She died two days before Christmas in 1993. The world lost a treasure that day, it is true, but time has a way of making the memories sweeter, and memories of her now seem almost sugar coated and dipped in honey. Mama O’Tuel was my mother’s mother, a strong Christian woman from a humble upbringing whose wit rivaled Steve Martin’s and who could tell a story better than Jerry Clower (Look him up, you won’t be sorry!). She experienced her fair share of tragedy, burying a husband when she was 44 and a son who died of a heart attack when he was 48, but she was a tough lady, a strong Southern survivor. Her full married name was Louise Jones O’Tuel. She didn’t have a middle name until she got married. I guess her parents were running out of names by their fourth child and they needed to conserve them for the next four they would have. Lewis Thomas Jones and Mamie Vick Tucker Jones raised a total of eight kids on their small farm in Warsaw, North Carolina. They were poor by any standard at the time, and I don’t know if they were always happy, but I do know that they were always entertained. As a child, I remember that anytime the brothers and sisters were together there was singing and laughter and good food.
Mama O’Tuel lived about 30 minutes down US-117 from us. She and my mother kept the road warm between them, and so my brother, Chris, and I were fortunate that she was a significant influence in our lives. Mama O’Tuel loved being a grandmother. She had an easy laugh, an outlandish sense of humor and would spontaneously break out into song on a whim. Unbeknownst to our mother, sometimes she would sneak a little bit of coffee into the milk that she served us in cruets and funny shaped bottles or cups with swirly straws. She hosted impromptu parties for us and she always kept our favorite foods in her refrigerator. To this day, I can recall the warm scent of myrrh in the Youth Dew perfume she wore and the porcelin pink roses scattered in the nooks and crannies of her little ranch house on Best Street in Goldsboro. Occasionally, the reading of a poem will take me back to the silly stories and poems she wrote for fun…Oh squash, my sweet potato! Do you carrot all for me? My heart beets for you… Now, more than 20 years after her death, her life still brings me joy.
When we were growing up, Mom and Dad owned the local Western Auto store. In bigger cities, Western Auto was known mainly for auto parts, but in a small town with no Wal-Mart in sight, Mom and Dad’s place was also a general store. It was the only place in town where people could buy toys at Christmas, shop for wedding bands, or buy a gun while their car was being repaired in the shop. Things would change when Wal-Mart did finally move into a town a few miles away, but in the beginning they sold almost anything one could think of. It was a thriving business for them and theirs was one of the top stores in North Carolina for many years. The year they won the Carribbean cruise for top sales performance was the first of many trips and for some reason, Mama O’Tuel’s role in caring for us while they were on that cruise stands out in my mind.
Mama O’Tuel wasted no time after Mom and Dad pulled out of the driveway. She hurried inside and started throwing around pots and pans and food like she was the grill master at the local Waffle House. She knew how we loved to eat, and her grandbabies would not be disappointed. She would prepare a feast!
All that week the table was laid out in a spread when we arrived home from school, even though a few hours later she planned to serve a full dinner. Several of those days, the kid friendly aroma of greasy spoon wafted out in a cloud as we skipped in the door. Mama O’Tuel didn’t make cheeseburgers like a normal person. She made her chili from “scratch” using ground beef, ketchup, chili powder and some other seasonings that even she didn’t know she would use until they were thrown in. After frying the hamburger patties, she slapped them together with the buns, cheese, chili and a little mustard. Then she placed the entire cheeseburger back into the pan to fry in hamburger grease until the bun was crispy. As it was frying, she mashed it as flat as she could without squeezing out the chili and cheese. Now, this may not sound appetizing to an adult who is trying to stay away from the cardiac unit, but let me assure you that those burgers were full of gooey, cheesy, chili goodness. To us it was yummy like no other cheeseburger in the world, not only because it was crispy, gooey, delicious, but also because it was made by Mama O’Tuel, who infused every morsel with love.
We were so full after eating our afternoon snacks that dinner seemed absurd, but we ate it anyway because it was Mama O’Tuel’s cooking, and who could resist? She whipped up country style steak with salty brown gravy, pan fried pork chops, home made mashed potatoes, squash, butter beans, collards with fatback and her homemade pepper relish. We could still taste the summer sunshine in the corn and field peas we had shucked and shelled together on the porch when it was warm. And, oh, the homemade biscuits to go with it all! We ate them with a knife and fork, steaming hot, with chunks of butter half melted and molasses poured over the top and running down the sides. After dinner she served her cherry delight dessert and we were literally busting at the seams. How we stuffed it all in, I’ll never know, but somehow we lived to tell about it. It was a gluttonous, heavenly seven days of Thanksgiving!
At night we lay in Mom and Dad’s bed on either side of Mama O’Tuel and giggled into the dark as she recalled stories of her childhood. One of our favorite tales was of the day all the kids piled into the Model T car that her family had pinched pennies to buy. Big sister, Emily, was driving and kids hung from every window. Emily had never driven before and didn’t know how to use the brake. Chris and I could hardly contain ourselves at the description of her mother’s red face as she raced behind the car, apron strings flying, shaking her finger and yelling for them to stop. But Emily didn’t know how to stop, so she drove around and around and around the house until finally the car gave out of gas. During the story, Mama O’Tuel randomly bellowed out the sound of the horn for effect, “Aoooogia! Aooogia!”
She told and retold the stories of the goats that lived under their house. We laughed each time as she brought to life the memories of she and her brothers and sisters dragging the goats across the street, turning them around, and then jumping on and riding as they bolted for dear life back toward the cool, dusty place under the porch. When they reached the house, the kids held their hands out in front of them and hit the house with a thunk as the goats slid out from under them and ran as far as they could without coming out on the other side. Poor goats, but the entertainment they provided endured for generations.
We lay in bed and listened to Mama O’Tuel’s stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer and the muscles in our full bellies ached from laughter. I wish I could remember the rhythm and tone of every word, because she was a master storyteller, but the content, sleepy feeling of lying next to that sweet woman and giggling myself to sleep as she wove her wondrous tales will live in my memory forever.