Averyell A. Kessler
Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd includes a lovely song, Not While I’m Around. It’s lyrics say, “ No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around. Others may desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there.”
Ah! That’s it, my mother’s theme song, throughout my childhood and beyond. Although she was a polite lady, always kind and courteous, she was also a prowling tiger, ready to pounce if her only child, me, needed protection. Who else would have purchased rubber boots – two pairs – and brought them into our house to secure my welfare?
It began on a summer day when I was three months old. An unexpected and calamitous thunderstorm swept over Jackson, blessing us with vicious lightening and ear- splitting thunder. According to family legend, my mother, fearful of a lightning strike, snatched me out of my crib and cradled me in her arms until the storm passed. Having heard the old wives tale about rubber tires protecting cars from lightning, she knew just what to do. The next day she rode the downtown bus to Capital Street, walked to a hardware store on South State Street, and purchased two pairs of men’s rubber work boots, one for each leg of my crib. As a result, I became the only child in town with a four-footed crib. Make that a four-booted crib. Luckily, it didn’t trot away during the night. She removed them when I began to lean over my crib rail and drop a leaky bottle or dirty diaper into the boot nearest the door.
As I grew, she continued watching carefully, especially when I could walk, talk, and run screaming toward the mechanical horses in front of the A & P. I was also a big fan of gumball machines. She kept an abundant supply of coins in her purse for the tall yellow weigh-for- a-penny scale. I’m surprised that her fingerprints aren’t still visible on my wrists.
My grandfather, WG, inspired the next project – burglar bars. His pal, Robert Stockett convinced him that up-to-no-good tramps camping along the railroad track behind our Belhaven neighborhood were roaming around during the night. As a result, he hammered thick, wrought iron bars into the edges of my bedroom windows. I was imprisoned in ugliness. Help! Let me out. After six months of confinement, I asked, “What if there’s a fire?” He removed them immediately.
During the school bus era, Mama earned a reputation as a safety inspector/tire tester. Her theory was simple, a swift kick into a bus tire would prove its stability and assure safety. I only rode a school bus once a year, to a children’s symphony concert in the hulking, barn-like city auditorium on the corner of Pearl Street and North Congress. Mama kicked anyway, just before she discussed the status of the motor with the driver. She also kicked tires for lumbering hayride vehicles, carpool station wagons, and occasionally her own car. Without a doubt, she must have scuffed a lot of shoes. Nevertheless, I was safe. She did not need to kick the tires on WG’s car because he did it himself.
My twelfth birthday brought new concerns, as the facts of life barged in. (This euphemism always makes me giggle, especially when coupled a wink and a knowing look. Rain is also a fact of life! So is curiosity.) After a lot of behind the garage whispering and secretive comments from boys who were not yet shaving, Mama decided to plunge in. She gave me a book titled The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born. “If you have any questions, ask me,” she said, then disappeared into her bedroom and hid until suppertime. The book was filled with cozy sketches and a plethora of vague explanations skipping around the basics as though it was a steaming lava. Still, I was convinced that I’d been let in on a hot-button secret and looked forward to sharing the titillating news with my friends. I was already aware of the existence of someone named Lady Chatterley but didn’t understand why she caused such a stir. I leaped over that hurdle when I talked Mama into purchasing a paperback copy from a tiny newsstand/tobacco shop tucked into a crevice on Royal Street. I was older, of course.
Growing up is another fact of life. Mama stopped hovering when I was able to fend for myself – or seemed to. She stepped out only once more when I was in high school and a hard-headed assistant principal abandoned a group of girls in a dangerous location before an out-of-town football game. I was among them. On the following Monday, I was lucky enough to watch my Mama lioness greet the principal of Murrah High School with verbal buckets of boiling hell fire and receive apologies from everyone connected with the event. Do right by my child or else, an important thought in today’s volatile world.
I’m glad Mama was my champion. She was not a helicopter parent, smother mother, or some poor soul insisting on participation trophies. If I lost, I lost, and it was a good life lesson. If I won, she was the first to smile with pride. She was always ready to nurture, love and protect – even if it meant forcing me to take a tiny bite of beets, mopping up blood or vomit, staying awake all night to monitor my fever or dipping her manicured fingers into a jar of Vick’s VapoRub. That’s what Mama’s do. Just whistle. She’ll be there.
Demons will charm you with a smile
For a while
But in time
Nothing can harm you
Not while I’m around
*Song by Stephen Sondheim. Josh Groban sings a beautiful version of this song.