Sunday, February 24, 2013

Last Letter to My Dad

To Daddy,

I woke on the morning we lost you singing Red River Valley in my head, and thinking of you and how you would sing that song to us and sometimes put in funny words. And I thought how much I loved you. Despite our differences over the years, due mostly to the fact that we were very much alike in many ways, I loved you and always knew you loved me. That is really what matters, isn’t it?

You had that constant sense of fun that could sometimes be a bit annoying. Like the time you were sitting behind me in the car as I drove, and you started pulling on my seat belt, gently then harder. I was trying to figure out what was happening, and you said, “can you feel that?” You laughed like a little boy. Later I had to admit it was kind of funny…

But I always loved and admired your childlike spirit, innocence and love of life that created your offbeat sense of humor.

You achieved much in life, professionally and in your church work, and always taught, and expected, us to excel as well. “Mediocrity is a sin,” you would say, before I even knew what the word meant.

“Always do your best,” you would say, “Better than anyone else, if you can. But always your best.” Of course you always expected our best to be better than anyone else’s… I still expect that of myself.

I think inside you were always the “shy little boy” you described to me, who forgot the words to The Village Blacksmith on the stage, all those years ago. Perhaps that is why you pushed us so hard to excel, knowing as you did that the world is often unfeeling and unkind, so you best be prepared.

“I don’t care if the boys in your class tease you for making good grades,” you told me once, “you only have to worry about what you think of yourself.” And so went your lessons about dignity and self respect.

You gave me a beautiful example in the way you loved and cherished Mama. “I would marry your Mama again every day and twice on Sunday,” you would say. “My heart went pitty pat when I met her (holding your hand on your heart).  I fell in love with her beauty and her kindness.”

You loved your own mother as well. “I had the best mother a child could have,” you said often. You said that about Mama too, so I guess they were both best mothers. I remember how you wept once, after Grandma’s mind went, and she kept repeating the story of how you left your new red sweater on the ferry when you were 10.

For now I need to say good-bye to you. I hope I remembered, over these last few months, to tell you all the good things from my heart. I’m sure you know all the good now that you are with Mama and Grandma and Father Verbis in Heaven. I hope you do. Because that is what I remember now, only the good. Your wisdom and guidance and love. How you always did your best at everything, and how you loved to teach us new words on road trips, like affinity and consanguinity. And tell us stories about your growing up. I always admired your sense of adventure when you talked about stopping trains, when they were not supposed to stop, so you could ride. Even trains that were not Grandpa’s trains. I still can’t see a train without hearing you shout “all aboard!” It comforted me when you spoke with pride and love about your parents, your country, your God. Your knowledge of local history made me want to learn more.

I’m sure it was the “shy little boy” in you who remembered Grandma reciting your favorite poem, Rock me to Sleep. You told me about that poem so I found it for you. Did it comfort you these last few weeks when I read you, “Backward turn backward O time in your flight. Make me a child again just for the night. Mother come back from the echoless shore. Take me again to your heart as of yore. Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care. Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair. Over my slumbers your loving watch keep. Rock me to sleep mother, rock me to sleep.”

I hope it gave you peace. The poem, and knowing you would soon be with Grandma again, The “best mother a child could have.”

 I love you Daddy. I miss you and will always live with you in my heart. When it’s my time to cross over, I’ll listen to hear you once again say, “God Bless you, my Baby,” and “All aboard!” to help me find my way…

From the lucky daughter of "The Cajun God Loved," Jan. 5, 2013

Note: I posted this letter in memory of my Dad, to pay tribute to his life. It does fit the theme of this blog, in that Daddy always credited two strong and loving women, his mother and my mother, for his success. Marina

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why Mattie Called Her Junk Room, Bluebeard's Room

            Marian’s quiet voice from my answering machine woke me from a Saturday afternoon nap, “Marina, Marina, pick up please. Are you there? It’s about Mattie. She’s had a stroke. You need to get to the hospital.”

I grabbed up the phone and we talked, but I don’t remember much of what she said, other than I needed to get there quickly. I wrote the room number on my hand with a green pen, while I ran to my car. I didn’t even take time to brush my hair or straighten my napped-in bed. Mama would have been disappointed in me. She did not believe in naps, and never let us outside with messy hair and wrinkled clothes.

I tried to whisper prayers on the way to the hospital, “Please don’t let Mattie die before I get there. I need to see her one more time. I love her.” But mostly I remembered how she used to tell me, “You have to make people treat you right, Doll Baby. I won’t always be here to take care of you.”

This was in the mid-90s, so I must have been almost 40 years old, but I could not imagine life without Mattie. She was my favorite aunt and godmother, and I used to stay with her often as a child, when Mama was in the hospital having another baby or back surgery. Mattie was gruff with most people, especially if they called her Miss Mattie or Aunt Mattie (just Mattie is fine, she would growl, loudly if she had to tell you twice). She carried a small, shiny pistol in a Kleenex box under the front seat of her car. But Mattie was gentle with me. She would take me to What-A-Burger or Morrison’s Cafeteria, and let me order whatever I wanted, even two desserts. She had a real slot machine and let me keep all the quarters I won when we played it.

I always wanted to be like Mattie, strong, independent, and seemingly unbreakable. The only time I ever saw her cry was just after her husband died. Uncle Bob was gaunt, gentle and soft-spoken, and much older than Mattie, who was outspoken and large. They made a perfect couple. She always called him, “Sweetie Pie.”

At the hospital, I mashed the elevator button over and over, willing it to hurry so I could get to Mattie. The door finally squealed open and there was Marian, my oldest sister. The one who worries about everyone. I rushed to her, “How is Mattie?  What’s going on? Did you leave her by herself?”

“She’s all right, Marina. Come in here so we can talk.” We moved to an empty waiting room. Marian looked pretty, in plaid pants and a green sweater. “It was a mild stroke and she’s already better. But she’s really worried about something and won’t take her sleeping pills until she sees you. She could have another stroke.” Marian looked at me as if it were somehow my fault.

“Thanks for explaining it to me.” I kissed her cheek. The elegant scent of her Happy perfume comforted me. “I’ll go see what she wants."

Then she looked briefly hurt. “And I didn’t leave her by herself. Sister Adele is up there with her. Mattie kept telling me I should go get some coffee. Like she wanted to get rid of me.”

"She probably just wanted to talk to Sister. They’re old friends. How long will you be here? I’ll find you after I see her.”

Marian smiled and tried to arrange my hair with her hands. “I’ll wait in the chapel till you come back down.” She probably wondered why my hair needed brushing. “The girls” in my family were always neat and well dressed.

Mattie was alone when I got to her room. She looked up when I came in. Her left hand had an IV drip needle taped in it, hooked to tubes and a blinking, beeping machine. She had on one of those tacky hospital gowns that looked like Daddy’s boxer shorts. So much gray in her short hair.

“Where is Sister?” I asked.

“They called her to the nurses’ station for some emergency. Here, sit down, Marina. I need you to do something for me, please.” Mattie sounded almost desperate, and afraid. I’d never seen her like that and it upset me. She didn’t believe in worrying. Her standard advice for anyone who did so (except for Grandma and me) was, “Aw, Fete-p-tan (her version of a French curse), stop fretting and let God handle it. You’re going to make yourself crazy.”

“Mattie, try to calm down. Marian said you had a stroke. You’re going to make yourself worse. What’s the matter?” I sat on the edge of her bed and kissed her cheek. She smelled like a sick person, and not like cigarette smoke.

“Aw, Marian was about to worry me to death, fussing over me and wanting me to pray with her. I told her to go get some coffee. Listen now, Marina, this is important.” She frowned at me, something else I’d never seen.

