I don’t know why the memory of Mother Toe is sitting with me these days. In light of current events, perhaps I’m thinking about trauma and mental health, or perhaps it’s just a stroll down memory lane for no other reason than to memorialize a woman who was a part of my childhood. Whatever the reasons, I’m taking this opportunity to introduce you to Mother Toe.
Mother Toe was a member of our church. The name Toe is a loving spin on her last name. Her peers called her Mae or Toe, and according to our ages, the rest of us called her either Sister Toe or Mother Toe. I don’t know what kind of childhood she had or if she had family. As far as we knew, our church was her only family. She was ours, we were hers, and that was it.
Mother Toe was an oddity to most of us. She always came to church with no fewer than three tote bags chocked full of things too precious to be left at home for the burglars. Her arrival was signaled by the bustle of bags, the jangle of key, and the pungent smell of mothballs and peppermint candy. She often wore two dresses at the same time with a length of ribbon around her waist as a belt. Tied to one end of the ribbon was a cluster of keys that fell perfectly into a patch pocket, which she had hand-sewn to her apron. Some days, for no apparent reason, she would show up in a beautiful dress, a pair of pumps, and embellishments, like a brooch and a rhinestone clip in her wig so that we were at once both dumbfounded and delighted.
During services, she would commandeer a sedilia that sat against the wall adjacent to the pulpit where she had visual command of the sanctuary from all angles. It was her seat. If she had chosen to sit elsewhere, we would’ve assumed that she was absent that day. It never would’ve occurred to us that she might be sitting somewhere else.
One thing I should do before going any further is introduce Mother Toe’s tambourine. It was an extension of herself, like another limb, and it would not have been a stretch for us children to believe that she herself had invented the instrument. In our minds, she and it were synonymous. No matter the pitch or tempo, she never missed a beat, and her wrists were mechanical in their precision. In order to fortify her left hand for the fiery services common among Pentecostals, she strategically wrapped white sports tape around her index and ring fingers. She was a sight to behold, and seeing her in action was hypnotic.
Unlike the regular, single-row tambourines we had lying around, hers was a tune-able, triple row tambo, and it was not beyond her to stop playing in the middle of a song, pull out her tuning key and adjust the tensioners. I’m sure this display was to remind us that not a single one of us was in her league. However, she was always eager to give us a demonstration on how to properly play her master tambourine, but only a select few were allowed to sit next to her on the sedilia and play under her guarded tutelage. Mother Toe had quite a few “master” possessions, which was anything she considered top-of-the-line.
On days when she wasn’t at church, Mother Toe was holed up in her little upstairs apartment on Columbia. Against burglars, she bolted her front door with half a dozen padlocks and then ran a chain through the shackles and anchored it to something sturdy and stationary. She would often call our house and ask my mom to pick up some Coricidin (which she pronounced Carsa-deenya) and a bag of Eight O’Clock Coffee but reminding my mom to not go out of her way. Our little town was small enough that we passed everything on our way to everywhere, so nothing was really out of the way. My mom would pick up these items and then send me to the door to deliver them where I would wait patiently as Mother Toe rattled chains and turned locks, while calling out for me to not leave.
Every year or two, my parents and some of the others would get a distress call from Mother Toe because robbers had broken in during the night and stolen her master belongings. At the top of that list of stolen goods was her master fur, which she spoke of relentlessly but none of us had ever seen, not even in the dead of winter. Next were her master wrist watch and her master Bible. Luckily for us and the entire neighborhood, they had not gotten their thieving hands on her master tambourine. A few deacons and their wives would rush to her aid. “Toe is in a way,” they’d say. The women would pour Mother Toe a cup of Eight O’Clock and try to soothe her as she pointed to the closet or a cookie jar or a space behind the radiator where she had hidden these items. The women reminded her how blessed she was that she’d slept through it all.
In the meantime, the deacons would assess the column of locks and latches running down the length of the door and wonder aloud, for her benefit, how anything living could’ve gotten in and heaven forbid there’s ever a fire. Mother Toe explained that somehow the crooks had jimmied the master lock and once the master lock was disabled, the rest of the locks were useless. Also for her benefit, the deacons would do a clean sweep of the house, reinforce the doors and windows, and assure her that she was safe. This seemed to provide the solace she needed until a year or two later when the same master items were stolen yet again.
The first time I had accompanied my mom on one of these distress calls, I saw Mother Toe for the first time without all the bags, or layers of clothing, or the wig. Her thin, silver hair was brushed back into a little button. Through her gown I could see the thinness of her silhouette. Rambling and confused, she was childlike in her vulnerability. In those days, there were no mental health counselors for Mother Toe, there were only these women who prayed and sang with her until the spell passed.
For at least a month after one of these episodes, Mother Toe would stand up during testimony service and recount the burglary and then call off the things that were stolen. With each subsequent testimony, the list of stolen items grew. She always ended the testimony the same way: “They stole my belongings, but they didn’t steal my life. Praise God, I’m still in the land of the living.” Amen.
Because children are brilliant at overhearing adult conversations, we knew that something unthinkable had happened to Mother Toe when she was a young woman. Some terrible person had accosted her, done horrible things to her, and then left her for dead on the icy streets of Chicago. Some rumored that she was indeed dead by the time she was discovered lying exposed in the snow. All I know is that if she were dead, somehow she found her way back to her body, and then she and her body found their way to us where she was nourished with love and compassion, Carsa-deenya and Eight O’clock coffee, and where we became willing participants in the mystical workings of her master tambourine.
We are shaped by our experiences and how we process them, and undoubtedly some experiences come with locks and chains. I don’t know why the memory of Mother Toe is sitting with me these days. Perhaps I’m using her memory as a looking glass, a tool for self-reflection to examine my own layers, to investigate my own doors that might be shackled so that nothing living can get in, and heaven forbid there’s ever a fire. In all of her blessed uniqueness, I suspect that Mother Toe was right about one thing: If we can find and jimmy the master lock, the other locks that bind us will come undone.
Thank you, Mother Toe!