Written for families with critically ill children,
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Pegi Ballenger at:
My mother, Elsie Dot Gemmill Savage Greener, passed away peacefully in her sleep September 7th. I feel happy and sad. Happy for her…that she isn’t suffering any more. Sad that she isn’t here for me. It is a horrible contradiction and I cry. When, at 3:30 in the morning, the banging and whistling BNSF trains wake me, I stare into the darkness and think of what she taught me.
Very early, living from hand to mouth in Iron River, she taught me that the terrible rats in the chicken coop would run away from me, even though I was a child. She taught me that if we wanted to eat eggs, someone had to endure the stench and be braver than the rats and the noisy hens. She taught me that manure was good and to appreciate the fragrance of it.
She taught me that, if we wanted to eat chicken, someone had to chop off their heads, hang them by their scaly feet from the clothes line letting the clotting blood drip, dunk them headless into the big kettle of scalding water, strip them of wet stinky feathers to their bumpy yellow skin, endure the reek and gooey mess of eviscerating them, wash their fatty flesh, and then, after gathering the dozen bloody heads for burying deep in the sand, then—at last—Ma cooks a chicken slowly and well and then—at last—you eat greedily.
She taught me that, even though I was five, I could help. Gather eggs. Pluck feathers. Carry sticks. Stay out of the way. Cry only a little for the death of the birds.
She taught me how to make soap. How to build a fire under the big cast iron kettle hanging from the birch-legged tripod in the far corner of the yard, throw in fat of chickens and cows and lye and that coarse yellow soap from soup cans cleaned, “just as well if not better,” than smooth, white, paper-wrapped soap from the store. She taught me that carrying a single little stick to add to the fire or holding the smooth grained, wide-handled ash stirring paddle was a valuable contribution to the business of survival.
She taught me that mold can be cut off cheese and bread instead of throwing it away; that once the bread is so bad, it should be given to the birds and not tossed in the garbage. She taught me that a teabag is more than one cup, that patching a pair of torn pants is not only wise financially, but therapeutic; and that tight stitches can be manly.
She taught me that when your loved one was sick with the disease of “The Drink,” even though it was terrifying, you stuck with them just as if they were sick with tuberculosis or cancer. She taught me that, when your loved one is so sick that they are as good as dead, it is right and good to love yourself more than anyone else in the world.
She taught me that, “When the booze goes in, the truth comes out.”
She taught me that, “You have to let the tail go with the hide.”
She taught me that, “A cup of good tea makes your blues go away.”
She taught me that, “Expression is the opposite of depression.”
She taught me to, “Take ‘er as she comes.”
She taught me that if you take the Fun out of life, what’s left is a lie.”
She taught me that words can kill a spirit. That words can create joy, defend, establish, tear down, build. She taught me that writing can heal or harm, make happy or sad, find the truth or obscure it. She taught me that writing on a Big Chief tablet is as important as writing on a bathroom wall, but more stylish.
She taught me that if you pick up a pebble and move it, and that if you do that consistently and often, you can say to the mountain, “Be thou removed,” and it will be.
Elsie Dot Gemmill Savage Greener taught me that having five names is classy.
Ma taught me that, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
She taught me that venison can be made to taste good and that the wisest game wardens will let a stupid kid go when they know he’s violating to feed a family.
Ma taught me the value of honesty and the necessity of a lie, and to wait for the snowstorm before “borrowing” coal from Mrs. Wallace in the middle of the night, “Because the storm covers your tracks.” She taught me that, “God always provides, but tie your horse to a tree.”
Ma taught me to laugh at the world, that money was important, but not all-important. She taught me to be polite when someone was seriously cuckoo and talking nonsense. She taught me that while peeling the one millionth potato, holding it to the end of your nose and talking funny helps.
She taught me that alcohol and drugs were seriously dangerous.
She taught me that women could be had or held and that knowing the difference makes a boy into a man.
She taught me that Irish Alzheimer’s means forgetting everything but the grudges.
She taught me that your brothers and sisters aren’t really mean, they’re just upset about something you don’t understand.
She taught me to make something from nothing. She taught me that a whistle can come from a stick, that a warrior’s shield can come from a kettle lid, that a meal can come from a tomato seed…if you work at it. She taught me that a ball of yarn can become a sweater and that darning socks is an art form. She taught me that beautiful things can come from cardboard, tin cans, sticks and junk…if you work at it. She taught me that clever inventions are just a mind-flip away. She taught me that holding a man in your arms while he cries and dies of cancer is the saddest right thing to do, ever.
Ma taught me that Donna Reed and Hitler can exist simultaneously in the same woman. She taught me that a slap across the face is likely more about fear and love than hatred.
She taught me that dire straights is more than a rock band.
Ma taught me that resolve is the key to vitality, that, “talent will out”…if you work at it. Ma taught me that disaster is only a state of mind and that, “Optimism is true moral courage.” Thank you Ernest Shackleton.
She taught me that, “Joy cometh in the morning,” even if the coal dock’s clanking wakes you in the middle of the night, and that, “The day’s half done,” when the sun rises.
Ma taught me that eschewing forgiveness was death, that consistent, persistent, pernicious hope is our only salvation this side of death. She taught me that love conquers all.
Ma taught me that life is good and that we can make it better.
God bless you Ma. I promise to take ‘er as she comes.Mike