You can’t really tell one person’s story because, if you know them and they know others, there’s not one story, there are many, and they’re all intertwined. They are much like the roots of a tree, branching, turning, winding themselves around one another, each one growing, expanding and pressing on those nearby.
Mom’s life was like that.
Mom and Dad,
Helen [Love] Draper Skinner
and Edward Folland Skinner
Mom was about as traditional a housewife and mother as you’d find in the 1950s in the mid-south. She always dressed and had her makeup on before breakfast. When the weather was very bad, she drove us to school and picked up again in the afternoon. But when the weather was tolerable, we were expected to walk or ride bikes. In the evenings, dinner was always in the dining room while we were little kids. The meals were what she knew from Michigan; beef tongue, boiled potatoes and green vegetables, and roast lamb with green mint jelly were typical.
Being a Doctor’s wife, she usually had some hired help around the house. Betty Washington, Ella and Sadie were some of the maids that cleaned, cooked and helped raise the kids. Mom ran the clothes washer and dryer but the maids ironed and put away. And they cooked Mom’s dishes, not theirs.
Mom was beautiful, no question. She had a wonderful face, kept her figure through three kids, and had a personality to match. Her nickname was “Polly” after Pollyanna, the namesake of her attitude, always finding the good. That was one of the best things she gave her children, that and her good looks. Only in her final two years would her attitude change, the consequence of a stroke that took the Pollyanna from us two years before she died. In a way, those final two difficult years for her and my father were a gift; they made her human, tragically, so we would understand her suffering and her gifts. It was a harsh lesson.
But that’s the end of the story. There’s much before then.
She was the Doctor’s wife but not a trophy bride; she was far too intelligent for that.
I never saw Mom and Dad fight. Whatever disagreements they had, they dealt with the issues outside our attention. Whether that was through Dad getting the final word, or through Mom’s wise management of the situation and Dad being permitted to think he was getting the final word, I couldn’t say. Their relationship was like most other things with them; there was a “public face” to be shown and, I presume, a private one that no one else ever knew.
Mom would shampoo her hair with beer. And she would occasionally drink one, too, but only in the privacy of our home and never in front of anyone except immediate family. My daughter will have one at about the same frequency as my mother, the grandmother she never really knew. It must be genetic.
“Ted, Anita, Teddy and Mary”
Mom was an art major in college and, after getting her degree, taught art in Detroit schools. I have some of her pottery as well as some illustrations, the latter made for a childrens book that never made it to press. Regardless, her art showed in most things she did.
She had a budget on which to run the household that was pretty frugal. Rarely would she have extra. Furniture was purchased once and only after what I suspect was a long negotiation, saving and waiting. Early pictures of the master bedroom showed a spacious arrangement in the what now seems tiny, 12 feet by 12 feet. They shared a closet for the in-season clothing in the bedroom. Coats and hats were in the hall closet and out of season clothing was stored upstairs in one of the odd-shaped closets off what we called the furnace room. With the milder winters of Memphis, most of the snow gear collected over several decades in Detroit were stored away upstairs and never seen again.
Mom’s dressing table in the bedroom was small but functional. It had two drawers on each side with a large mirror in the middle. The backless seat was scooted under the foot area in the center when not in use.
Mom would occasionally take art classes at Brooks once the kids were older. It was her retreat. Some of her works were hung around the house.
Mom was the one who caused church to happen. We went to Idlewild Presbyterian on Union Ave. Think gothic, guilt, hard pews, and a pipe organ that seemed so boring then but which I would only much, much later come to appreciate. There was Sunday school followed by the main service. Not much of Sunday school has stayed with me; I couldn’t tell you what we did for the 45 minutes I spent in there on many Sundays. Nor could I tell you what the sermons were about in the main service. I just remember that most of us Protestants were probably going to burn in hell, but that all of the Catholics were for sure so it was good we were Protestant.
The Weona Food Store was was a tiny place by today’s standards, proably not much bigger than a truck stop. Regardless, they had a traditional butcher area with sawdust on the floor, a huge wooden chopping block contoured by years of chopping, sawing and daily cleaning, and glass-fronted porcelin-lined cases displaying the various cuts.
To friends, Mom was Helen, not Polly. To the grocer, the cleaner, the men at the gas station and everyone else I can think of, she was always Mrs. Skinner. Well, almost everyone else, that is. To the maids, she was Mrs. Skinner when they needed her attention, but she was Mam when they acknowledged her wishes. Indeed, it was “Yes, Mam” and “No, Mam”, never “Yes’m” or “No’m”. Each word was carefully pronounced.
And we learned what is referred to as a mid-western accent, never the Memphis mid-southern of our friends or the deep-south we sometimes heard. Mom and Dad instantly corrected any mispronunciation.
Nonetheless, I did learn southern from my friends, kids in school and the other adults we encountered. Cybil Shepard, if you hear her in movies or TV shows, speaks Memphis not southern. I can speak it, and I can understand all but the deepest of southern accents. But Mom and Dad never uttered a word of Memphis or Southern.
I only saw Mom cry once. I was in High School and had transferred the year before to Memphis Technical High School or “Tech” for their electronics classes. My grades had been sliding for eyars and the Electronics intrigued me.
Mr. Franklin Delano Schroer was the teacher. He had jet black thinning hair that he combed straight back. He wore black plastic frame glasses. Today we’d call him a nerd. Back then, he was surely an engineer-type. I don’t remember if he wore a plastic pocket protector or if he had several different color pens in his shirt pocket, but it would’ve fit his persona.
In Mr. Schroer’s class, I was resurrected. We wouldn’t know it for a year but the reaon I did well was Mr. Schroer, not the Electronics he taught. He gave me the attention lacking elsewhere in my young life. It seemed I found the topics he taught to be utterly fascinating because all my tests came back with A’s and 100% marks. And there was a several week segment where we had to do some math that he predicted would be terribly boring. But I solved every problem perfectly and, when that segment was over, was amazed it had gone so fast and easily. No one else found it that way.
But what was really happening was that he was giving me the attention for which I was starved and, once I found that spring, I worked hard at whatever would get more attention. My grades in Mr. Schroer’s class were all A’s, and my grades in all my other classes similarly came up. The long decline that had delivered me to Tech was reversed by Mr. Schroer.
Such is the effect of a loving individual who happens to be teaching children in school.
After one year with Mr. Schroer, I signed up for the second, advanced year. But Mr. Schroer took a promotion and moved to an administrative position with the Board of Education. Mr. Pascal showed up to teach the electronics class and, in six weeks, my grades in his class had fallen to a low C. Grades in my other classes were worse.
Mom was smart. Not only did she have a high IQ, she also had a very good EQ, her Emotional Quotient. She understood.
With me resisting but in tow behind her, we sent to see Mr. Schroer at his office at the Board of Education. There, Mom asked him to return and teach the advanced class. He said he couldn’t, that his administrative job just didn’t give him the time. Mem begged. He said no again, that it was impossible.
I don’t know if Mr. Pascal quit or was fired but, shortly thereafter, Mr. Schroer was back teaching my class. In short order, all my grades came back up again.
Mom knew the same way that mothers always know; that umbilical connection from mother to child is, for most, never completely severed. Even today, many years after her passing, I feel the visceral tug.
We’re still connected.