The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I ’ve warned Mama not to tell her story today. Mama has a visitor, a Mrs. Thompson from her Sunday School class. First Baptist believes in staying in touch. You could fit two of Mama into the green and orange knit that strains to cover Mrs. Thompson’s ample body. No wonder, the way she puts away the cookies, loads her tea with three sugars.
Mama and Mrs. Thompson started off discussing the lesson from Revelations, but now they’re onto something about colored bank tellers always making the wrong change. I don’t care what they talk about, so long as Mama doesn’t tell her story. I’ll break her skinny chicken neck if she does. I mean it. I’ll walk over, yank that afghan off her pale bony knees, pull all ninety pounds and eighty years of her out of the rocker and fling her against the wall — no, the brick fireplace — so she’ll shatter the way champagne glasses used to in the movies. I will.
“Emma, you could make us more tea now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, always yes, ma’am to Mama.
“Such a sweet girl,” Mrs. Thompson says and sticks her fat paw into the plate of Woolworth’s sugar cookies, the kind in different shapes, but all the same flavor.
“Always was a good girl,” Mama replies and pats me on the hand when I reach down to lift the tray. She’s working up to her story.
Mama’s kitchen smells of sponges kept too long. I put cold water in the kettle and set the flame low. A burst of cold, damp air comes in when I open the door to the back porch. The chill slithers across the cracked linoleum floor and travels toward the parlor. I picture a small, cold ghost at Mama’s feet, its hands clutching her ankles, nylon stockings no protection for her thin, blue skin. Mama will tell Mrs. Thompson that Walter Cronkite’s replacement said there are record lows in the South this winter. Picayune, Mississippi, as cold as New York City, Mama will say.
The porch sags under the weight of years of Picayune Heralds, a fifty-pound bag of Jim Dandy dog food, jars of nails swimming in rust. Last spring Mama let me steam the grease off the kitchen walls and even throw out some of the jelly glasses, but I couldn’t touch the things on the back porch. All the plastic flowers stay in a cardboard box in the corner that doesn’t get rain, and Daddy’s hunting gear still lines the back wall. He’s been dead almost a year, and probably for ten before he died he couldn’t see good enough to hunt, but his old jackets that smell of dog hang on the pegs and his guns are propped in the corner. Who he used to be still lives here.
I sit on a stack of the papers, glad to be out of the stifling closeness of Mama’s parlor, the space heater turned too high, the conversation polite to boredom. The January damp and cold feel good. I take a pack of Virginia Slims from my pocket and shake out a long, elegant cigarette. It reminds me of the song I loved as a teenager. “My cigarette smoke climbs through the air. . . .” I forget the rest, but I used to think that song was sophistication put to music. Mama heard me singing it one hot summer day out here on the porch and wouldn’t let me listen to anything except the Christian station for a month. When my children, Susie and Charlie, were babies, it was the only lullaby I sang to them. “My cigarette smoke . . .” I’d sing and rock and rock. Sometimes Susie would howl — it was the colic — but always I saw Mama’s pinched face. Susie “asks” me to smoke outside when I visit her now. Charlie wouldn’t have done that.
I can’t find my matches. If I go back into the kitchen Mama will hear me and come hobbling to “help” me. Daddy smoked when he was outdoors. I move toward his jackets and look around to be sure no one is watching, then feel silly. There are bits of tobacco in the deep pocket of one of them. I cup it in my hand and smell it. The Lucky Strike tobacco still has an aroma. L.S.M.F.T. Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Still. I find matches in a little watertight box, along with two cigarettes. I put away my Virginia Slims and light one of Daddy’s Lucky Strikes. My lungs burn deliciously.
When my son Charlie was sixteen, he bought a pack of Camels — filterless, like Daddy’s Lucky Strikes — and he smoked half the pack in one evening. That night when I heard him choking and gasping in the bathroom, I tried to get out of bed to go to him, but his father held me back. “For Christ’s sake, Emma, let him learn to be a man,” James grumbled through sleep and kept his hand tight around my wrist. Two years later, when Charlie got his draft notice, James’s words were the same. Let him learn to be a man.
