In honor of Mother’s Day – memories of Ma McKee

Otherwise known as Roberta Ann McKee to the rest of the world, and never actually called Ma McKee by anybody, to the best of my memory.  She was always just mom.  Never mommy, because she had three boys and boys in our household don’t say mommy.  I was the last of those three boys, the baby, and as such I was something of a mama’s boy; I’m pretty sure she was hoping for a girl when my huge melon popped out but it wasn’t to be.

First, the bad stuff.  My mom and dad never seemed to be happy together and they stayed together for the sake of the kids; when I moved out to join the Navy the divorced.  My mom never had another relationship to my knowledge; shortly after the divorce the effects of multiple sclerosis began to ravage her and in a few years she was living with her sister and mother.  That’s not to impugn my dad; he continued to support her after the divorce and to be fair, their relationship was over long before the divorce.

Now, the good stuff.  The most important thing: mom was a good cook!  We didn’t get to see it all the time; often our meals were hamburger helper, some veggies and a roll.  I grew to loathe hamburger helper and still won’t willingly eat the stuff (sometimes my daughter coerces me into it).  I now understand why we had the dreaded HH so often (although to be fair, as a kid I liked it) – it was cheap and it was quick and easy.  I certainly appreciate that.  But when mom did cook, it was always good.  I still remember her Swiss Steak, although I don’t remember how she made it.  I just remember it was good.  I also remember her taco casserole, which was always made in a special ceramic pot with a lid that was a hen sitting on a nest, and the pot was made to look like a basket that held the nest.  I wish I still had that pot.  That was the first dish I learned to cook and I learned from helping her, going from cheese grater to ingredient mixer to eventually making it myself and changing the recipe.  It isn’t difficult to see that is where the late-blooming seed of my joy of cooking was planted.  I’m past due to make some more taco casserole and tweak it a bit more.

I also remember the bad stuff she cooked, or at least the stuff I didn’t like.  Her stuffed bell peppers won’t be repeated by me, nor will her cornish game hens.  Good attempts, yes, but not suited to my young, finicky palette.  However, the bad stuff was limited to those two dishes.

Many of my memories of her have to do with our family rituals.  We’d get one can of soda to drink a week, and the big decision for me was if I’d have it with the homemade pizza on Saturday (Appian Way kit, they still sell them – once again, I was the cheese grater but eventually I was promoted to corn popper) or with the Saturday night popcorn.  It was a dilemma that I often discussed with her.  We’d watch Wide World of Sports while making the pizza, and I would fantasize of the day when I’d get to slice the pepperoni.  That would be the day I officially switched to wearing big-kid pants.

I remember testing my strength by arm-wrestling her, and finally reaching the point where I could beat her.  In your face, mom!

Mom also helped me develop my musical tastes, although my dad now claims he chose most of the records they had; I only remember mom listening to them.  To this day I can still sing along to the Eagles greatest hits, the soundtrack to Paint Your Wagon, and a lot of Johnny Cash and John Denver.  I think theater was something both of my parents enjoyed; when I was in high school my dad performed in a handful of plays with a local community theater – Ten Nights in a Barroom, Dracula, and a few others I can’t remember – and mom was always involved as much as she could be, although the MS was beginning to take hold then and she wasn’t very physically active.

Also in high school was one of my favorite memories of my mom.  It was my junior year, I think – I was driving my first car, a 61 Ford Falcon – and I was ditching class.  I had three buddies in the car with me, and we pulled up to a stop light.  In the lane next to us…mom pulled up.  She looked over, we saw each other, and then the light turned green and I pulled out as fast as those four cylinders could take me.  Later that day we had a talk.  She knew I was ditching school, despite my cleverly altered report cards (Thanks, Bob, for teaching me how!).  She told me she wasn’t going to tell my dad – the most powerful tool in the mom box – as long as I continued to get good grades.  That wasn’t necessarily a good thing but I enjoyed the results.

I also remember that she kept some “mad money” hidden in a wallet in the back of the freezer.  I also remember there was usually an IOU in there from me, to later be paid off and even later replaced with another IOU.  If you figured interest on it to now I’d probably owe her about a grand.

What I remember most fondly about mom was that she always encouraged me and did what she could to support my dreams.  She did the most important thing a parent can do: she believed in me, no matter how crazy my ideas were.

Mom passed away a little over 15 years ago from complications from MS.  Her passing was something of a blessing because at that time she was just a shell of the woman who raised me, and it hurt to see her like that.  Time has helped me to forget the specifics and focus more on what I’ve mentioned above, along with many other good memories.  Mom did the best she could with what she had and that’s all a kid can ask for.  I love you, mom.  Cheers.

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