They came; they conquered. They liked my books; they liked my CDs. Better than theirs. They like the two-inch step down at the end of my driveway, where it drops to street. They dragged out all my pots and pans. They climbed inside kitchen cabinets. They played with the Guardian Service cookware that has now been in the hands of 5 generations, from Annabelle Boone Mahaffey down to my mother, Lucille Mahaffey Hardy, to me — I cooked pot roasts for my children in the big roaster — all the way down to little Hardy and Jillie. They went to Tinkerbell Playground and to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. They went on a bike ride and a walk around the neighborhood. Hardy even escaped out the doggy door! The sweetest thing is when Hardy reached over and held Jillie’s hand while riding in the stroller. They made the dog’s dream come true by sharing their food with her and dropping food all over the floor for her to pick up.
I am sitting on the fourth row of tenuous makeshift metal stands, watching calf roping. The aluminum rows are not solid under my feet, they have some give, they slide when feet clang down on them and rock back and forth. Standing for the national anthem was like log rolling, so I clutched my seat and sat back down to steady myself. It is a May Saturday night, the heat wetting my skin, with beetles, moths, and other flying insects slamming against me, and I breathe in heavy smells of horse sweat and sour hay and adjust to the roar of generators that power the lights over the arena of plowed up mud and straw inside thin fencing. This mud/straw mixture is in such large chunks I worry about the footing of the horses that have to run through it, fearing they might fall and break a leg, or that a rider who dismounts might turn an ankle.
I have never been to a rodeo before. My first experience witnessing competition between man and beast is a happenstance, because somebody won a radio trivia contest and the prize was tickets to this small-town Lone Star Company set-up sixty miles south of Nashville.
In this event a calf is released from a pen and a rider on horseback charges out after it with a lariat, ropes it, dismounts the horse, and while the horse steps backward to hold the rope taut, the cowboy wrangles the calf to the ground and ties three legs to restrain it. I clap when the cowboy throws his hands up victorious to stop the clock.
The crowd is into this. There are little girls with French braids ribboned at the ends and pink boots and lavender hats, men in denim with big silver buckles, little boys in jeans and plaid shirts standing on barrels leaning against the fence like big men do. There are concessions with blue cotton candy and popcorn and fancy white cowboy hats with rhinestones in white and pink and purple that light up and blink and flash in rhythm.
Across the street behind the fire station an EMS helicopter begins to stir the heavy night air. Its noise draws attention from galloping horses and lost calves looking for an exit. I hear my son’s girlfriend say, Oh look, the helicopter is taking off. We’d watched it descend and land earlier. It lifts from the ground, its lights blinking red and white and green. The powerful noise overtakes that of the generator behind me, and I watch it lift above the building top and hover, then twist and turn in the opposite direction and gracefully rise up, sending fast and loud drumbeats in my direction. Hearing the blades beating the air and watching it rise against a background of black sky transport me to a different setting, one year, eleven months ago, when I watched another helicopter lift into a night sky, a three-in-the-morning sky. It is one of those “ambushes” that catch me off guard. I’m speared, held, forced into that other time. I cannot control the tears that fill my eyes and spill over and run down my cheeks. It happens so fast I cannot stop them, so I catch them and smear them with my fists, before anyone else sitting around me can see. My son pokes me in the back and starts telling me a story about something and when I turn toward him and he sees my eyes, he says, Why are you crying, and I mouth, Helicopter.
This is what grief is. I am that one lone bird rising up from it, hovering, twisting, turning, looking into an unending black sky, knowing that as far as I go out there, the loss will always be with me. I am out there where the sun never rises, where the air is cold, where there is no gravity, where I cannot see what’s ahead, where there is only the unknown. No one knows who I am anymore, where I am, or what I feel. I face the black alone. I push into it, like it has barriers, only it doesn’t.
That particular May Friday I ate doughnuts all day long. Mama had bought them at Delta Cream that morning because we had company staying at the house, an older cousin from up north that I didn’t know well and her tall, lanky second or third husband I didn’t know at all. I didn’t talk to them. They were tired from their trip and lay on my mother’s bed most of the day.
I looked at my own twin bed in the room I shared with my sister. I’d never sleep in it again. I pulled another doughnut out of the box and let that thought drift away, not seeming to mind too much.
