Mama had great stories. My favorite was the only one I asked often for her to repeat. It has become something of an anthem in my life.
She grew up in the 1930s Appalachians, where life was remote and simple but meaningful. She told the story of a simple-minded cousin named Henry, who was sent by his parents to visit other members of the family. It was a journey of several hours on foot so it required that he stop and have a meal with another family. In a burlap sack, Henry toted a baby pig that his daddy had instructed that he should give to Henry’s aunt and uncle as a gift.
At the house where he stopped for a noontime meal, a couple of mischievous boys slipped around, got the sack and exchanged a possum for the pig. A little bit later, one of the boys said, “Henry, what you got in that sack?”
Henry grinned. “I got a pig. Wanna see?” When he opened the sack, the smile slid from his face. It was a possum not a pig. Puzzled, he scratched his head. “Well, it was a pig when I left home.”
Before Henry continued on his journey, the prank-playing boys slyly switched the piglet back. When Henry arrived at his destination, he said, “Papa sent y’all sumpin’.” He opened the sack and found a pig. Now, Henry was aggravated. In a chiding, stern voice, he said to the piglet, “Make up your mind whatcha gonna be! If you’re gonna be a pig, be a pig. If you’re gonna be a possum, be a possum.”
I still laugh at that story but, more important than that, it has become a life’s truth for me. Know what you are and be what you are. Don’t switch back and forth. Stick to who you are. Whenever Tink or I am working on a creative project and it starts to veer from a clear path, I’ll say comically, “If you’re gonna be a pig, be a pig. If you’re gonna be a possum, be a possum. Make up your mind what you’re gonna be.” It brings forth a good laugh and it redirects us.
One morning, I walked by the kitchen window just in time to see a black Angus bull wandering down the hill behind our house. We don’t have Angus cattle any longer. We have horses. Tink was up in the office so I dashed to the foot of the stairs and called up, “Come quick! There’s a cow in the yard.”
Unbeknownst to me, Tink was on a call with his agent, discussing an upcoming conference call on a pending project. Nonetheless, he ended the call, clattered down the stairs and followed me out into the yard. There in the driveway stood the wayward bull, staring at us with defiance.
“We need to put him in the pasture,” I said.
“But it’s not ours,” Tink replied.
“It’s the code of the country: When a neighbor’s cow is out, you put it in your pasture and the farmer will eventually find him. C’mon.”
Tink stood still, a bit baffled. “What am I suppose to do? I’m from L.A.”
Well, it turned out that Tink was not much help in getting up a cow so he returned to his office for a call with the head of production for a major studio while I chased the bull. From the window, he watched the adventure.
Later he explained, “I was conflicted between joining the chase or taking my phone call. I didn’t know if I was a television writer or a farmer.” He sighed. “I didn’t know if I was a pig or an opossum!”
I had to laugh. Then, I explained that if he was going to be a real Southern farmer that it’s “possum,” not “o-possum.”
But he’s learning. He’ll make a great pig one day. Or possum.