Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”
“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”
“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.
Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.
“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.
“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.
“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”
“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”
“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”
Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”
Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”
“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”
Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.
“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.
Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”
Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.
Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.
“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”
It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”
“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”
“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.
“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”
Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.
“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.
“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”
Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”
By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.
Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.
Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.
Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.
Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”
Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.
At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.
Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.
The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.
“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”
She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.
And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.
Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.
The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.
Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”
Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”
Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:
Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see
Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.