“How’s your momma?”
I heard those words while eating lunch at a Popeye’s a few weeks ago. Back when the warnings of the virus were mostly in other countries, schools were still open, but we all knew it was coming and people were starting to get skittish about eating in restaurants.
A lady was standing by a table of blue collar guys on their lunch break. All of them wore those khaki, button-up shirts with a patch with their names on their chests. Men who wore work boots and probably piled out of one of the utility trucks out in the parking lot. She’d singled one of them out. Maybe an old classmate. Maybe a childhood neighbor. Regardless, he was someone she’d known from years back and their paths had crossed here over a table of fried chicken.
The lady herself could have been in her forties, maybe fifties, maybe thirties. It was hard to know. Time had worn hard on her in the way that it often does on poor, rural folks. Hard lives leave hard lines on faces that betray youth. She was heavy and her shirt was a faded blue. Her hair, a sandy brown mixed with grey.
She is the common woman of the South. You see her sitting in a car with the windows rolled down outside of Kroger. You see her buying lottery tickets in gas stations. You see her holding a cigarette and yelling at her kids. You see her everywhere rural America hits hard reality.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been spending more and more time outside of Arkansas. Enough time stepping outside my home state to notice things about the culture that I grew up in that always blended into the background before I changed my address.
It wasn’t her appearance, but the “How’s your momma?” that got my attention. I couldn’t think of a single moment outside of the South where I heard someone ask that question as a formal greeting.
How’s your momma? How’s your daddy? How’re your folks? The question comes in different forms. You ask it to someone you grew up with when you haven’t seen them in a few months or a few years. You ask it because you knew their parents. You ask it because you want to know the larger state of your friend’s life. You’re asking about the state of their clan. It’s a question that relates to a general state of being rather than something specific. You are asking about those who nurtured them. Those who protected them. You are asking about the state of their soul.
More often than not, this is done with complete sincerity.
For all that frustrates me about rural Arkansas, this is something that I love beyond measure. We’re not much for outsiders. For better or worse we greet them with suspicion. We’re always guarded. We stand on our front steps and watch with a cautious eye if a truck we don’t know drives by too slow. But within the community itself, people pull closer when the world closes in.
And right now, the world seems to be closing in.
The woman was a reminder that in the place I come from, our instinct isn’t so much to reach out to strangers, as it is to reach out to each other and reinforce the fibers that connect our communities.
Floods. Fires. Droughts. Sickness. It’s understood that help isn’t coming from anywhere but within. This is the way it’s always been. We know that we are largely forgotten by the rest of the world. We shoulder the heaviness instead of avoiding it. We endure together.
Within the world of rural people, the consequence of foolishness cuts deeper. For our grandparents’ generation and before, a failed crop or illness would be marked by another stone engraved with the family name in the local cemetery. Survival required not only one’s labor, but faith in a higher power and faith in the people around you.
Feuding neighbors will go out together in the middle of the night to help save cows from flood waters because there are greater dangers in this world than a personal grudge. Meals get delivered to the elderly. Differences slip into the background and help shows up. We may not have money, but we have resilience and each other. We may wave American flags in July, but our true loyalties are to each other. We’ll get through this. We always do.
“How’s your momma?” she asked.
It didn’t matter how many years it had been since she’d seen him. She’d be there for him if he asked. Nobody had to say it out loud.
After a few minutes, the woman left to go back to her lunch. As she stepped away, she laid her hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “You take care, and tell your momma I said ‘hi.’”