MARK TWAIN'S GAY MOTHER
'Becky Thatcher' Describes the Woman From Whom He Inherited His Sense of Humor
By Aretta L. Watts
Any one who seeks first-hand information about Mark Twain's boyhood days in Hannibal, Mo. or about his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, is usually directed to Mrs. Laura Hawkins Frazer, better known as "Becky Thatcher," who has reached the ago of 90 but still retains vivid memories of the Clemens family. As Becky Thatcher, the boyhood sweetheart of Mark Twain, Mrs. Frazer figures prominently in his writings and to her the famous humorist is Sam, not Mark.
In Summer Mrs. Frazer lives on a farm just outside Hannibal owned by her son, Louis Frazer; in Winter her home is an old-fashioned red brick house in town - a stone's throw from the humble Mark Twain home where as children they played together.
Becky Thatcher's first meeting with Sam's mother did not make quite so vivid an impression upon her as did her first meeting with Sam. That happened one hot Summer afternoon when he bounded out of his house, turned a handspring and struck her on the head.
"Jane Clemens was proud of the fact that the Lamptons and all her people came from below the Mason-Dixon Line," she continued, "and she often spoke of her girlhood days in Kentucky, where her father had owned considerable land. She was at one time considered the best horsewoman in the State. She often told us of her sister Patsy and how she and her sister - the local belles in those pioneer days - were the best dancers to be found anywhere. In fact, her love for dancing never seemed to wane.
"In Kentucky she married Mr. Clemens, a lawyer, and with him moved to Eastern Tennessee, where they lived for several years before coming to Missouri and where according to Sam's phrasing 'their first crop' of children were born, his own birth being 'postponed' to Missouri. The elder Clemens, it is said, had once been well off but had lost his money. When they came West they were very poor but mightly fine people.
Sam and I attended the little school taught by Mrs. Horr. Often we walked to school together, and Sam would divide his candy and oranges with me when he had any. Mrs. Clemens would always question Sam as to the day's proceedings at school and as to his lessons, which were never any too well learned. She was particularly interested in our Friday afternoon programs when Sam would declaim such old classics as "The Assyrian Came Down Like a Wolf on the Fold' -- always his favorite -- and "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck."
It was in those days, one gathers from his "Adventures of Tom Sawyer," that Sam drew pictures on his slate for Becky's amusement, and that she would sometimes "turn him down" in spelling. Once when Becky was sick and stayed home from school, Sam, as he recorded in the "adventures" was as dismal as a hearse. Upon this occasion his mother (he calls her Aunt Polly in the book) not understanding why the boy moped around so, decided he needed something for his liver and gave him a dose of medicine which he in turn gave to Peter, the cat - with memorable somersaulting results.
"Sam was always full of mischief," said Mrs. Frazer, "and liked to tease his mother. For this she often reprimanded him. She never knew what he was going to do next. However, he must have been a child after her own heart, for she, too, was a great lover of fun. She preferred folks who were full of life, liked anything gay, and hated the solemn and morbid. Red was her favorite color and she would have worn it had not her family dissuaded her.
"Mrs. Clemens was quite the opposite of her husband, who was a dreamy sort of person. He was proud, silent and austere. He seemed to have little luck in business. It was of his sojourn in Florida, Mo., that Sam later remarked, 'He had no particular luck except that I was born.' Mrs. Clemens was like Sam in that she possessed a dry sort of humor.
"Sam never got over liking to tease his mother. Once when he was away he wrote here a letter marked 'Personal.' She hurried off to read it in seclusion and found that it was written in Chinese. She had a habit of writing to him on scraps of paper and that irritated him. Once he got even with her by writing her a letter on small scraps of all kinds and colors of paper and without beginning or end - then jumbling them into an envelope.
"Mrs. Clemens was never fond of housekeeping. The monotony of it bored her. She often said she did not believe in doing anything that was disagreeable if you could help it. The things she liked to do she pursued with diligence, such as quiltmaking and embroidery. These domestic arts she practiced to almost the end of her days and she lived to be past 87.
"In all her likes and dislikes Mrs. Clemens was quite decided. She cared for almost anything spectacular - parades, picnics, circuses, shows of all kinds. She found delight in going to market, enjoyed mingling with people and bringing them home with her. Her house was filled with guests oftener perhaps than she could afford.
"Mrs. Clemens, and in fact all the family, liked the colored people around Hannibal. The colored people liked her, and would do almost anything for her. They always called her Aunt Jane or Miss Jane. She was never a Puritan in any sense, but she tried to raise her children to be good and dutiful.
"In '49, when the gold seekers on the way to California were streaming through our little town, many of the men and boys, including Sam, got the gold fever. Mrs. Clemens excitedly watched the covered wagon processions go through. Sam, not content with mere watching, expended his energy with the gang playing at mining; they borrowed skiffs and went down the river three miles to the cave where they would stake their claims and pretend to dig gold."
Mrs. Frazer laughed as she recalled the famous cave episode. But the part about her getting lost, she says, is more fiction than fact.
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