her favorite part of her life was when us kids were little. When she passed away, my brother and I talked about what to put on her tombstone. She and my dad had divorced, so it was up to us. There was no question what it would say, the words we always used when we talked about her. Her tombstone describes her perfectly: “Our sweet momma.”