I Called Her Ma

"He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all." - Cormac McCarthy

I Called Her Ma

(Author’s note: Stories as personal as the one below are difficult to write. But I could think of no better way to honor my mother on this day than to relate a narrative of her strength, which often required great courage of someone who was just a teenager when the wider world intruded on her island home. Every great moment of my life was made possible by her hard work).

There she was, standing on the platform, seventeen years and holding her baby girl. Her mother was close by, but not very talkative. Her youngest child, now married to an American soldier, was leaving the cold of Newfoundland to live in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River in a sharecropper’s shack. She just didn’t know it yet.

“You’re going to have a very hard life, my child,” her mother said. “Nothing will be easy.”

When the train pulled away for the long, slow run across the island to Port aux Basques and the ferry to the mainland, the girl who was to become my mother began changing her baby’s clothes as practice for her nascent parenthood.

“I just kept trying her new outfits on her,” Ma said. “Elaine was like a little doll to me. That’s how much I knew about being a mother, I guess.”

Joyce Hiscock, of course, had not planned to leave home. But war came to her mother’s house on the harbor at the foot of St. John’s Southside Hills. As had happened in the first World War, the town at the easternmost point of North America had become the staging point for men and materiel bound for European combat. One of those soldiers was an MP who had been assigned to patrol the docks.

“When your dad stepped in from the snow to buy a candy bar in mom’s little store,” Ma told me years later, “I fell in love. He was tall and handsome and looked like Clark Gable or Errol Flynn.

Ma’s knowledge of the US was no more extensive that what she had seen in a movie theater with her sister Gertie as they watched “Gone with the Wind.” My father, with his pencil-thin mustache and booming voice, left her dreaming of a vast farm with beautiful verandas and wealth. Instead, when she arrived in Memphis, her new father-in-law drove south along the big river until he turned into an obscure dirt track leading out into a sea of green cotton plants.

The place my mother described had only a hand pump for water not too far from the back steps, an outdoor privy, and one light bulb hanging from the ceiling of a single room. There was no insulation, and the wallboards were not flush so when winter came, they tacked up newspaper to cover the gaps. Ma said she lay on the floor on a pad of old blankets with her new baby and watched the stars pass between the ceiling planks.

“We was sharecroppers, buddy boy,” Daddy told me. “Growing and choppin’ and pickin’ cotton was about all I knew how to do when I come home from the war. I thought we might be able to save up and get us our own piece a land, but I couldn’t make any money from my share.”

They tried for four years until a childhood friend of Daddy’s named Tater Kotch showed up in a shiny Buick that he had purchased on time while working an assembly line up in Flint, Michigan. At the end of that growing season, they took what little money they had and bought bus tickets north with no place to stay on arrival and no acquaintances other than young Mr. Kotch. There were two daughters by then and Ma wandered around the bus station pulling Elaine along by the hand and holding Bev on her hip. Daddy was talking to strangers looking for work. Ma was befriended by an elderly lady who offered them a place to stay with no rent in a partially refinished garage.

Daddy walked up the hill every day and stood in a line outside the Buick Motor Division plant waiting for a foreman to come out and offer jobs. His job, when finally hired after a few weeks of waiting, was lifting bumpers, and stacking them on pallets for delivery to the assembly line. An apartment was rented a few blocks from the factory and their third child, which was me, arrived.

The first sign that my father had mental issues was when he beat 12-year-old Elaine to the point where she could not walk because he insisted that she had said, “Damn” instead of “darn.” Ma kept her home from school for a week to soak in Epsom salts and relieve her swelling. If she had not thrown herself between her husband and daughter, the outcome might have been considerably more horrific.

“I didn’t know what to do, son.” Ma was pulling at the hangnails she had acquired from endless hours working in a burger joint. She was explaining what had happened after my sister Elaine had recounted the incident while I was visiting from Texas. “I had no idea to expect that kind of thing from your dad. I didn’t know anything was wrong, and I didn’t want to believe there was.”

My mother also did not know her young husband had been institutionalized as a sixteen-year-old after a nervous breakdown in the cotton fields. His parents turned him over to an asylum, which, according to my father, was an old jail and he slept on a floor covered with hay behind bars for six months and had no communication with his family. I don’t think my grandparents had ever learned to love their son and he was fading from that omission.

My parents recovered from that first incident, Ma said, and acted like it had never happened. A sister loaned daddy $500 to make a down payment with a VA loan to buy a $10,000 house with just over 800 square feet of living space. The developer was appealing to the Dixie Diaspora, up from the south in hordes looking for factory jobs building cars and trucks and far away from the farm. A sapling was poked into the ground out front, a flower box hung beneath a window, and an oil drum sat a concrete slab out back for getting through the winter.