Charlie didn’t get to be a man. He was killed in Vietnam two weeks before his nineteenth birthday. I divorced James the day we buried what the Army said was Charlie. Not legal divorce, the kind the state can give, but real divorce, a breaking of the heart away from a shared past and future. I blamed James for Charlie’s death. I still do. James wanted Charlie to be a man, a hero. I just wanted him to be alive.
The day I finally left New Orleans and James to move back to Picayune, I went into Charlie’s room. I couldn’t look at the photographs that ringed his bulletin board, but I knew them by heart: Charlie standing between Mama and Daddy at his high school graduation, his mortarboard cocked back the way he used to wear cowboy hats; Charlie and his big sister Susie on the steps of the Capitol the time he went to visit her in Washington; Charlie and James on a fishing trip in the Gulf, their smiles masking the seasickness Charlie suffered and James couldn’t forgive; Charlie and a bright-faced girl all dressed up for a dance; Charlie and his friends happy-drunk around a wrought-iron table in the courtyard of Pat O’Brien’s Bar; Charlie and me.
The glass from Pat O’Brien’s, tall and curved like a hurricane lantern, sat on Charlie’s desk, filled to the brim with pennies instead of the famous Hurricane Punch. Propped against the Hurricane glass was the half-finished pack of Camels. A tiny scrap of paper was taped to the cigarette pack, and in Charlie’s bold hand was written “YUCK!” I smoked all of Charlie’s long-stale Camels that day, hoping to hold on to some part of him. The room filled to a blue fog; the pain never lifted.
Smoking Daddy’s Lucky Strike, I know that nothing takes away the pain of living after your dreams have died. “My cigarette smoke climbs through the air” — something, something — “and I’m lost in a dream of you.” My dream was to have lots of children, children I’d let make noise, even in the house. I would be dressed up to go to a fancy party, but I wouldn’t care if the children mussed my makeup kissing me good night, or if they made me late prattling about their day’s adventures. My children would call me Mommy.
My dreams of a houseful of happy children were born on this porch. By the hour I’d sit here on stacks of yellowed newspapers and dream as I shelled pecans for Mama. Daddy’s hounds would scratch at the screen door, but I would ignore them. And Mama would poke her head out of the kitchen door and tell me to hurry with those pecans, and I’d say, “Yes, ma’am,” and ignore her, too. So many images of the children I’d have danced and paraded their promise.
My cigarette smoke climbs through the air and I’m lost, not in imagination now, but memory. James said we could afford only two children — what more could I want? We had a boy and a girl. Charlie and Susie. I was young enough then to revise the dream to fit the reality. Two children was fine, perfect. I’d have more time for each, could do a better job.
I did my best to make it turn out the way I had imagined. Images from the past parade before me. Susie, at ten, running into the house, finding me in the kitchen baking a cake — a new Betty Crocker mix — and flinging herself into my arms, sobbing. Her best friend didn’t want to be her best friend anymore. I listened and hugged and patted and told her everything would be OK, and she could have another girl over to spend the night, and finally she smiled and went to phone the other friend. I didn’t ask what she did to make her best friend not like her or tell her she was being foolish or make her just hush and shell the pecans.
Charlie at two or seven, twelve, fifteen — so many bits of dream that really happened. Squealing and clapping to keep time with the mechanical monkey James brought him from Korea. The monkey wore a Christmas-red vest, and when Charlie wound him up he’d hop up and down and bang together cymbals the size of quarters. I gave Charlie my pot lids and made him a little vest of red felt. I see, I hear, Charlie and the monkey, together, making what only a mother would call music.
At fifteen, Charlie so handsome in his new blue suit for the Harvest Dance. He and James had gone out to the car together, but Charlie came running back into the house and kissed me quick and said thanks for the corsage I’d gotten for his girl. When James got back from driving the kids to their dance, I asked him if he’d told Charlie to come back in and thank me. James just shook his head and said he thought Charlie had forgotten his wallet or something.
It’s drizzling now. Mama felt it would rain today. The smoke from Daddy’s Lucky Strike filters through the rusty screen and is pushed to the ground. It doesn’t climb anywhere. Memory refuses to be edited. Charlie is in his Army uniform, in the airport, telling me I will be proud of him. He calls me Mama. “You’ll be proud of me, Mama,” he says and boards an airplane loaded with boys sure to make their Mamas proud.
