Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mother and Mammy

Mother is my mother, Margie Staten, on the left in this photo. And Mammy is her best friend of 60 years, Herb Shankel - that's right Herb. Mammy lived her entire life with a man's name.
I found this picture of Mammy and Mother when I first moved back here three years ago. It was taken in front of their Bristol Highway home sometime during World War II. I had the bright idea to restage the picture sixty years later. Both were amenable but it seemed I could never get them together. When Mother was ready, Mammy wasn't feeling good and vice versa. In the end, I never got the new picture taken.

Here's a column I wrote about Mammy in February 2005. It is typical Mammy.
Mammy says it was the Summer of the Door-to-Door Salesman.
The Jewel Tea Man and the Fuller Brush Man had been regulars on our street for years but with post war affluence came a new form of marketing: men in black suits and white ties going door to door. Every evening in 1957, as the sun set they would park their cars at the Garden Basket and begin a march toward Deadman’s Curve, knocking on each door, pitching vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias, cemetery plots and deep freezers.
But they met their match when they knocked at the home of my next-door neighbor, Mammy Shankel.
In that era before air conditioning it was impossible to pretend you weren’t home. Your door was open, your TV was blaring, your kids were running back and forth between the front door and the kitchen babbling things like “Mommy, there’s a man at the door.”
So door-to-door salesmen had an advantage. They knew you were there. And they would wait patiently, wearing a smile and a cheap suit, while the lady of the house wiped her hands on her apron, turned down the pot on the stove and came to the screen.
These cheerful men always had the latest and the greatest in vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias and life insurance.
Door to door salesmen - and a few women, mostly teachers selling encyclopedias - preyed on the inherent niceness of Kingsport folks.
My mother would offer them ice water and then she and my father would listen while they presented their pitches. “Ma’am, let me throw a little dirt on this here rug so you can see just how this here vacuum cleaner will save you time around the house.” After the vacuum cleaner salesman had left, mother would bring out her Electrolux to suck up the stray dirt clods that his miracle vacuum - and his sloppy vacuuming - had missed.
Mammy, who lived next door, wasn’t as nice to them. She would - usually - let them in and she would - sometimes - listen to their sales pitches but she would - always - argue with them about the merits of their particular products.
“Why would I want to buy life insurance? Isn’t that betting with you that I’m going to die?”
“We don’t need any encyclopedias. We’re already smart enough.”
She had a question for every answer and an answer for every question. She was a door-to-door salesman’s nightmare in a housedress.
And then one week came the cemetery plot salesman and the deep freezer salesman. These two had the misfortune to hit our street on the same week.
Mammy enjoyed stringing along these itinerant merchants, telling them she had to talk it over with her husband, come back the next night. The salesman thought he had a live one only to be told to return yet another night, she hadn’t been able to talk her husband into a purchase just yet, but he was beginning to give in.
She had the cemetery plot salesman and the deep freeze salesman drooling.
On the last night of that summer, she made a fateful, for them, mistake. She got them confused.
“I was sitting on the porch with some of the neighbors when the fellow walked up carrying his satchel. I thought it was the man selling deep freezes. Before he could say anything, I told him, ‘I talked it over with my husband and he said that our neighbors bought one and it’s a big one and we can use it anytime we want.’”
The cemetery plot salesman started to sputter. He tried to explain that she had him mixed up with someone else. “Every time he’d start to talk I’d knock him down. I told him, ‘We know people that have them and they aren’t happy with them.’”
By now he was beside himself. He looked at Mammy and he looked at the neighbors sitting with her.
That’s when Mammy delivered her final blow.
“I talked to one woman that bought one from you and she said it doesn’t keep meat very well.”
Finally the cemetery plot salesman could hold back no longer. “Ma’am, I think you have me confused with someone else. I’m here selling the hereafter.”
With that he turned on his heels and marched off.
Mammy says, “You know we never did see him again. And we didn’t see the deep freeze salesman again either.”


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