My mother is so much of me, I can’t tell where she leaves off and I begin. I am too much a baby that way and old enough to know it, but nothing fastens me to the world like the clasp of my mother’s cool fingers around my small clammy hand. I will not wail and stamp my feet in their frilly nylon anklets and black, patent-leather Mary Janes. My mother’s tongue clucks at little girls who throw fits. I prefer to delight her if I can.
I get to spend one day with her. Don’t ruin it, Aunt Irene has warned me. Marie has enough worries, she said.
Before my mother left me with Aunt Irene, I had never spent a night away from her. I don’t know how many weeks she’s been with my brother at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. My brother is sixteen. I am five. I’m the baby. Aunt Irene says he needs my mother more than I do. I don’t believe it. It’s a hundred miles from Nashville to our farm near Waynesboro, farther to Aunt Irene’s farm on Eagle Creek. My daddy has been at the hospital, too, but this Sunday morning he scooped me from Aunt Irene’s front porch as pink streaks broke through the sky. He brought me to Nashville for the day, and I’m supposed to be happier after seeing my mother.
Now I watch the sun slide behind the tall buildings, knowing we’ll be going back soon. My mother’s skirt sways as we head to the car. I ask her why she can’t come home. I’m trying hard not to whine.
“You know,” she says. “I have to stay with James Noah.” James Noah is named for our two grandfathers. I’m not named for anyone. Marie is the prettiest name I know. Marie is my mother’s pillowy bosom, the smell of her Pond’s talcum powder. Our neighbor, Mr. Ralph, calls me Phyllis Marie for fun. Does he know that in my heart, I’m as much Marie as Phyllis?
“How long do you have to stay?” I ask.
“I don’t think it’ll be much longer,” she says.
She opens the door of the gray Plymouth and I scoot into the front seat. She slides in beside me. The car is parked on the street that makes a straight line into the huge glass doors of Baptist Hospital. I wonder which high window is James Noah’s room, and if he and my daddy are still playing checkers.
“Just remember what a good time we had today,” my mother says, and she helps me remember. Remember how the church bells were ringing. Inside the hospital smelled like getting shots. James Noah wasn’t expecting me. Remember how he laughed and laughed, the way he does.
Remember the nurse in a starched cap who wouldn’t let us get off the elevator. She made us take the back stairs. “I shouldn’t do this,” she told my daddy. “Keep her in the room.” But later, she told me, “You’ve made your brother so happy.” James Noah is always happy, I thought.
Remember the little park where I played until it was time to go to the car. Squirrels scampered and cannas stood like gaily-decorated sentinels. My mother remembers all of these things with me and says, “Tell your Aunt Irene what a good time you’ve had.”
I can’t help myself. “I don’t want to go to Aunt Irene’s!” I whine, then I remember that Marie has enough worries, and feel guilty.
“Well, that’s how you have to help out. Everybody has to help out.” She sounds annoyed. David has dropped out of college to run the farm. He’s helping out, but he’s nineteen. I’m the baby.
Sweat gathers under my bangs. My mother rolls down the windows. She digs in her purse. “Here,” she says. “Buy some candy from the traveling store.” She gives me a quarter, pressing my hand into a ball. I bury my head in the folds of her cotton dress. It smells like starch. I try to keep my sadness in my throat.
My mother blows out a long, long breath.
Sometime later, I wake up in the fuzzy dark. Daddy is taking a sharp curve, coming up on Aunt Irene’s farm. He’s thinking hard about something. My fingers unfold, and there is the quarter. I swallow the sadness in my throat. I am such a baby, and yet I feel so old.
My mother comes home, but James Noah does not.
Why didn’t she tell me how sick he was? Why didn’t she tell me that rheumatic fever makes you die? I am so angry with my mother.
My baby is five days old. She has diaper rash, and I have postpartum blues. Mother has arrived to set things straight.
“Cloth diapers,” she says. She darts a disapproving glance at the box of Pampers beside the ruffled crib. “No wonder her bottom’s blistered!” Her next disapproving glance is for my husband and me. How could we not know?
She sends him out on this Sunday morning to buy cloth diapers. He doesn’t dare come home until the K-Mart opens at noon. No other store carries cloth diapers. Mother tears open the package and dumps the whole lot into the washer, choosing the hottest temperature. “No Ivory Snow?” She shakes her head. Cheer has to suffice this time. She writes “Ivory Snow” on our grocery list.
The baby’s diaper rash is gone by the second day. Mother stays for a week. Plump and gray-haired, she’s so energetic it irritates me. My husband is sorry to see her go. Mother believes a woman should pamper the man of the house. “Put your feet up. Have a glass of iced tea,” she tells him. “The cornbread’s almost done.” Mother believes in cornbread served hot from the oven. He has loosened his belt.