“What is it?”

“You need to get to my house, before your two cousins do.”

I couldn’t imagine what my two cousins had to do with anything, but I didn’t want to upset Mattie any more. “What do you need me to do? And why are they going to your house?”

“When they find out I’m here, they’ll try to get inside and go through my things.”

“Do they have a key?”

“No, but they might go to Margie’s house with some story about wanting to clean up for me. She’s so foolish she might let them in with her key.” Mattie leaned back and closed her eyes.

I whispered in her ear, “Just tell me what to do.”

“Get me some water and help me sit up. You need to understand all this.” Mattie glared at me as if daring me to do anything but listen. I was afraid she was losing her mind, like Grandma, or might have another stroke, so I did as she asked, and then waited.

“I need you to go in that middle bedroom at my house. You know, my Bluebeard’s Room.”

I did know her Bluebeard’s Room, but couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to steal anything from her junk room. It was as bad as the one at Grandma’s house, with piles of old magazines and newspapers, empty cigar boxes, broken furniture and old clothes and toys.

Mattie often knew what I was thinking, and she almost smiled. “Your grandmother taught me the best place to hide something was in the middle of a mess.”

“What did she hide?” I couldn’t imagine my sweet, pretty grandmother having anything to hide.

“Money, mostly, from your grandfather.” She stopped and looked disgusted, as she always did when awful old Grandpa was mentioned. “To stop him from giving it all to the priests at Church, or buying more cattle he couldn’t take care of.”

She shook her head to get back on track with her request, “Anyway, I need you to look for some envelopes for me in Bluebeard’s Room. Do you have a piece of paper? You need to write this down.” She stopped talking and glared at me again, until I got an old check stub and green ink pen from my purse, and held the pen over the back of the check stub, ready to write.

When you go in the room, you’ll see five stacks of newspapers against the back wall. You need to go to the fourth stack of papers from the left, the Town Talk… Are you writing this down, Marina?” Mattie sounded almost angry.

“Yes, I have it. Go on.” She might have been confused, but at least she was alive.

“Count down 23 papers from the top and you’ll see an envelope with my name on it, my name before I married Bob. And don’t read it, whatever you do. Just bring it to me please.” She seemed about to cry.

Her voice became sharp again, “Then go to the stack of Cattleman magazines, to the right of all the newspapers. Count down 17 magazines. You should find a brown envelope with my name on it, my old name, like on the other one. It looks a little torn up and probably isn’t sealed. But don’t look inside. Just bring it back here with the other one.”

She sounded almost frantic, and it upset me, so I said what she needed to hear, “Please stop worrying, Mattie. I’ll bring them both back to you and I won’t look at anything. I promise.”

Mattie sagged into herself as if exhausted, or relieved that she’d finally given me her urgent instructions. “Remember, Doll Baby, no one can see those envelopes. And if Marian is still downstairs, send her home and don’t tell her anything. She doesn’t know about any of this. No one does now, except me, and it needs to stay that way. It’s something even you don’t need to know.” She stopped, then puffed, “Do you still have that key to my house?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

Mattie hugged me hard as I lowered the head of her bed. She pulled the white spread over her gaudy hospital gown and closed her eyes. “Thank you, Doll Baby, I love you.”

“I love you too, Mattie, and I’m glad you’re all right. I’ll hurry back with those envelopes. An no one will ever know.”

In less than a half hour, I was driving down Mattie’s quiet street, of small, neat brick homes and the occasional loose pet dog or cat. I had oldies rock music on the radio, loud, but was too worried about Mattie to really hear the words. The weather was dreary, cool, and overcast, winter in South Louisiana. Mattie’s friend, Margie, in a pink jogging suit, ran out of her house and waved for me to stop as I passed. She was tiny, with brown and gray curls, pleasant and interesting.

“How is Mattie?” She called as I rolled down the window. “I went over there when I saw the ambulance this morning, but she was already unconscious. No one would tell me anything. I picked up the dishes and chair she knocked over when she fell, and locked up her house after they left. I’ve been worrying about Mattie all day.” She looked about to cry. Miss Margie was such a good friend to Mattie, probably better than Mattie was to her. But she loved Mattie, just as I did.

“She’s fine, Miss Margie, don’t worry. It was just a small stroke, and she’s already her old self, ordering everyone around.” We both laughed.

“That sounds like Mattie.” She shook her head, still smiling.

  “Miss Margie, Mattie wants me to get some things for her. And she’s been worrying that someone might have been in her house. I think the stroke left her anxious. No one has been there today, have they?”

“No, I would have seen them. I’ve been watching all day, hoping for news.”

 “Good, I’ll tell her that, and I’ll tell her you were worrying about her. I better get her things and get back to the hospital. She was still anxious and fretful when I left. I promise to call you from the hospital later with news.”

 At the door to Bluebeard’s Room, Mattie’s middle bedroom, I stopped, wondering what I would find in there. Even when I lived with Mattie years ago when I lost Free, my baby, and was so sad I couldn’t eat and washed my hands all the time, I mostly stayed out of Bluebeard’s Room. So many strange sights and smells in there.

Mattie had been so secretive and nervous at the hospital. What if she had brain damage from the stroke and was talking out of her head? I was afraid she would get like my sweet, pretty grandmother, when she had “hardening of the arteries” and wandered around with her blue crystal rosary, staring at the levee. I knew no matter what happened I would always take care of Mattie.

Finally I pushed open the door to Bluebeard’s Room. It was musty, as I expected, and had even more junk than I remembered. I breathed through my mouth and tried to ignore the smell. Mattie needed me to help her. That was all that mattered. There were five stacks of newspapers, the ones I was to dig through, against the far wall. To one side was Grandma’s old mahogany desk, where she used to do paperwork and pay bills before she got sick. It was dusty and missing a leg, but Mattie had three old encyclopedias where the leg should be. The rest of the encyclopedias were next to the stacks of newspapers. The desk was covered with empty King Edward cigar boxes. (I remembered those boxes from when I was a child.) I wondered if Mattie had anything hidden in those cigar boxes, like her coin collection, from my two cousins.

The Cattleman magazines, stacked neatly, were to the right of the newspapers, just as Mattie had said. There was even a faded silk flower arrangement from a funeral in one corner, next to a broken step ladder and the faded plastic Big Wheel my younger brothers used to ride when they visited.

 I took a deep breath and stopped stalling. It was time to look for those envelopes. I couldn’t imagine what secret Mattie had that would make her so anxious and nervous. She never had patience with worriers, except for Grandma and me, of course.

 (Mattie had to drive poor Miss Margie to the hospital when her husband, Piggy, had prostate surgery. Mattie told me later, “I thought Margie was going to have a stroke on the way to the hospital, asking me if I thought he was going to be all right and couldn’t I drive faster. I finally told her to stop fretting and let the Lord take care of Piggy.”)

The fourth stack of newspapers was taller than the rest, but I turned and started with the Cattleman magazines instead. They were smelly and old, from the 1950s, with cover pictures of farmers in big white hats, reddish cows eating hay, and platters of pink-centered grilled steaks. Why had Mattie kept awful old Grandpa’s magazines. She always seemed so angry at him, as if she truly hated him.

 I counted down 17 magazines from the top and there it was. Mattie wasn’t confused at all. An ordinary brown, manilla envelope, old looking, with only Mattie’s name written across it. The handwriting was firm and slanted, probably a man’s. What struck me was how the envelope had been torn apart into four pieces and taped together again, with tape now yellow and loose. I had to know what was in the envelope, to make Mattie tear it up that way. I never should have looked inside, and I’ve been sorry ever since. But the flap was loose, so I ignored my promise to Mattie and slipped out the paper from inside.

