Brother Holland had one bug in his Cheerios.
That would have been his mother-in-law, Martha “Mamaw” Phillips.
To the good reverend, Gussie Fay Holland was the perfect wife. She was nearly six feet tall, so his towering height didn’t look as out of place as with some of his previous dating attempts. She was a good homemaker, and served as church pianist, treasurer, Sunday School teacher, and church secretary. All of this she did well, and without complaint.
But Mamaw Phillips was another story.
Brother Holland had met his bride in Wisconsin, when he was visiting an old army buddy, Homer “Heft” Burns. Heft thought they could do worse than visit a local cafe known for great food and pretty waitresses. Gussie Fay had worked there for years, and it was how she put herself through secretarial school.
She was nearly 30, and no longer held out hope for marriage. For whatever reason, her beanpole-like stature seemed to intimidate most men. So, she was in for the shock of her life when she saw a man taller than her, with bright blue eyes and a goatee, who seemed to like her.
After a short courtship, they married. Gussie Fay’s mother, Mamaw Phillips threw a fit.
It wasn’t right! It wasn’t natural! Who would come to check on Mamaw Phillips if Brother Holland took her daughter down to Alabama? Never mind that Mamaw Phillips was in perfect health, and could out-work five cheese farmers. Mamaw felt small and weak, and was dependent, as a widow, on her daughter.
It didn’t take long for her to sell her home in Wisconsin and trail the young couple to Contentment. She put in to move in to the parsonage, as it had several bedrooms and there was lots of space. Finally, she wore Brother Holland down, and he told her that she could stay ‘until she found a place to live.’
No one knew, however, that it would be a years-long search for Mamaw Phillips, and that she would never find a place in Contentment she was pleased with.
Brother Holland consoled himself by staying in the church as much as he could, as did Gussie Fay, who, truth to be told, had really hoped her mother would stay in Wisconsin. The couple were never able to have children, and so there was very little reason to go home, really.
Mamaw Phillips didn’t like Brother Holland’s style of preaching, and never forgave him for marrying her daughter, so, she went to the Methodist church in town. There, she found several dowagers of the same mindset, aging, needing attention, and not being too discriminate on how they got it. As a result, if there was any major pot bubbling in Contentment, Mamaw Philllips was likely to be one of the chief stirrers.
Things all came to a head when she’d been in Contentment about five years. She’d fixed up the guest room with all things ‘old lady’ to include several vials of stinky smelling ‘rubs’ that she swore by for her non-existent arthritis.
One battle that Brother Holland won (with the help of Gussie Fay) was that if Mamaw had to put that mess on herself, she had to keep the bedroom door closed. That way the whole house didn’t reek of it. Weeping copiously, Mamaw Philips complied.
After a few years, Mamaw had worn her son-in-law out with her attention-seeking. He would walk in the house, and Mamaw would be in the parlor, sorting out her collection of decorative handkerchiefs. Going through there was the only way to get to the dining room, and to his supper. So, invariably, Brother Holland had to pass her. And she always had just about the same comment.
“I guess that it won’t be long now, son.” She’d say, looking at her son-in-law meaningfully.
“What’s that, Mamaw Philips?” Brother Holland would say politely, slowing down to listen to the minimum that he thought he had to without Gussie Fay getting mad at him.
“Well, I spect, till you’re preaching my funeral. I went down to Marlers Funeral Home today to look at my choices. I have it narrowed down between two caskets.”
“Well, that’s nice Mamaw Phillips,” Brother Holland said, “It’s always good to be prepared.”
“OH!!!” She’d cry out, “You just want me gone! You’d be glad to have the burden of my life off your shoulders! You just don’t care! And you, a preacher!”
“I didn’t mean a bit of that, Mamaw,” Brother Holland would say tiredly, then with a cajoling voice. “Don’t you need some of your cough medicine? Your voice sounds scratchy.”
And though it would be years before the strategy of ‘distract, distract, distract’ became well known through a misbehaving president, Brother Holland had already developed the skill in spades. He knew Mamaw at least as well as he knew his wayward congregation. And he knew Mamaw liked her cough medicine.
What Brother Holland denied, even to himself, was what everyone knew. That cough syrup was loaded with alcohol. It was so strong that only a few spoon-fulls could bring on giddiness and unchaste behavior in some of the most respected local matrons. The more cough syrup Mamaw Phillips took, the easier she was to live with. So, Brother Holland often encouraged her to take a healthy chug.
When it began to dawn on Mamaw Phillips that her attempts at getting her family’s attention were rarely going to be successful (they knew her too well) she had to branch out in the community. By this time, there was a new Sheriff Downing “Plug” Coursey, and one thing he did not tolerate was nonsense in public. And Mamaw’s ensuing antics were to plunge the new sheriff into a fresh kind of hell.
First, it was the funeral home. Seemed that someone had bought her choice of coffins, and she complained long and loudly to Woody Marler, the funeral home owner and director.
He finally shooed her off, telling her that if she’d bought the darn thing when she fell in love with it orginally, she’d have a box all ready for her. Making a sound of affront, Mamaw stomped away.
On the way out, she passed the room where a funeral was in process. And stopped.
