My precious mother-in-law passed away too many years ago on All Souls Day, November 2, so I’m thinking about her more than usual. I wrote this piece for her. When I showed it to her, she read it and cried a little. She said, “How do you know all of this? How do you know what I do and what I think?” I said, “You told me, a little here and a little there.” After a pause, she said, “I didn’t think anybody listened.”
Folks, if we writers do nothing else, let’s do that. Let’s be people who listen.
SUNDAY DINNER AT MOM’S
by Marian Allen
The alarm buzzed till it wound itself down. 5:30.
Naomi opened her eyes, not waking so much as focusing. She hadn’t slept, or hadn’t tasted sleep. She hadn’t slept in the full, sweet sense for years. She pressed her lips together, tying knots in her will, making a handhold in it by which to pull herself into another morning.
“Lord Jesus,” she said, aloud in her empty bed, “take my hands in thy nail-scarred hands and lead me through this day.”
She levered herself onto one elbow; then, with the first of the daily heroisms, sat up.
Her hiss, from the pain in her joints, turned to a grunt of triumph. Someday her will would fail, or her bones, or her nerves, and the bed and the tomb would claim her. Today, she got up.
Her mind flew to the kitchen. It was Sunday, and on Sundays she held open house. Naomi’s house was open every day to anybody who showed up on her doorstep, but Sundays were the gatherings. The kids came on Sundays, and their children, and their children’s children–three great-grandchildren now, and another on the way.
She had a chicken thawed out. She’d cook it real tender, so it would just slip off the bone and, if her hands felt up to working the rolling pin, she’d make those thin, hard, noodle-y dumplings the kids called “slicks.” She had two quarts of green beans from Big Lots, and fresh potatoes from Paul and Edna’s garden. She had the heel of a ham to flavor some dried beans… had she remembered to buy corn meal at Krogers? Her memory rummaged in the pantry… Yes, she had; she’d make a pone of cornbread.
She didn’t think she could manage a pie, but she’d clipped a cobbler recipe from yesterday’s paper; she could put that in the toaster-oven and she wouldn’t have to stoop.
Well, that would do, then.
She stood slowly, pushing with night-stiffened knuckles against the top of her bedside table. She stifled a moan at the cramp that knifed through her side, sharp as the scalpel that had gutted her, and shuffled as quickly as she could into the bathroom.
After fifteen years, she thought, a person should get used to something, but I’m not.
She dealt with the colostomy mechanically; detaching, emptying, cleaning, attaching a fresh bag. She treated her own mutilation with an impatience and disgust she would never have shown–would never have felt for–another sufferer.
When she’d been a nurse’s aid, at the hospital, she worked with ill and injured infants. They transferred her to the well babies, but she asked them to transfer her back. She came home from the sick baby ward and cried herself out every evening, but what did that matter, when she thought of how their wasted little faces lit up at the sight of her?
Now, Naomi eased herself into a housedress, glad of the big ugly zipper, so easy to work with unresponsive fingers.
She massaged her hands as she went back through the bedroom and into the kitchen, rubbing a little life and suppleness into them.
She clicked on the radio. Just in time. She wouldn’t listen to any of those phoney gimmee-gimmee radio evangelists anymore, but this was a real church. First Baptist broadcast its regular Sunday services so people could listen. Her eyes brightened as she joined the opening hymn: “Will the Circle/Be Unbroken…”
More than her health, more than activity, more than all she’d lost and let go, Naomi missed church. She couldn’t get to church anymore; couldn’t sit in a hard pew, all done up in her good clothes, worrying about that colostomy bag (did it show, did it smell, did it need to be changed?). Plenty of people did, she knew, but she couldn’t, just couldn’t.
She moved more surely now, taking the chicken from the refrigerator, putting it in the pressure cooker, mixing and rolling the dough for the “slicks.”
She frowned as she worked, glancing at the clock. She’d barely have everything done in time, and they’d all start trooping in, picking out of the pots, standing around the kitchen in each others’ way, talking to each other about things she didn’t care about, not talking to her…
Somebody was sure to ask her why she went to all the trouble, somebody else would actually say she was stupid to do it, and another one would tell her it was a sin to work on Sunday.
What else was she going to do? Sit around alone and stiffen up and rust out, no good to anybody? That wasn’t her way; she’d do what she could, as long as she could, and hope The Good Lord had better understanding than Some People.
But, People is what they were. Her People. And you don’t love people because they’re perfect, you love them because they aren’t.
Friends of hers, other widows with children, envied her. They told her so at Seniors’ Club, and during phone calls that never seemed to end. They never saw their children. They floated through their days, unanchored by any demands but their own. They were drifting toward the grave.
Naomi didn’t drift, she inched: pilloried to life by others’ needs. Comfort, advice, food, love–they could get all those from other people. Mom was Home. While she lived, The Family lived. With her death, The Family would break to pieces: “my family,” “your family,” “We should get our families together sometime like we used to do at Mom’s.”
But she couldn’t stay forever. My God, she was tired!
Almost time. Everything was ready.
Naomi got herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for the keys in the lock that spared her shuffling to the door. She took two pain pills; not the strong ones that made her goofy, but the over-the-counter ones that just took the edge off. Sundays were too precious to miss.
I’m very happy to say that the family gets together every month, and we often remark how pleased Mrs. Allen would be to know it.
WRITING PROMPT: Does your main character have close and/or extended family? Are they bound together or scattered? If they’re bound together, who or what binds them?