There is a scene from my childhood that replays in my head often. It’s not of me crossing the goal line and scoring a winning touchdown in a championship football game or knocking a walk-off homerun out of the park to win a Little League championship game, or even rescuing a drowning puppy from a fast-flowing creek. None of that ever happened in my childhood. The scene that replays in my head fairly often is my mother, brother, and me in our church parking lot with the hood of our car open, dripping gasoline into the carburetor in an effort to get Mom’s car to crank.
That process was a little embarrassing to me. Other families were walking to their cars, hopping in, turning the key, and driving home from church. During the time we had that car and it was having that problem, it was a little more complicated for us. One of us would have to open the hood, unscrew the air filter lid, remove it, and drip a little gas down into the carburetor while my mom turned over the ignition.
In a way, it’s a scene that defined my childhood. Though I don’t look back at it in a negative way. Not at all. It’s just how it was.
I grew up with a single mom. My dad died when I was 6 years old and my brother was 10 years old. Our mother never remarried and raised my brother and me on an art teacher’s salary. She did an excellent job. And trust me, it was not an easy undertaking, as my teen years were certainly no cakewalk.
Being raised by a single mom defined me in those days. It had such an impact, it defines me still. Though I spend no time lamenting the fact that I grew up without a father. I had an excellent childhood. Seriously, excellent. There aren’t too many ways it could have been better.
If someone were to go back in time to study my family unit and our life, that five-minute scene in the church parking lot would be an excellent microcosm and definitive look into our family.
I think that scene in the church parking lot is such a strong memory because – in one capsulized moment – it showed who we were and what we were about. It showed my mother, headstrong and resilient, not necessarily having the best of things, but never bemoaning the fact that the car wasn’t the finest but was getting the job done. It showed her determination to be a good parent as she was going to get her boys to church whenever the doors were open – Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and for whatever Saturday morning activity was scheduled.
A time-travelling onlooker to that scene would also see my older brother with the hood up getting the car started. He was always more handy with those types of things. Still is. In many ways, he took on the role of an older brother and a father with me. I would have been in the back seat bouncing all over the place and talking incessantly, and probably ducking my head a little in embarrassment when a girl from my class walked by with her family.
The car was a 1972 yellow Plymouth Sport Fury, two-door with cloth seats that always smelled like our cocker spaniel, Buffy. I know this because I was usually in the back seat with the dog. My mother and brother always sat up front.
Recently, I’ve been spending some time looking back into my youth. Again, I had an excellent childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s childhood. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the Hillendale neighborhood of Hattiesburg was a wonderful experience that holds nothing but the absolute fondest of memories for me.
There are certain things that define a family. They are rarely negative things. They are mainly choices and preferences. We were a Plymouth family in those days. We had several. My mom eventually switched to Buicks. But many families never changed their allegiance to their favored auto manufacturer. My maternal grandparents were Chrysler people. My paternal grandmother was a Buick lady. Many times, in those days a family was either a Ford family or a Chevrolet family.
It seems I remember a Garrison Keillor story from Lake Wobegon where a prominent member of the Methodist church owned a Ford dealership and a prominent member of the Lutheran church owned a Chevrolet dealership. One could always tell what denomination a family was by what type car they drove around town. My hometown was a little that way.
In those days, many doctors drove Jeep Wagoneers (the precursor to the modern SUV); doctor’s wives drove Cadillacs or station wagons. There were Ford families and Chevy families, but there were several General Motors offshoots – Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick – and those families mostly stayed true to their car brand too.
We were a Plymouth family and a cocker spaniel family. People in my neighborhood stayed true to their dog breed as much as they stayed true to their automobiles. We had cockers. The Hemeter family next door always had Scottish terriers. The Foote family across the street had Labrador retrievers. Behind them were the Normans who always had poodles, as did the Roberts. The Lennon family next door to them just had a lot of cats.
Dog breeds and cars were our neighborhood denominations. People also made similar decisions with shopping. There were two independently owned departments stores— Waldoff’s and Fine Brothers. People took sides with their clothing and jewelry as well.
I have told my kids that the choices they make in life are going to define them. And one slight bad decision can lead them down a road of trouble. I made a lot of bad decisions in my youth. I have tried to make up for those as an adult.
There are many things that define a person. Sometimes it’s the decisions that we make. Sometimes those decisions are made for you. It’s life. Things happen, you adapt, and you do your best to move forward.
Life is filled with problems. A successful life is one where problems are well handled. I was blessed to have been raised by a tough, headstrong and resilient mother, and to have had a brother who was always protective and caring. Both taught me how to handle problems. That, too, defines me.
St. John is a restaurateur, chef, columnist, and author, who has written a weekly syndicated newspaper column for more than 20 years. Look for him each week in The PineBelt NEWS.