Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The nostalgically delicious aroma of a family feast is the first thing to envelope the senses in Minnie Spicer's home in Flora. Skillets of cornbread sit on a stove worn to vintage chic from years of large-scale dinner productions. Carefully laid out on the solid dining room table is a southern-style extravaganza of home-cooked chicken, ribs, sausage, greens, macaroni and cheese, barbecue beans, pecan pies, and strawberry, lemon and coconut pineapple cakes.
Despite recuperating from a recent hip surgery, having a bad knee and the chronic pain of gout and arthritis, nothing was going to prevent Minnie from preparing her family's favorite dishes for an impromptu Spicer family get together. Minnie has spent countless hours standing in front of a hot stove. She refused to go to bed until she was done, and she wasn't done until the wee hours of the morning.
The result is beyond impressive; this is matriarchal heroism.
Minnie expresses her love for her 11 children (one of whom is deceased) and 16 grandchildren through the culinary arts.
"My mother has always viewed cooking as a way to get and keep the entire family together—to laugh, to cry, to celebrate and to mourn," says Adam Spicer, Minnie's eighth child and one of my law colleagues.
"If you've ever seen the movie ‘Soul Food,' you know what I'm talking about. Because of the size of our family, she never learned to cook small portions. Once, after she'd realized the meals were too large for regular plates, she went to the local high school and asked if they would sell her serving trays. They did. And we ate off of them for years."
"My mom is a great cook," says Timothy, the ninth Spicer child who is nicknamed "Buddy" because he gets along with everyone.
But Minnie wasn't always the grand master of fine dining. Minnie's interest in cooking began when her son John came back with stories of sumptuous food cooked by a friend's mother.
"So I started baking cookies," Minnie says. "I would put in a little of this and a little of that until they tasted right."
"(Minnie also) used her cooking to convince children in the neighborhood to attend Sunday school and church," Adam says. "She would agree to have them over for dinner on Sunday, as long as they went to church. It didn't take long for those kids to fall in love with church. At least one of those kids is now a minister."
With only two hours of sleep, Minnie, 63, looks fresh and radiant. She has gorgeous translucent skin, large eyes and the kind of electric smile that makes you want to be her friend. Hardly noticeable are burn scars from the fire she survived when she 7.
Minnie is happy. Her children are home. Two of her boys, Daniel and Joseph, drove all night from Arkansas. Daniel brought all four of his kids, Jeremy, Danielle, Briana and LaKeisha Spicer. Adam, Timothy and Elizabeth Spicer, who live in the metro Jackson area, also join the festivities.
Surrounded by her family, Minnie beams with maternal pride.
"Everyone tells me I should open a restaurant," Minnie says, as she relaxes in a soft white-leather recliner in the living room. "Have another piece of cake."
I accept. This woman should not be denied.
A Lost Childhood
"When I was growing up, my mother was my heart," Minnie says. But to this day, Minnie does not understand why her mother did not rescue her from a house fire that started when she was playing hide-and-go seek with her older sister. And when she looked closer at their relationship, she never understood why her mother called both her daughters Minnie.
"I was 7 years old," Minnie says.
"I was hiding behind a heater, and my poodle skirt caught on fire. I was screaming with everything I had ‘Madea, Madea,' which is what I called my mother. I screamed for her until I saw her through the window, and I fainted. It was a man from another house who rescued me."
"My mother was not sympathetic," Minnie says, telling everyone that her daughter was "all burned up."
Traumatized by the "burned child" label and feeling emotionally abandoned by her mother, Minnie felt betrayed.
She attended school through the second week of seventh grade and then quit, taking a job in a boarding house cooking, washing sheets and cleaning.
"Every week I would go home and give my money to my mama," Minnie says. But it was never enough to win back her mother's affection.
Tired of her mother's contempt and the verbal abuse, Minnie sought a way out of Mississippi. She met a couple who drove her to Memphis. They offered to take her to Massachusetts, but she said "no." She smiles when she thinks of that couple, whose name she never knew.
Into the Frying Pan of Matrimony
With only verve and snap, 15-year-old Minnie made her way from Memphis to a small town in Missouri, where she got work as a waitress in the Star restaurant. She met her future husband, Clifton Spicer, at the Star.
