Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Eulogy For Mom

Geneva Frances Ray was born on October 23rd, 1938, in Eubank, Kentucky. (Actually, Eubank was the closest incorporated town to her house, which was in a remote area of Pulaski County, Kentucky.) The town of Eubank is just a short distance down the road from Somerset. But, in 1938, that distance probably seemed a lot longer.

People in Somerset had automobiles. Mom’s folks in Eubank still drove a horse and buggy to church and to visit friends and relatives. In 1938, much of Somerset had electricity; much of Eubank did not.  Somerset had running water; Eubank – or at least the house that Mom was born in – did not.

That meant, of course, that Mom had to use an outhouse when she went to the bathroom. And, while some houses had a pump in the yard to bring up well water, I remember Mom telling me that the house she lived in relied on spring water, so she would go every day down to the spring, fill up two buckets with water, and haul them back to the house.

Mom – and all of her family – helped out on the farm. Mom’s dad was a tenant farmer who raised tobacco. And one of Mom’s jobs, as a young girl, was to pull tobacco worms off the plants and put them in a jar. And for every jar of worms she filled up, her daddy would give her a whole penny.

Mom was one of five kids, and as I remember her telling it, much of the time, all of the kids slept in the same room. Which leads me to one of Mom’s favorite stories.

Mom and her brother, Clayton, and her sister, Fredessa, were sleeping one night, and Clayton – who was known as a sleep talker and a sleepwalker – got up and began walking around the room.

You should also know that Clayton had recently been on a camping trip with some older boys and men who had told him about all the bears that were known to roam in the woods around the house.  So he was apparently dreaming about those bears when he got up and started walking around. Well, Fredessa knew he was walking in his sleep, so she got up to go get him while Mom stayed in bed – as a spectator. 

Now, as it happens, there was a big, furry winter coat that hung on the back of the door of the room they slept in. And Clayton brushed against that furry coat – just as Fredessa reached out and touched him on the arm. Of course, he KNEW he was being attacked by a bear, so he yelled out and took off running around the room. And his yelling scared Fredessa, so she yelled and took off running around the room. So, here they are, chasing each other around – and Mom is sitting on the bed, laughing too hard to move. Their daddy eventually came in and calmed everybody down.

So the Ray house was a happy house. And it was to this happy house, in 1954 or so, that a young man named Herrin came calling.  A fellow named … Otis Herrin, Jr. … who invited Mom and her cousin to go riding around with him. And, luckily for Mom, Junior invited his little brother, Jimmy, to come along for the ride.

Jimmy and Geneva were married in 1956, just a few weeks before Mom’s 18th birthday.   It seems they couldn’t wait because Dad had joined the military and was about to ship out to France. Mom stayed in Kentucky for the first several months, but eventually got on a bus in Somerset and rode it up to New York City, where she promptly got lost looking for the base that military wives were supposed to report to. She told me that when she finally found the place and saw an MP, she dropped her bags and just started crying.

But the MP got her squared away and eventually she was on her way to Europe. And, in 1957, you got to Europe by spending about a week on a ship. At eighteen years old, Mom did something that I’ve never done. She crossed the ocean. She told me she spent most the trip below decks feeling seasick, but that everything got better when she saw her new husband waiting to pick her up.

Mom and Dad spent most of their marriage going from one duty station to the next. And whenever Dad couldn’t take his family with him, Mom always moved back to be close to her family. That’s why my sister Rita was born in France, while Patty was born in Stanford, Kentucky. I was born in Pennsylvania, and Debbie was born … in Stanford, Kentucky.

And now a word about, well, me.  As Mom tells it, when she got pregnant with me, Dad had decided that if they had a son, that son would be named Danny Dale. Mom said no, we’re going to name him after you. And Dad said, no, we’re going to name him Danny Dale. And then the day arrived, the nurse brought me out and asked, “What are you going to name him?” To which Dad said, homina, homina, homina. And Mom said, “His name is James Allen Herrin Jr.”

She knew how to get her way.  But Dad was a bit of a prankster. As a little girl, Mom had been chased by boys carrying snakes – so she HATED snakes. Couldn’t look at pictures of them. Didn’t want to talk about them. Didn’t want to see them. So, naturally, when Dad saw an old piece of black rubber laying out in the driveway one day, he knew what to do.  Mom was in the kitchen, tossing a salad, when Dad tossed that piece of rubber into the salad bowl. Mom threw the bowl and the salad and the “snake” straight up in the air and went screaming out of the kitchen.  I’m not sure how long it took before she spoke to him again.

Then, of course, when Dad was in Vietnam, he bought two stuffed cobras, which were coiled as if they were ready to strike – and he shipped them back home.  He had learned his lesson, though. He told Mom they were coming.  So she knew what to expect when she opened the box. But the cobras were packed end to end, so that the head of one of them was touching the tail of the other.  And, as Mom worked up the courage and reached to take one of them out of the box, somebody touched the other one. And that made the one Mom was reaching for MOVE – just like it was alive. Well, that did it. She jumped back, wouldn’t touch them, wouldn’t unpack them, wouldn’t discuss it.(I should note here that my sister Debbie remembers that it wasn’t Mom reaching for the snakes; it was my sister Rita. Debbie’s memory is probably more accurate.)  Even after somebody else got them out of the package and set them up in the house, Mom wouldn’t touch ‘em. For years and years, when she cleaned, she scooted them out of the way with the vacuum and then scooted them back. She did not like snakes.

What she did like was learning. Mom had quit school in the 8th grade, but she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.  When we were stationed in Panama, in the early 1960s, there was only one English language television station, and Mom didn’t usually like what they put on it. So she read books. To herself and to us. In fact, she checked out and read every single Perry Mason book that the library had. People sometimes ask me what grade I was in when I learned to read and I have to tell them that I didn’t learn to read in school. My memory is that I always knew how to read – because Mom read to me.

When we got to be teenagers, Mom got a job because she wanted to buy a second car. We’d always only had the one car.  And, in part because she only had an 8th grade education, the job she got was waiting tables – first at Weaver’s Cafeteria in Oliver Springs. Later at Omelet House. Waffle House. Ranch House. Lots of other places. And I have to tell you, I worked in the food service industry for about three months while I was in college. But Mom, who was in her late 40s at the time, ran circles around my 21-year-old carcass.  I was the one who spilled an entire pitcher of water on the diner who just wanted a refill.  Mom was the one who had your order waiting on you before your butt hit the seat.

For the past several years, Mom was disabled. Seems like she had a lot of things hit her one right after the other. But – even with all of her health issues – you hardly ever heard her complain.  She could be stubborn and ornery – just like her kids. But she also didn’t want to be a bother.  And so she probably suffered a bit more than she needed to.  But what made her happy – and I could tell – was hearing about her family.

When I would tell her about how incredible I thought my kids were, she would nod and smile and say, “Just like their Daddy.” And that’s probably true, Lord help them.

She got to see all of her kids, grandkids and great grandkids before she passed. And I think in the end that made her happy.