Today’s post is written by Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, one of my writing mentors and former professors. Every time Dr. Murphy contributes to this blog and sends me a post, I cannot wait to read it. I know I’ll enjoy the story–and I know the story will speak to me.
Bethany asked us to share stories about love during the month of February. While this isn’t a typical February love story, I believe there is a kind of love in it. This love is present when someone in an older generation takes the time to teach those in a younger generation a thing or two about how to live. There is, however, a link to the month of February. One of the major players in this story is my grandmother, Ona Burns, who was born on Valentine’s Day in 1905. Not only was she a sweetheart, she was also pretty clever when it came to keeping my sister and me in line. I am grateful for the life she lived and for the opportunity I had to spend time with her during her lifetime.
Liz, Mom, and the Witch
By Teresa Burns Murphy
The chickens strutted and clucked, pecking for bugs in the dusty barn lot just beyond my grandparents’ fenced-in backyard where my big sister, Liz, and I lingered. Mom, our grandmother, had told us to come inside the house, but Liz decided we didn’t have to do what Mom said. As I placed my chubby little hand on the back door handle, I cut my eyes over at Liz. She pulled her shoulders back, tucked her chin to one side, and shot me a menacing look. I froze, not sure whose wrath I preferred to incur – Liz’s or Mom’s.
I had known them both for six years, in other words, my entire life. At eight, Liz was slim, agile, and fearless. I admired the way she could stroll out into our grandparents’ pasture and coax the horses (huge horses!) into coming to her. When one ambled over, she’d take hold of the horse’s halter and hoist herself onto its bare back, her long, brown curls bouncing to the beat of the horse’s gait as she rode across the field. Mom sometimes gave us sugar cubes to feed the horses when they came up to the backyard fence. When I saw those giant horse teeth coming toward my outstretched hand, I always dropped my sugar cubes on the ground, causing the horses to have to lick them up out of the dirt. Maybe this is why they always bucked me off when Liz caught one of them and boosted me onto its back. Liz, on the other hand, held the sugar cubes in her unwavering palm and waited for the horses to slurp them up. I cringed watching those horses’ tongues whisk the sugar cubes from her hand, but Liz never flinched.
In contrast to Liz, Mom was short and plump. For the most part, she stayed indoors – doing needlework, reading the newspaper, or putting together jigsaw puzzles once her household chores were completed. I’d heard stories about how Mom’s father had been required to take her to an elementary school that employed a male teacher after she’d proven to be too feisty for the female teacher at her old school to manage. I’d also heard about how she’d staked out her territory at the new school with a few choice words delivered to the other girls who believed they could bully her. Though I was aware that Mom had been pretty fearless herself, I figured most of her pluck had been used up now that she was in her late fifties, which, at the time, I thought of as old. So, I cast my lot with Liz and released the door handle.
Clearly, I had forgotten the course these battles of will between Liz and Mom generally took. I’d heard about one of their first clashes enough times to believe I remembered it even though I was a baby when it happened. On the day that skirmish occurred, Liz and I were spending the day with Mom, and Mom had placed me in a playpen while she prepared our lunch. A pocket door that could be made to disappear into the wall with a gentle push separated Mom’s kitchen from her den where I’d been situated. As long as that door remained open, I could see Mom and I was content. Liz, always one to shake things up, decided she’d close the door. When she flung it shut, I set up a howl.
“Liz,” Mom said. “Keep the door open so the baby can see me.”
“No!” Liz said, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at Mom in a way that only a defiant three-year-old can.
“Liz Ann, now you open that door so the baby won’t cry.”
Liz shook her head.
I don’t know how long Mom’s cajoling campaign continued before she issued Liz an ultimatum – either open the door or get a spanking.
“You better not spank me,” Liz said. “If you do, I’ll tell my mother, and she’s really a fighter.”
I guess Liz figured threatening Mom with our mother was more effective than threatening her with our father since he was Mom’s son. Somehow, without cracking up laughing or swatting Liz’s little behind, Mom lifted her eyebrows, opened her dark eyes wide and said, “Well, I’m really a fighter too.”
Seeing that Mom wasn’t going to back down and possibly realizing she had met her match, Liz opened the door.
I have a more vivid memory of the next incident of Liz’s pitting her will against Mom’s. Mom’s house was a treasure trove of fascinating things for Liz and me – mahogany gargoyles whose mouths were open just wide enough for a couple of little girls to pretend to get bitten by their pointy teeth when they jabbed their fingers into the gargoyles’ mouths; boxes of fancy, old-fashioned Valentine cards Mom’s mother had sent to her during the first half of the twentieth century; and always – wonderful food. Usually, Mom’s food was something she’d prepared herself – a pot of hamburger soup chock-full of vegetables, a pan of thick cornbread, a pedestaled plate of three-layer coconut cake. One day, when we arrived at Mom’s house, Liz and I spied something Mom generally didn’t have – store-bought candy. On that day, a candy bar was lying on her kitchen countertop, and Liz and I both wanted it – all of it!
“I just have one,” Mom said, unwrapping the candy bar, placing it on a plate, and pulling a knife from a drawer. “You can each have half.”
“I’ll cut it!” Liz said, reaching for the plate and grabbing the knife.
I watched as Liz slid the knife through the skin of that chocolate bar. It didn’t escape my notice that one piece was more-than-slightly larger than the other. Apparently, it didn’t escape Mom’s notice either.
When Liz finished cutting the candy bar in “half,” Mom took the plate from her and said, “Okay, Liz, you got to divide it. Now, Teresa, you pick the piece you want.”
A picture (sweeter than any candy) of Liz’s face is permanently etched in my memory. Her brown eyes widened and her mouth popped open as Mom held the plate out to me. Having raised four children, Mom had been down this “sharing” path before. The only word I have to describe the feeling I had as I snagged the larger piece of candy and bit into it is joy.
Considering this history with Mom and Liz, I’m not sure why I chose to side with Liz when Mom told us to come back inside the house, but I vividly remember what happened next. In the little Arkansas town where Mom lived, there was an old woman who wore long black dresses and old-timey black boots. Not many people scared Liz, but she was scared of this woman whose pinched face and beak-like nose gave her a witchy appearance. We didn’t know the woman’s name, so we simply referred to her as “the witch.” Having listened to far too many fairy tales and having overactive imaginations, we had no trouble at all envisioning the witch flying through the air on her broomstick, scouring the town for little girls she could swoop down on and possibly eat.
Standing outside Mom’s house that day, we had forgotten all about the witch until the air was saturated with the sound of a spooky voice that shrieked, “I’m gonna get me two little girls.”
Liz almost knocked me down as she made a beeline for the back door. In a flash, we scurried across the concrete floor of the screened-in porch and into the den where Mom sat in her rocking chair, calmly crocheting.
For days afterward, Liz and I puzzled over how Mom could have thrown her voice in such a way to make it sound as if it were coming from outside her house. We thought maybe she had gone to an open window at the back of her house and screeched out that threat, but we dismissed this notion because we didn’t think a woman of her advanced age could have possibly made it back to her rocking chair so fast. That left us with only one logical explanation – Mom must have gotten the witch to do it, which meant she actually knew the witch.
Liz and I never asked Mom how she managed to send us that witchy threat. I suspect as we got older, we realized that Mom was much faster and shrewder than we’d given her credit for being. But on that long-ago day, the belief that our grandmother had enough power to convince a witch to do her bidding was enough to keep the two of us in line.