Guest Columnist

Remembering Mom, who chose her words carefully

Carroll McKibbin with his mom, Hazel McKibbin, in a photo taken around Mother’s Day, 1938.
Carroll McKibbin with his mom, Hazel McKibbin, in a photo taken around Mother’s Day, 1938.

My dear mother saw the trials of the human existence through rose-colored glasses and a matching vocabulary. In her world, such woes as death, crime, juvenile delinquency, and mental illness were soothed or eliminated by her special, empathetic language.

Mom did not allow people to die. In her words, they just went to “the great beyond.” And those committed to the state penitentiary, the boys’ correctional facility, or a regional mental institution she described as “visiting” in Fort Madison, Eldora, and Clarinda respectively, as if they were on vacation.

Pregnant single girls, a condition my sensitive mother would never describe with such a repugnant term, were said to be “indisposed” and “visiting” in Sioux City, the site of a home for unwed mothers.

Mom outlawed the use of the word “hate” for her three sons, a high school sophomore, a fourth-grader, and me in first grade. As World War II raged our enemies were typically described in the harshest terms, but not by our mother.

“What would you suggest, Mom, that I call Hitler,” my eldest brother, Darrell, teased. “He’s pretty ornery.”

“Nasty is good enough,” Mom replied.

From then on, my two older brothers, Gary was the middle child, referred to Hitler as “that nasty Nazi.”

Normal body functions bothered Mom’s sensitivities. What little boys consider one of Mother Nature’s best jokes, she called “breaking wind.” I didn’t understand what could be broken. Moreover, my brothers used an efficient, behind the scenes, four-letter word that meant the same thing.

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What most people call a toilet, my mother called a “water closet.” And the paper on the nearby roller? She referred to that as “T.P.”

Mom was health conscious and had an abiding faith in the curative powers of an enema, but could not bear to use what she considered a vulgar term. Instead, she called that procedure a “physic.”

I didn’t dare sneeze, cough, or hiccup for fear of hearing my mother declare, “Time for a physic.”

Mom’s form of discipline was always subtle. She never raised her hand or voice. When I feigned illness to avoid something and said, “I don’t feel well,” she never disputed my statement. Instead, she suggested I needed a physic.

And thus I faced a dilemma as another of Miss Thomas’s “Vegetable Days” approached. My Guthrie Center first grade teacher hoped to teach her pupils to eat healthy foods with a weekly session of tasting vegetables from her war-mandated Victory Garden. I survived a round of crunchy, tasteless carrots; dealt with smelly, eye-watering onions; and eventually recovered from hot red radishes. Tomatoes were next on the agenda, a distasteful and scary prospect.

I found the insides of tomatoes repulsive, a perspective much encouraged by my ten-year-old mentoring brother, Gary. He compared the slimy interior of a tomato with what runs from a kid’s nose on a cold day, using a term my mother would not allow. Far more worrisome to me, however, were the seeds.

Miss Thomas had planted radish seeds in a small box of dirt on our classroom windowsill. We watched intently as green sprouts surfaced and grew in the sun.

“All plants start with seeds,” our teacher explained.

“Do trees begin that way?” I asked.

“Yes, even giant redwoods.”

“How ‘bout apple trees?”

“Yes, certainly apple trees as well.”

Apple trees particularly concerned me because we had two in our yard and ate their output in great numbers. Apple cores contained numerous brown seeds. My level of logic concluded that if seeds make trees and apples have seeds, then an accidental swallowing of a seed could cause a tree to grow in my stomach.

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Alarmed by that prospect, I asked my savvy brother if a tree could grow inside me. “Sure,” Gary replied. “Haven’t you heard of Johnny Appleseed?”

I knew only the name. Now I had an image of a man with a tree growing out his belly button — or worse.

I could count, and knew tomatoes have a lot more seeds than apples. I didn’t want tomato plants growing in my stomach, not to mention being disgusted with the thought of eating the oozy vegetable.

“I don’t feel good,” I fibbed to my mother the morning of Vegetable Day. “I think I better stay home.”

“Are you sure you’re that sick?”

“Uh-huh. I don’t want no Malt-O-Meal or nothin’.”

My growling stomach said otherwise, but skipping breakfast seemed mandatory for claiming illness.

Mom opened the bathroom door for another session of her physics class. “I guess we know what you need,” she said. “Come along.”

Given the alternative, I began to develop a taste for tomatoes. “That’s all right, Mom,” I blurted. “I think I’m feeling better.”

In the end, Mom’s rosy view of the world served her well. She was in the hospital dying of ovarian cancer when the doctor called me in early December of 1973 and told me to come at once. By the time I reached her room at the Guthrie County Hospital a providential spurt of energy had given her the strength to sit up in bed.

“Oh, sweetheart,” she cried as I hugged her withered frame. “I didn’t expect you to make another long trip.”

“The doctor called, Mom. He said it was urgent.”

“Oh, never mind him. I’m going to have another Christmas.”

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And that she did in a hospital room decorated with scores of colorful greeting cards. When carolers from a church joined family members gathered around her bed on Christmas Day, Mom tried to sing along, mouthing words in tempo, including her favorite, “Oh, Holy Night.”

When the carolers prepared to leave, Mom murmured, “Thank you,” and smiled. She was happy.

The next morning my mother moved to her “great beyond.” She was right about people never dying. She lives on in my memory and in my heart every day.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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