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Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY.  Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY. Leaning against the hearth is a crude broom that evokes the memory of the yard broom of the story. Photo: Sam Matteson

Some heirlooms are not as ponderous as a black wrought iron pot or as self-consciously decorative as a crocheted doily. Some treasures passed down by mothers to their children through the generations are as intangible as they are precious, nevertheless they are as pointed as Pa Moates’ awl, even if as ephemeral as the breath of my first grand child, Paul, on my cheek when I held him close on the day he was born,   Paradoxically, the most enduring legacy is one that is beyond our touch; it may seem ever out of reach—impalpable, even ghost-like, yet never beyond touching us.   The artifact of most durable beauty is often invisible to others, a holy relic of the spirit. Such are the “yard sweepers.”

Down South, stories are part of the fabric of society and of who we are. Narrative weaves between the people: over one, under another, in a Jacquard of life and history. In the damask and twill of struggle, lessons are writ in the tales that define and give meaning to our history—personal as well as corporate. The stories may be remolded by memory and the retelling, growing a patina of myth, but their truth shines through unmistakably. A treasured century-old aphorism came to me that way, told first by my Ma Bertie to a favorite daughter Audrey; bequeathed by her to a son, me, and passed on to his progeny. We all share it as if it were a familial watchword that allows us safe passage into the larger family, a shibboleth of belonging. We know it; we treasure it; we pass it on because it is ours—and because it is true. And because we belong to it.

A Tangible Memory Encountered

It comes to mind again, resuscitated in physical reality on a summer day by our visit to a living history museum. It is like a lace curtain—so often ignored—that unexpectedly billows, propelled by spirit or by wind, a genteel but bracing slap across our face. My daughter echoes her great grandmother, whom she knows only in story and in her admonition: “Sweep the backyard first.”

We are standing before a restored antebellum dog trot set high on orange fired brick pillars with a broad pine stoop leading up to the covered porch that wraps around the clapboard structure like an apron drawn up with a string on the ample waist of a matron. From the creaking rocking chairs we survey the yard under the pines and oaks. There is not one blade of grass for a hundred yards in every direction until the shoulder-high weeds begin over there, on the way out to the field that is a dark and dangerous tangle, cut only by a beaten path. This was precisely the way of the early days of the rural twentieth century of my mother’s Alabama youth, recreated faithfully here, a custom born of practicality. Fire and snakes menaced the home when grass grew too close to the door. So bare dirt yards were the norm then, long before suburban homeowners took to grass farming and became perennial lawn mowers and greens keepers.

A broomstraw yard sweeper stands in the corner ready for its daily ritual of grooming the tamped and barren earth. Grass and weed seed fall but never take root when daily swept away. “We swept the yard,” Mother frequently told me “to make it safe.” But “Mother,” my mother intoned with impressive gravity and slow incantation, “Always reminded me, ‘Sweep the backyard first’.”

On a beach on another day, I retrieve a clam and oyster shell and learn again the same, simple lesson. I hold the clamshell in my left hand and marvel at its symmetry and fluted ridges. Inside, however, is plain and unremarkable. The oyster shell in my other hand seems fit only for roadwork and fill, so apparently misshapen and drab, until I turn it over and catch the glint of mother of pearl and iridescent beauty—within.

A Treasure In Your House

Subsequently, my kindergartener grandson visits my home while I am away, and plays at pirates and treasure maps. Returning, I find his note: “FROM PAUL TO PAPA… THER. IS. A. CHRECHIR. CHEST. IN. YOUR. HAWS.” Old truth, ever iridescent, flashes again in his innocent script. When in the press of pride and self-absorption I am tempted to expend my energy in meaningless show and glory-seeking, I hear again my grandmother and her Good Book speaking: “Honey, sweep the back yard first. Where your treasure is, there your heart really lives.”

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

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Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. It was decades later and leagues away from the swamps outside Mobile—after I left home for good—that I learned of the pleasures of button, Shitake and honey mushrooms, of mushroom and Alfredo cream sauce, of sautéed mushrooms and onions, of salads with sliced, fresh mushrooms and almonds, of meaty portabellas, morels and golden chanterelles. Such exotic delights had to wait for sophistication. But when I was a child of the 50s, mushrooms were treacherous plants—as everyone knew. People died eating them.

