by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 9: Mama
Over all the earlier years, in addition to putting up with Papa’s antics and activities, Mama did some things of her own. She was always a serious gardener, and at one point, went into the business. She always had great luck with what she called “Rain Lilies”, the beautiful little pink and yellow lilies that grow in the grass in warm areas, and often pop into bloom after a rain. The real name is Zephyr Lilies. Mama’s Rain Lilies just spread and spread because of some special fertilizer she had concocted to nourish them. So she put an ad in some magazine of the time, and began shipping dozens of them all over the country.
She was also a master at crochet. How she ever had time to do needlework, I’ll never know, but she was famous for our baby booties, beautifully crocheted in white, blue and pink. One day she decided that since all her friends loved the booties, maybe she should sell them. So she got on the bus, went downtown, and walked into Burdine’s, the big department store where she had worked as a teenager. By this time, it was a fancy 6-story building, each floor luxuriously carpeted with the smells and feel of a very expensive place--a far cry from Mr. Burdine’s original store. But Mama found the baby clothing buyer, and offered her some homemade booties. The lady was amazed at the quality, and placed orders for dozens of pairs of Mama’s baby booties for years.
Her gardening led her to get the ladies in the neighborhood together for meetings. And her natural leadership led her to found and serve as President of the first gardening club in Miami.
But most of all, Mama became famous in the neighborhood for her kindness. The big front porch at the Old Nest was open to all, and often a vagrant or other less than desirable type would climb the steps, knock on the door, and ask for help, work or money. Mama was never too busy for anyone, and when that happened, she went straight to the kitchen, drew a glass of water, and walked back to the door. She never had work or money for these men, but she always offered them a glass of water and her time. She’d sit out on the porch with them, and sometimes they talked for a long time. When I was little, sometimes I worried about this, but my mother always told me that they had called the front porch Mama’s treatment room for years. She was always kind and understanding, and would take as long as it took to talk to people who were down on their luck. Her intelligent caring personality was always helpful to these people, and she’d always send them on their way much happier than they had arrived.
Mama was a deeply religious person, and one of her favorite sayings has remained in the minds of almost all the family. She was a kind, highly-intelligent woman who had known many really hard times, and was very wise about the hardships life deals everyone. When anyone would tell her about how difficult something was they were dealing with, she’d always listen carefully, sympathize, and often comfort you with “Well, we do all we can. And God does the rest.” It was her own analysis of how she dealt with difficulty.
Looking back, we all know that Mama was a truly great lady. She was kind and caring with everyone she ever knew. We all loved her deeply. She was the perfect grandmother.
By the mid thirties, two of the Dillon girls were married and beginning to have children. In a few more years, all four of Mama and Papa's children would be raising families. And once the grandchildren arrived, Mama and Papa began the role I remember best of course-grand parenting. I can't imagine any couple doing it better, and my cousins and I know how lucky we were looking back.
My memories begin when there were already five of us, during the 1940's. Sometimes I was at Mama's and Papa's alone, but it was usually the whole group. They welcomed keeping the grandchildren, and our parents clearly enjoyed the break. In fact, for several years, it seems all five of us were at Mama's house overnight on weekends. And those were some of the best times of all.
When we were coming, she’d take a big mattress out of one of the bedrooms, and put it on the living room floor, right in front of the fireplace. And that’s where we’d play during the evening, and where we’d all sleep at night. Five kids, probably from the ages of 4 to 10 or 12. We were together so often, we were all really like sisters and brothers.
Weekends at Mama’s meant Mama telling stories as only she could. We’d beg her to tell about the Indians, and she’d sit in her chair while we all sat on the mattress wide-eyed. She told us stories about her childhood and mostly the stories she had heard from her mother and grandparents about the Seminole wars. The part we always waited for was when she told us that when the Indians would attack, all the settlers would have to run into the woods, so the Indians would find an empty house and move on. Everybody knew that if the Indians found a family, all the whites would be killed on the spot. She told us the big worry when that happened, in addition to the general terror, was that one of the babies would cry while the family group was hidden in the woods.. If that happened within earshot of the house, the mother’s hand would have to go over the baby’s mouth. And sometimes, it went on so long, the babies didn’t survive, but smothered under their mothers’ hands, so as not to give away the family’s hiding place.
Another story we always begged for her to tell was about when she saw her first car. When Mama was a little girl, of course, all the transportation was by horse. And when she was about 9 or 10, she told us, she was walking home from school down a dusty road one day when all of a sudden a loud noise was heard, and what she called a “horseless carriage” came riding by. We couldn’t believe that, of course, but little did we know that we’d soon be seeing our first TV.
We all knew that Mama had loved her mother, and had lost her when she was only 8. We knew she had souvenirs of her mother, and we’d always ask to see them. She’d go into her room, and return with a special box, and inside, there was an old fancy hat, and a long braid. This was her mother’s thick, dark hair, beautifully braided and tied with a black ribbon. Even now, it seems a little macabre, but it wasn’t. Mama treasured these remembrances of her mother, lost so long ago. We oohed and ahhed over the beautiful glistening hair and the fancy ribbon, and it transported us to a frontier time we’d never know.