My Mom Wants to Nickname You and Other Facts

At the end of yesterday’s depressing blog post about the publishing industry (warning: it contains deep sadness and sarcasm), I said I would make my next post about rainbows and unicorns. Well, this post is about something even better: My mother.

Here we are in 1973 in east Tennessee.


You will be hearing a lot about my mother in the coming year. She and I are writing a novel together. Much of it will be based on her childhood years after her mother died. I can not wait to get started on this project with her. Actually, she is the creative drive behind it and I am just the one to make it happen technically. My mom has macular degeneration (which came on quickly in 2012 making her legally blind, though she still has some eyesight), and arthritis in her hands which makes typing difficult.

But today, because it is Mother’s Day, I am making a top ten list of things she has done to make me a better person.

1. Mom never judged us or our friends for the clothes we wore, the crazy hair styles, tattoos, piercings, or cleanliness. Mom treated all our friends the same whether they were rich or homeless. She would invite them in and ask if they’d like a glass of tea. Then she would begin telling them stories to put them at ease and make them comfortable to share their own. But she never pried.

2. Mom took us for walks along our dead end road. We carried plastic bags for picking up aluminum cans. We didn’t need the money from recycling. It was just something fun to do, like a roadside Easter Egg hunt. But if we were on certain roads we were not allowed to pick up cans because it was the Potter man’s territory. He needed the money from recycling, so we didn’t take his cans. As a matter of fact, if we were driving down a road where he frequently looked for cans and we had some in the car, Mom would tell us to “toss them out for the Potter man”. This backfired the year my little brother tossed a can out the school bus window believing he was doing something kind. He ended up being suspended from riding the bus for three weeks.

3. Mom was terrible with directions and she wasn’t that great at driving in general, at least not when we were really young. But she decided now and then to take us on vacation by herself. My two brothers and I would climb in the car and she would drive us toward Myrtle Beach with the assumption that one way or another she would find it. Every time we would reach Florence, SC she would point at a car and say, “I bet they’re going where we’re going. I’ll follow them.” And somehow we made it.

4. She used big words we seldom heard anyone else use. She would ask if we knew what the words meant. If we didn’t, she would have us look it up in the dictionary. Mom always wanted to be a writer and has kept journals since the mid-80s. She enjoyed telling us true stories, rumors from her childhood, and superstitions. When I outgrew being read the Berenstain Bears books, Mom and I would read Woman’s World magazine together, take the quizzes, and read each other’s horoscope. She wrote short essays for similar magazines and had a few printed in the sections designated for reader submissions. Words made stories and stories made us live forever.

5. Cake. My mother loves to make cake. When she was a little girl she would have her little brother steal their grandpa’s chicken eggs so she could bake a cake for them. She always had a cake made for Sunday dinner. Before her macular degeneration forced her to retire from her job as a rural mail carrier, she would make cakes for all the other carrier’s birthdays. To her, cake is what you give people to make them happy and there can never be too much happiness.

6. Mom did not just deliver mail to her customers. She listened to their stories, worried about their problems, looked in on them, set them up on dates, and fed their animals if they couldn’t. One elderly woman called her at 6:00 in the morning to ask if mom could please bring her some toilet paper as she came by on the mail route. You may wonder how the woman got my mom’s cell phone number. Well, mom gave it to out to certain customers who might need her. My mom stopped and bought toilet paper and took it to the woman.  She is not afraid to be needed.

7. Thanksgiving is a time for family. Christmas often revolves around the children, but Thanksgiving revolves around the mothers and fathers, grandparents, and cousins. It can be a very difficult holiday for people who have no family. Mom never hesitated to invite people from her mail route or friends of ours who were alone to come share food with us. Not everyone took her up on it, but some did. When there is a stranger sitting at your Thanksgiving table, you see your family through their eyes. It was a gift to be able to do that.

