To broach the person I called Mamaw, the woman whom I loved as a mother figure, the person who I would do anything for is difficult. It’s hard because I cared for this woman, she was in my life from infancy, but nothing I could ever say or do would garner the same affection from her as I gave, desired, needed and I longed for desperately.
Mamaw was born Delphia Mae Davis, the oldest daughter of a man she called Poppy who was “well to do” by 1900’s mountain standards. Yes dear reader, they “had the first car ever in the country” Mamaw would say. She “drove it and picked children up to haul to school.” To hear Mamaw talk they were the Rockefellers of Dickenson County. If Mamaw could brag about something she was going to. She saw herself as upper crust and everyone else that couldn’t see her as that OR offer her some sort of strange queen like status, well they were paupers and beneath her.
I was always beneath her.
Delphia taught me to call her Mamaw, because her beloved adopted son Jack had married my 17 year old mother when I was a few months old. I would call him “Daddy Jack” until for some odd reason Mamaw and Papaw stopped referring to him as that. You see Jack died when I was only nine months old. Another tragedy for my Mommy. Jack was up in his fifties when he died! Think of this for a moment would you? My mother had just turned 17, she was married to a man who already had three children in their late teens and early twenties and they lived in the basement of his parents home for a time. Some man huh?
Jack drank himself to death. That’s the bottom line. Every person around knew he was an alcoholic. He died from cirrhosis of the liver or as I heard Mamaw say “his liver ruptured.” For nothing on the face of this planet would she admit to what caused the disease he had and ultimately his death. Person after person would tell the tales of his escapades, his drinking and partying and racing cars up and down the road near Flanagan Dam. Wrecking brand new automobiles in drunken stuppers only to be given a new one was common practice for this golden child. He would go to work drunk, be fired and Papaw being an upstanding man in the county would find someone to go out on a limb for him and Jack would be back in another job.
Jack was loved though. Everyone who knew Jack thought of him as a good time. Even though he was a severe alcoholic, even though he dumped one wife and three kids then eventually married a poor teenager with a baby, people loved the man for some reason. Me? I don’t even remember him. I only know him from photos and stories. People say he loved me, that he had plans to adopt me. Maybe that was at least one feather in his crown, that he was willing to love a baby who my mother did claim was his. I wasn’t.
But Mamaw, children, she loved her boy. She cherished him. He was the prized child from all I knew. She must have seen him drunk, smelled the alcohol, she was in denial I suppose. Papaw was sick as a boy, he had mumps and became infertile. At some point they decided to adopt and found Jack in Kentucky as an infant. Papaw and Mamaw would take me in eventually as they did another, but that was before my time and a story I only learned about last year. But Jack, he was cherished and loved. Mamaw kept his little newborn gown and grown man clothing inside a cedar chest alongside photos and other keepsakes. No doubt when Jack died she longed for her baby. I’m sorry she lost him, but I do question why he became an alcoholic.
With the disfunction that was my Mamaw at the helm of raising him I can only speculate that she could have driven him toward his habit. She drove me into believing I was a worthless piece of garbage, ignorant trash, nasty and as she would say time and again an “old horse.”
I was not precious or sweet, good or kind, I was bad. I was not a treasured child, I was a work horse, her very own Cinderella. One of the first toys I can ever recall having was a little broom and mop with pink handles. I recall being just a tiny thing with those “toys” in my hands sweeping and mopping the kitchen. I have despised mopping my entire life, because I was forced to mop as a little girl, hands hardly big enough to ring out that little mop, but I did and it was disgusting. I recall the cold, black water with bits of grime inside the mop as I wring it out. The water would grow nastier and colder and more full of filth as I worked, usually underneath the kitchen table where it was too hard for Mamaw to reach. The smell was putrid, sour and bitter at the same time. Not a place for tiny hands to be, itty bitty hands, I barely had to duck to get under the kitchen table.
When other children were playing outside during the summers I was working. I could hear their echoes of laughter and whoops as they played, their music echoed toward our house as they splashed in their swimming pools. I was in the garden, planting, pulling weeds, watering and then processing the food as it grew in. While other girls in the neighborhood had brown skin kissed by the sun, my skin was stained odd colors from planting red seed corn or peeling apples in the fall. I had cuts on my fingers stained brown for weeks. I was evermore doing Mamaw’s bidding. If I couldn’t work outside carrying two five gallon buckets at a time of water for the flowers she grew or coal for the wood stove in the winter, I was dusting, washing clothes, making beds, running the vacuum, washing dishes and cooking. I did it all, I kept the house, Mamaw kept the rules.
I did have time to play when other children would ask Mamaw for me to come visit them or another adult in that childs life asked her for me to come play, but I was punished if I left the house. When I came home I had to work or endure some vile punishment, even if there was no work exactly Mamaw would find something for me to do. Work like scrubbing every pair of socks I owned on a wash board or during the winter busting the frozen water out of the oil barrels that sat at the end of each corner of the house, just to carry the water in to set on the stove to wash clothes in it, we had a washer and dryer. I even had to bathe in that filthy oil drum water. I didn’t know better, I was submissive for most of my life with Mamaw. I never kicked back. I just took that water that I had boiled on top of that coal stove that was soot filled and poured it into the bathtub to wash in. Not because we had to do this, Mamaw was just that way. She skimped and saved and punished me however she could. Until I learned how to have clean bath water I had to wash in her leftover, scummy bath water for years. I eventually learned to have clean water, I would put a wash cloth over the faucet so she couldn’t hear fresh water running and I’d slowly let the nasty, greyish yellow water out.
As I told my therapist about Mamaw she helped me learn that something was wrong with her. She was not normal, though who is normal, but Mamaw was different, she was abnormal in a bad way. I was always told “Delphia loves you in her own way.” That’s no good. Others tried to comfort me the best they could when they saw me hurting, when I opened up to a few here and there. I needed Mamaw to love me like a mother who would die for her child, who would bathe their child in clean water then they would take the dirty water. I needed to be worthy of clean, fresh water, not oil barrel, soot filled water.
I would never be, because Mamaw had a severe, undiagnosed mental issue. It made my life a living nightmare. I will talk about that in future writings, because it’s a lot to unpack and it deserves it’s own time. Suffice it to say many of my self worth issues stem from the day in and day out life I lived with Mamaw. All those formative years where a child is taught all they’ll carry with them were filled with me always being anxious of doing something wrong, never being good enough and never finding a loving mothers arms to hold me and keep me safe. Rather I was just an “old horse,” working for a woman who could never love me.
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