Dad was at work, my sister was at school, Mama was down at the church with some other ladies from her Sunday School class, smoothing white cloths on long tables, directing a delivery from Mistlow Gardens, spreading ivy, setting out punch bowls, pouring pastel mints into crystal dishes. She was supposed to be in the classroom, teaching special education, but she took the day off. I picked up another sticky doughnut, slipped on my white peau de soie heels below cut-off shorts and cotton shirt, walked out to the front sidewalk, and rubbed the slippery bottoms of the shoes on the concrete to scratch them and provide traction so I wouldn’t slip on the sanctuary carpet. How many times in the past five years had I torn a mad path through the house, run out that same front door under the numbers 807 and down this same sidewalk trying to get a view of the car that had just raced by my house and blasted a horn, wanting to know which boy it was who’d thought about me with a little interest perhaps? That all didn’t seem to matter now. I’d chosen one from far off. He never did that.
He’d be coming by shortly to load my suitcases in his sleek blue Buick Wildcat his daddy bought for him and then he’d go hide it at the Joel’s house so it wouldn’t get marked up with shaving cream words. I dragged out another doughnut and packed Secret deodorant, hair rollers, and Aqua Net. I licked the sweetness off my fingers.
Doughnuts. It’s what I remember most about that day. I ate nothing else. No breakfast. No lunch. No supper. Nothing. But doughnuts. All day.
Then that evening I held onto my daddy’s arm and walked beside him, while Mary Claire Norwood played the organ so loudly and beautifully, as only she could do it, with chimes and bells, and it rang throughout the sanctuary and beyond, and my daddy gave me away. I don’t think he wanted to because he didn’t say much that day.
Doughnuts. Shaped like the gold ring that was placed on my finger. A circle, unending, and vows promising forever. But that didn’t mean too much to the one who slid that Florentine ring engraved with May 22 on my hand.
They say that as we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn’t supposed to ever let you down…probably will. He did.
Doughnuts. It’s all I remember now.
Creative Nonfiction writers!
Click below for the registration form for the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference November 11-14, 2010 in Oxford, Mississippi. Mail your registration form and payment today! And secure a room at the Inn at Ole Miss — rooms are going fast!
This is what it feels like, driving through my beautiful town and seeing what the flood left behind. Hillsboro Road north of Five Points — all the businesses, even Sonic, are empty and bare and parking lots are covered with a layer of dirt. Front doors are open and curbside are heaps of rubbish — carpet, hardwood, wallboard, cabinets…
Driving along Lewisburg Pike, I noticed limbs had washed across the road in Harpeth floodwaters and pushed into or through the fences lining the pike.
Just the way I feel.
How I wish I could dial the area code and then 843-5069.
I called her every day. Sometimes two or three times a day. We’d talk, laugh, argue over politics, grumble about all the kids and what they were doing wrong, and we never ran out of things to say.
Mama died seven months ago. This is my first Mother’s Day without a mama. It almost doesn’t matter that I am a mother and now a grandmother. It only seems to matter that I don’t have one. I miss her so much it hurts.
A few weeks ago I accepted a story for Muscadine Lines from Joy Davis of Bessemer, Alabama, who writes a bi-weekly column for her local newspaper titled “Mother, Can You Hear Me?” The column chronicles her experiences on retiring as a college English professor to become a full-time caregiver for her mother who suffered from dementia. On April 29, I got a brief e-mail from Joy letting me know her mother had just passed away unexpectedly and then a few days ago, she sent me her column about her mother’s actions at Palm Sunday service and said to pass it along to anyone facing this weekend without their mom, that it might bring a smile. I asked to use her story as a guest blog on Mother’s Day, in honor of our mothers and for all of us — my sister and my friends and Joy and me — who join hands and hearts this Sunday and remember those strong, beautiful, remarkable women who will always be with us in spirit, but no longer live where we can reach out and touch them or laugh with them or call them just to shoot the breeze.
By Joy Davis
Palm Sunday was a landmark day for my mother. After a year’s absence, she attended church. Now, going to church is not usually something that will fill a person with dread. But remember, I’ve been going to church with my mother for years, and I can tell you that what happens once she steps in the door is always unpredictable.
Since she can’t hear well, her voice is unusually loud, and she gets distracted easily. Peggy, our friend and helper, agreed to bring Mother in her car so that my son Clint and I could go a little early.
Palm Sunday services begin outside at Trinity Episcopal with the reading of the Passion, but on this Sunday, a heavy downpour forced us inside. I wondered if the worsening weather would make Mother change her mind about coming.