8. Mom nicknames everyone, especially if she loves you and maybe if she doesn’t care much for you. It may be as simple as adding “Lou” to the end of your first name. Her children were “Number 1 son”, “Little Girl”, and “Woody”. Co-workers were Wild Child, Hollywood, Mary-Mary, and others I have forgotten. Sometimes she would use the person’s real first and middle names or create a new middle name. With pets, it went quite overboard. My miniature dachshund, Dorothy, had a plethora of names. Dorothy was Dorothy Diane, Pidy-Tah, Pidy, Pie, and Tah. She called dad, “Chum” and every now and then when I was very little she would say “Chump” under her breath and laugh. Her brothers were Ronald-A, Donald William, Douger, and Rinky-Dink. Whoever you were in all the rest of the world did not matter. Mom saw you as you were to her, and that needed a name all its own. (She may have picked this habit up from her Daddy.)

9. When I was between the ages of 9 and 13, mom would buy things for me and say Dad bought them. I believed Dad had actually bought me an Olivia Newton John record and my very first eyeshadow until many years later. When she told me that she, not Dad, had bought those things and had all but forgotten ever telling me they were from Dad, I was surprised and confused. But looking back on it I remembered how I felt at those times, as if the gifts were proof he really did care about me. She was not interested in being a favorite parent. She really wanted us to have a good relationship with Dad, too. Part of her efforts in bringing that about was to buy me gifts “from Dad”.

10. Mom is a peace keeper, sometimes a peace maker. She calls people Sir and Ma’am. She apologizes when people are upset, even if they are upset at her for things she did not do. We marvel at people who do these things. But as her child, especially as IBooks became her grown child, it is hard to watch. I was not born with her temperament. Justice before peace was my motto. It was difficult to see her hurt by people and know all she wanted was to move on in peace when my entire being demanded I seek justice for her. As an adult I have been known to confront people who have hurt her. I do it in private and shame them mercilessly for hurting her. I leave them with, “All she wants is to be left in peace. If you tell her I talked to you it will just upset her more than you already have, so don’t mention that I came to you.” And because everyone knows my mom is, in fact, a selfless and kind person who does not deserve to be hurt, they would agree not to say anything.

I did not turn out to be a carbon copy of my mother. But everything she is has made me a better person than I could have ever been without her. Growing up knowing my mother had lost her mother to breast cancer when my mom was only 7 years old, I valued her in a way some kids may never think about. I know I am lucky and I never take her for granted.


Winter Seedlings: Jute Confronts Her Mother

I’m sharing an excerpt from Winter Seedlings. This is a small part of Chapter 3 when Jute confronts her mother for abandoning her for four days. Winter Seedlings focuses on the effects of childhood sexual abuse and the difficulty of overcoming them. It’s a journey fumbling toward self-love with a broad range of diverse characters.

In this scene, Jute has been up in the woods behind her house collecting kindling. It is the first week of January and bitter cold. On the way back to the house, she sees her mother getting out of a GMC Jimmy driven by a man Jute doesn’t recognize.


          As long as it takes me to walk to her, she never stops smiling. She is like that when people are around. Even when she shouldn’t be. She makes it hard to stay mad at her.

“Jute, this is Jerry.”

She turns to him and smiles, then looks back at me grinning. She lowers her voice seductively, “We’ve been sleeping around.”

“Momma!” I glare at her. She is trying to be funny but it makes me mad.

“What?” She says, batting her lashes at me and still grinning. “I’m finally free of that asshole. I can do whatever I want.”

She shrugs and walks past me like she’s Marilyn Monroe walking into someone else’s run down shack.

“Momma, I don’t care what you do or who you do it with. Just keep the details to yourself. Okay?”

I follow her up the porch steps and drop the kindling in the cardboard box by the door. Instead of going inside, I head back to the wood pile and pick up two small logs, leaving the largest for tonight. When I enter the house, Momma is in her bedroom talking to me through the door as if I have been there the whole time.
Ignoring her, I open the wood stove door. The heat is heavenly warmth on my face. I grab the poker and jab at the ashes and burned pieces of wood before throwing on the logs. I hear the snapping and cracking and try to focus on that instead of how angry I am at Momma for being gone so long. I can’t keep the door open any longer or the room will fill with smoke. I reluctantly shut it and hear Momma saying, “Jute, are you out there?”