 It was an 8x10, black and white photo, of Mattie and some man I didn’t quite recognize, dressed in evening wear and facing one another.  The picture was torn, like the envelope, and taped back together.  Mattie was young and even then a large woman. She looked pretty, in a frilly, lacy white dress, instead of the pantsuits I had seen her wear all my life. Her short, dark hair waved around her face, not slicked back with VO-5. She gazed up at the man with such love, I almost closed my eyes. I’d never seen her look at anyone like that. Not even at Uncle Bob when she offered him extra ham and called him Sweetie Pie. Not even on their wedding day. Who was this man, I wondered, looking like Captain von Trapp in the Sound of Music, one of Mattie’s favorite movies? He looked at Mattie with love as well, his hand on her shoulder. Who was this man and why had Mattie torn up his picture? And then kept it?

 Seeing Mattie look like that at a man I didn’t know, a man who was not Uncle Bob, upset me. It was like looking at a stranger. I put the picture in the envelope, on top of the Cattleman magazines. Maybe the stack of old newspapers would explain. I couldn’t ask Mattie. She didn’t want me knowing what was in the envelopes. Why? I wished I had never seen it, but now I had to know more about this man I couldn’t quite place.

 The newspapers were not stacked as neatly as the magazines. At the fourth stack, I counted down. The papers were old and smelled musty. As Mattie had said, most of them were the Town Talk, the newspaper from Alexandria, Louisiana, Uncle Bob’s hometown. I counted down 23 papers, and there it was. An ordinary cream-colored envelope, addressed to Mattie, at Grandma and Grandpa’s old place, out past Carville, Louisiana, in that same firm handwriting. This one had a return address though. The name was Feldman Ellis. That’s who was in the picture with Mattie! I hadn’t recognized him in the photo, young, and wearing a long-tailed tux, instead of khaki work clothes, and driving a tractor, tending his cows. When I was a child, Mattie and I visited Mr. Feldman and his wife, Miss Cecelia, at least once a month, for supper. Mattie always said he was a friend of the family, and you held onto old friends. She would complain all the way home about Miss Cecelia, “I don’t know why Cecelia needs a cook and a maid. And why she has to say ‘dinner’ and not ‘supper,” and use that fancy china. That’s what comes of growing up with that rich daddy of hers giving her everything she wanted. You know she made Feldman build her that big house with columns on the veranda.”

I didn’t want to know what was in the envelope anymore. It was still sealed and looked as if it had never been opened. Did Mr. Feldman write to Mattie, like a coward, to tell her he was marrying Miss Cecelia? Mattie always said she hated a coward. Maybe she already knew and didn’t want to read the words. I was so sad for Mattie I wanted to drive to Mr. Feldman’s farm in Plaquemine Point and kick him in the knee. But he was already dead.  I rode to see him with Mattie, when she heard about his heart attack. She drove 90 all the way there, and ran her big yellow Cordoba into the Ligustrum bushes in front of Miss Cecelia’s big house. (It was painted yellow that year.) Mattie jumped out and ran up the stairs to the front screen door. Doctor Brucie, another family friend, stepped out and stopped her…

Mattie’s junk room was indeed like the locked room in the old story, Bluebeard. You should not want to know what ugly secrets were inside. If you were foolish enough to pry, you regretted it. I hurried back to the hospital that day, so Mattie wouldn’t worry. On the way, I stopped at K&B Drugstore to buy a pair of dark sunglasses, and left them on, telling Mattie I had a migraine.

 When I get to Heaven, I’m going to find Mattie. Death doesn’t frighten me. It’s simply an extension of life, like in the poem, Death is Nothing at All. So many loved ones there, waiting for me. Mama and Nanny Gee will meet me at the entrance, to make sure I get in. But I’ll have to look for Mattie. She was always on the go, never one for waiting around. I’ll probably find her at the slot machines (without Uncle Bob or Mr. Feldman), fun-loving and independent, just as I always needed her to be. She’ll have on a navy blue pantsuit and those green-tinted glasses, her short hair held back with VO-5, and a Salem cigarette in her left hand. Her right hand pulling down that lever.

 She’ll wave me over. “Come on, Doll Baby, take some of these quarters and get on this machine next to me. With both of us playing, we’ll have a better chance of winning.” She’ll smile over at me, “I’ve missed you.” 

Maybe I’ll finally stop being a coward and tell her I looked in the envelope and knew about her and the fickle Mr. Feldman. But somehow I think she knew all along. Turns out, Mattie was quite the actress. Pretending all those years to be tough and beyond human frailty, when sadly, she was vulnerable and breakable, just like the rest of us.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Nanny Gee and the Homemade Paper Straw

Warren ran away several times, farther each time, until, the last I heard, he was “moving to Montana.” He’s my cousin and we grew up together, both of us plump, but while I was dark, Warren was a towhead, with a perpetual sunburn. We spent hot summer days at his house, in that new subdivision of neat brick homes and fenced yards north of town, riding our bikes to Dodie’s Little Store for ice cream sandwiches and popsicles (I even had a blue bike there, from Uncle Earl and Nanny Gee); watching The Twilight Zone on television (Mama would not let me watch it at home); or reading Archie, Casper and Superman comic books from Warren’s collection. Sometimes we would sneak coffee with lots of evaporated milk. Other days we spent at my wooden frame house, downtown. This was in the mid-60s, before the Interstate cut through our South Louisiana town, when there still was a downtown. When Warren visited me, we took turns riding my green bike; or sometimes Mama brought us to a movie downtown (the ones you could get in free with RC Cola bottle caps); or set up the slip ‘n slide in the back yard so we could cool off. Once we spent an entire afternoon writing a poem about hating school and how we were never going back. Another time we decided to go on a diet, which consisted of writing down everything we ate for a week. That was a long list!

Nanny Gee’s house was also where we spent the night when my youngest baby brother was born. All 6 of us, and one a baby. She spread sheets and blankets over the sofa and air mattresses, so we could all sleep in the living room together. It always smelled faintly of smoke in there. When Nanny Gee woke us the next morning to tell us we had a new baby brother, I was so excited I ran to Warren’s room and jumped on his bed to wake him. Nanny Gee was sometimes a little stricter than Mama, but that time she let me jump. She knew how happy I was about the baby. We had pancakes with Log Cabin syrup for breakfast, to celebrate.

 By the time Warren moved out to the Montana, he was already a grown man, with a family, so it wasn’t really running away, and I hadn’t seen him in years anyway. (I don’t keep up attachments well, and worry that’s a character flaw.)  But the way Warren moved felt like he ran away. One day he lived with his family about 45 miles away, in Robert, Louisiana, and then his sister told my sister he was moving his wife and children to Montana. Even his sister was surprised. He probably had a normal reason for moving. Warren was a warehouse manager at a Wal-Mart distribution center. He was probably just transferred.

Warren was good-natured and kind, like Uncle Earl and Nanny Gee, who was Mama’s sister. Mama and her siblings got along, all five of them, from Uncle Joe, the oldest, to Mama, the baby. Harsh words were never spoken among them, and when Maw-Maw Gert and Paw-Paw died, they all agree to give the old family home outside White Castle, Louisiana, to Uncle Joe, since he was the oldest and had been living there anyway.

 Daddy’s family was another story. They were always mad at one another about something, except my confused, quiet grandmother. Daddy’s sister, my Aunt Mattie, almost ran over him with her big yellow Cordoba in the stadium parking lot after my college graduation. I could barely see Daddy’s brown suit through the mob of curious black-robed graduates watching the chase, but I never saw Daddy run so fast. Even when he was angry and trying to catch one of us.

