All I ever really needed to know, I learned long before kindergarten, from the adults who loved me.
Mother Goose was my first exposure to literature. I grew up with my dad reading it to me, and now I read it to my child. I’ve found that having a child is not like reliving my childhood, but enjoying, in a different way, the things I once did.
My dad, when I was a little girl.
For more than twenty years, I didn’t swing on a swing (just in porch swings, like my grandparents) or jumped on a trampoline. While my daughter colors with crayons or plays with Play-Doh—smells that bring back memories of burnt sienna and purple meatballs—I am not brought back, but rather, the past is brought to me.
That rhyme about the old woman in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do? I remember the mother kissing them all sweetly and sending them to bed, not “whipping them all soundly,” as I have since discovered was the original rhyme. The children were also going to bed hungry, with nothing but broth and no bread to soak it up.
I grew up on Disney and its sanitization of fairy tales.
In that way, I had a magical childhood, and that is what I strive to give to my daughter. There is time enough for her to learn the not-so-good things that exist in our fallen world.
Childhood is precious and fleeting, for when else do we get to be kids, to believe in Santa Claus and friendly animals and always-happy endings?
Whenever my dad read me “Little Boy Blue,” before he would get to the part about the boy crying (if awakened), I would beg him not to finish it. When you’re a kid, you never cry because you’re happy—that’s what laughter is for.
Now I can understand why “Little Boy Blue” would cry if someone woke him up, as I feel like crying when my alarm goes off in the morning.
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato.
Turn ‘em out, knaves all three.
When I was a “sack of potatoes,” as my dad called me, my uncle Bill would run me through the rhyme above, just to hear me say, after the first line, “Three foul balls in a tub.”
I’m sure he taught me that.
My uncle, as I knew him when I was a child.
This was the same guy, after all, who said there was a certain hair in your nose that was connected to your brain, which would kill you if you pulled it.
I think we do things for our parents because we want to please them, but in the case of my uncle, I think I liked the laughs.
Perhaps, even then, a funny seed was planted, and a funny bone was developed.
I just wouldn’t know it was there until many years later.
Hearts, like doors, will open with ease
To very, very little keys.
And don’t forget that two of these
Are “I thank you” and “if you please.”
Every summer, from ages nine to thirteen, I spent my summer vacations in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with my grandma and grandpa.
My Grandma Booker, a mother of two boys, always told me roughhousing was for outside and to chew with your mouth closed. She showed me the only palatable way to eat peanut butter, which was drizzled (or, in my case, drenched) with Karo syrup. She taught me that a word was only a curse if God was in front of it, which I didn’t really understand, because my parents never used the Lord’s name in vain.
My grandma, as I knew her when I was a child, with their dog, Jacques.
Even though she also said drinking coffee would turn your feet black, and if you swallowed a watermelon seed, melons would grow out of your ears, she still possessed plenty of wisdom. Even though I wouldn’t understand everything I heard until adulthood, I did understand when she said the three most important phrases were “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”
It is from your elders that you learn your manners, which are the earliest form of soft skills.
When I was a nanny in Sidney, Montana, I was chastised for calling my boss “sir,” and he said something like, “I know in the South, you do all that sir and ma’am business, but we don’t do that around here.” That was the first time I had ever been criticized for my manners.
Since I was not comfortable calling him by his first name (even Alice called Mike and Carol Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and she was practically part of the family), I just didn’t call him anything.
Now, when someone calls me ma’am, like the math tutor who is technically young enough to be my son, it makes me feel old, but I don’t ask him not to call me that, because it is a sign of respect—just like holding the door open for people, regardless of gender, is having manners.
The two signs my daughter knows more than any other is “Thank you” and “Please.” (“You’re welcome” in American Sign Language is the same as “thank you.”) I still remind her to mind her manners.
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?
In high school, I was the Bashful Dwarf, but one of my fondest memories was during my sophomore year. I had a such huge crush on an Environmental Science teacher—a man who looked like a Ken doll (except heterosexual)—that I chose a zero over getting up in front of class. Public speaking always made me break out in hives.
