Su Lum: Slumming
August 15, 2012
My great-grandmother Mama (emphasis on the last syllable) was born in 1865, the last year of the Civil War, and died in 1949 when I was 12.
Mama was what we called back then “a Holy Terror.” I never thought of her as “Rosa Belle.” Monie – her daughter, my maternal grandmother – called her “Mother,” and everyone else in the family called her Mama.
My strongest memory about Mama was the level of panic that preceded her visits, which, in the old Southern style – my family was from Alabama – might last for a month.
Monie, who was herself formidable, was afraid of her; my mother, who was afraid of Monie, was afraid of her; and if those two were scared of her, that was enough to put the fear in me. I hid as much as possible during her visits, unseen and unheard, just as Mama liked it.
I remember Mama as a small, thin woman dressed in black, carrying a cane that she could surely wield effectively if necessary. As a child, I considered adults an alien race, and the older they were, the more alien they were. I regret now that neither one of us had any inclination for conversation because she had stories to tell, and I wish I had heard them.
She was married at an early age to Alexander Erskine, whom she divorced after the birth of Monie and her brother Albert, under circumstances so shocking that to this day no one knows what actually happened. Alexander, who was referred to as “The Cad,” disappeared from the scene; Mama and her two kids were taken in by her ex-husband’s parents – all very unusual behavior at the end of the century.
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Mama gave piano lessons to earn her keep, married the respectable Dr. Watson and spent her widowed days visiting her numerous kinfolk. The Slosses were a large family (one of her brothers was the ancestor of local Tony Vagneur), and that’s how they avoided nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Family lore has it that Mama once got on the wrong train. The conductor, atremble, approached her with the news that this train was not, as her ticket indicated, going to Tuscumbia but was headed for Chattanooga. Mama drew herself up with dignity, clasped her hands over the head of her cane and said, “That’s all right, young man. I have relatives in Chattanooga.”
Mama excelled at deathbed scenes and had so many of them that the actual event was an anti-climax. Ah, Mama, I wish I could have picked your brain.
She knew her husband’s great-grandmother, who was captured by the Shawnee Indians in 1779 and held captive for four years. With any luck, my granddaughter Riley will live past 2079 – the collective memory of three people spanning more than 300 years. It’s mind-boggling when you think of it this way.
It’s even more mind-boggling to me that the house I was raised in was built in 1739 – 126 years before Mama was born and 40 years before my great-great-great-great-grandmother’s adventures with the Shawnee during the Revolutionary War.
If those walls could talk, I’d ask them a lot of questions.
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