A Mississippi Man

They were hopeful and optimistic for a few years, but Daddy was a wildly jealous man and was convinced my mother was interested in men who came into the restaurant where she was earning 85 cents an hour plus tips to deliver open-faced sandwiches and burgers and fries to tables surrounded by truckers, teachers, and assembly line workers. Daddy’s suspicions were stronger than her denials and he began to beat my mother. I put my eight-year-old self between them during a fight where he broke a broom handle in half and stabbed ma deep into the flesh of her arm. My father swatted me away like a summer bug and I woke up in an ambulance with Ma.

The fights never stopped. There were six children by then and the four youngest of us moved through the house with great trepidation, fearful of enraging our father. In one outburst over something I cannot recall, he pulled the kitchen drawers and walked into the living room and tossed them through the big window. I recall my brother, kneeling on the sidewalk later, gathering up the silverware and placing each piece back in its correct tray, a seven-year-old grasping for a method to return order to his tiny world. He was still there when the police car arrived, and Daddy was arrested.

Ma refused to file charges, nor did she ever fail to protect and provide for her children. She was at the restaurant the next day. Daddy would miss a day or two of pay if in jail. Ma, as she frequently did, brought home leftovers from the Roadside Inn. We were happy when she delivered a white cardboard box with fried fish and potatoes that had sat beneath a heat lamp unsold. Everyone knew what was going to happen again, though, and I remember a few months later when my father, a giant of a man, lay on the floor kicking and screaming.

“I want my mama! I want my mama.”

This time, the police took him away in a canvas wrap that tied his arms around behind him, Ma said, so he wouldn’t hurt himself. Daddy was committed in the state mental hospital and underwent two dozen electro-shock therapy treatments. During the months he was institutionalized, Ma took us down to see him, but we were not allowed to enter the building and he could not come out. We had a picnic beneath maple trees growing close enough to Daddy’s window to hear him hollering how much he loved us.

Police had been dispatched to our house too many times to remember, but Ma always dropped charges. She finally filed against him when my second sister Beverly said she would not come home again unless our mother finally agreed to take control of her life. I used to wonder why my Ma endured the fear and suffering Daddy’s illness brought into our lives, but she was just a girl when she left home. He was nine years older, and she probably thought she was going to grow up under his love and care.

There had been no man in my mother’s childhood, but there had been great familial love. My grandfather, George C. Hiscock, had been a soldier in Newfoundland’s legendary regiment called The First 500. He fought at Gallipoli, the Ypres Salient, and then the Battle of the Somme, where only 69 soldiers of his 802-troop unit survived going over the top on July 1, 1916. The King of England later awarded the Newfoundlanders the designation of “Royal,” but it did little to obfuscate the bad leadership and planning that had led to the slaughter. I have worn my grandfather’s service medal from the king around my neck for more than a half century.

George C. went home and sought work as a merchant marine and cook and then he went to the ice floes for the sealing harvest. His young family grew to four children quickly and he found work in St. John’s in a pelt factory with Ayre and Sons, a family that had lost all four of its boys at the Somme. Grandfather, who had survived two of the deadliest battles in human history, cut himself while sharpening a knife and died of gangrene at age 36. Penicillin had been discovered and was being globally distributed but had not made it to the Newfoundland outports.

“I barely knew my daddy, son,” Ma said. “I have memories of him handing me candy through the fence when he went to work and the long trail of people going up to the graveyard for his burial.”

George C. Hiscock, Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Maybe that absence from her childhood is what led to Ma tolerating my father for too long. She never called home to ask for help or guidance but there was nothing her siblings or mother might have offered from such a distance. She was, in many ways, a child with children trying to understand a violent life that was supposed to be loving, but she made many mistakes, too. When Ma finally divorced Daddy, she fell in love with a manager from one of the car plants, who was married and already had five children. I think their furtive time together was the only true happiness my mother ever knew.

I was only ten years old when Ma began to finally assert herself and start taking a distance from her husband with the new relationship. Because she was always at work in the restaurant when we got home from school, I was frightened when I saw her waiting for me on the sidewalk near the house. I recall the moment with a clarity as if it had happened just this morning.

“Ma? Ma? Are you okay?”

She smiled. “Yes, son, I’m fine.”

“Why are you out here? Don’t you have to work today?”

“I just came home for a bit. I wanted to be here when you got home.”

“How come, Ma? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, son, I told you it’s fine. Please stop worrying.”

“Okay. But why were you waiting for me? You never did that before.”

“I’ve got a special reason.” She held out a bag and I saw the name of a department store on the side. “What’s this, Ma?”

“It’s a surprise. A gift for you.”

“What? It’s not my birthday or anything.”

“I know, son. Just look in the bag. You can have it.”

I was as puzzled as any boy my age might be, but I opened the plastic bag and found a new baseball glove. The smell of fresh leather was exciting because I had friends who had let me hold gloves that they had got for their birthdays or Christmas.

“This is a Mickey Mantle one?”

