Jonathan Odell

When my Northern friends ask if I was religious growing up in the South, I laugh.

Religion soaked the land like bourbon on an Episcopalian’s fruitcake. And you didn’t have to go to a church to get it. Religion was everywhere. In the schools, in the hardware store, on restaurant menus, in the line at the bank, on the football scoreboard, on the side-panels of delivery trucks, on the lips of nearly everybody you encountered even while running the most secular of errands. I’ve heard of people who got saved while standing in the A&P checkout line.

Shortly after I was baptized at the age of 8, my mother began infecting me her own brand of fiery fundamentalism. Now my mother didn’t have the interests expected of a typical 1950’s housewife. She wasn’t a great cook, an immaculate housekeeper nor a doting mother. Even though she took an occasional swat at those socially prescribed duties of the era, you could tell from consistently undercooked tuna fish casserole, the spider-webs which grew in corners to the size of a child’s head, and her tribe of attention-starved babies, her heart just wasn’t in it. And the more successful my father became, the more her poverty-plagued upbringing embarrassed her, to such an extent that she dreaded any social functions that as the wife of a prominent man she was obligated to attend.

Like many women of that era, other avenues for creativity were severely limited. Not even church could provide an outlet. She attended services sporadically and never even taught Sunday school. I’m not sure they would have let her if she had wanted to.

You see, my mother was bad to take a drink and drive her Lincoln soused on the streets of Hazlehurst, Mississippi.

Besides sneaking whiskey from my Daddy’s Jim Beam commemorative decanters and drunk driving, her other passion was collecting Green Stamps. Anytime my mother uttered the word redemption, you could be sure it wasn’t heaven she wanted access to, but the auspiciously named S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center, all the way up in Jackson.  

When my mother said excitedly, “We’re going up to the Redemption Center”, it even sounded holy. Like meeting Jesus ought to sound. Her pursuit was steeped in more rituals than any Baptist Church and just as much zeal. It was a religion of two, my mother and me.

Like with the wise men’s sojourn, our trip could commence only after a season of calculation and ritual. You had to be smart about it. First of all, we traded only with the stores that answered positively to our inquiries when we asked, “Do you give Green Stamps?” We were ruthless. We didn’t have money to waste on the tightfisted grocer who answered, “No.”

Every shopping trip was strategically designed to rack up the most stamps possible. And after the cashier handed us our strip of stamps we lost no time in rushing home and pulling all of our booklets from that one drawer in the kitchen dedicated solely to their safe-keeping. It was my job to lick the stamps and then hand them to my mother, who skillfully arranged them on the pages, keeping them within the box-shaped grids, smoothing out the wrinkles with the flat of her hand. This was no calling for amateurs.

Next we would count all the books we had completed, as if we didn’t already know. Counting was one of the rituals. And I can still remember the thrill of Mother sticking the very last stamp in the very last box on the very last page of a book and then getting to begin a brand new one. I don’t think I’ve experienced a moment as hopeful or as full of promise since.

Then we went to the redemption catalog and studied the colorful displays of transistor radios, wall clocks in the shape of sunbursts, and the most modern in kitchen appliances. Without having to ask your husband for a dime. Which may have been the point of it all.  Why for just 718 books you could even get a real car.

A part of me wanted desperately for my mother to have these things. Both her and my daddy had escaped a suffocating dirt-farm poverty and my mother’s eyes would always light up when she saw nice, “store bought” things. That was the look she had when she flipped through the S&H Redemption Catalogue. She had a hunger for a miracle as fierce as any penitent. And even at that age, I believed if I could satisfy that hunger for her, she would always be happy. Maybe she would even stop getting drunk.

That catalogue, filled with its shiny miracles, inspired hours of praying for the day we would finally gather up our stamps, get in the car and make our pilgrimage to…The Center. To “get redeemed” as mother put it. Our Star of Bethlehem would take us up Mississippi State Highway 55 and guide us directly to Jackson. I couldn’t sleep at all the night before.

Yet there is one thing that puzzled me. I never understood the way I felt on the return trip, after we surrendered our booklets to the S&H man, who was not nearly as excited as we were. He had checked every page officiously and ripped them up right in front of us, without exhibiting the least reverence and awe. Then he unceremoniously handed over our stainless steel toaster and our coffee percolator. The mood coming home was a sense of an immense letdown.

Just like with church’s brand of redemption, I was pretty sure my S&H ordeal wouldn’t make much difference, no more than getting baptized by my preacher. Sure enough, Mother went on drinking, graduated to overdosing on tranquilizers, finally ending up in psychiatric wards where shock treatments were administered liberally. She even lost the memory of our trips to Jackson.

It wasn’t until many years later, it dawned on me exactly why I felt so deflated on the way back home with the shiny treasures we’d traded for. I wanted the stamps back! The gifts cheapened the real experience. The grocery shopping, the awful taste of the glue, filling the booklets, the ritual of counting and recounting, the catalog gazing, the mutual conspiring. That was my mom at her happiest and her best. That’s what was precious. 

As an adult I’ve tried to allow my mother her own story, rather than limiting her to a supporting character in mine. In doing so, I’ve changed much of my thinking about her. In fact, I don’t think she was your regular drunk. I think she drank at people. Like my overbearing father. Whenever he disrespected her, that’s when she had her most spectacular drunk-driving episodes. Her accidents became community events designed to humiliate him. Like when he moved us to a new town and was trying his best to establish his reputation as a reputable businessman.  That Christmas Eve, after he berated my mother, she got drunk and flipped her Lincoln in the Mayor’s yard. Another time she ran a school bus of children into a ditch. I believe she was saying to my father, “I might only be your pitiful wife, but remember this: No matter how high you climb, I have to power to bring you down to where you started. Treat me right.”

I believe she drank at a society that had hemmed her in, limited her to doing things she felt were soul killing. She drank at a God who admonished her to be subservient.

Yes, those long ago days with my mother, performing our Green Stamp rituals, were as close to a holy event as I’ve ever come. In those moments I believe I saw the truth of my mother, and the woman as she was meant to be.

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Jonathan Odell is the author of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League published in March, 2015, from Maiden Lane Press. Find out more at JonathanOdell.net