We were convinced of the facts because we encountered ‘shrooms all the time in the woods. Circles of the white and elegant Death Angel grew in mysterious, deadly fairy rings in forest glens. Overnight, after a rain, brown-encrusted buttons pushed up from the black humus, summoned by unknown malevolent powers. Dire warnings were not lost on us about eating wild fungi and the fate that befell indiscriminant mycophagists.

We Kept Our Distance

We were well acquainted with mushrooms, but without really knowing them. We encountered them everywhere but maintained only a nodding acquaintance. Mushrooms, toadstools, bracket mold, and mildew, all were denizens of the dark and decaying places of the earth. No place was safe. Even in our bathroom in the humid corner under the toilet tank, there grew up what my mother—a proper Southern lady—called a Devil’s Finger: red, sticky and rank. But in my roguish imagination Lucifer’s fungal appendage seemed something more phallic—and alarming—than an interloping digit.

Thus there was no escaping the incursion of mushrooms into our lives. And mushrooms and toadstools were indistinguishable to children. So we maintained an uneasy truce, keeping our distance, we and the fungi. Perhaps, if we gave them a wide enough berth, they would not harm us.

At the same time my Mother Audrey, faced a daily and challenging question that grew ever more acute as she “X-ed” her calendar, inching toward Dad’s next payday: “What am I to feed my hungry children?” I am sure that she felt like the mother bird with a nest of open-mouthed chicks that are never satisfied, all pin feathers, flightless wings and mouths agape. I see her standing before a near-empty pantry, one hand on her hip, one hand drumming her cheek, her eyes scanning the labels of the few remaining cans on the shelf. “What to feed them? Oh, Lord have mercy! What to feed them? Ah! Soup! And toast.   ‘Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.’ Mmmm…I wonder? No Tomato. This is all we have. It’ll have to do.”

Anti-fugal Insurrection

In retrospect, I, Sammy Gene Matteson—as the eldest, at the cheeky age of nine—must have been the provocateur who incited the riot, the one who reminded his sister Cindy Lou, his junior by twenty months and their brother “Baby” Dale, soon to turn six, of the admonitions regarding eating wild mushrooms.

“What if they made a mistake at the soup cannery?” I began.

“Yeah! . . . What if they put in a toadstool by mistake?” Cindy added.

I continued, “It could happen. Remember when we got the piece of rag in the can of beans?”

They both nodded.

“What if Mother has finally had it with us? We have been a little naughty, lately. . . . Do to think she is trying to get rid of us?”

I thought of the headlines: “MOTHER OF THREE POISONS KIDS! MUSHROOM SOUP IMPLICATED!” We began to bawl. We began to howl.

“What’s the matter, children?”

“You’re trying to poison us! You’re feeding us toadstools!”

“Nonsense!”

Her reply did not convince us. Indeed, nothing she said made any difference. No reasoning, no cajoling, no pleas had any effect. At last, her face reddened in frustration, then she began to cry, too. “This is all I have to give you. Can’t you eat it? It won’t kill you.”

After more tears and more negotiation, we children finally agreed to drink the creamy soup, but we resolutely refused to eat the “poisonous” mushroom pieces that floated in it. I finished my soup first. I looked down to glimpse an ironic half-formed fairy ring of uneaten mushroom bits smirk back at me from my bowl.

I hear my beleaguered Mother’s voice once again, and it breaks my heart. For from this distance I understand, at last. She set more on the table than food: she ladled love-seasoned desperation into our empty bowls. She offered up everything she had, meager and unwelcome though it was to us. We did not mean to be cruel. I only hope that she forgave our anti-fungal insurrection. Surely she did. But whether she did or she did not, she never tried to feed us mushroom soup again.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) "Baby" Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) “Baby” Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

Postscript:

As those who follow this blog will notice, this vignette was read for the Listen to Your Mother casting. We were disappointed to learn that it did not fit with the directors’ vision for this year’s production. More the better for my readers, since the tale is too true and too “rich” to sit on the shelf.

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