“What would your Mother think . . .?”
In the mid-1920's when my father, Zach Davis Cox, was about 7 or 8 years old, he went to visit his grandmother, Mary (Mollie) Perline Inman Cox, at her home in Tabor City, NC. While visiting one’s grandmother is a wonderful experience, usually a 72-year old woman is simply not going to have enough energy or patience to keep a 7-year old boy completely occupied every waking hour.
However, there was one diversion that Mollie Cox was determined her grandson would not enjoy. Behind her house, about a block away on the other side of her pasture lived a family that had a whole houseful of children, many of whom were near the same age as young Zach. Zach was told in explicit terms that he was not to play with those children, no explanation why, just told not to go near them.
So in his idle hours when Grandmother Mollie was busy with something else, Zach would wander over to the fence and gaze longingly at all the fun, games, and fights the pack of kids across the pasture were having. In due time these children noticed Zach and they “enticed” him to climb the fence, cross the pasture, and come and play. And play he did. He had a great time; tag, wrestling, and just rolling around in the dirt generally having fun. And then Zach heard the voice of his grandmother’s cook, Rosa, calling for him. Once Rosa had Zach’s attention, she announced in a voice that indicated she meant business that his grandmother wanted him home and home now.
Zach returned to his grandmother’s home and approached her with about the same enthusiasm as Louis XVI displayed when he approached the guillotine. Grandmother Mollie always wore skirts down to her ankles. She was sitting in a chair in her bedroom with a very displeased look on her face. Dad trotted out every bit of charm that a 7-year old boy can possess in an attempt to appease her. But it was for naught. Grandmother Mollie flipped up the edge of her skirt and revealed a pocket in her petticoat from which she pulled a money purse. She opened it and withdrew a dime. She handed the dime to Zach and told him to go to Harrellson’s Drugstore and purchase a fine-tooth comb. She made him repeat the instructions to make sure that he didn’t just purchase a comb, but a fine-tooth comb.
Off Zach went to the drugstore, very unsettled by two things. First, he had not received the whipping he was expecting. Second, he had no idea what a fine-tooth comb was. But he was deeply impressed that this matter was not yet at an end and there were consequences still to be faced.
Once at the drugstore, Zach held his dime aloft and requested a fine-tooth comb from Mr. Crance Harrellson, with an emphasis on fine-tooth. Mr. Harrellson retrieved the requested item and handed it to Zach in exchange for the dime. And then with what Zach has always remembered as a smirk on his face, Mr. Harrellson inquired if Zach had been playing with the little boys on the other side of his grandparents pasture? Zach nodded yes and walked back to his grandmother’s house wondering how could Mr. Harrellson have known that?
Once back, Zach walked into his grandmother’s bedroom and handed her the fine-tooth comb. Grandmother Mollie reached out for Zach with a quickness that belied her years and grabbed him firmly. She clamped him between her knees and started dragging that fine tooth comb through his tangled hair. In between Zach’s yelps, he could occasionally hear an audible “pop.” Grandmother Mollie was combing lice and nits from his hair and when she found one, she would pop it between her fingernails. While she was doing this, Grandmother Mollie exclaimed, “What would your Mother think if I sent you home with a head full of lice?” Every time Grandmother Mollie pulled the comb through a knot in his hair, Zach would yell and squirm. Each time he squirmed, he was rewarded with a crack on his head from the comb. A lot of combing was done before Grandmother Mollie was satisfied that she could proceed with Phase 2 of the decontamination project.
After the combing was finished, Zach was turned over to Rosa, who had been preparing a big pot of steaming hot medicated water. Rosa repeatedly scrubbed Zach head with the hot water and a stiff bristle brush. Each time Zach squirmed during this procedure, he was rewarded with a whack on his backside with the brush. Finally, Zach was determined to be no longer “unclean.” And when it was all over, Zach decided that the fun he had with the neighboring boys was definitely not worth what he had just gone through.
In the years to come, Zach was to gain a fuller appreciation of why he had made his Grandmother Mollie so mad and why she had taken such prompt and thorough actions to remedy the situation. Zach learned that his Mother, Winnie McWhorter Cox, had a deep, abiding, and abhorrent dislike of head lice, not only for what they were but for what they signified about persons who tolerated their presence.
Later still, while with the Marine Corps at the Recruit Training Depot on Parris Island, SC, Zach witnessed first hand the shame that resulted from head lice. Upon arriving on the Island, the first thing the Marines did was shave a recruit’s head. Every so often a head would be shorn to reveal an entire scalp filled with wriggling head lice. The barber would quickly put a big red “X” on the unclean Marine and he would be directed to a special holding area. In this area, the unfortunate recruit would be directed to strip completely naked and handed a razor and a brush. He would then be instructed to shave every single hair off his body and to scrub himself down with the brush and medicated soap. Those recruits who didn’t get the idea and did a “half-ass” job, were then assisted by drill instructors who repeated the exercise, only this time with steel bristle brushes. For the rest of boot camp, these poor wretches were humiliated on a daily basis by the drill instructors about both their personal hygiene and the families from which they came.
After seeing all this, Zach decided that he was glad that he had learned this particular lesson in hygiene from Grandmother Mollie and Rosa rather than at the hands of drill instructors on Parris Island. And to a larger extent, Zach understood that there are some hard lessons in life that everyone is going to learn sooner or later, and that these lessons are a little easier to take if they are taught by someone who loves you.