The teenager was awestruck by Clifton's classic good looks. He was tall, towering above Minnie at 6 foot 3 inches. He loved to wear a cowboy hat and boots, a 45-caliber pistol at his side. He idolized John Wayne.
Like Wayne, Clifton was muscular and dignified. He had served his country in the Navy during World War II. He was also 22 years older than Minnie, and Minnie was at an impressionable age.
"He put his hand on my knee," Minnie says, reminiscing about Clifton.
"I pushed his hand away. And then I realized he was interested."
Clifton wooed Minnie until she finally agreed to marry him if he bought her a house to raise a family. They were married within two weeks of their first meeting. "My husband was a traveler," Minnie says.
Clifton's restless spirit moved them to new places, and the family grew with each move. Minnie, a devout Baptist, named her 11 children with Biblical names: John, Daniel, Paul, David, Martha, Joseph, Mark, Adam, Timothy, Mary and Elizabeth. The only reason she stayed with her husband was for the children; Clifton commonly flew into abusive rages against his wife.
When Minnie was 39, Clifton died of a heart attack.
"It was much better after my dad died," Martha says. Martha vividly remembers her father throwing scalding water on Minnie when she was pregnant with Adam. "I was over there," Martha says, pointing to a corner of the dining room. Minnie was burned, but the baby was all right.
Eleven Joys of Motherhood
After a miscarriage during her sixth month of her pregnancy and the birth of a stillborn daughter (which still makes Minnie's eyes swell with tears), Minnie gave birth to her first son, John, in Mercy, Calif. Now 43, John lives in Pine Bluff, Ark., with his wife, Janette, and two children. Inspired by a calling that was in his nature since he was a small child, John has become a successful minister.
Minnie and Clifton had their second son, Daniel, in McComb. Daniel, 41, also lives in Pine Bluff with his four children and has had an impressive career at International Paper. Paul, the third son in the Spicer clan, was born in Edwards, but died in a car accident when he was 22. David, 39, was born in Canton. He had a promising future in the NFL, but a legal indiscretion led to his incarceration.
Born in Vicksburg, Martha, 37, is Minnie's fifth child and first daughter. She now lives near her mom in Flora. Martha has three children and manages an office.
"Martha always knew how to handle her four older brothers and her daddy," Minnie says.
Joseph, 36, was born in Edwards, and is an entrepreneur and business owner living in Pine Bluff. "Joseph likes to joke around, but he's always there for me. He doesn't want me to want for anything," Minnie says.
Around 1973, the family settled down in Flora, and that's where the rest of the Spicer kids were born. Mark, 33, lives with his family in Jackson and works as a surgical technician. Adam, 31, lives in Madison and is a successful lawyer. Before going to law school, Adam served in the Navy like his father.
"When I left for the Navy, my mother hugged me and cried," Adam says.
"She told me that she was so proud of me and knew that I would succeed. Every time any of us left home, she'd always say: ‘The same God who watched over you at home, will watch over you wherever you go. Just remember to pray.'
"So, I went … and I prayed. When I returned home after boot camp, I had lost about 30 pounds. My mother took one look at me and said: ‘Come on in here and let me fix you something to eat.'"
Timothy, 30, is a commercial truck driver who lives in Flora with his family. Like his mama, Timothy can sing church hymns and belt the blues. Mary, 28, works as a patient representative. She lives in Jackson with her husband Corey and Corey's sister Shundra, who has Down syndrome. Shundra calls Minnie "grandma."
At 25, Elizabeth is the baby of the Spicer clan. She also lives in Flora with her two children. She is a customer-service representative and nursing student.
"Elizabeth was only 22 months old when her father died," Minnie says. "She never knew her daddy."
When they were young, Elizabeth and her other brothers and sisters would give Minnie a "Father's Day" card, because she was both their mother and father after Clifton died.
Keeping The Faith
"When each of my babies was in the womb, I prayed, ‘Lord let me love my child like a mother should. Let my child love me as a child should love their mother," Minnie says.