I stand up and take my hat off. Jerry is standing by the couch, rocking on his heels and toes with his back to me. His hands are in his pockets and he’s looking at a picture of Jesus. It’s the only picture in the room, left here by the previous residents. This must be an awkward moment for Jerry. I don’t plan to make it any easier.
Before he has time to gawk at my shaved head, I walk through the kitchen to Momma’s room. She is sitting on her bed in her underwear. Her back is to me, bent slightly forward as she puts one leg into her black pants. Her olive skin stretches over her bony spine. Everything about her is not enough. Even the blanket on her bed looks threadbare. It wouldn’t even keep a dog warm.

A sigh escapes me. “Momma? Momma, what are you doing? We’ve been here a couple of weeks. You can’t run off with the first guy asking if you have change for a dollar.”

She doesn’t turn around. She looks drained. Her voice lacks all the entertainment qualities it had when Jerry could hear her, “If you had been listening to me a minute ago, you would know he isn’t just any guy. I don’t know what I would do without him. I have been a prisoner for too long, married to that crazy man. So, don’t tell me now that I should still think about that psycho before I make my decisions. I’ve snagged a nice man this time. He bought us those groceries, you know.”

My words come out quiet and empty, “That was nice of Jerry.”

Memories of the last week flash through my mind: The day I scraped the mold off the bread and ate it with mustard. I missed the bus Thursday. Missing school meant missing a free lunch. The next day Allie had to pick me up after school so I could make up the Chemistry test. Allie has always made up for Momma’s negligence, but Allie graduated early and is moving to Ohio tomorrow. I don’t say any of this aloud. Momma doesn’t care. If she knew how I felt, she would just use it to hurt me. She didn’t even want me here.

I pick up the hair brush and start to brush through the tangles in Momma’s hair. I gather it in my hand, turn it in a twist, and pin it. She stares at herself in the mirror. I’ve always loved to play with Momma’s hair. It is bittersweet to do it now. She picks up a small mirror and moves it so she can see the back of her head. She kisses the air and snort laughs.

“Oh, my heavens, who is that wretched old woman?” She giggles before pushing up her nose with her thumb and crossing her eyes.

“Momma, you are beautiful. Shut up.” I smile at her reflection, failing again to stay mad at her.

She winks at me.

I tell her, “Now, put on a shirt. And not that red and gold shirt with the clocks all over it. I hate that damn thing.”

I leave the room and find Jerry standing at the fridge with the door open. He’s pulling a container of cottage cheese out of a grocery bag and putting it in with the other items. There’s sliced cheese, bologna, a bag of apples, and a can of peaches. I see bread on the kitchen counter. I pick up the bread box from the kitchen table and carry it to the counter. We can’t leave bread out or mice will get in it.

“Got a mouse trap?” I don’t look to see if he smiles. It was a bad attempt at humor. I sigh.

Finally, after closing the bread box, I look over at him. He’s staring at me, mostly my stubbly hair.

“Is Jute your real name?”

“It wasn’t. But, it is now.” I don’t offer details. I don’t tell him that Momma named me Judy after herself. I don’t understand why she did that. The name Judy is bad enough without it implying that I am also my mother’s replica. I’m nothing like her. When I started kindergarten, I insisted everyone call me Jute. It stuck. We changed it legally when Momma married Earl and he officially adopted us.

“What do you think Judy is doing in there?” I see his eyes land on my tiny scar, then shift around my face trying to find a soft place to land. He gives up and looks away. My face might be full and round, but it isn’t a place to find comfort.

“She has trouble making up her mind,” I say as though I’m not being mean. “I’ll check on her.”

