All my life I have enjoyed being a “helper”. It started at Mama’s side in the kitchen, continued through being the teacher’s pet most years I was in school, and is manifested in my adult life through the joy I get at Christmastime, packing shoe boxes for Samaritan’s Purse to hand out to less fortunate children around the globe.
I learned about the joy of helping from my mama. I’d pull out a kitchen chair and climb up on it to watch her mix her perfect biscuits. She’d dip out the flour and baking powder, pour in the buttermilk, spoon in a dollop of Crisco, mix all this up with her hands …. all with no recipe in sight. She’d form a ball and toss it onto a small mound of flour on the kitchen table, pat it down with her hands, and roll it out with an old wooden rolling pin. She liked to sing as she worked. I can still hear her voice … “When you go to church on Sunday, get down on your knees and pray. Give your heart and your soul to Jesus. Heaven’s just a prayer away …”
By this point, I’d be so anxious to help that I would be squirming in the chair. Mama would hand me the biscuit cutter (an old can with air holes punched in the bottom) with a flourish. I’d carefully stamp out the biscuits, making sure to get the most circles I could out of the smooth dough. Then I would place each round onto the prepared cookie sheet. Mama would pop them in the oven and I would watch them anxiously as they turned golden brown, asking over and over, “Is it time yet?”
When Daddy buttered up one of those biscuits, bit into it and smiled, I felt like I had baked them all by myself. The sense of accomplishment made me feel like I counted. Helping made me worth something and my Mama taught me that.
Sometimes, she may have wished she hadn’t.
Mama’s specialty was Pineapple Upside Down Cake. This spectacle was accomplished by putting pineapple rings into a pan, putting Maraschino cherries in the holes of the pineapple rings, pouring cake batter over that, and baking it. Once the cake was baked, Mama would flip it “upside down” onto the serving platter. It was a beautiful sight to behold when it was all done … golden brown cake with bright red cherries nestled in the rings of pineapple on top. She would make it nearly every time we went to Grandma’s for lunch. Everyone told her how wonderful it was.
One Sunday when I was about five years old, Mama baked a cake to take to Grandma’s early in the morning before I woke up. Then, as usual, she rushed to get ready to go. I distinctly remember going into the kitchen, pulling out the kitchen chair, and climbing onto it. I remember flipping the Tupperware cake container upside down on the table. I remember climbing down, going into the bathroom where Mama was fixing her hair, and saying, “Mama, I helped you. I turned the cake upside down for you.” I also remember the way her face filled with horror as she quickly put the mirror down on the bathroom counter and ran into the kitchen. There on the table was a ruined mess. What had been inside the cake container was not Pineapple Upside Down Cake, but a beautifully iced German Chocolate sheet cake. Tears filled Mama’s eyes as she flipped it back over, took the cover off, and looked at the chocolate cake and cream cheese and coconut icing clinging to the lid. Then she began to laugh and cry all at the same time. She wanted to kill me and hug me. I had just ruined hours of her morning work, but she knew I was only trying to “help” like she’d taught me.
The story of my “helpfulness” became the topic of the day at Grandma’s. Everyone laughed when Mama told the story and patted my head and said things like, “Oh, how cute”, and called me “Mama’s Little Helper”.
I’m fifty-four years old now, but I remember this day when I was about five as clearly as I remember yesterday (sometimes more clearly). I think it is because it so illustrated our relationship. I worshipped my Mama and needed her praise like I needed air. She nurtured me and instructed me so lovingly. At times, I’m sure she wanted to strangle me, but she never did. She just explained the error of my ways, and I learned, and didn’t repeat too many of my mistakes. I wanted to be just like her, and in many ways, I am.
Her greatest joy in life was giving to others. I share that with her to this day. I can’t wait to teach my niece, Christina Joan (who gets her middle name from my mama), how to make her grandma’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake …. and to teach her to look inside the cake cover before turning it over!