The porcelain knob rattles in the back door. Mama can’t open it when the humidity swells the door into its frame, tight like a lid stuck on a jar. “I’m coming, Mama,” I shout and poke the butt of Daddy’s Lucky Strike into a soggy pot that holds a long-dead geranium. The door handle is cold and slick, like the black marble slab cut into the government’s earth, decorated with the names of all those boys. I push open the door and would knock Mama over if I moved a step forward. She is barricaded behind her aluminum walker and scolds me with her pinched expression. “I could hear the kettle steamin’ all the way in the parlor,” she says.
“I was just coming in to take care of it, Mama,” I lie. “If you’ll move, I’ll get the tea.” I lean past her to reach the kettle gone mad with whistling.
“Well, all right, Emma. I’ll let you fix the tea.” For sixty-one years she has let me perform little duties I never wished to do. She turns and shuffles out of the kitchen. The rubber tips of her walker thump against the floor each time she moves forward. Thump, shuffle, shuffle, thump, shuffle, shuffle, through the dining room and into the parlor.
Steam escapes from the kettle and climbs, like smoke, when I pour the boiling water into the tea pot. Loose tea leaves swim in the water, turning it first pale yellow, then muddy brown. I wipe some of the leaves I’ve spilled off the counter with a green-gone-gray sponge, and guide the dark, dried bits of tea into my cupped hand. The tea leaves look just like tobacco. Mama won’t use tea bags; they cost too much, she says.
Everything has always cost too much. New dresses, ice cream, pencils, curtains for my room. Mama always reminded me that I cost her and Daddy a lot. Once, I remember, she and Daddy were sitting at the dining room table after supper, and they had some papers spread out. I was washing the dishes in the kitchen, but I could hear them if I didn’t run the water too high.
“Here’s what it’s costin’ to keep her,” Mama said and her voice carried her tight-lipped expression into the kitchen.
“She’s been so good, though, Sallie. I hate to get rid of her,” Daddy’s voice pleaded. My hands began to tremble, and I feared I would vomit into the dishwater.
“She’s gettin’ too old; there’s no end to the expense she’ll be,” Mama’s voice insisted.
“But I like her,” Daddy said, sounding pitiful.
Their chairs scraped against the floor, and I heard Mama go to the oak desk, open and shut a drawer. When I finished the dishes, only the usual doily and the bud vase of imitation cut-glass were on the dining room table. Mama and Daddy were in the parlor. I took my schoolwork to the table and sat where I could see Daddy. I was working multiplications, in the middle of the nine times, when I saw Daddy put down his paper and pinch the space between his eyes.
“I’ll take her tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s best,” Mama replied.
I spent the night awake, studying my room so I’d remember every detail. The venetian blinds were open. Horizontal slats of light from a street lamp fell on the pine bureau, the iron footboard, the skirted dressing table. My hands searched for the imprint of the familiar — the little knobs of the bedspread, the cold metal of the headboard. If I could remember all this, I would be comforted, I believed. The nearest orphanage was the Masonic home in Meridian. I’d heard of children who had to go there because their parents became Depression-poor.
In the morning Daddy had only coffee for breakfast. I waited for him or Mama to say something to me, an explanation, a farewell. But Mama and Daddy spoke neither to each other nor to me that morning. Finally, Daddy left the table and went out on the back porch. It was warm out, and he left the back door open. I watched him stand there for what seemed forever, looking out into the yard. His dogs yapped and jumped at the screen door. Suddenly he grabbed one of his guns, slammed the screen door, and called Bess, his favorite hunting dog. He put her in the back seat of the car and drove away. It wasn’t until he came home, close to sunset, and dropped a bag of quail in the sink for me to clean, that I was sure Bess was the one Mama thought they couldn’t afford to keep. I knew better than to ask what had happened to the dog.
That night when I went to bed and lay in the room that was to remain mine, I promised God that when I had children they would never worry that I would get rid of them. I would love them so much, and they would know it.
Not that Mama and Daddy weren’t good to me — they took care of me, same as the dogs, the house, the car, Little Sister’s grave. Little Sister was my name for her; they always called her Baby. Her marker said “Baby Nowell, b. June 7, 1925, d. June 10, 1925.” I wasn’t yet three when the gift of a little sister appeared and suddenly was gone. I remember Mama saying the baby just wasn’t strong enough to live, so she got to be with Jesus sooner than most. There would be no more babies.
