Happy birthday, Mama!

Carla and I call her “Mama.”

Our boys call her “Nanny.”

No matter what name she goes by, my mother-in-law embodies much of what I envision when I think of the New South. She retains a bit of the old-fashioned, Southern ways even as she embraces change. She came of age in a close-knit, rural community surrounded by family. Now she navigates a new life in an urban center with unfamiliar technologies and a faster pace swirling around her.

January 9 is her birthday. I appreciate her every day, but today is the perfect time to celebrate all the ways she enriches our family.

picture of Cynthia Barron standing beside a planter with coral-colored flowers
Cynthia Barron, AKA “Mama”, AKA “Nanny”

I love her Southern expressions. Her speech is always kind, full of grace and never “ugly.” Rooted in a past so innate to her, it wouldn’t occur to her to say things differently. She delights us with her “Nannyisms,” which include “mashing the foot feed” for pushing the car’s gas pedal; “playing on the sliding board” for going down the slide at a playground; calling a building a “house” as in “going to the school house;” referring to the movies as “the picture show;” drawing our attention to something by advising us to “look over yonder;” requesting a “dibble” as a portion to be served at mealtimes; and her go-to “golly pete” to express amazement.

We mimic and laugh, but we do so with affection, not ridicule. Her speech patterns and sayings are authentic, not put on. She talks like the women of her family have for generations. She is not a caricature Hollywood invented. When she slips in a Nannyism, it’s a treat that makes our day and causes us to love her even more.

I admire her courage. Humans are notoriously resistant to change, self included. In the past year, Mama sold her home in Sandersville and moved into an independent living apartment building near our home. She did the difficult work of letting go and moving on, parting with so many of the possessions she had held onto since her husband passed away seven years ago. We moved her to Lilburn on the Saturday before the COVID lockdown in Georgia, and although she chose independent living over moving in with us because of her desire to make friends and stay active, she was forced to quarantine and remain isolated in a new, unfamiliar place.

We kept close tabs on her, visiting her and having her visit us as often as we were allowed. The isolation took its toll. When her lease was up after the first six months, she made the bold decision to move again to another, newer, more resident-responsive independent living residential complex near us. They have managed the COVID-19 restrictions differently, and Mama is thriving with new friends, activities and beautiful surroundings. Through it all, she has been a trooper, adopting a spirit of “can do” rather than become discouraged by circumstances. She has thus far remained virus-free and inspires us with her resilience.

I marvel at her stamina in the face of many health challenges. Mama has battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia for more than a decade and held up under regular treatments and infusions that bolster her immune system allowing her to cope with a number of other chronic conditions. With Carla at her side or on FaceTime when COVID rules won’t allow her to accompany her mother to doctor visits, Mama has faced enumerable medical appointments, medicines and treatments. Every day she draws breath is a testament to God’s grace and her inner strength.

Born prematurely, Mama credits her Granny Fulghum with holding her, warming her and nurturing her to survive the first year of life at a time when medical technology was not as advanced at providing such care. Mama received her grandmother’s grit and determination during those months of swaddling and rocking. We are grateful she has fought so bravely for so long because each day with her is a gift.

I benefit from her perspective and good humor. Long after my attempted witticisms have ceased to have any impact on my wife of 23-plus years, Mama still appreciates my jokes, puns and anecdotes. Our three boys all work harder than a stand-up comedian at an open mic night to get her chuckling, and the affirmation we feel when she smiles at something we say is the embodiment of blessing.

She can also tell a good story. I enjoy hearing her reminisce about growing up and the circumstances that give her joy now to think back on. She loves her sister, Edna, and cherishes the memory of her brother, James, while missing her husband, Lanny, every day. Those remembrances are full of humor and love.

I am blessed by her kindness. The phrase “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD” made the rounds a few years back in Christian circles, and I live by a close corollary: “What would Mama say?” She simply cannot bring herself to say anything bad about anyone, even if she has every evidence of ill motives. She is patient and extends the benefit of the doubt even when we feel she risks being taken advantage of. I’m sure she’s not happy with everyone she encounters, but she does not show it. Nothing makes her happier than to do something for others. She is constantly looking for ways to be helpful.

She will always be a teacher at heart. She taught children for 30 years in elementary school and Sunday School and can’t help but see craft projects and object lessons in every recyclable household item.

If I have a resolution for 2021, it’s to be more like Mama — creative and colorful in my speech, bold and courageous in my decision making, strong and dedicated to good health, creating space for listening and laughing, and showing kindness to everyone I come into contact with, including those I spend the most time with during this pandemic.

Happy birthday, Mama. We love you. You are worth celebrating.

Call your Mommer ‘n ’em

Mom, a.k.a. Sharon Wallace, showing off a prized photo.

As long as I can remember, my mother has been “Mom.”

I’m sure when I was just a babbling little baby she started out as “Mama.” There was probably even a “Mommy” phase that ended at about the age of 8.

It wasn’t until I got to college in Troy, Ala., that I routinely heard adults refer to their mother as “Mama” and for the first time heard the phrase “Mommer ‘n ‘em”. There were the “yo momma” jokes back in the 1980s, but otherwise, “Mama” or “Momma” weren’t appellations I encountered until after I left urban Texas and central Florida for the deep, traditional South.

Shakespeare wrote in “Romeo and Juliet” the famous line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but what do all the derivations of “mother” mean? In analyzing my own speech patterns, I think I did have different meanings behind each form.

For example, “Mom” was common, everyday usage. It was conversational, and in a lot of ways, for my two brothers and me, it was her name.

“Mommy” was employed when I faced life’s scariest moments, usually involving blood coming out of me somewhere.  It was used when there was great need or when I was just greatly needy. It could imply urgency, depending on the volume and pitch, but mostly it was just whiny. I’m sure Mom didn’t particularly enjoy it in either case.

“Mother” was too formal to ever be used. It just seemed too detached. There was no affection in it. I can’t remember a time I have ever called her “Mother” during a conversation that wasn’t an attempt at humor.

“Mama” just sounded so country, that for a city boy, even from Texas, it was out of character. I guess in my glossary, it means the same as “Mom” but with a more down-home, primitive feel. “Mama” sounds like a big hug to me.

Mama, a.k.a. Cynthia Barron, showing off prized artwork from her grandsons last Mother's Day.

Now that I have two mothers – the woman who gave birth to me and my mother-in-law – I have grown comfortable with adopting my wife’s name for her mother. It wasn’t even that big of an adjustment. “Mama” just rolled off my tongue. Maybe it’s because the name fits her so well or maybe it’s a throwback to my first vocalizations as a child.

In my case, I’m blessed to have a supportive and encouraging Mom, a compassionate and considerate Mama and a wife who is living into motherhood for our three boys in a beautiful and nurturing way. While they call her “Mom” sometimes, it seems that right now, she’s mostly “Mommy” or “Mama.” I wouldn’t dare call her any of the names for “mother.” I know plenty of husbands who do, particularly as they age together with their wives. I just don’t think my wife wants to be my mother.

So, on this special weekend dedicated to remembering the contributions and sacrifices of our mothers, it doesn’t really matter what you call her, just be sure to call her, especially on Sunday.

Happy Mother’s Day!