She walked into a room of folks she didn’t know, mourning the loss of a Contentment old time settler, Tommy Crenshaw. The room was so packed that no one noticed her arrival.
Tommy Creshaw’s pastor was mad at him at the time of his demise, so the funeral home had to hire somebody from out of town to preach his funeral. Looking nervous, the out of town pastor started making the necessary comments over the departed. Because he didn’t know Tommy, he went general, and hoped he was right.
“Well, we all know Tommy Crenshaw was a good man, faithful in Sunday School, never missed a Sunday.”
“And Bingo! Don’t forget Bingo!” Mamaw Phillips called out. The assembled roomful turned to stare at Mamaw. Grumblings of disapproval filled the room. Tommy Crenshaw hadn’t been an especially loved man in Contentment. Some had just come, honestly, to look in the casket and make sure he was really dead. But none of them wanted to admit it.
“Yes,” The rent-a-pastor said, rivers of sweat pouring down his face. “And he was kind to animals, and good to the womenfolk, and…..”
“Never mind that he took a little nip now and then,” Mamaw called out helpfully. “He was just a humble, fault-filled man.”
Now the mourners were really incensed. Bingo and booze? Rumblings of barely concealed dislike filled the chapel. If he’d been doing all that, who knew what else the old codger was doing?
Near panic, the rent-a-pastor tried to finish up quick. “And….” He said firmly, “He will be definitely missed.”
Suddenly, Mamaw Phillips let out a wail of despair so loud that folks on the street heard it. “Won’t he, won’t he, won’t heeeeee?” Mamaw draped herself across the coffin, weeping real tears over a fellow she’d never met, as if mourning for a lost lover.
It took Woody Marler AND Sheriff Plug to pull her off that coffin.
Brother Holland was summoned to the Sherrif’s office, and was told to take his mother-in-law home. “I don’t know what got into her.” Sheriff Plug said to Brother Holland. “But she near about frightened that family into a conniption. Willie Freeman almost wet himself from fright. She can’t come back if she don’t know the person being sent off. I mean it.”
So, instead, Mamaw Phillips started going to trials.
There was no real reason to bar her (yet) from those. Most of them were what was called ‘first appearance’ where all the manner of new cases were presented for a tri-county region. So, you could have heard anything from a divorce hearing to a driving under the influence case to the rare murder.
Mamaw Phillips found it all very interesting.
She’d watched Perry Mason, so she figured she understood court procedure. She was firmly convinced that she could be helpful to the Judge Oliver “Red” Browning, and to the rest of the court staff. Most of all, Mamaw thought she could help the judge find true justice in each case.
The problem was, she always got it wrong.
Mamaw would sit up in the second floor gallery, reserved for the public, and would call out recommendations to the attorneys, or give her opinion about comments that they had just made. When shushed by the baliff, she got more defiant. The judge and attorneys tried ignoring her, but that just made her worse.
One trial day, James Lawford was brought to first appearance. He’d been found drunk in public once again, and this time, he’d stripped off and was taking a bath in the water fountain that surrounded the Robert E. Lee statue in front of the Courthouse.
James had had his hand slapped before with his many public intoxications, but this was serious business.
Thornton Holley, the county attorney came in, looking like it was for him alone to deliver the wrath of God to James Lawford. Jimmy Lindsay, public defender, fresh from law school and wholly unprepared, practically wilted at the sight of County Attorney Holley. Everyone in the public gallery knew this was going to be a fun day in court..
Mamaw Phillips had been uncharacteristically silent for most of the hearing. Judge Browning prepared, after hearing the ineffectual defense and the strong prosecutor’s evidence, to lower the boom on James Lawford. Judge Browning ruled that Lawford would have to work on the chain gang for a minimum of six months.
Mamaw stood up, quivering with fury. “That’s it?” She demanded, shaking her finger at the shocked judge. “For what he did? He should get the chair! Give him the chair, give him the chair, give him the chair!!!”
After the Baliff and three deputies hauled her off, Brother Holland was summoned to see the Judge in private chambers. Judge Browning was given the whole story by her despairing son-in-law culminating with “I just don’t know what to do with her.”
Then, Judge Browning had a thought that no one had yet considered. He had a brother-in-law, Lee Warner, that he couldn’t stand, who lived with him. He and Mamaw were just about the right age. Lee needed a hobby to keep him out of the Howling at the Moon Club and from being a general pest around Contentment to most everybody.
No one was sure how they did it, but somehow, before long, the good judge and Brother Holland had introduced the couple, and sparks fairly flew. Before long, Judge Browning gathered his family and the Holland family back in his chambers, but not because of some new outrage by Mamaw or Lee. Instead, to perform a wedding.
The judge offered permanent use of his cabin up by Lake Hogfoot to the new couple, which would put them about 90 miles from Contentment. Since neither of them had a vehicle, that would greatly limit the likelyhood of them coming back to town. Both of the wedded party had their social security pensions, so they were pretty much set.
Brother Holland, as his and Gussie’s Fay’s wedding gift, presented them with a one way Greyhound ticket out of town to their new home.
And as far as anyone in Contentment knew, the couple thrived at Lake Hogfoot and the drama in Contentment, at least for the time being, was greatly reduced.