Every Sunday of my years growing up, Mama, Daddy, and I rode out to the cemetery to tend Little Sister’s grave. The ride was a duty, an obligation in every season. As a teenager I could make no plans for Sunday afternoons — no picnics, movies, not even church socials. James and I were married on a Monday afternoon.
When I moved back to Picayune, I drove Mama and Daddy to the cemetery every Sunday. In the years from my childhood to middle age, all that had changed was that Mama now placed a pot of red plastic poinsettias at the base of Little Sister’s marker the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. In the spring, when the sun had bleached the poinsettias to a pale, dull pink, Mama would exchange them for a few new plastic lilies she’d bought at Woolworth’s, combined with faded bunches from years past. Summer saw a mixed bouquet — blue carnations with sharp, ruffled edges, yellow daisies the color of butter, the bouquet made fuller by adding the dull-colored roses Mama stored on the back porch. Fall in Picayune is just an extension of summer — more hot, humid days, still in the eighties, sometimes nineties, in October — so Mama left the summer flowers out until time for the poinsettias.
Now she and I go every Sunday to both graves. Usually Mama stays in the car and, unless it’s raining hard, I get out to check on Daddy and Little Sister for her. If Mama had a sense of humor, I’d ask what it is she thinks needs checking on. Has Daddy up and moved over closer to Mrs. Morrison, or worse, did he forswear Mama’s Baptist influence and relocate to a plot among his Roman Catholic kin?
From the kitchen I carry the tea tray through the dining room and into the parlor. I pass the round, mahogany table of my childhood, the oak desk. The varnish on both has darkened and cracked with time. In the center of the dining table a dust-clouded vase sits on a graying doily and holds a once-pink plastic rose.
In the parlor, Mama and Mrs. Thompson are discussing Reverend Tremblin’s sermon from last Sunday. They are not actually concerned with the sermon, but Mrs. Thompson is telling Mama who all was absent, and Mama is letting Mrs. Thompson know that she is never absent in spirit as she listens to the reverend every Sunday on WPRX, Picayune’s Christian station, no matter how poorly she feels. Mrs. Thompson marvels at Mama’s devotion to the holy word and tries to tell her about her sister-in-law, her husband’s brother’s wife, also a Mrs. Thompson, who uses every little ache and pain as a reason to miss church. The mentioning of aches and pains gives Mama an opening.
“I’m not one to complain,” she says to Mrs. Thompson without looking my way, “but my arthritis is worse than ever this year.”
“Hmf, hmf,” Mrs. Thompson says sympathetically, her mouth full of cookie.
“This old right leg is especially bothersome,” Mama says and rubs her knee.
“More tea, Mama?” I ask and push the cup her way. Mrs. Thompson nods yes before I ask her. I fix her cup and put it on the coffee table in front of her. Mrs. Thompson is sitting on the divan. Her green and orange knit dress clashes with the dusty rose slipcover. When she leans forward for the tea her skirt slides up and I see the tops of her stockings, rolled just above her pudgy knees.
The hem of Mama’s dress folds sharply over her knees. She sits erect in the rocker. The afghan has fallen to the floor, but Mama seems not to notice. Without asking her if she wants it, I pick up the afghan and tuck it around her legs. She pats my hand and goes back to rubbing her right knee.
“Everyone with arthritis has a terrible time of it this time of year,” Mrs. Thompson says and lifts the fragile teacup to her lips. Mama can slip her small, thin finger through the cup’s handle, but Mrs. Thompson has to pinch it with her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s more than arthritis, to tell the truth,” Mama says. “You know, I broke this leg and it never quite healed proper.” Mama knows that Mrs. Thompson doesn’t know about her broken leg.
“You don’t mean it!” Mrs. Thompson says with obvious interest. “How ever did you break your leg, Mrs. Nowell?” She takes the next to last cookie off the plate.
“In an accident, a long time ago,” Mama says and stares at the clock on the mantel as if to confirm the passing of time.