Mattie didn’t like many people, but she loved me and was gentle with me. If she didn’t like you, best stay out of her way. She hated to be called “Miss Mattie” or “Aunt Mattie.” “Just Mattie is fine,” she would growl, loudly if she had to tell you twice. I used to spend time with her when Mama went to the hospital when her back went out and the doctor put her in traction. Mattie was fun. She was always a large woman and wore loose-fitting knit pantsuits, with big pockets for her cigarettes, keys and money. I don’t think she owned a purse. She carried a small shiny pistol in a Kleenex box under the front seat of her Cordoba. Mattie didn’t worry all the time about gaining weight, like Mama did. She and I would go to What-A-Burger or Morrison’s Cafeteria and eat whatever we wanted, even desserts and Cokes to drink. She also had a real slot machine. When Mattie and I played, she let me keep all the quarters I won.

When I was older Mattie told me how Daddy was grandma’s oldest, her “golden child,” destined to be a priest, and he could do no wrong in Grandma’s eyes. Grandma never made Daddy do chores, and he would tease Mattie about having to wash dishes, hang clothes, or feed the chickens. Daddy also called Mattie names like “Mattie Fattie.” He probably deserved a good chasing with a car. I don’t think she really intended to hit him with that big old Cordoba, or she would have done so. At least she didn’t wave her pistol at him. Not that time, anyway.

Mama, Nanny Gee, and their brothers were all kind, generous, and gentle, so unlike most of Daddy’s family. Daddy’s father, Awful Old Grandpa, as I called him, was so mean he simply refused to die. I wished him dead every time Mama made me visit him in the hospital, for the nine days he lingered. (By the time he died, the room smelled as bad as Awful Old Grandpa himself—like nasty cigar smoke, dirty clothes and gum disease.) I was almost 18, but generally still did what Mama and others expected of me, a childhood habit I finally broke years later.

“This is the end of his life,” Mama whispered to me outside his hospital room. “He’s dying and needs his family close by.” Why? I wondered. So he can pay us ten cents for working all day picking pecans; or swat at us with his walking stick (which was a big tree limb, since he was too cheap to buy a real cane); or let his dog jump on me because I was afraid.

No, all Grandpa needed to do was die, and he took his sweet time about it. The only good thing he ever did for us children was save his RC Cola bottle caps for Mama.

I’m always afraid I inherited some of Awful Old Grandpa’s bad-tempered meanness, and it’s waiting to show itself. My brothers all manage their tempers. Daddy is much better than Grandpa was, but still had enough of a temper that I would quickly run outside to play when I heard the edge in his voice. Mama was a strong influence on Daddy and my brothers. She was kind and gentle, but could be firm when she needed to be.

Daddy told me a story one day of how he sassed Grandma once, and Awful Old Grandpa “slapped me so hard I wet my pants.” I was as horrified by Daddy’s matter-of-fact telling as I was by the story itself.

After Grandpa finally died, all his money disappeared. It was, of course, Grandma’s money (she was already gone). Grandma was from a wealthy, genteel and educated family. (Grandpa’s family was none of those things.) No one would admit to knowing anything about the lost money, but I always suspected Awful Old Grandpa gave it to the priests at his church, so someone would pray for his miserable soul.

The loss of my imaginary inheritance bothered me for a few weeks (I thought I deserved something for all those years Grandpa let his dog jump on me). But then I thought about what Nanny Gee told me when they gave Maw-Maw Gert’s old house to Uncle Joe. “None of us need a house and Joe needs a place to live.” I realized I didn’t need Awful Old Grandpa’s money, and, since I didn’t even like him, why should I want anything from him. After that, I didn’t care about the money anymore. As I got older, I realized that Grandpa really did have a rough childhood, as Mama always said.

No matter how often I remind myself I look and act like Mama’s people, I still fear the possibility of meanness inside me. Once when I was about 8 years old I was staying at Nanny Gee’s. Mama was in the hospital with her back in traction, and had given me a white paper straw, a Magic Straw she told me, and said I could see her face when I used it. She knew how much I missed her when she was in the hospital. Warren and I were at the kitchen table, drinking 7-Up from his Superman glasses, trying to see who could finish last. He kept asking to use my straw. “Come on, let me use it. I could drink slower with a straw.” I told him to wait and he could have it as soon as I was finished, for our second race.

 Poor Warren just sat there, his sunburned face eager and his brown eyes big and excited. “Let me use it,” he kept asking.

I drank very slowly, “As soon as I am through,” I promised, and looked down at the red ketchup stain on his white tee shirt, from our earlier snack of potato chips and ketchup. Nanny Gee must have been listening and brought Warren a straw she had made by taping a piece of white paper into a small tube. “Here, you use this one, son. That one is Marina’s. Her Mama gave it to her.” That made me think about Mama. Warren looked briefly at Nanny Gee’s homemade paper straw and put it down on the table. He looked at me again and smiled as I slurped in the last of my 7-Up.

“See, you’re finished. Now it’s my turn.” Warren reached for the straw.

I still don’t know why, but I looked at his eager face and that ketchup stain, and I tore up that Magic Straw and threw the pieces on the floor. Poor Warren was so surprised, he jumped up, crumpled up the straw Nanny Gee made, and threw it on the floor too. The look on his face made me so ashamed. He looked sad and disappointed and about to cry. I wished he would look mad at me. But he just looked hurt. Then he ran to his bedroom and slammed the door.

I felt terrible, and was afraid Nanny Gee would scold me, or, even worse, call Daddy to take me home. She should have. But she only picked up the torn paper from the floor and said, “Your Mama will be home soon. I know she will.” Then she left to see about Warren, and I went out to the back yard.

The Tiger Drive-in faced the back of the house. It wasn’t close, but the screen was so big, we often watched movies out there, trying to imagine what the actors were saying. It was fun with Warren, but that night I was alone and missed my Mama and was sorry I had been mean and made Warren cry. Besides being my cousin, he was my best friend. I sat in the warm, damp grass, not caring about the “red ants” that were out there, waiting to find me and bite my plump little legs.

After a while, the back door slammed and Warren appeared with two glasses of grape juice. “Why are you sitting on the ground? You know the red ants are going to bite you. Let’s sit on the swings and watch the movie. I think that Beatles’ movie is about to come on. Here, you hold these. I’m going back inside for the cupcakes. They’re chocolate and Mom said we can each have two. She just iced them.” I was glad Warren wasn’t mad. He looked happy again, but I didn’t know what to say. So I told him, “Bring your transistor radio. Maybe they’ll play Leader of the Pack and we can sing. I’ll even let you sing my favorite part.”

Warren giggled as he ran inside, and, just like that, we were good again. He really was special, like Nanny Gee and Uncle Earl.

No, Warren had nothing to run away from. But I do. Not that it’s possible to escape who you are, or might be.

There have been times in my life when I did the right thing, even when it was hard. Perhaps I am at least a little like Mama, Nanny Gee, and Maw-Maw Gert. When Nathan and I had been married for a few years, I lost a baby. I was about 5 months pregnant and had seen sonograms of him, and heard his little heart beat. Then I lost him and kind of fell apart, for months, but it felt much longer. Nathan didn’t know what to do, so he left. Mama, Mattie and Nanny Gee took care of me, and tried to distract me and make me eat. Nanny Gee took me with her one day to Maw-Maw’s old house. She was going to clean for Uncle Joe and told me she wanted some company. Poor Mama probably needed a break from me. Nanny Gee stopped at Winnie’s Drive-In, just outside of Plaquemine, for some ice cream. It felt like being a kid again, when we would all ride to Maw-Maw’s together in Mama’s station wagon. Warren and I would sing “Warren’s a mess, Marina’s a mess,” as we drove over the noisy bridge into Plaquemine. I even felt happy enough to help Nanny Gee clean for Uncle Joe.

