Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mama Moo-Goose

When I was a child in Mississippi in the 1960's my family had a series of what are now generally referred to as "housekeepers" but which we only knew to call "maids". My father was a pediatrician and my mother was a pediatrician's wife. Most of the "domestic work" such as cleaning, meals and laundry was performed by an African-American woman who usually took the city bus to our house from (literally) the "other side of the tracks".

For many years in my adolescence all this work was done by "Ernestine", a woman who I always thought was much too old to work this hard. Since I was a wily teenager by this time Ernestine was just another adult to avoid, and we basically stayed out of each other's way.

But in my early childhood the image of Mamie looms large. I remember her as younger and more out-going than Ernestine. I think she "stayed over" one or two nights when my parents traveled out of town. She was a much more hands-on childraiser. I know the old phrase is that "you raise chickens, you rear children", but from my viewpoint Mamie helped raise me. My mother would barely have her car inched out of the driveway before Mamie would get me to shelling peas on the back porch. Over the course of a morning (I was slow) I'd work on shelling a grocery sack of peas from the Farmer's Market while we listened to WXXX play the hits of the day. (Apparently WXXX is now an FM station in Colchester, Vermont but "back in the day" it was a 5000 watt top-40 AM station in Hattiesburg. For some reason I have a vivid memory of the first time Mamie heard "Ode to Billie Jo" by Mississippi's own Bobbi Gentry. She laughed at the line "ya'll remember to wipe your feet.")

One Mamie story that will stay with me to the day I die happened when I was young enough to be watching Captain Kangaroo, which would mean I wasn't yet a first-grader since it didn't come on until 8:00 a.m. I guess I could have been home sick from school. The bottom line is that I was young and had a plastic straw and some black-eye peas (Mamie and peas seemed to go together.) I was shooting peas through the straw when Mamie walked from the kitchen to the living room at least 20 feet away. Totally, absolutely on accident (I swear) I shot a black-eyed pea across the room and straight up her nose. Her head kicked back and she let out a whooop that brought my mother running from the other side of the house. Apparently it didn't lodge up there too deep because she got it out right away. I was truly sorry and I'm pretty sure I never shot a pea out of a straw again ("retire on top" is my motto.)

All of this is to say that one of Mamie's favorite expressions was "Mama Moo-Goose" (and its male equivalent, "Mr. Moo-Goose", depending on who she was addressing). I never quite figured out what this meant but it seemed to serve as an all-purpose term of endearment or epithet. I've scoured the Internet to find the etymology of this richly evocative phrase, but it seems to be wholly Mamie. Every now and then I call Gina "Mama Moo-Goose" and she takes it in stride, which isn't surprising given some of the other things I've called her.

I don't think I ever got the full story on why Mamie stopped working for us. The stated reason was that she wanted more money than my parents were willing to pay. However, the truth about leavings was a rare commodity around our house (we had at least two mange-covered beagles who "went to live on a farm"). Mamie immediately began working for a family of horrible racists who I can't imagine paid her more than we did (I'd say the name but I just did a web search and the guy my age is still around) so I assume the story I was told was a cover-up for something else. I don't guess I'll ever know the real reason she left.

I hope she remembers me as fondly as I remember her.

No comments: