When Mama's a farm girl, she can pull life lessons from unexpected places.

Horse And Foal
When Mama's a farm girl, she can pull life lessons from unexpected places.
| Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty

My Mother is the youngest of eight children and grew up in a shotgun house with a tin roof on an Alabama cotton farm. I spent my childhood in that same house—"the old house" we all called it after my parents finally saved enough money to build a brick rancher across the highway. And while we were thrilled to move into our new home, a little part of us always missed the old one.

For my mother, that house represented her big, close-knit family, squeezed into a tight space and living through some very hard times but always sticking together and supporting each other. She spent a lot of time with the brother who was closest to her—just a few years older. As a result, my mother has a skill set that I have always envied: She can swim like a fish because her brother taught her how in creeks and swimming holes around the farm. She can catch crawfish for bait and reel in supper (then clean it and fry it up). She can drive anything—and handle a firearm.

Mama has never seen much point in complaining. Nor is she one to stick her head in the sand, refusing to face whatever difficulties lie ahead. She's all about perseverance, acceptance, patience, and determination. I lack her resolve. I can be a whiner and a hand-wringer. My mother's classic response to all of that:

Sometimes you've just gotta back your ears and do things you don't want to do.

"Back your ears," in case you didn't grow up on a farm, refers to the way some animals—especially horses and mules—will lay their ears back when they don't want to go in the direction you're leading them. When my mother talks about those horse ears, what she really means is this:

I'm not saying what's ahead of you is easy. I'm not saying it's fair. But it is there to be dealt with. It's okay not to like it. It's okay to be anxious about it. But you still have to deal with it. Now, move it, honey.

During my senior year in a very small high school, my mother—who had never dealt with a college in her life—single-handedly untangled the bureaucratic maze of admissions, financial aid, and housing at Auburn University. (She backed her ears.) A few years later, she drove me to Waco, Texas, with all my worldly possessions crammed into a Ford Mercury Monarch so that I could earn a master's degree at Baylor. (We both had to back our ears for that leap—so did my hard-working Daddy, who stayed behind to keep me in rent money.)

What I love about "back your ears" is that it's a hug and a push all rolled into one. On the one hand, it's an acknowledgment of your challenges: Your difficulties are not trivial, nor are they "all in your head." They are real. And you deserve support. But be about it, baby girl. Be about it.

Want more Mama wisdom? Take a look:

Get those clothes out of the floor, Junior, or I'll let you wash them yourself from now on. I think we both know what those pricey blue jeans will look like once you spill Clorox on them.