Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Mammy - Rest In Peace

Herb Shankel, my other mother, died this morning - Wednesday March 1, 2006 - shortly before 6 a.m. at Indian Path Hospital. She was 89.

When my parents moved to Kingsport in 1939, they rented an apartment in a house owned by Mammy and her husband Walter. For the rest of their lives they lived in either the same house or in houses next door.

She always told me growing up, "She's your mother and I'm your Mammy."

What my mother couldn't do, Mammy could.

The picture above is from that first house they shared on Morgan Street. That's Mammy and Walter on the left and my mother and father on the right.

Here's the column I wrote about Mammy a couple of years ago:

t's 10 steps from our back door to the Shankels' door. But the bond is much closer than that.

When my newlywed parents moved to Kingsport in 1939, they rented a room from another young couple, the Shankels. In the ensuing six decades the two families have either lived in the same house or in neighboring houses. That's 64 years of going in and out of each other's homes, taking care of each other's kids, sharing meals and sometimes colds.

Long before the era of stepmothers, I was raised by two mothers.

It was a perfect arrangement, brought up by my mother and Herb Shankel. That's right, Herb Shankel.

I don't call her Herb; I call her Mammy. That's what she told me to call her back in my toddling years. "She's your mother, and I'm your mammy." She got the name Herb because she was one in a long string of daughters, and her mother and father were so sure she would be a boy, they didn't even bother to come up with a girl's name.

When she arrived, they just gave her the name they had picked out anyway.

I think Mammy's personality was shaped by her name, Herbert.

In the whole history of the world Herbert was a boy's name. Until her.

Mammy and Mother have been best friends for almost 65 years. They complement each other perfectly. Mammy told stories; Mother laughed at her stories. Mammy cooked pots of soup beans and skillets of cornbread; Mother made the desserts and the salads. When a recipe called for a pinch of garlic, my mother would leave it out; Mammy would double it. I learned to appreciate my mother's country cooking and Mammy's spicy foods.

When I would step on a bee, Mammy provided the primary care; Mother came along afterward with the tender loving care.

We are what people used to call back-door neighbors, constantly in and out each other's back doors, never bothering to knock, borrowing everything from sugar to casserole dishes.

Mammy is outgoing, entertaining and never at a loss for words. Never.

In the '50s she was taking me for a ride when the flashing lights came up behind us. Always a heavy-footed driver, she was pulled over on Fort Henry Drive, near the bridge, by a rookie cop, who asked to see her driver's license. Instead of crying, a popular female ruse at the time, she began scrounging through her purse. She turned up dry cleaning receipts, library cards, even her marriage license - "that's where I got hitched" - but she never could seem to lay her hands on that elusive driver's license.

As the patrolman turned away with a curt, "Ma'am, why don't you just go on," she suddenly blurted, "Oh, here it is."

She knew where it was all along.

Later Mammy needed a birth certificate to sign up for Social Security. She didn't have one. They weren't issuing them in 1916, the year she was born. The government said a family Bible would suffice as proof. But she didn't have one of those either. Family Bibles tend to get lost in a family as large as hers. So she found an old Bible and conspired with her upstairs tenant, a Lincoln schoolteacher named Verna Ruth Hawk.

Verna Ruth taught fourth grade, but she had an artist's hand. In studied calligraphy she lettered all of Mammy's family into the old Bible. Then to give it the proper look, she ironed the pages, fading the ink ever so much. When Mammy took the book to the Social Security office, the clerk took one look at it and immediately certified her birth year. "He said, ‘You can tell that wasn't done yesterday.' And I thought to myself, ‘No, it was done this morning.'"

One of the great joys of being back in Kingsport is being back next door to Mammy.

When she needs to run to the grocery or the beauty shop, I'm more than happy to take her. Or if she wants to shop for a new dress, I don't mind.

On a recent trip to Burlington Coat Outlet, she rejected one outfit because of the style. "That's too old for me," she said. Then we both cracked up, laughing at an 87-year-old woman snubbing a style because it was an "old woman's dress."

Over the years it's gotten harder and harder to find those "Happy Mother's Day to My Other Mother" cards. But this year I got off easy. Because not only is it Mother's Day, it's Mammy's 88th birthday. Everyone should be so lucky as to have two mothers.


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