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Johnny Jones, 28 January 2002

When I was growing up I couldn't understand my mother. She was so easily frightened! When she took us swimming she anxiously warned us from the shore, "Don't get out over your waist, now!" or, "Come on back this way." She worried about losing money: "You hang onto this lunch money, you hear!" I remember taking quarters to school tied up in a handkerchief.

My mother grew up during the Great Depression. As I got older, I paid more attention to her stories - about the woman who cursed her mother's hens when Memmy (my grandmother) wouldn't give the woman the milk she asked for. Memmy needed it for her own baby. Mama talked about living so poor that they didn't have an outhouse, but also about the fun of people coming over to sing and play the guitar after church.

I wrote a children's play based on some of Mama's memories:  I put in it the little girl at Mama's school who had "chornbread and choffee" (cornbread and coffee) for breakfast. Mama felt wealthy; she got fried egg sandwiches for lunch, inside her lunch pail. I included the envy some of the girls felt for a girl whose family was well-off: She had nice dresses and lorded it over the others.

But some of Mama's stories didn't make it into the play. Mama still feels badly about the scar on Aunt Ola's forehead. Mama was six, and taking care of two younger brothers and a younger sister because both her parents could get work in the fields that day. She was bouncing all of them on the bed when Aunt Ola fell off and hit her head on the treadle sewing machine. We would call that child neglect today; then it was necessity, desperate measures taken in desperate times.

My mother only knew one grandparent, her maternal grandmother. Her father's folks were killed from botulism from some home-canned food while moving in a covered wagon. Her mother's father was struck by lightning and killed while plowing his mule in a field.

When there were a few cents left after selling eggs in town and buying the flour, sugar, and salt, Mama and Aunt Ola could get something from the store with the few pennies left. Aunt Ola always got hard candy, and made the good, sweet taste last in her mouth as long as she could. Mama bought gum, and chewed it all day. Then she'd stick it on top of the ice box and chew it again the next day.

Mama always carried gum in her purse, which she delighted in giving to children. She was afraid of lightning, and overprotective of children. She was suspicious of canned foods. She treasured her family, and worried about them. She wanted everyone to have plenty of good food to eat.

Looking at her background I can understand why. As we get older we start to understand one another more, and to connect things together about behavior that never made sense to our younger minds.

Someone else said it better: something about not judging until we've walked a mile in another's shoes. "To understand all is to forgive all" is what I've heard. From my experience that's pretty close to true.

I told my children that graciousness involves extending the forgiveness before gaining the understanding. I try to remember it myself. I'm convinced we, in our families, need this grace from one another.

A story I heard was about a prisoner before the judge. He was shaking with fear. "Don't be frightened, Son," the judge said. "You'll get justice here."

"But judge," the prisoner replied, "I don't want justice. I want mercy."

So maybe someday Bryan and Amy will understand why I do things that seem silly to them. I hope so. Because all of us need more than justice: We need grace and mercy.