The small congregation gathered in the entry way of the narthex to begin. As is our tradition, each of us received a small hand-fashioned cross and palm branch. Our new priest, Father Bush, began with a prayer. Then, the rest of us joined in with a gospel reading.
We had said only a few phrases when the large wooden door flew open. Rain spattered inside. My mother appeared and announced in a loud voice, “Hey there, y’all. I’m Elsa Frawley, Joy’s mother. I’m not gonna stand here, though. I’m gonna go sit down while y’all do your thing.”
I glanced at Clint, then at our dear friend, Jay Howton. Both were stifling laughs. But Father Bush seemed unaffected. He gently tried to pin a cross on my mother’s blouse. She brushed his hand away.
“Move so I can go sit down!” she said.
He complied and waited for Peggy and Mother to take their seats before he began again. About halfway through the gospel reading, my mother’s voice rose above that of Father Bush’s and drifted all the way to the narthex.
“Isn’t this a pretty church, Peggy? It’s been here for a hunderd years.”
The priest continued. I’m sure I saw him smile as he read.
He finished the gospel. Then, he led the processional down the centre aisle of the sanctuary. Behind him, Jay carried the ornate gospel book. Clint carried the large golden cross on a staff behind Jay.
As Clint walked by, my mother shouted, “Hey honey! You look like a doll!”
I’m absolutely certain that he cringed as he made his way to his seat near the altar.
During the homily, my mother got restless. Just as we began the Lord’s Prayer, she said loud enough for all to hear.
“Hey, Peggy, you got any gum?”
Peggy whispered something to Mother. Clint’s shoulders shook as he tried not to laugh out loud.
About midway through the service, I was certain that Mother would want to leave, just as she’d done years ago in a rather infamous event. After listening to a sermon for a little over twenty minutes, my mother got up, glared at the priest, and stuck out her arm. With her index finger, she tapped several times on her watch, turned around, and walked out.
But this Sunday, she sat through the whole service, and I thought we were home free until it came time for Holy Eucharist. When Mother saw the altar being prepared, she nudged Peggy.
“Come on,” she said in a voice that rang throughout the sanctuary. “It’s just Communion. I’m hungry. Let’s go get a hamburger.”
So, as Father Bush was reciting the Holy Eucharist prayer, my mother and Peggy walked down the aisle and out the door. It banged behind them.
At the service’s end, I shook hands with Father Bush.
“Joy, how’s your mother getting along these days?” he asked.
Before I could answer, he laughed out loud and added, “She’s quite a character!”
(In honor of Elsa Frawley and Lucille Hardy …
and Janie’s mama and Currie’s mama …)
May 2: My feet submerged in four inches of brown river water, a yellow slicker wrapping me, rain pounding on my hood, I sloshed along the sidewalk I have used every day for 15 years, and I saw her, and her expression said it all. Just inside the glass door, she sat on the third stair, her feet on the first, her torso slumped, and she looked out at the deluge coming down, at the flood creeping toward her house one-half inch every fifteen minutes, and she was waiting in defeat, because that’s all she could do, because like the man in the burgundy truck in the adjoining flooded-out neighborhood said, “Hope won’t do any good, prayer won’t do any good, it’s going to happen.” She faced the threat of losing everything — her possessions, the investment of her house, the home of her family. She had no flood insurance to recover from the catastrophe that lapped slowly, mockingly toward her threshold.
I knew this feeling. My neighbors knew. We all stood and kept watch.
May 6: The flood waters have receded, but left in their wake dead brown landscape and mud everywhere and lives awry, struggling to find a way, and those who are whole wanting to help.
This morning I walked the trail between my Wimbledon and Summer Haven. The northern edge of Summer Haven is undergoing massive cleanup, tear out, replace, and repair. Duct work, sheetrock, carpet, dumpsters…fill yards and street.
The street has a coating of river silt. You can see the brown flood line on bushes and trees and even HVAC units.
A rose bush fights to flower for Mother’s Day, its leaves lost to brown from water damage.
Beside the sidewalk and above the drainage ditch and across the grassy field from the creek that came to call on its neighbors, a magnolia tree stands, and in spite of the devastation all around it and the houses that are in ruin, this tree is poised to bloom — hundreds of delicate white silky flowers will open up any day now.
Maybe this can represent hope.