My mother, Martha Alice Morrow, passed away earlier this month and I returned to Tennessee for her funeral and to be with family. From the time my mother stuck a crayon in my hand and sat me in front of a blank sheet of paper, my fate was cast. I don’t believe there’s anything I’ve ever done that brought me more satisfaction than drawing. If nothing else, I owe my mother and father just for keeping me in pencils and paper as I was growing up. I wore my pencils down to nubs and went through reams of paper.
So, instead of my usual post, following are two stories I told at her memorial service. First, a story of a mailbox:
One morning, when I was thirteen and a couple of weeks into my summer vacation, I sat on the couch in front of the TV. A game show was on, but I was only half-watching. Most of my attention was on the drawing board on my lap. I was sketching out a dog running down a street.
My mom had walked several blocks to the Bordeaux Five and Dime to buy some thread and other household items. When she returned, she stepped through the front door and said, “J.T., I’ve got something for you.”
I jumped up, excited to see what she’d bought me. It wasn’t often she’d surprise me with a gift. As I approached, she handed me a paper bag. I opened it and found four paintbrushes of various sizes and two jars of paint. One was a large jar of white; the other was a smaller jar of black.
I wrinkled my brow, wondering why she hadn’t bought me a range of colors.
Before I could ask, she turned and pointed past the screen door at the mailbox which we shared with my grandmother who lived next door.
“J.T.,” my mom said, “I want you to take the paint and brushes and give the mailbox a new coat of white paint. Then, when it’s dry, I want you to paint ‘Paul M. Morrow’ and below that ‘3408 Old Hydes Ferry Pike.’ On the next line paint ‘Dora Morrow’ and underneath your grand-momma’s name add her address, ‘3410 Old Hydes Ferry Pike.’”
My mouth dropped in disbelief.
But I knew better than to argue with my mom. So I took the bag outside and slapped a new coat of paint on the mailbox. It was a beautiful summer’s day so, by the time I finished lunch, the paint had dried.
I used a ruler and pencil to figure out the size and spacing for all the letters. I wanted them to be even and not to bunch up on the right side. Before long I had it all worked out and began painting the black letters. P—A—U—L—M.—M—O—R–R…
It felt like it was taking forever. Meanwhile, kids in the neighborhood were flying by me on their bicycles or walking back from the local store licking popsicles. I heard shouts and turned to see my friends playing baseball a couple of houses away.
But I was stuck painting this miserable mailbox.
The sun was beating down and I could feel the sweat running along my neck. Mom came out at one point with a glass of iced tea and to see how everything was going. She smiled and nodded her approval and went back inside to her sewing. And I labored on. Letter after letter. Number after number. Line after line.
Finally, after more than two hours of lettering, I decided it was finished. I went inside and told mom. She walked outside and pointed out a couple of letters she wanted tweaked. When I had finished those she stood back, squinting at the mailbox.
“You did a nice job, J.T.,” mom said. “It looks great.”
Finally, I thought. Now I could go back inside and finish my drawing. Or run down the street and see if my friends were interested in playing another game of baseball.
“Okay,” my mom said, interrupting my thoughts. “Now I want you to go next door and ask Mrs. Newman if she wants her mailbox painted.”
“Then you can go across the street and ask the Cundalls. After that just go door to door around the neighborhood and see if anyone wants their mailboxes painted.”
I could see my whole summer evaporating before my eyes. I was doomed to paint mailboxes until school started in September.
Stunned, I gathered my paints and brushes and trudged next door. Luckily, however, the Newman’s mailbox had been recently replaced and sported store-bought numbers. Across the street, the Cundall’s said they’d painted their own mailbox about a year ago and it was still in good shape.
Wow, two for two. Perhaps I wasn’t doomed to paint mailboxes all summer.
I continued to knock on door after door. Some of the people I knew, some I didn’t. But I smiled after each “no” I heard.
Then I came to the other Newman family who lived in our neighborhood—an older brother, I believe, to our next door neighbor. “Why that would be wonderful,” the second Mrs. Newman said.
So, I started on their mailbox, painting it a bright white. By the time I finished, sunset had begun and I told Mrs. Newman I’d be back the next morning to finish. That night, after dinner, I worked some more on my drawing of the dog. But my heart wasn’t in it, knowing what was ahead of me the following day.
Birds chirped and I heard kids playing in the neighborhood but the next morning found me painting letters and numbers again. At least the Newmans didn’t share their mailbox so there were only two lines to paint.