Everything was fine until it was time to leave. I had volunteered to clean the windows (even the window-fan window, where I used to watch for Maw-Maw’s neighbor and his cute grandson. The one Maw-Maw did not want me talking to.) After the grimy window-cleaning job, my hands needed washing. I used the sink in the steamy kitchen (Maw-Maw’s kitchen always seemed to be hot) and the orange dish detergent Nanny Gee had brought for cleaning. The hot water faucet squeaked as it always had, but the water and soap felt good on my hands. I washed my hands once and dried them on a clean dishtowel. Then I looked at them and washed them again. I did this several times, until the dishtowel was wet and I noticed Nanny Gee at the kitchen door, watching me. I don’t know why I kept washing my hands. Some would say it was to keep me from thinking about the baby I’d lost, or that I was losing my husband. But all I knew was that I had to keep washing until I knew they were clean. (Months later I finally got over being so sad that I washed and washed my hands. But it was a hard thing to do.)

Nanny Gee saw me notice her, smoothed the front of her striped knit blouse, and made herself smile. All she said was, “I’ll just go pack up the car while you get your things together. Come on out when you’re ready.” Nanny Gee was good about knowing and doing what you needed her to do, without talking about it. Which was good that day. If she had hugged me or asked me what was wrong, I would have cried. Something I didn’t allow myself to do. Had she tried to stop me, I would have needed to wash my hands even longer. Nanny Gee did just the right thing for me.

Reggie was my high-school sweetheart, and I thought about him often during my hand-washing days. Thought about him and made myself not call him. I heard he had finally found someone, after his bad first marriage, and was about to get married. I knew if I called Reggie, we might get together again, all those years after high school. I needed someone like Reggie, who had once at a party done a silly little dance to Those Were the Days, to make me smile. He always said he only wanted to make me happy. I thought if I could see Reggie again, he might call me “Bug Eyes,” as he used to, for the curious colors of my eyes, and make all my sadness be gone. Reggie would have come for me, I know it. He had called me before I married Nathan, to tell me I was making a mistake. Perhaps I should have held on tighter in high school, when Reggie called me his Princess at Spring Formal, in my shiny blue prom dress, with a silver ribbon in my hair. But in my hand-washing days, it was too late for us. It would have been selfish to call him because I needed him. Reggie deserved to be happy. I had hurt him before and would do so again. So, as much as I wanted to, I never called. That would have been mean.

Besides, Nathan did come back, as I always thought he would. So I suppose, as they say, things worked out for the best. I still wonder sometimes about Reggie.

Nanny Gee is gone now, and I never thought to tell her how much I loved her and appreciated everything she did for me. She wasn’t one for talking about feelings. I couldn’t even be there with Nanny Gee when she died, in the cardiac care unit. They knew she was dying but would not let me in until visiting hours, and then it was too late. This was a Catholic hospital, and I’ve come to realize the Catholic Church does what it wants to, because it can. When I get to Heaven, I’m going to look for Mama and Nanny Gee and have coffee with them. I hope they are young again, like in the picture on the mantle at Maw-Maw Gert’s house. They looked like movie stars from the 1940s, smiling and pretty, dark hair in waves around their faces. Mama was olive-skinned and wearing a bright yellow dress. Nanny Gee was lighter-skinned, but with dark red lipstick, and a pale green dress. Maybe she will have a spice drop cake for me. Nanny Gee made the best cakes.

I will finally be able to thank Nanny Gee for not scolding me, when she should have, about that paper straw. And especially for being kind and leaving me to my hand washing in Maw-Maw’s kitchen, all those years ago.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How Many Days Until Mama?

Mama smelling her older brothers’ lunch boxes when she was a plump little girl is one of my favorite stories. I think about that sometimes to make myself smile, after a tiring day, when I have mostly moved “to do” items to the next day’s list and not finished much of anything. Mama was amazingly productive. She helped all of us with our homework, kept a clean house full of happy baking smells, fed sick neighbors, worked part-time as a nurse, sewed and embroidered, played the piano, always looked pretty and smelled of Channel No. 5, and was never too busy to listen. She probably slept very little. I thought about Mama again last night, when I was trying to fall asleep. But this time she wasn’t sewing my pale-blue prom dress. (It was shiny and sleeveless, and Reggie said I looked like a princess when I wore it.) This time was different.

Mama’s been gone for six years now, but sometimes, when the phone rings, I still expect it to be her. Calling to see if a cloudy, chilly day has made me feel fretful and sad.

My sisters and I often talk about our own favorite “Mama stories.” My baby sister (she’s in her 50s now, so I should probably stop calling her that) loves the stories of Mama growing up in the 1930s and 40s, just outside the small town of White Castle, Louisiana, along the Mississippi River levee. She reminds us how Mama, as a teenager, ran home after school, grabbed a cold sweet potato and some crackers for a snack, and then hurried to the levee to watch for planes flying over. This was during WW2, and Mama always believed in supporting her country. My oldest sister, Marian, who insisted on getting her driver’s license as soon as she turned 15, was always amused that Mama got to drive when she was only 13 years old. Mama had explained in her matter-of-fact voice how it happened, “All the boys (her older brothers) were away fighting the War and your Maw-Maw Gert couldn’t drive. Somebody needed to drive. I just did what I had to do.” That was Mama’s life. She did what needed to be done, and without a lot of talking about it.

I like to think about Mama as a child, sliding down the levee on a sled made of boards nailed together and waxed by her brothers. Or Mama throwing a book at Uncle Lewis after he teased and picked at her until she “just couldn’t stand it anymore.” (Maw-Maw Gert, of course, punished only Mama, not having heard the teasing. Mama was the first one at the train station to pick up Uncle Lewis when he got back from the War, wounded and shell-shocked, as they called it then. She always said he was never the same after the War.) I also like to imagine Mama in high school, running to catch the school bus in such a hurry she forgot to powder her face and had to use flour patted from a huge flour sack in the old store by the bus stop. 

But, almost better than the old stories (when we were children we would beg her, “tell us about the old days, Mama.”), are my memories of how she raised her family, and was always there for us. She taught us to focus on what we could do and not what we didn’t have. “Life is simple. Just always do your best,“ she would say.  Mama could not swim and was afraid of the water, having almost drowned once as a child. So she make all of us learn to swim when we were very young. She encouraged us to do well in school, not by scolding, but by making homework an adventure for us. “See how many of your spelling words you can write in ten minutes, and then see if you can finish even more in the next seven minutes. Then we’ll play dancing pencils for five minutes.”

When I was moving 600 miles away to work on my Ph.D., Mama could tell I was nervous about leaving. She told me, “You know, when I left White Castle to go to nursing school in New Orleans, it might as well have been 600 miles. I couldn’t go home to visit and didn’t have many visitors either. For the first few weeks I was so homesick I thought I was going to die.”

“Did you think about quitting and going home?” I asked. She looked surprised, “No. Why would I do that? There was nothing for me there. My plan was to finish nursing school, and then join the Army. The Army paid for me to go to nursing school. I wanted to take care of all our boys wounded in the War. Besides, I made friends and it got easier. You’ll do fine.”

While I was away at school, Mama sent me a card every week, filled with family news, and a $5 or $10 bill, “to get a special treat for yourself.”