That said, it was all worth it not to look like a fool in front of Mr. Bauer, for whom I would’ve learned to become a botanist.
Me, May 1999, at my high school graduation celebratory dinner at Mr. Manatee’s restaurant, which is gone now.
Years later, I would learn it’s the smart people that listened more than they spoke. Maybe that was why the other kids always assumed I was the brilliant one.
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had another, and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.
When I graduated from high school nineteen years ago, I didn’t know it, but I was looking for a place to belong; I thought I’d found it in the Mormon Church.
The Mormons say that the glory of God is intelligence. I always thought it was love, but when you think about it, intelligence increases compassion. I think that was why Jesus was so compassionate; He could see into people’s souls.
He knew why they were broken.
It’s strange, but when I was a Mormon, and a college education was encouraged (whereas a career outside the home, for a woman, was not), I was more interested in finding a husband, for a woman’s worth was so tied into being a wife, and especially a mother. It wasn’t till years after I left the Church and had a husband and one-year-old daughter that I was ready for that college education and learned that a woman was no more selfish for having a career and a family than a man was.
Perfectionism is stressed to Latter-day Saints, and whereas men take it in stride, women take it to heart. The irony is that when I stopped trying to be perfect I was happier, made more progress, and even felt closer to the God they’d recreated in their image.
Hannah Bantry, in the pantry,
Gnawing at a mutton bone;
How she gnawed it,
How she clawed it,
When she found herself alone.
I was almost thirty-two when I had my first child. It took me three days to get used to the idea (I was three months along before I knew), for I’d grown up seeing women with young children looking harried and unkempt; I didn’t want to become that, but the first time I saw my Hannah Banana in the ultrasound, I was transfixed.
For me, teaching and nursing were callings, but motherhood was a sacred calling.
I couldn’t find my cell phone half the time, and every plant I had ever owned died (so much for a botany career), so I wasn’t sure about having to keep up with this little being all the time, but a mother’s instinct kicked in when I held her for the first time.
With Hannah, I got a little more than I was expecting, though I didn’t know she wasn’t perfect, for she was perfect to me.
She still is.
Me, with baby Hannah, fresh from the hospital.
My daughter is a Tuesday child, “full of grace,” and Hannah literally means grace. Hannah Beth Richards is a quirky kid, or “on the spectrum,” as some would say; I say she is every color in it.
She was so curious and into everything—opening the dishwasher and standing on the door, crawling into closets to play, and getting into the pantry, chewing through the onions and potatoes. A refrain that could often be heard was, “Hannah, out of the pantry,” though she probably thought, “Dammit, Hannah!” was her name for a while.
Though we no longer have a pantry, we have cupboards, and now our refrain is “Hannah, out of the kitchen.”
Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The rule of three perplexes me,
And practice drives me mad.
When Hannah was a year old, I decided to enroll at Pensacola State College as a Health Information Technology student. Though I was married (and still am), I knew I’d need to make more money—I had an extra responsibility now.
I’d let math scare me away from college—just because I wasn’t naturally good at it.
When I went back to school, I took all my other classes first, pushing the math till the end. It helped to have “the wind at my back,” as my dad would say, because it was that wind that pushed me forward.
In the spring of 2018, I took College Algebra and Elementary Statistics (which was anything but elementary), so I could still qualify as a work-study student. If there’s anything I hate more than math, it’s looking for a job.
So, I stressed out for sixteen weeks, spending eighty hours in the Math Lab, ending up with two B’s; I’d never been so proud of B’s in my life.
My uncle said his brother was the only one he ever knew who went to college to “get an education.” Apart from a little substitute teaching on the side and doing taxes during tax season, Dad never used his degree for money.
Had I gone to college for the same reason as my dad, I might not have sallied forth.
For Dad, education was its own reward.
For me, it was as much about the education as it was about the experience, and the most important lesson I learned was that I was smart enough for college after all.
A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar!
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.
Me, December 2018, at my college graduation.
An abridged version of this piece was published in The Kilgore Review (2019), having placed first in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.