Opening the bedroom door, I see her shoving her folded up blanket into the top of her closet. She’s wearing the clock shirt. There is a suitcase open on the bed, full of her clothes. Her dresser is cleared except for a bottle of baby lotion.

She turns to me and forces a weak smile. She walks toward me as if she is on a t.v. screen. She is just walking toward the camera.


Books by Julie Roberts Towe

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The Edge of Despair – Appalachian Writers

I write about heartache, longing, and despair. These are the elements I love most in stories, songs, and movies. Without an element of sorrow, I can’t relate. I know I am not the only person who identifies most with these feelings. What is the root of this?

For me, I think it has to do with where I grew up. The landscape, culture, history, and experience of southern Appalachia is rich with trials, isolation, perseverance, and longing for times to be just a little better. The people are both dependent upon and at the mercy of nature, beneath the ground and above it. Hearts are pulled to stay and minds are pulled to leave. Staying makes one always wonder about leaving and leaving proves that Appalachia can’t be left behind.

When I was old enough to read adult novels, I struggled to relate to the women on the pages. I knew their lives were ordinary, but not my kind of ordinary. The main character may have been troubled, someone had broken her heart once and she may never trust again. I just couldn’t relate, not that my heart had never been broken. It had. But the women in those novels had it all. They had amazing jobs in big cities. They never ran out of food and their hands were never callused. They were always clean and had the perfect outfit for every occasion, occasions I never knew existed until I started reading. I read a lot of romance novels, trying to figure out what ordinary was supposed to look like. For me, it was like reading fantasy and trying to figure out how to be a unicorn.

I will readily admit that by the time I was born in 1972, times had changed; east Tennessee was nothing like the stereotypical hillbilly culture. Most of the kids I went to school with reviled their heritage. The life we lived was far from the hardship of my parents’ and grandparents’ years. But the stigma persisted and there was no escaping how the world viewed us. By the late ’80’s, strangers stopped asking me if all my family had shoes. By the mid 90’s I no longer engaged with people young and foolish enough to ask me to say certain phrases for their entertainment, but I was well aware of how my speech was heard.

There are exceptions. Not every person in Appalachia likes a sad and lonesome song, nor do they all believe that’s what Appalachia is about. Not every person who likes a tear-jerker novel full of heartache does so because they’re from a place where sorrow abounds. I am only saying this is true for me. Sorrow is the backdrop which gives meaning to joy, magnifies every pleasure, and never allows us to take life for granted. I identified with it early and was drawn to those equally in its grips.

No matter what genre I write, no matter where my characters are born or die, they will inevitably carry this aspect of southern Appalachia with them. My palette for creating them is as diverse as mountain flora, but they all spring up from the soil of heartache.

My first novel takes place in Maryville, Tennessee. The next will take place mostly in eastern Kentucky. They will make you cry, you will feel more alive, and you’ll want to hug someone you love. That’s what it means to me when I say I am an Appalachian writer.

National Tequila Day Reminds me….

I don’t drink. Really. Because every time I have ever been the slightest bit tipsy, I’ve cried like a baby. So, I just don’t.

But in the mid to late 90’s, I followed around The Floating Men, a band out of Nashville. Their lyrics were amazing and each album was an intense story unfolding. The crowd was full of brainy folk who appreciated songs that held up to their intellectual expectations. I loved them and still do.

I loved The Floating Men so much that I gave their CDs away to anyone willing to listen to one. There was a girl named Karen who took a particular liking to them, so I invited her to see them play in Johnson City, TN. She drove in from Roanoke, drank lots of wine and was much happier for it.

Near the end of the night the lead singer, Jeff Holmes, announced that they would be playing the song Long Gone Tomorrow soon. Anyone participating in the tequila drinking ritual should get their shots ready.

I don’t know why, but that night I decided I would do it. Maybe I was influenced by how happy Karen was when she was drunk. When I ordered the shot of tequila, my friends were floored. They were also a bit giddy that they would be there when I broke my no-alcohol rule. I was a little giddy with optimism, too.