“But a broken leg, Mrs. Nowell. That’s quite serious. How did it happen?” She eyes the last cookie. I pick up the plate and offer it to her. “Well, if you insist, Emma.” Before taking a bite she tells Mama she wants to hear all about how she got her leg broke. She settles back into the divan, as if Mama were going to show her a home movie.
The empty cookie plate clatters when I drop it on the coffee table. Mrs. Thompson jumps, then pats herself back into place. “Mama, you promised!” I say. Mama looks at me dumbly, like a rabbit staring up the hunter’s barrel. Then she smiles, a coquette’s smile that looks ridiculous on her tight, humorless face. “Don’t be foolish, Emma,” she says and straightens her back, pats the afghan around her.
I sink into Daddy’s chair. It is large and overstuffed, recovered years ago in a scratchy, mold-green fabric that the upholsterer was glad to be rid of at a discount. I imagine Daddy’s smell of dog and Lucky Strike lingering in the chair, but it can’t possibly since Mama never allowed him into the parlor in his hunting clothes.
“Mr. Nowell was gone huntin’,” Mama begins. “It was cold, same as today, only it was December — duck season.” Mrs. Thompson screws up her round face, like she can’t figure what ducks have to do with Mama’s broken leg. “I was on my way home from church, First Baptist then, same as now, except Reverend Sawyer was preacher then.” Mrs. Thompson nods; the loose skin of her neck unfolds, then folds back into layers. She looks pleased that First Baptist Church figures in Mama’s story. I shoot Mama my darkest look — it says to stop it this minute — but she has drifted far from this room and time. Her eyes are focused clearly on the past.
“Emma was five years old, the sweetest little girl you ever saw.” Mrs. Thompson looks my way, but Mama doesn’t. “It was real cold, bitter cold, that Sunday, and I feared Emma was comin’ down with somethin’, so I wrapped her up good and warm and carried her over to Mother Nowell’s to stay while I went to church. Emma always went to Sunbeams; it was her first time to miss Sunday School,” Mama adds. “After church I thanked Reverend Sawyer for his inspiring words and then hurried to Mother Nowell’s. ‘Blessed Redeemer’ had been the closin’ hymn, and it stayed with me the twenty blocks from First Baptist till I rounded the corner on 15th Avenue where Mother Nowell and her boarders lived. But the hymn went clean out of me when I turned that corner and saw Mother Nowell’s house on fire.”
“You don’t mean it!” Mrs. Thompson gasps and tries to pull her weight forward. Mama’s hands come out of her lap and dart around in front of her face like flames.
“I ran to the house and there was Mother Nowell on the grass with a fireman givin’ her oxygen. ‘Where’s my baby?’ ‘Where’s my little girl?’ I went from fireman to fireman askin’. The old fire chief, an Irish, took me by the shoulder. ‘There’s no little girl lives here, ma’am,’ he says.”
Mrs. Thompson is on the edge of the divan, her eyes wide. She is in front of that burning house with Mama.
“Don’t you see,” Mama continues, “they didn’t know Emma was there. Mother Nowell passed out in the smoke and none of her lazy boarders was even awake when I’d brought Emma in and put her to bed upstairs. ‘My little girl is in there,’ I yelled at that old Irish and ran to the house, up the front porch steps. Water from the firehoses was pourin’ down on me like heavy June rain. Firemen screamed at me that I couldn’t go in. Inside, the parlor, the dining room, the hallway, everything was on fire. There was water all over the floor, but still the flames licked up the walls. I grabbed a rug Mother Nowell kept for the boarders to wipe their feet at the bottom of the stairs. It was full of water, and I used it to hit the fire as I climbed the stairs to the room where Emma was. She didn’t answer my calls, and I had the worst dread. If I just hadn’t stayed in line to thank Reverend Sawyer for his fine sermon, I’d of been there earlier. But I pushed those demon thoughts away, started singin’ ‘Blessed Redeemer.’ Blessed Redeemer, Jesus is mine,” Mama sings, and Mrs. Thompson seems to be humming along with her.
“Blessed Redeemer took me to the top of them stairs and into the bedroom where I’d put Emma. The room was so thick with smoke I couldn’t see a thing. I felt all over the bed, but no Emma. And then I heard her, just the smallest sound, no more’n a mouse would make. She was on the far side of the room. I felt my way to her and there she was on the floor, rolled up like a doodlebug. I wrapped that wet rug around her good and headed back for the door, but a big orange flame shot out from the hallway into the bedroom and caught hold of the bedspread. The window was the only way out. I opened it and the air pulled flame and smoke around us. One of the firemen, not the Irish, ran to put a ladder to the window and climbed to meet us, but the ladder didn’t quite reach.”