"I would line them up and have them say their prayers," Minnie recalls of her young family. "Then they would scamper off into their bunk beds and do things that kids do. ‘Your breath stinks,' one would say. And another would respond, ‘your feet stink,' Minnie says with a laugh.
Saying grace before dinner sparks another fond memory of the children: "I would tell them ‘say your grace and eat it all.'" Each child would say their own grace, except for Mark, who was 6 at the time. "When I put the food on the table Mark would repeat, ‘Say your grace and eat it all.'"
Mark loved to stay up late and watch horror films, like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street' or ‘Chuckie'," Minnie adds. "And I would tell him: ‘Mark, you do not need to be watching that stuff.' One night he knocked on my bedroom door: ‘Mama, can I spend the night with you?'"
Minnie is quick to admit she's not a flawless mom. "Parents are going to make mistakes," she says. "I've made some. I do not consider myself a perfect mother."
Ask Minnie's children, though, and you will hear a different story. "My mother was always there for us. No matter how bad our father treated her, she was always there for us," Martha says.
"There are two things very important to me," Minnie says. "That my children know that I love them and that they get an education. … I was uneducated, and I didn't want them to have to go through that."
The mother of 11 also taught her children that there was more to life than the possession of material things.
"One year I got all my children together and said, ‘I am so sorry I cannot afford to get you anything for Christmas. Adam looks to me and says, ‘We've never missed a Christmas, so if we're not getting us anything, then you're not able. We understand.'"
But fortune smiled on Minnie that year, and she was able to surprise the children with a big Christmas. "God had blessed us," she says. "They had everything that Christmas they could possibly want."
Minnie saved money for her brood any way she could.
"I learned a long time ago not to fight with my husband," she says.
"I would never win. … My husband was disabled so when I got his Social Security and (Veteran's Administration) checks, I would cash his checks, pay the monthly bills, and if he said or did something that really made me mad, I charged him for it."
The money Minnie charged Clifton for his meanness, she would save to buy presents for the kids.
Still, she was far from an indulgent parent. "When my husband passed away, I called my children, and I said: ‘When I tell you something one time, I mean it. If I say go mow the law, that's it. If I say go clean the kitchen, that's it,'" Minnie says. If they didn't listen, she used a time-tested motherly method: "All I had to say is, ‘What you did hurt me,' and that was the end of that."
Her kids say that Minnie could have been a military commander with her natural talents for understanding people and getting the best out of them.
"What really makes my mom special is that she mastered the art of shifting back and forth between being a loving, kind mother and a stern disciplinarian and teacher," Adam says. Minnie was adamant that her sons would grow up to be "real men." She often wondered whether Clifton would have been proud of the way he reared their sons. But she also wanted her children to know unconditional love.
"I can't remember a day that went by that I didn't hear my mom say, ‘I love you,'" Adam says.
"It's important to me to know that when I die, my children can survive," Minnie says. "When I look around, all of them grown, all of them have their own houses, I know they can make it on their own."
Living Day to Day
"My mother never measures anything," Adam says. "Never a cup of this or an ounce of that. In cooking, she just does what tastes right and she always does it with love. I suppose the same recipe can make for a very savory life."
Singing helps, too, apparently. "When I cook, I like to sing," Minnie says. "I could always sing." As if to make a point, Minnie breaks out in song during our interview: "I don't know about tomorrow," she sings spontaneously. "I just live from day to day."
Hanging on the walls behind Minnie's recliner are two large paintings, each featuring a loving angel protecting small children. Beside the paintings are family photographs, showing happy kids and adults at different stages of life.
Every inch of space in Minnie's house holds a family memory. Many exceptional memories have been made in the sunny house on Norris Street, but there are some not so happy ones, too.
Minnie Spicer's home is a warm place, and Minnie is the family's heart and soul.
Great story! There are so many Minnie Spicers in our community. What better way to salute all of them than this article. Happy Mother's Day to Minnie Spicers and all the Minnie Spicers...even those that are only here with us in spirit.
Great story and great writing, Anita. Have you been to Chicago lately? Chicago is black folks' homeland in America, especially Mississippians. Do you remember me from the plane trip to Chicago about a year ago? Don't state my real name on here! No one knows who I am.