At the 2:40 point in the song, when Jeff sang “No more tequila for me…” we all drank the shot.

It took about ten minutes for me to start feeling disconnected, and in twenty minutes I had tears in my eyes which I tried desperately to hide.

The night was soon over, but I sat there at the table until it was just the band packing up and the two of us at a table. I wasn’t sure if I should drive but I also felt a little stuck in time. I was overly cautious and a bit terrified of how numb I felt. Finally, I decided it was safe to go and I was ready to call it a night.

That was my first and last shot of tequila. It proved, yet again, that I am a crying drunk and should avoid alcohol.

But for those of you who are not crying drunks, here is the song. If you want to celebrate Tequila Day by drinking along, enjoy! Remember… 2:40.

Handfuls in a Bucket

I called my dad as research for my book. He and my mom were in the grocery store parking lot ready to go inside.

Me: “I need to ask you a weird writer question. How many green beans fit in a handful? How many handfuls fill up a five gallon bucket?”

Dad: “I don’t ever use a five gallon bucket. I use a two gallon bucket.”

Me: “Well, whatever size you use is fine. My character is smaller than you and she probably would not use a five gallon bucket if you don’t. So I’ll make it a two gallon bucket.”

Dad: “The other day I weighed a two gallon bucket of beans and it weighed 16.5 pounds. I think a five gallon bucket would be close to 30 pounds, so someone could carry a five gallon bucket of beans. I just like to use the two gallon buckets because one heaping two gallon bucket makes exactly 7 quarts of beans.”

Me: “Either way is fine. I just need  a rough estimate so my numbers aren’t way off.”

Dad: “What kind of green beans do you want to know about? Half-runners like we plant are smaller. Or are they Blue Lake? The Missouri Wonders are big and long beans and probably wouldn’t take that many to fill up a bucket.”

Me: “Whatever beans you plant, I’ll make it that.”

Dad: “If you asked me how many quart jars I can get from a bucket of beans, I could tell you that right now. But, just let me do some figuring and I can tell you. Do you need to know right now or can I get back to you?”

Me: “Sure, you can let me know whenever.”

Dad: “Do you want to talk to your mother?”

Me: “No, She can just call me back. I’ll talk to you later… bye.”

My dad likes figuring out things like this, which is good because I need the numbers. I could probably figure up an estimate after doing some Google searches, but I honestly thought he might know off the top of his head. He likes to figure out estimates and quantify his harvests. But, evidently he does that by quarts, not handfuls.

It took him an hour and ten minutes to call me back, that is with going into the grocery store and driving fifteen minutes home. He had already gathered up handfuls of beans, counted them, and counted the numbers of handfuls into the bucket. I know the question was bugging him.

Dad: “There’s 20 beans in a handful and 25 handfuls fills up a bucket. But, you know that no one picks beans like this.”

Me: “I know, but she’s just thirteen and doing it as a game to see how many she can hold as she picks them. I did that.”

Dad: “You never put them in no five gallon bucket, though.”

Me: “No, I only picked a bucket of beans by myself one time. But, I did like to count and see how many things I could fit in my hand.”

I asked him how many rows he had planted this year. He has three 50ft rows and has already given away enough beans to fill 200 quarts. He will have nearly that many left for himself, mom, and whoever visits during suppertime in the coming year.

In his mind, he adds those quarts up as money. Not in a bitter way, but in a way that says, “I am aware of how much money my work is worth. I consciously choose to make nothing on what I give away. I am not being foolish. I am being generous.”

We talked about the types of beans he raised growing up, and how they didn’t tie them up on trellises, but let them run up the corn. They didn’t put down plastic between the rows so they had to get out there and hoe it all. He sounded like he was ashamed of how they gardened because they didn’t do it the right way. And if you knew him, you would understand this to be the lens through which he views the world. There is a right way for doing everything.

I don’t know how much of the information will make its way into my story. But it was a good conversation and a good excuse to ask him about a part of his life.