Mrs. Thompson seems to have forgotten that Mama and I sit here in the parlor, alive. She is breathing hard. “Oh my, oh my,” she exclaims. “What ever did you do, Mrs. Nowell?”
“I told that fireman to take my child, and I lowered her right to him, and he carried her safely to the ground.” Mama rests her hands back in her lap. She looks up at Mrs. Thompson and I notice a hint of a smile. “Of course, I had to jump,” she adds.
“And broke that leg,” Mrs. Thompson says as if she had just unraveled a mystery. “Why, I never. That’s quite a story, Mrs. Nowell.” She turns her green and orange bosom toward me. “You’re mighty lucky, Emma, to have such a brave Mama.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answer. I remember Mama being so mad at me that day, angry that I wouldn’t be getting a perfect attendance award in Sunbeams, and it would be a bad reflection on her. Then I woke up at Grandma Nowell’s where it always smelled bad, but now there was a different smell. I crawled to the corner and rolled up and waited for the bad smell to go away. Then Mama came and threw a foul, wet thing around me and tossed me out a window, never a word of comfort. A man, not my Daddy, in a slimy coat held me, and I cried for my Mama to hold me. She was close enough to at least reach out and take my hand, but all she said over and over and over was “Hush, Emma.”
She would have died for me. She went into a burning building and risked her life to save mine. I want to leap out of this scratchy green chair and rush at her with the truth: she would give me life, but nothing, nothing else! The withholding, punitive, pious bitch! Nothing! Nothing! I cannot force words out of my throat. Only tears come. I leave the parlor and go into the adjoining front bedroom, the bedroom that was mine. I hear Mrs. Thompson say to Mama, “Isn’t that just so sweet, she’s still moved by what you did for her.”
I throw myself down on the bed. The bedspread is chenille, washed thin, but still the knobs stand out. If I lie here for long, I’ll have pockmarks on my face. Mama always had chenille spreads. They were the cheapest she could find, and their hobnail surface discouraged lying on top of, rather than under, the covers. Folks had no need to lie on top of a bedspread.
I cry silently, the way I learned to cry as a teenager. But I don’t bother to put my arm between my face and the spread. I hate her for telling that story. Damn her to hell! I should have made good my threat. Every time she tells it, I’m left with this barren gratitude, and again and again I see the smoke and the flames.
Flames and smoke, and I cannot reach him. I cannot stretch my body across continents and oceans to pluck him from that burning machine, blades still whirling, slicing tops off banana trees. “Jungle Vegematic,” his only letter home named the carrier of his death.
All Mama had to do was climb stairs to the beat of “Blessed Redeemer.” How could I have saved Charlie? He was eighteen years old when he got on that airplane in September of 1969.
September in New Orleans, hot and steamy. “Prep school for ’Nam,” New Orleans was. No problem, the boys in the airport joked, no problem adjusting to jungle heat. Shit, no. Already they were war buddies. Boys whose fathers rode with the Klan easily shared cigarettes with black boys escaping the projects. When a voice that hinted of vacation and adventure announced the boarding of Flight 252 for San Francisco, the mothers froze. It was too late to send them to Canada or college. Our boys kissed us goodbye, pulled away while we were still hugging.
Before anyone boards Flight 252, I run out on the tarmac and tie myself to the front wheel of the plane. I will give my life to save my son. This plane will not take my child to his death. I douse myself with kerosene and take a strong wooden match from its box. I’m not kidding; I’ll die for my child. Every mother in America takes kerosene and kitchen matches onto the tarmacs. The President declares peace with honor in ’69 instead of ’72. Charlie and his wife invite me to spend Christmas with them. I’m delighted to watch the baby so they can go out to a fancy party. Charlie’s wife is so pretty, and Charlie, my dear beloved Charlie, is such an elegant man now in his new blue suit.
Mama has a story. I have a sharp-clawed memory and a promise I wasn’t brave enough to keep.