I never told her that I knew about the life she would have had in White Castle. Maw-Maw Gert, who had asked Mama many times to quit nursing school and come home, told me about a young man there who loved Mama. His father owned a drug store, and he wanted to marry Mama and start a family with her, there in White Castle. But Mama must have known that was not the life she was supposed to lead.

Even after Mama married Daddy and moved away, Maw-Maw still complained about her working as a nurse. But Mama was a good daughter. When I was young, we visited Maw-Maw almost every Sunday, eating a meatloaf or fried chicken dinner promptly at noon, and then cleaning dishes in the crowded kitchen before gathering in the “sitting room” for a while. Mama would play Mother Beloved and other of Maw-Maw’s favorite songs on the piano. Most days, Daddy, Paw-Paw, and Uncle Joe watched television, and we girls would sit on the always-clean linoleum floor and play cards or Chinese checkers, or cut out paper dolls from an old Sears catalog. Sometimes Paw-Paw took us outside and helped us catch “devil horses.” My brothers were babies then, and I was always sad they didn’t have the chance to know Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw before they were sickly and feeble.

Daddy always wanted to visit his parents, across the Mississippi River, near Carville, after we left Maw-Maw Gert’s. Sometimes Mama would say we needed to get home, but usually we wound up crossing the river on the ferry boat to my other grandparents’ house, which looked like a scaled-down plantation house. It was a little run down, but still nicer (on the outside) than Maw-Maw’s house in White Castle. The inside of Daddy’s childhood home smelled of cigar smoke, and not meatloaf or chocolate cake. Dust and dog hair were everywhere on the hardwood floors, and there was a mean mutt and my even meaner grandfather who used to let it jump on me (when Mama wasn’t around) to teach me not to be afraid of dogs. It never bit me but I’m still frightened of them. How do you reason with a dog? Mama always made sure we didn’t stay long.

I am something of a workaholic and often eat lunch at my desk at the library. A few weeks ago I was under deadline pressure to finish some statistical reports, and trying to eat and work at the same time. I ate my ham sandwich right from the plastic bag, so no crumbs (my door was closed and no one could see my bad manners!). There is a peculiar, but pleasant, smell that sandwiches have when closed up for a few hours. My sisters and I always call it the “lunch box smell,” from Mama’s stories of exploring her older brothers’ lunch boxes when they got home from school. 

After I ate my ham sandwich, sniffing at the empty bag reminded me of all the lunches Mama had made for her children, all through grade school and high school, and even after. My first two years of college I lived at home. She made me a lunch every day to take with me. I tried to tell her I didn’t need her to do that, but she only said, “You need to eat a good lunch to keep going. If you have it with you, you only have to worry about your studies. Here, take it. I made a ham salad sandwich for you, and I put in some plums and those bakery brownies you like. Have a good day at school.” Then she hugged me. That was Mama. She always wanted, and expected, us to succeed. I'm sure she was the only person who read my entire dissertation on the job satisfaction of reference librarians. She even asked me questions about it.

(Everything from Mama's kitchen was delicious. I don't remember one failed meal, and even her sandwiches were perfect, with everything we liked but nothing we didn't, like crusts. I once asked her what magic ingredient made all her food so special. She had only smiled. I suspect it was love.)

Thinking about Mama last night was different. I was a little girl again, sitting in the bathroom stall at school, but with all my clothes on, worried about how long it would be before Mama came home from the hospital after her back surgery. I escaped to the bathroom often, just to sit there. It was an almost-perfect place to hide away from my classmates, who sometimes teased me because I was shy and cried easily. Especially Andrea, with her new shoes, big face and tight pigtails. She even followed me to the bathroom at times, to look over the top of the stall and say, “Why are you sitting there with your panties on? Your uniform is going to fall in and get wet.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had to bring non-perishable foods and other items from home, in case we had to go to a fallout shelter. Mama packed ours in some of her pretty pillowcases, embroidered with roses and spring flowers. Andrea said, “You’re not supposed to use pillow cases. You’re supposed to use plastic bags.” For once I ignored her, proud of Mama’s pretty sewing. Years later I asked Mama why she used her special embroidered pillowcases for our fallout shelter supplies. She said, “Well, if the worst had happened, and we were separated, I wanted my girls to have something of mine to hold onto."

The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when I was in second grade, but my biggest fear wasn’t the war itself. I knew nothing about war, but I was deathly afraid of being separated from Mama and my baby brothers, of us being in different fallout shelters and unable to see one another, maybe forever. That was so many years ago, but I can still picture in my mind those yellow triangles on the fallout shelter signs. Every time I saw one, or thought about the Cuban Missile Crisis at school (the nuns made us pray about it often), a hot feeling of dread would hit my stomach and pull me in. It was as if I were shrinking, about to disappear, and no one cared. What if I couldn’t find Mama and my little brothers? Then I would cry.

That was how it felt to be apart from Mama—a burning stomach, and me shrinking and feeling insignificant. After her back surgery, Daddy brought us to visit her at the hospital. She could tell I was upset when it was time for us to leave. Mama looked pretty in a rose-printed, cream colored gown, despite the dark circles under her eyes. She hugged me and I noticed her perfume. She whispered, “Just count the days until I’m home. Only a few more days. It’s already Thursday night. By the time you get home from school tomorrow, that will be another day. On Saturday, your Aunt Mattie is going to pick you up and bring you here for a visit. I’ll ask her to let you eat lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Then on Sunday I’ll be home, and Daddy is going to pick up your baby brothers from Nanny Gee. We’ll all be together again. Only a few days and they’ll fly by.” That made me feel better. Not as joyful as I felt on regular Saturday nights when it was time to watch Adventures in Paradise on television, and then pick up Mama from her weekend late shift at the hospital. But better, until Daddy pulled me away from her and out the door.

On some nights, like last night, I can’t sleep because I feel all my years in the pain in my back. Or someone I love is hurting and I can’t help. Or I’m sad about the unkind things I’ve done in my life, and the pain and sorrow in the world flashes through my mind, over and over. I don’t have Mama’s strong faith in the Church, or her belief that everything that happens is part of God’s plan. I’m once again that young girl, sitting in the bathroom stall with her panties still on, or being pulled from a hospital room. A lonely child who misses her Mama and feels like she’s shrinking.  I know if I could see her again, I would feel better. I picture Mama sitting in that rocking chair, reading her prayer book. Her pretty, black wavy hair now shaded with gray. She looks up and smiles, “How are you? Are you hungry? I have some chili in the freezer from last week. And I made cornbread this morning.”

And I wonder, how many days till I see her again?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We Missed You at Christmas!

I wrote this poem when my sister, Marian's, mother-in-law died. We all called her Mama K. She was an amazing woman who farmed strawberries and raised her children, alone, in a small town outside of Hammond, Louisiana. Mama K had a heart that was easily made glad. What a blessing that is, to be always grateful, for even the simple things, like a slice of lemon cake. She used to tell me, "You look prettier than the last time I saw you," and she was always glad to see me, even in a hard part of my life when few people were.
Mama K is one of the souls I hope to see when I cross over to the Afterlife. She will welcome me to Heaven with her sweet, delighted smile, and a piece of lemon cake in her left hand. Her right hand, of course, will be reaching out to help me get in.

I miss her still, and not only at Christmas...   Marina

To Mama K

You should be here with us
It’s Christmas
And no one else
Has your beautiful way
Of being grateful
For simple things.

Only the angels
And a few special souls
Are wise enough
To understand what’s important.

I miss your pleased smile
And bright happy eyes.

