They Call Me Miss Tibby

If you make me cry, I’ll unplug the crock pot.” This was a statement I made to my sister, Vicki, on Sunday. In that moment, I thought to myself, would this be a good way to start a memoir? Our conversation continued, while trying a new idea I had, trying to slow cook a dozen chicken legs in a small crockpot. As I lifted the lid to take a whiff, we continued our conversation, which had to do with how similar we are in some ways to our mother, particularly in the way she interfaced with people. Looking back at Vicki, I noticed tears, which led to the first sentence of this writing. I’ll leave it for Vicki to recall her memories, as I begin to unfold some of my recollections of a woman I knew as Mama.

My mother, Willa, was by my recollection, a walking talking empath. Mama was touched by many people and their situations, usually those less fortunate than she. She seemed to read people and be at once in touch with whatever trial or tribulation these folks were living in, and would comfort them in any way she could. Always with kind words and a touch of her hand, a hug, a blanket or a buck (given with a wink that said don’t tell your father), whatever she had to give; and she gave, as I remember, selflessly.

As a child, I had no way of knowing or even feeling a need to understand her actions, especially toward those, whom others would step around, or turn away from, as if they had some contagious infection. I believe that some of Mama’s ways rubbed off on me, and other siblings as well. I count these blessings, now as an adult, as some of the best stuff any mother could have ever given. Still, I’ve observed in my life that most people do whatever they do, as the result of how they were raised, and to some degree, the sum of the experiences they’ve had. In Mama’s life, there must have been a lot crammed into her first years, for her to become, in my eyes, such an inspirational loving person. I think of some of the stories she told me as a child, maybe in them, there is a beginning.

Mama, Willa Anne Tibbetts, was raised on a farm in Vermont. Her father, whom I didn’t meet until I was 16 (a story for another time), had mama and her older sister, Shirley, work at taking care of their chickens and pigs and gardens, while he worked as a stone mason to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Her mother, my grandmother, had divorced and left and married again to a lumberjack from Maine, with whom she had a son, my mother’s half- brother, and several years younger. I never knew why my grandparents split, but have surmised that Gramma Logan (her third husband’s name) had a drinking problem. I can’t presume to know what impact this had on my mother or her siblings; I wonder today, wouldn’t this have made a good reason for Mama to leave school before finishing the 9th grade and make her way to seek if not a better, at least another life?

Occasionally, Mama would tell of her teen years as she made her way from the tiny farming town of Waterbury Center, Vermont, toward the big naval seaport city of Portland, Maine. One of the stops along the way, was to work in a place in Danvers, Massachusetts. The Danvers State Hospital (originally The Danvers Lunatic Asylum) was a mental hospital or asylum, which dated back to the early 1930’s and was a place where children were sent, for mental help. However, many of the children were there, because it was during the depression, and many people could not afford to feed or take care of their children, and gave them up to the state. Mama was 14 or 15 and her job was to carry pails of water, to hang and take down laundry, and to work 10–12 hours a day for next to nothing. Mama’s eyes would well up, as she related story after story of the harrowing experiences she observed, and her little acts of bringing a cookie or cracker or candy bar to the children in her area, which earned her the nickname “Miss Tibby”, from her last name, Tibbetts. This was no Disneyland, for her nor the inhabitants of this awful place, which often lobotomized, or administered shock therapy to their young patients/inmates.

I mention these few things to illustrate, that this woman, my Mama, lived and observed things, that I judge to have, in part, contributed to her actions as I was growing up a decade or so later.

Rarely up before noon, Mama would rise, come down stairs with night gown still on, turn the burner on for hot water to make instant coffee from the ever-present big jar of Maxwell House on the kitchen table. Next, after lighting up a Chesterfield King, she’d rip the cover from a book of matches to use as a pick for her ukulele and then she’d play and sing for what seemed like hours. If she wasn’t singing she was writing letters, to, it seemed to me, everyone she had ever met. Mama’s writing style was the largest cursive I have ever seen, and her envelopes were always fat, “put the flag up”, she would say to whomever was available to run to our mail box.

The times in between these memories, mama had us always praying for someone less fortunate, or carrying out some chore for the elderly or sick people in the neighborhood; or weeding her garden, or taking clothes off the line. In summer, my brother, Christopher, and I would become vegetable distributors from mama’s garden to folks who were judged needy by Mama. Mostly I recall the hours she physically spent with people who just needed to have someone who cared to just be there. “Be good to and love your brothers and sisters”, she would often say, and “help folks when they need it, and expect nothing in return”.

From my earliest memories, I have connected with lots of people on many levels, it pleases me to know her words and actions were not wasted on me or my siblings. That they are as true today as they were when she was young. I tear up whenever I hear a song that Mama loved, or I see or hear something that recalls her kindness and unconditional love. One of my connections is my sister, Vicki. We often find ourselves being tearful at some recollection or some good thing that has just happened, and thank God for all we have. So, I hope you see, why it isn’t that unusual for me to say “if you make me cry, I’ll unplug the crock pot.” It’s me, trying to be funny, and move beyond the tears; to bringing my memoirs to this page. After all, I am a writer.

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David Sheehan

David Sheehan

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Writing of memories from my youth, jobs, loves and family and acquaintances