“That’s what it says. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Yes, but Daddy said they were too expensive and that there was nothing wrong with my glove Dennis gave me.”

“Doesn’t matter what your dad said. That’s yours if you want it.”

“But you didn’t spend your money on it, did you, Ma?”

“No, I didn’t, son. A friend of mine paid for it.”

“A friend? One of your friends bought me this glove?” I put it back into the bag, but I did not return it to her. I was afraid to keep it and equally scared to let it go.

“He’s just a good friend, son. He wants you to be happy, and I told him about the baseball glove you wanted, and how much you love baseball, and he went and bought it and gave it to me to give to you.”

“What about Daddy? Will he get mad?”

“Don’t worry about him, son.” Ma did not sound very reassuring. “Do you want your new baseball glove?”

I put my hand under the bag and felt the precious weight of the leather and opened the top again and looked at the intricate stitching and saw where Mickey Mantle’s autograph had been inked into the heel of the mitt. I wondered how I might explain the glove to my baseball friends who I had told there was no way my father was ever going to be able to buy me a good glove.

“I do want it, Ma. But I don’t know.”

“You just go ahead, son. That’s yours. I’ll tell my friend how happy it made you.”

“Okay, Ma.”

I took the glove out of the bag, put it on my hand, held it in front of my face and ran down the street to find a friend to play catch. I did not look back at my mother. If we were guilty of some betrayal of Daddy, I did not care; not right then.

I am convinced, staring back through the years, there were two developments that compelled my mother to find the strength to pull away from her husband. Our little house had burned to the ground a year earlier when the oil drum had leaked and the furnace blew up and Ma and the four youngest of the six kids had to live in an upstairs attic area in a distant relative’s house. Daddy was unable to stay with us because there was not enough room, and I think that helped her envision life without his presence.

Abortion was the other experience that probably determined her decision to end her marriage. When Ma became pregnant after her botched tubal ligation, she told Daddy, whose response was, “We ain’t havin’ no more damned kids.” He got a loan for $100 from a personal finance company and gave the money to his wife just before he left on a trip to Arkansas to see his mother.

“You take this money and you take care a that problem,” he said. “And I don’t wanna know nothin’ about it. When I get back from visitin’ momma, it better be over and done with.”

Abortion was illegal in Michigan, but Ma found a practitioner. He worked out of a motel up in Saginaw. She told Bev, when she left Friday night to have the procedure, she would be back Saturday afternoon. No one else knew that our mother had been threatened and told by her husband to have their baby aborted. Ma did not return on Saturday or Sunday.

“I didn’t know what to think or do,” Bev said. “I didn’t know where she was or who I could call, even if I did, and then what if she walked in the door and I had called the police and they found her at an illegal abortion doctor?”

Ma nearly bled to death. She was left in a rundown motel room alone and not getting medical care. We never knew how she recovered because no questions could be asked since only Bev was aware of the risky trip. My sister described Ma as pale and fragile looking when she returned but she had exorcised her fear of Daddy’s temper and any threat of violence she might face for bearing another child. A few weeks after Ma had the procedure, whatever it might have been, the local newspaper ran a story about an abortion doctor in Saginaw who had been arrested for running a clinic out of a rundown motel. Pictures were of dark filthy rooms with trash and rumpled blankets and tossed bloody towels.

Ma, of course, went back to work.

Eventually, her married friend gave her the down payment to buy a little coffee shop and restaurant near the car factories. Business was brisk but the hours were long and physically challenging. A trucker told her of a doctor who sold three-dollar packets of “greenies,” and Ma became reliant, maybe even addicted, to Benzedrine. She did not quit until she woke up in the back seat of her car in a ditch in front of the house, and shortly after that incident she was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer. My mother had a colostomy operation to save her life, but it made it impossible for her to keep her business.

Proprietor, Joyce’s Coffee Shop

Ma fell into despair and hypochondria. Just as she was gaining her freedom, everything had come undone. What never happened, though, through all her hardships, was a failure to provide for her six children and to express her great love. Whenever bad options were presented to me by my contemporaries, I found it easy to decline. Always, in the back of my mind, was my mother’s love, how much she wanted for me in my life, and how disappointed I’d make her with a bad judgment about my behavior. She was hardly perfect, but my mother did not fail her children. Her love was a great stabilizing constant during the chaos in our household, and she finally found a sustaining joy with adoring grandchildren at her feet.

Daddy retired back to Mississippi for a while but returned to Michigan to be near his children and grandchildren. He bought two plots in a cemetery less than a mile from the house they had purchased in the early fifties when they were still hopeful and in love. Ma scoffed at his presumptuousness but slowly changed her mind and rests there now beside the handsome soldier who came in from the cold. I find it comforting to think of them together, getting a second chance in some different world.

And I hope their dreams are finally coming true.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a jim@bigbendstrategies.com.