Mattie Belle Ustick’s name was everything it implied, southern, Baptist, Bible devotee … but there was lots more to her than that. In spite of growing up poor and undereducated in rural Houston, TX, she had all the manners and morays of a well- educated southern lady,  coupled with a fierce determination to better herself intellectually as well as materially.  She didn’t think anyone owed her anything, or that she had a right to anything, except working hard to better herself and her situation. And although her formal education ended at 8th grade, in order to help support her family, she never stopped educating herself. She and Webster’s dictionary were constant companions.

I can still see mama pouring over that dog-eared dictionary every week without fail, looking for a word she didn’t know. Then everyday during that week using that word in a sentence, so that by the end of seven days she fully understood its meaning and usage, until it finally became an unconscious part of her, broadening her vocabulary.

She loved discovering new words, and evenings found her pleasuring herself with a good book or working crossword puzzles, more vocabulary building endeavors. She even wrote a personal, specialized dictionary as a companion for her puzzling.

As my first editor, she was the toughest, honest about my work, brutally so at times, but always encouraging.

Growing into adulthood I have inherited that same love of words. Like mama, Webster’s, as well as Roget’s Thesaurus and the Word Book are my constant companions. One of the things I have discovered, as I am sure she must have as well, is that I often think I know the meaning of a word and how to use it, yet when researching find there is more to its meaning and usage than imagined. What that has done for me is to make me more conscious of how I speak, as well as write; and I, too, have become a word-smith of sorts.

It is said that as adults we often become our parents. While I have a more formal education than mama ever dreamed of,  it would seem that I have become at least a small part of who she was.  As the person I admired most in life, I certainly hope this is true.


Mattie Belle Ustick grew up on what her inlaws considered the wrong side of the tracks in Houston, TX. Like many southerners coming from poor families in her era she was undereducated, but that didn’t stop her from being a strong-minded, determined, and very talented woman.

There are many things I think of when I remember this woman I called mama, one of the most prevalent being her love of fashion. She could look at a picture, create a garment and make it her own.

One Mother’s Day, while she was still living, I was standing in the designer section of a local department store pondering the yearly question …”what do I get mama for Mother’s Day?” Would it be the Murjani fit by Gloria Vanderbilt, the sophistacation of Jones of New York, or the soft simple lines of Liz Claiborne? And as I stood there pondering the various labels, it struck me … I was perusing designer labels for the best designer I knew.

As these memories came flooding back, I recalled a time when mama’s creative bent found the two of us aboard a streetcar headed for downtown Los Angeles.

For me the ride was exciting. I studied in fascination the synchronized mechanics of the conductor intoning, “watch your step,” while flipping the coin box handle after each token deposited. Then when everyone was onboard, closing the folding doors with a swoosh, he pulled the trolley bell with his left hand, thrusting the throttle forward with his right, sending us quickly on our way. And as we sped toward our destination, like a canine hanging his head out an auto’s window, I faced the streetcar’s open casement, feeling the rush of wind against my face,  viewing the panorama of people passing by.

For mama the time was spent seated on the aisle side of the red, slatted, wooden benches, slowly and meticulously thumbing through the latest magazines and newspapers making mental notes of styles and fabrics, as well as the establishments having the best sales. Though I didn’t realize it then, she was preparing herself for the selections she would make later that day as we trudged in and out of every store with a fabric section.

It seemed we spent endless hours at the tables holding pattern books. Mama wouldn’t leave until she picked a pattern, or perhaps two, from each book.  While doing a lot of fretting and complaining, I really didn’t appreciate the effort she was making, as she gently reminded me of the treat in store if I was patient a little longer.

From patterns to materials I continued the wait. Standing impatiently, I shifted from foot to foot, sometmes even sitting on the floor beneath the remnant table,  resigning myself to the fact that mama wouldn’t leave until she had made just the right selections.

When finally satisfied Mama never forgot her promise, and I rushed her to the nearest escalator to make our anticipated visit to the basement snack counter.  Once there she had her usual, strong black coffee, and I ordered a thick chocolate malt, served in a fluted metal dish, the kind you eat with a spoon.

Though visibly exhausted, even dozing a little on the long streetcar ride back home, her energy soon soared. After dinner, amid her patterns, pins and scissors she was revived. Fingers flying she pinned, snipped and sewed, matching patterns and materials, bringing the creations in her mind into being.

That desire to create and design never faltered during my growing up years. In grammar school I wore dresses with matching undies, and in Junior High School my scrawny frame was adorned with custom clothing.  But High School found mama enduring the contradictions of teen-aged objections to “homemade clothing,” quickly followed by the desire to have a new outfit right away for this or that occasion. And in spite of insult, mama would sit for hours at her machine to satisfy my selfish whims, making all those “special times” in my life unique with her imaginative designs.