The baby is surely sorry to see her go, too. Mother picks her up at first peep, walks her, croons old tunes as they rock. The baby melts in her cushiony arms. Mother reminds us before she drives away, “Don’t run out of Ivory Snow.” I think I’m glad to see her go, and then the baby cries. I don’t know what happens, but next thing, I’m cradling my new daughter, crying along with her. I’m wondering, How will I ever learn what I need to know to be a mother?
To celebrate her eighty-fourth birthday, I take Mother to Florida. She still lives in Waynesboro, two hours from Nashville on tedious country roads. She has never seen the ocean.
“It’s just beautiful,” she says, watching the foamy waves from our balcony. “Just beautiful.” The wind off the ocean is chilly. Mother comes back inside, afraid she’ll get pneumonia.
“I’m going for a walk on the beach,” I tell her.
Her face contorts into alarm. “By yourself?”
“You can go with me.” But I’m hoping she won’t take me up on it.
“It’s not safe. You don’t know who might be out there,” she says. She closes in on me as I dig in my luggage for a sweatshirt. “I’m afraid somebody will get you.”
The need for some distance from her is suddenly overwhelming, but I can’t leave her. I slam my suitcase shut. Why does she have to be so clingy?
The morning dawns clear and bright. It’s still jacket weather, but we head for the beach. This is why we are here. My mother has never felt sand between her toes or the spray of salt water. I park the car as close to the beach as I can. We cross the wooden access bridge, above the sand dunes. I kick off my sandals. Mother is wearing her sensible lace-up shoes with socks.
“I’ll wait here,” she says. “I don’t want to get sand in my shoes.”
“Why don’t you pull off your shoes?” I say.
“Oh, I can’t do that.”
“But you’ve come all this way -” Do I hear a whine in my voice?
Reluctantly, Mother picks her way toward the water, trying not to fill her shoes with sand. “Now, you have to stick your toe in the ocean,” I tell her.
“Stick my toe in? Oh, no, I can’t do that. I’d have to take off my shoes and socks.”
I think about that. How are we going to get her shoes and socks off? How are we going to get them back on? What if the cold water gives her pneumonia?
“Why do you want me to stick my toe in the ocean?” she says, screwing up her face as if I’d asked her to do a handstand.
“I don’t know,” I say. Honestly, I’m not sure why this has been so important to me.
Mother studies the lapping waves, then takes a step closer. She bends over, touching her arthritic knees, wincing. When the next wave washes up onto the sand, she reaches out and slaps the water. “There. I’ve had my fingers in the Atlantic Ocean,” she says. She locks her arm in mine, steadying herself. Her eyes fix on the horizon, shades of blue, impossible to tell where the ocean leaves off and the sky begins.
“It’s just beautiful,” she says. “Can we come back for my eighty-fifth?”
With any coaxing at all, Mother would have been here for David’s surgery - he’s my other brother - but it’s too hard for her to travel. “I’d be too much trouble -” she kept saying, “- unless you think he needs me.” I think of her other son, whose bedside she would not leave. Forty-five years ago.
The surgeon’s report confirms my fears. Though I’m not shocked, I am speechless. David and I have talked about the insidious nature of cancer, but only now do I feel the knife-blade of reality. I’m relieved that David’s friend, Pat, has the presence of mind to ask questions. The surgeon directs his words to her, dispassionate words that tumble from his mouth like invisible stones: lymph nodes, chemo. Last night David spread out an assortment of documents and told me, “Here are my affairs. I’m giving you Power of Attorney.” I kept thinking, But you’re the big brother; I’m the baby.
As soon as the surgeon breaks away from us, I tell Pat, “I have to call Mother.”
It’s steamy hot outside the hospital in Jackson, Tennessee, as I punch in numbers on my cell phone. The heat rises in undulating patterns above the pavement.
Mother’s urgent hello comes on the third ring. I know she’s stayed close to the phone all day, but it takes her a minute to answer. “The surgery’s over and David’s fine,” I tell her, repeating the surgeon’s words. Fine meant that he had done his job well.
Mother murmurs relief, and her voice trails off. She waits for me to go on. I know how she bends toward the phone, listening. I know how her permed white hair poofs over her ear. Stiff-kneed, she takes short, uncertain steps down the length of the hall and back, fooling with the telephone’s curly cord. She won’t use her cordless phone because the one in the hall has a device to amplify sound. She’s wearing knit pants and a floral blouse. Lavender, or maybe pink. I know how anxiety glitters in her eyes, how worry rounds her shoulders.
I would give anything not to tell her, as I stand here with my cell phone clamped to my ear. Everywhere I look, I see concrete and asphalt. No green space or bright flowers. No squirrels scampering. I hear my mother’s shallow breathing. I blow out a long, long breath.
In my mind’s eye, she is right here with me. Marie, with her skirt swaying, is so close, I can smell her talcum powder. Squirrels play in a patch of cool grass. Red cannas stand tall, like sentinels, and my mother’s firm grip is the thing that fastens me to the world.
Published in Bellevue Literary Review
Published in Bellevue Literary Review