As the days and weeks go on the woman I speak of here may often be the subject of my musings. Verna Watkinson was one of the most significant women in my life and was for many years a second mother and beloved friend. On July 2 Verna died at the age of 89 and left the world a better place for her being here. I wrote another piece about her, The Old Woman, a few weeks.
When I was about two my Mother went back to work as a school teacher and that meant I had to have a babysitter. The choice was obvious for Mom. Her new friend Verna, who lived across the street, stayed at home with her children and was wanting to make some extra money. It was simple to drop me off and pick my up. Verna’s daughter, Raye Ellen, was just two years older than I was and not in school yet so we could play together.
The perfect situation was soon shattered when, as my mother reported, I began to sing while visiting my rather proper Grandma Guiler. It seems I had learned a new song. The tune was happy and random but the lyrics were unmistakable and quite easy to remember for a two year old. They went like this: “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.” They could easily be transferred to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and while they were never intended to cause shock and horror when coming from lips they apparently had that affect on Grandma.
I didn’t have to change babysitters but I’m sure there was a strong warning from my mother about the language that I could be exposed to. I am equally sure that is when I learned about what could be said at Grandma’s house and what could not. This lesson would have come sternly from Verna I’m sure. I am also sure that Verna never dulled her language on my account.
Verna’s slightly harsh and low voice will forever ring in my ears and I will be eternally grateful for her teaching me to swear. She did it better than anyone I’ve ever met. “Shit” had meaning when it came from her lips, as did “God Dammit” which was usually followed quickly by the name of her oldest child Richard. “Jesus Christ” was reserved for the very serious occasions of sheer frustration and was more mumbled through gritted teeth than it was yelled.
Voice and words were precious to Verna. She was never afraid to use either and did so quite eloquently. I remember her correcting my grammar often and I recall how angry my Mother would get when Verna would correct Mom’s grammar. That didn’t sit well with the school teacher.
Verna came from mixed stock. Her mother was an Ivey, which carried weight in our town. Her father was a Fritzly, which also carried weight but not because of his good reputation. Grandpa Jack, as I knew him, showed up at our door and at Verna’s door quite regularly with a “mess of perch”. As if he wasn’t drunk enough when he arrived, he continued to drink until the fish was fried and ready and usually was escorted to the door with firm words, a slamming motion and a great sigh of relief that he was gone. That is when you might have heard Verna say, “God dammit Dad, go home.”
Verna was never a half way sort of woman and when she made up her mind to do something it was done with strength and power. Whether it was making bread or showing off the most daring of new bathing suits Verna did it with abandon. When she yelled at you, there was no doubt you had been yelled at, but when she hugged you she held on for dear life.
Thanks Verna for loving me well and for teaching me to swear too.