As Mother’s Day approaches this year, memories of mama return, and I wonder how many daughters are lucky enough to grow up with their own designer. In her lifetime Mattie Belle Ustick afforded little monetarily, but she gave willingly of what she had … herself.  And on that day many years ago, and on many days before she passed, I rushed home and called her, just to tell her how very much I loved her.


Mama used to say she couldn’t “carry a tune in a bucket.”

I don’t remember a lot as a very young child, but one picture remains in my memory. I see myself playing on the floor beneath  mama’s ironing board, listening to her sing as she pressed our clothing. (Definitely the days before permanent press).

A strong believer that the Bible was God’s word, while she worked she lost herself in the melodies of the old hymns learned as a child and sung every Sunday in her church. She didn’t worry about whether she was “in tune” or not, and neither did I.

Humming along to hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, What a Friend I have in Jesus, Jesus Loves Me, How Great Thou Art, and many more, I realize now that I was learning much from that “off tune” singing.

As a believer myself, I have certainly experienced the more modern approach to the worship in song that has much appeal to a more advanced society.  But in my experience there is much to be gleaned from the theology found in the old hymns.

A friend of mine’s mother died recently at 99 years of age. Although very frail, when vocalists from my friend’s church visited and sang The Old Rugged Cross, she found the strength to clap for them. She died peacefully a few hours later.

That incident triggered memories of my mother’s singing, reminding me of those special times spent at her feet, and of why she spent money she could ill afford to give me voice and piano lessons. Although she may not have been able to “carry a tune in a bucket,” her singing did much to form the person that I have become today. And I can only hope that the person I am does her proud.

Remembering Mama

During my younger years, Mama often insinuated that she had committed the unforgivable sin. This was something I found hard to believe knowing her character. And when I was 50-years-old, as we sat in my master bedroom discussing plans for my parents’ Golden Anniversary party, the truth came out.

“You cannot have a Golden Anniversary Party for us,” Mama said, with a hint of panic in her voice. “It’s not our 50th Anniversary.”

It’s funny how a family secret long-held but once revealed tells you a lot about your own life. I had often heard the story about my Polish immigrant aunts harshly judging Mama when she married into the family, talking behind her back and sympathizing with Rudja (my father) for … “doing the right thing.” In my innocence I had always thought they were judging Mama for being undereducated and “from the wrong side of the tracks” (their words), and because my dad was in law school with a bright future interrupted. While I suspected the truth, I never really knew exactly what was behind their judgement.

The revelation of that truth explained a lot of things. Why I was named after my Uncle (who translated the aunts’ conversations for Mama). Why my sister and I were raised so strictly with an emphasis on manners, sexual morality and education. And it was through that newfound knowledge I came to realize that we were raised to be the proof of Mama’s worth in the family.

I’ll never forget that day and that conversation with Mama. It brought home the fact that judgement and guilt can be very crippling. Looking back, I can only hope the hug and assurance I gave Mama on that day somewhat assuaged her guilt. How I came into this world truly didn’t, and doesn’t matter to me. Mama gave me what matters most, life itself. But most importantly she gave me the gift of friendship with the best friend I ever hope to have.


Mama Making Perogi

In playwriter Joseph Stein’s Broadway Musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the dairyman, Tevye, sings … “Traditionssssss … without them our lives might be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”

Whenever I see that musical or hear that song I think of my ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1800s, bringing many old country traditions with them. Some became a great part of my life growing up, and one of my favorites was the making of Perogi during the holiday seasons.

Each year the women (sometimes joined by the men) gathered together in the kitchen to share the task. Rolling up sleeves, their practiced hands grated ingredients for the filling, pausing only to wipe a tear or two as eyes smarted from pungent odors .

Next came the making of the dough. No recipe … as my aunts would say, “you make it by feel.” A mound of salted flour was stacked on the countertop, awaiting an egg or two and enough milk to make a sticky but workable dough. Kneaded to form a desirable texture, the dough was rolled until paper-thin, then cut into circles. Dabbing a teaspoon of pre-fried potato/onion filling onto each circle and folding them into half orbs, the edges were expertly crimped to create the finished fare.

Awaiting each Perogi (lined up on pre-prepared cookie sheets) was a pot of boiling water. Dropping each piece gently into the roiling turbulence, the cooks’ awaited their rising to the top, inspecting for the familiar light yellow hue that affirmed they were done. Finally scooped and drained, the Perogis were ladled into a large bowl and covered with butter.

I could easily eat two or three dozen without batting an eye. And I often had my hand playfully slapped with a wooden spoon as I tried sneaking a bite before they were set out on the table. Delicious when eaten immediately, they were just as good the next morning eaten cold or fried to accompany breakfast.

Like everything there is an upside and a downside to traditions. If used as a means to control people, they certainly do nothing to enrich lives. Fortunately for me, traditions have been a good thing. Without them my life might not have been “as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” but I am certain it has been richly blessed because of them.

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