Once I finished, Mrs. Newman paid me a couple of dollars and I trudged on to knock at the next house. “No-no-no” was all I heard. Yes, I was glad to hear each “no” since it meant I didn’t have to paint another mailbox. But a person can only tolerate so much rejection before it begins to wear them down.
Soon I found a shady tree and plopped my butt under it. I watched the world go by, using a stick to draw in the dirt. After a sufficient amount of time had passed, I headed home, trying to look and sound as forlorn as I could.
“Mom, all I hear is the word ‘no.’ People only see a thirteen year old kid—they’re not going to trust me to paint their mailbox.”
Mom looked disappointed. As if her evil plan to take over the neighborhood mailbox painting market had come to an end.
“Well, okay,” she said. “You still did a good job on our mailbox. And Mrs. Newman called to say she’s very happy with her mailbox too.”
“Then I don’t have to paint anymore mailboxes?”
“No, I guess not.”
Fireworks exploded in my head. My summer was saved!
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t see what my mom was attempting until years later. I had moved to San Francisco and one evening my friends and I were telling stories of our youth. Only when I’d finished telling them this story did it hit me what mom had been up to.
Mom knew early on that I wanted to be an artist. But we lived in a small town in Tennessee. We didn’t know anyone who made a living at art. An artist was some guy who wore a beret and lived in Paris or New York.
The closest thing in our town to an artist was “Doodlebug” Jackson. Doodlebug ran a sign painting shop. If you owned a local business and was planning a sale, Doodlebug would paint your sign. When Christmas rolled around he’d paint Santa in store windows, using tempera paint which could be washed away after the holidays.
Painting signs for a living wasn’t what I had in mind as an artist. But mom had seen the connection and thought she’d buy me the paints and brushes to start me on my path. And, in truth, the couple of dollars Mrs. Newman paid me to paint her mailbox was probably the first money I ever made from using a paintbrush.
I get chocked up, even now, thinking about mom’s attempt to help me on my career as an artist.
The second story is of the shoebox:
When I was in grade school, my sister, Faye, and I would often pull an old shoebox from the closet. It wasn’t filled with shoes. Instead it was stuffed with photographs. There were shots of Faye and me standing next to a snowman we’d built the previous winter. Or shots of us standing next to the birthday cakes mom had made for us, waiting patiently for the photograph to be taken so we could blow out the candles and eat our cakes.
But mixed in with the photos of our youth were older photographs, brown with age and filled with people in slightly odd-looking clothes. I showed one particular photo to my mom and asked who was in the picture. It featured a rather dour looking man and woman standing in a yard. The man held a small child.
My mom said, “That’s my momma and daddy and the little girl he’s holding is me.”
I was dumbfounded since I was at the age when one believes their parents have always been adults. The concept that your parents had at one time been kids themselves, playing in the dirt and turning somersaults in the grass, seemed almost beyond comprehension.
“Have I ever met your momma and daddy?” I asked.
“No,” my mom said. “Momma and daddy died when I was small.”
It turned out my grandmother had caught TB while she was pregnant. The child had died soon after being born and my grandmother died shortly afterwards. My grandfather was left with three children to raise but he suffered from bleeding ulcers and died about six months later. My mother had just turned fourteen before his death.
So, at fourteen, she was an orphan with a sister, Ruby, who was twelve and a kid brother, Bill Jack, who was only five. This was near the end of the Great Depression and all her relatives were struggling to survive. No one could take on three new mouths to feed. There was talk about sending them to an orphanage. But the kids were split up. Ruby went with one aunt and mom and Bill Jack went to another.
Four years later, mom met dad in Nashville and he proposed. She turned him down. He asked again and again and she kept turning him down. When he asked why, she said she couldn’t abandon Bill Jack. My dad said she wouldn’t have to, he would take care of her kid brother. So, my father not only got a new bride, he got an instant family.
Soon, Bill Jack was calling him “daddy” and dad raised him as if he were his own son. Later Bill Jack joined the Navy and moved away. But I have vague memories of sitting next to him at supper and listening to my uncle talk about football and teaching me how to whistle.
But, back to the photograph. After mom explained it was a photo of her mother and father and that they had died when she was a child, she mentioned that she prayed every night that she’d be able to live long enough to see her own children grow up. Something her parents had never lived long enough to do.
My mom was 87 when she died. She not only lived long enough to see Faye and me grow up but she lived long enough to see us have children of our own and to watch our children grow up. She even saw my sister’s children have children of their own and saw them begin to grow up.
Our family was blessed that my mom lived long enough to touch us with her love, her tenderness and her encouragement.