I wish you were here
To share lemon cake with me.

There was a time, long ago, you know
When I was sad about many things
And no one seemed to have much good to say
To me, or about me
But whenever you saw me
Your kind eyes looked inside of me
Seeming to like what they saw, and
You would tell me I was prettier than before.

I never thought to tell you
How much that meant to me.

But you probably knew
Wise souls always do, and
You’d had more than your share of sorrows.

Now lucky Heaven has you
And you’ve surely found
A spot for a garden
You were never one to be idle.

You always worked so hard
Probably too much
Never complaining
Just wanting to care for your family.

We miss your smile and your love
But I know you’re happy there
Were your strawberries good this year?

Perhaps when it’s my time
You’ll smile on me once more
And open a back door to Heaven
So I’ll be sure to get inside.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

To My Now-Silent Son of the Sixties

To My Now Silent Son of the Sixties…

I don’t usually think of myself as strong, but after my husband died (and I still can’t believe it’s been over 20 years) I had to be. Nathan wasn’t just my love; his love made me feel special and safe. For a time after he died, there seemed to be no reason to breathe, or do anything. He was gone, and I would never again hear him sing “When I’m Sixty-four.” That was his favorite Beatles song and he sang it to me each year on his birthday.

After a week of staying in bed all day, I knew I had to start getting up each morning, to eat, and to work. I needed to care for my family, and Nathan’s family, and that is what I did, every day, until I felt alive again. I still miss Nathan, and, although I’m not nearly ready to die myself, I have this image of how he will look when it’s my time to cross into Heaven. His thinning auburn hair that the chemo robbed him of will be back, even thicker and longer. He’ll be wearing an old Grateful Dead tee shirt, looking for me and maybe singing “When I’m Sixty-four.” And when I get there, he’ll tell me, as he did so many times in the past, “you’re the only girl I know who’s as pretty as she is smart.”

Nathan died a few weeks before Christmas, all those years ago, so I think about him during the holidays. Here are the words to a poem I wrote for him and had inscribed on his headstone:

To my now-silent son of the sixties
You were somehow too good for this world.

And we loved too much for so few years
You are always in my heart.

I release your troubled spirit
That needed to be free.

May you drum with the rock stars
Father many children
Play chess, ride horses, and fly.

In a peaceful place
Of many friendships
And no partings.

All my love…

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maw-Maw and the Highwayman

It was the summer I turned 15; the summer Reggie asked me to go steady (even though I wasn’t supposed to “go with” only one boy); the summer I made my oldest sister, Marian, burn the fudge at Maw-Maw Gert’s; and the summer I met Julian, the grandson of Maw-Maw’s neighbor, Old Man Turner. I always thought that was a strange name, but that was what he called himself. I answered Maw-Maw’s old black rotary phone that afternoon and heard his voice, “This is Old Man Turner. Would you tell your grandmother I’m on my way to pick her up for choir practice. Thank you kindly.” Maw-Maw Gert had been the organist at the Catholic Church (the one down the River Road) since before Mama was born. Maw-Maw also put flowers on the altar every Sunday before Mass, from the rose bushes and flower beds in her front yard.

Marian and I were supposed to be folding and ironing clothes for Maw-Maw Gert, because Mama called every night, and she always asked if we were helping out. Marian finished ironing Maw-Maw’s black-and-white striped Sunday church dress, with the red trim, and said, “I feel like making some fudge. I won’t be long, just stay here and keep folding the clothes.” That was fine with me. The kitchen was steamy, but the bedroom where we were working had a small, noisy window air conditioner to keep it cool. How could Marian stand that kitchen heat frizzing her long brown hair?

I finished folding all the towels and washrags, still stiff from drying in the sun outside, and looked out of the window-fan window. We only used the window fan at night, so it was off, and I could see between the blades, into Old Man Turner’s unpainted wooden garage. There was Julian, wearing a tee shirt with a leaf on it (Marian later told me it was a marijuana leaf) and tan shorts, polishing the chrome on his motorcycle. Even though his blonde hair was short, he was still very cute. (Until then I liked boys with long hair, like Reggie, who had shoulder-length brown hair, was intellectual and looked a lot like John Denver.) I slipped out the side door, through Maw-Maw’s vegetable garden, and over to the fence, hoping choir practice would last a long time. Maw-Maw had already warned me not to talk to Julian, at least not alone. “That boy is always up to something. He’s not from here, you know. I feel bad for Old Man Turner, the way his daughter sent that Julian here for the summer. Probably to keep him out of trouble. You stay away from him.”

Marian must have seen me from the kitchen window. She ran over to me, her loose paisley blouse puffing out behind her, before I even made it to the fence. She loudly reminded me I was supposed to be folding clothes and I should not roll my shorts up so high. I wanted to disappear when Julian looked up from his motorcycle. But he only smiled at me. I knew then I would have to meet him one day, no matter what Maw-Maw said.

This happened years ago, back in the late 1960’s, but I can still hear Marian’s, “Look what you made me do!” when we got back to the kitchen and found her fudge boiling out of the pot and all over Maw-Maw’s clean stove. We couldn’t get that awful smell of burning sugar and cocoa out of the kitchen before Maw-Maw got home from choir practice. We opened all the kitchen windows, having to pull hard on them, since they were stuck. Maw-Maw liked them closed and locked up tight. We managed to let in more than a few flies, but, even with the old box fan trying to blow the bitter smell out into the back vegetable garden, Maw-Maw found us out.

We heard Old Man Turner helping her inside the front door. “Girls,” she called to us, more concerned than upset, “Are you all right? What’s burning?” She limped more quickly than her leg brace should have allowed and arrived in the kitchen with a worried frown. I was sorry for worrying Maw-Maw Gert, and for wanting to meet Julian so badly, despite her wishes. I loved her, and she was always so happy when we visited her. She bragged about us to her friends, and made us delicious treats, like brownies, three-layer cakes, and crème puffs. Maw-Maw even taught us how to make colorful quilts and elegant doll pillows, using Barbie dolls. She was talented and hard-working and made the quilts all year to donate to the annual Church fair. Maw-Maw was also kind-hearted and made many meals for sick, or hungry, neighbors.

Even with all Maw-Maw did for us, sometimes it was just so boring for me at her house, there along the levee past the outskirts of White Castle, Louisiana. There were no movies, no dress shops or record stores, no snowball stands, and no Reggie. There was a dry-goods/grocery store close by, but it closed early. Besides, the meat-counter guy there, who was much to old for Marian, had a crush on her, and he ate pieces of the pale-pink, fat-speckled lunch meat as he sliced it for customers.

After the fudge mess and smell were gone, Maw-Maw Gert made us a potato and cheese omelet and biscuits with fig preserves for supper. She always called the evening meal supper. After we ate, she hurried us through washing the dishes, so we wouldn’t be late for The Virginian, Maw-Maw’s favorite television show. Westerns always seemed to have the same plot to me, and I wanted to slip outside, in case Julian was working on his motorcycle again. But Maw-Maw was so taken by Trampas and the Virginian that we had to sit there with her and watch it. At least this gave me a chance to polish my fingernails a bright, pretty pink. (Besides, Maw-Maw would have known what I was up to.) She narrated and talked to the characters on the screen all through the show, especially when Trampas was involved. She usually called him Travis.

