How I Learned

My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Hume, wore horn-rimmed glasses and dark dresses. I remember little else about her, except that she placed me in the bluebird reading group and seemed very old.

The year was 1960, an election year. Even though I was only six years old, I was aware that two men, Kennedy and Nixon, were both hoping to win the contest for president.

person dropping paper on boxMy father did not like Kennedy at all. Whenever he appeared on television, Dad called him names and gritted his teeth. Both he and my mother were voting for Nixon. If I had been old enough to vote at that time, I would have voted for Nixon also.

On the day before the election, Mrs. Hume brought it up in class.

“Who are your parents going to vote for?” she asked. Perched atop a small desk, she listened and nodded slightly after each child in each even row of desks responded. A couple of children did not know who their parents were voting for. But by the time about half of the children announced their votes, it was apparent that Nixon would win. The rest of the kids knew it too, so the remaining ones yelled out Nixon’s name as though they were running his campaign. The few who quietly admitted their parents’ choice of Kennedy heard boos and hisses from the rest of the class.

After everyone had proclaimed their parents’ vote, several children asked Mrs. Hume in chorus, “Who are you voting for?”

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “Oh, no, I can’t tell you that. It’s my secret.” She clutched her throat and raised her eyebrows as she said the word, “secret.”

Silence swept over the first graders as we digested this announcement. We had just told her how we—our parents—were voting, but she wouldn’t tell us how she was voting. We each had told her because she had asked us. We had no choice. She expected a response. She could do that.

The silence continued as the powerful truth settled. This truth gripped me through many of my student years. She was big, I was little. She was old, I was young. She was teacher, I was student. She could do and say just about anything, and I would not challenge it, not until I was big, old, and a teacher also.

Thus began my formal education.

My Mom’s Criminal Past

Earlier this year my 96-year-old mother passed away. Mom assigned me to tell this story at her funeral services. When I was a girl she and Dad had bought a small farm in Indiana, where on weekends he enjoyed playing farmer and she enjoyed out-fishing her husband. The kids fooled around mostly—we swam and fished and hiked around and pulled ticks off our legs. Then we drove back to our home in Cincinnati and looked forward to the next weekend at the farm.

Mom made me promise to tell her story the night she, Dad, and I went to dinner, after they had sold the farm some 25 years later. We all had a drink, and were getting kind of loose-tongued.

That’s when I learned Mom was a criminal.

She said she’d always wondered what all the fuss was about with marijuana. She decided to find out. At age 60 or so, when the kids were gone and she was spending a lot of time at the farm, she started her own cannabis patch. She said she’d gotten some seeds from one of her children. It wasn’t me, so that leaves one of the other three. Seeing that they looked similar to radish seeds, she said she stored the dope seeds in a radish seed envelope she had emptied. I thought that was clever.

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My mother Genevieve, age 90, ready for a little canoe trip.

 

 

One day she collected a bucket of composted manure from the barn, and hauled it to a place she said will never be revealed, but it was near a wooded area. She dug a hole, filled it with the fertile compost, and planted seeds. Rain did its work, and two seedlings emerged. One of them in particular thrived, growing as tall as my mother. She visited her cash crop every other week or so, monitoring its progress, hoping that the farmer neighbors wouldn’t get suspicious at her going to this place on her land which she would never visit otherwise. She said Dad knew what she was doing. He thought she was foolish but didn’t stop her.

Mom was cautious and conservative in a lot of ways. I don’t remember her ever talking to me about drugs. I do know that she served on a jury where the accused was charged with something having to do with possession of marijuana. She told me the jury convicted him, one of the reasons being that she thought marijuana was a gateway drug and he was headed for heavier stuff.

So back on the farm, Mom raised this really big healthy marijuana plant in conservative rural Indiana. The details about consuming her gateway drug were a little fuzzy, but she does remember that she harvested some of the leaves and took them to the farmhouse kitchen. She vaguely remembered having some white paper, and generating smoke by burning the leaves. She said she got smoke in her mouth, but she never inhaled, just like the president. Her husband, who was watching, told her, “Get that stinkin’ stuff out of here.” Which she did.

As she told me this story, I was incredulous. For one thing, she smoked the leaves, not the buds. What a waste of homegrown weed. And what happened to her plant? She said she stripped it of its leaves so no one could identify it, and never visited again. For all we know, it continued to grow, reseeded itself, and now a healthy patch of marijuana is growing in the backyard of some unsuspecting farmer who now owns the place.

Recently, when I spoke with Mom about her adventure with drugs, she said, “I was stupid. It probably would have been very bad.” And she begged me not to write the story down, but I reminded her that she made me promise to tell the story, so I had to get it right. It is, after all, your legacy, I argued. She was laughing over the phone, quite tickled over the whole thing. I asked her, “Mom, do you really care if people think you’re a criminal for what you did 35 years ago?”

“Not really,” she said, and added one more thing. “Back then, I couldn’t understand why it would be so bad to grow a plant.”

After reading this account to my memoir-writing class, the oldest student, at 88 years, said, “I want to meet your mom.”

I wish he could have.