This particular night, Maw-Maw Gert was greatly disturbed that the pretty, blonde-haired young lady visiting the ranch wasn’t interested in Trampas. He took her horse-back riding in the hills and brought her flowers, all to no avail. There was, however, some shady character in town (not dangerous, a former bank robber or something) who did attract the young, blonde visitor. The Highwayman (as Maw-Maw referred to him) didn’t come calling with flowers, but the young lady met with him late at night, causing much worry to Trampas, the Virginian, and Maw-Maw, who reminded Marian and I, several times, “That’s going to end wrong. Things like that always end badly.” And in the final scene, of course, the pretty girl, after a tearful explanation to Trampas, rode away on the back of the former bank robber’s horse, her long blonde curls bouncing at her tiny waist.

Maw-Maw was appalled and complained to Marian and me as she served our nightly bowls of Neapolitan ice cream, “After everything Travis and the Virginian did for that girl, she took up with that Highwayman.”

I didn’t tell Maw-Maw, but at 15 (and even sometimes after that) I would have taken up with him myself.

Lucky Maw-Maw Gert, to have loved wisely and been married for 54 years to Paw-Paw, who was her first and only love, even after he died.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Miss Aline’s Azaleas, and Reincarnation

Miss Aline had a sad life. Of course, I never knew about her disappearing boyfriend, and the baby she had to give up, until much later. When I was a child I visited her often, in her unpainted wooden frame house across the street from us. Mama always made us ask before we went anywhere. When I asked to go to Miss Aline’s, Mama would send a bag of apples or some Jack’s vanilla wafers or butter cookies, or a big piece of cornbread with me. She would tell me as I left, “And remember that’s for Miss Aline. You have plenty to eat over here.”  (Mama knew long before I did that Miss Aline sometimes did not have enough money for food. I found out later Mama often brought meals and groceries to Miss Aline.)

I was a plump child and loved to eat, but it was so exciting at Miss Aline’s that I didn’t think about food when I was there. She had a wonderful collection of toys she actually let me play with. They were all old, but in good shape, and, to me, were unique. (Miss Aline was not like prissy old Great Aunt Josie. All she could say when we visited her was “Don’t play with your cousin’s doll collection.” Or “Be careful of that lamp, I bought it in New York.” Then she would shoo us out to the yard to play. I heard her tell Mama once, when we were supposed to be outside playing, “That’s why you don’t have anything nice. You have too many children.” Mama responded politely, but I knew she was angry, “My children are my Jewels. I don’t need anything else.” We left shortly after that.)

Miss Aline’s toy box was an old wooden crate, painted like the night sky, with the moon and stars. Inside it, she had four gray sock monkeys with clothes to dress them, a wooden soldier on a stick, a china doll with brown hair and a lavender dress, a tiny tea set, a tarnished metal kaleidoscope, and a set of wooden blocks painted with numbers and letters. On top of the toys was an antique metal musical Ferris wheel.

We never stayed inside for too long. I was always anxious to get out and see if Miss Aline had any new flowers or plants. Her garden seemed exotic to me, like something from my favorite television show, Adventures in Paradise. As I pulled her through the kitchen to the back yard, she always stopped and looked up at the brightly painted circus plate she had hanging on the wall next to her refrigerator. (I remember it bothered me that her refrigerator door didn’t close all the way.) The plate had a lion tamer working in a lion’s cage, with a small child watching the show. Miss Aline would look up at the plate for a minute, then make herself smile and walk me outside.

Miss Aline told me once that the circus plate was given to her by someone she loved, and she would leave it to me when she died. “But you can’t die!” I told her. She had only smiled, “But everyone has to die, Little Sha, it’s the way of nature. And death isn’t the end. It leads us to something happier than life on earth, life in Heaven.”

Her back yard had a huge fig tree in the center, several delicious smelling sweet olive trees, two Japanese plum trees, a magnolia tree, two pear trees, many gardenia bushes, orange, yellow and red shrimp plants scattered around, and a rose garden off to the side. Miss Aline had the usual red, pink and white rose bushes, colorful climbing roses growing on two white wicker chairs, and green tea roses, my favorite. We would make a bouquet of whatever flowers were in bloom, for me to take home.

Miss Aline’s favorite was her huge spreading azalea bush in the side yard of her house, almost to the front sidewalk. It was beautiful in the spring, after all the pale purple flowers had bloomed, with the pink centers. If you stared at it long enough, it was like looking at the inside of Miss Aline’s kaleidoscope. While the flowers were pretty we would make azalea crowns for both of us to wear, and one for me to take home to put on Mama’s Mary statue.

The only bad thing was that their beauty didn’t last. As soon as the hard South Louisiana spring rains came, the whole azalea bush would fade to ugly clumps of withered brown, with a few green leaves. Miss Aline would always say, “They’re pretty for such a short time, Little Sha, then they are gone, like happiness in life.” Then she would smile and remind me, “But the flowers come back every year.”

As Miss Aline got older, she grew feeble and seemed to shrink. The faded housedresses she wore swallowed her up, and her long blonde/gray braided hair turned white. She would sometimes stare quietly at nothing. One year after the hard rains had once again wilted the azaleas, Miss Aline stood and looked sadly at the bush. I was afraid she was going to cry. This year, she only said, “They’re pretty for such a short time, Little Sha, then they are gone.” She kept looking at the dead flowers and didn’t add that they come back. So I reminded her, “But they come back every year.” Miss Aline only said, “Even trees have to die sometime.”

As I grew up, I stopped visiting Miss Aline so often. I didn’t forget about her, but the summer I turned 14, I also turned thin. (Thanks to dieting on green beans and canned tuna for months.) Boys started calling me and asking me to movies, much to Mama’s dismay. So there was simply not as much time for trips to Miss Aline’s garden. I did stop by every Friday afternoon, to sit on her front porch rocker and tell her about school. On the Friday before Spring Formal, I brought my dress to show her. It was pale blue, shiny brocade, and sleeveless. Miss Aline loved it, “It’s beautiful! That color will look pretty with your dark hair.” I described my white gloves and the silver ribbons I was going to wear in my hair. “Reggie said I would look like a princess,” I told her. (Reggie was one of the boys I had been dating. He was gentle and intellectual and looked like John Denver. Reggie was my favorite of all, but Mama didn’t want me seeing only one boy. Sometimes I still think I made a mistake not holding on to him.)

“Just don’t let that Reggie break your hear, Little Sha. You are too special to be hurt.” Miss Aline looked sad so I changed the subject. “I know. We’ll come over tomorrow before the dance so you can see me all dressed up. The azaleas are still so pretty. We can take pictures over here.” Miss Aline tried to smile but still looked sad. Probably thinking about broken hearts.

When Reggie picked me up for the dance on Saturday evening, we walked across the street to see Miss Aline. It was still light outside, and she struggled down her porch steps to meet us by the azalea bush. She hugged me. “You look so pretty,” she whispered. Reggie agreed with her, “Yes, she’s like a princess, isn’t she?” Miss Aline suddenly looked confused, but responded. “Yes and we need to make her a crown. Come, Little Sha, remember how we used to make flower crowns. Let’s make you one now, while the azaleas are still pretty.” She tied the stems of several of the pale purple flowers with a string she took from her pocket. Miss Aline seemed anxious and confused as she tucked the flowers under my silver hair ribbon. “I’m always afraid they won’t come back, the azaleas, you know.” She looked at Reggie, who, being a kind soul and much influenced by Walt Whitman's poem, Leaves of Grass, smiled and took her hand, “They’ll always come back, Miss Aline, if not as azaleas, then as something else.”

Just then Mama walked up with her Brownie Box camera in hand. “Let’s take a picture of the three of you while it’s still light. Here, stand in front of the azaleas for me, please. Miss Aline, your yard is as lovely as ever. And you look so happy. You must be having a good day. Now everyone smile.”

I still have Miss Aline’s circus plate.