After Sunday dinner, Mama’s mind traveled back in time to 1959 when she was eleven years old. She dozed off in the loveseat while my husband and son watched the football game in the family room. Every time there was a big play, Mike slammed his hard, calloused fist down on the coffee table.
“Run! Get him! Pick-six! All the way, baby, all the way!”
His heavy voice, projected from deep within his gut, startled my mother from her sleep and she darted to the front door, forgetting her cane, claiming there were white men in the front yard and she needed to save her baby sister.
I lightly tapped her on the shoulders and whispered in her ear, “There’s no one there, sweetheart. You’re safe.” In that moment, I was the adult, and she the child.
During halftime, I dragged my husband into the kitchen. “Mike, you’ve got to stop yelling. You’re scaring Mama.”
He side-stepped me to the refrigerator and retrieved a Coors Light from the bottom drawer. He opened the can and watched me with his peripheral vision as he drank, the foam from the beer sliding down his cheek toward his jaw. When he finished, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, crushed the can against the refrigerator door and tossed it into the trash can.
Leveling his face with mine, he spoke. “Sunday dinner is your family tradition. We ate. She can go home now.”
Aunt Carol was still alive. She lived with her son in Boston. I never learned the tragic memory Mama continued to relive when she was full and tired. Grandma was long gone, and when Aunt Carol came down to visit, she pretended she didn’t know what I was talking about. When Mama had her fits, Aunt Carol would disappear, saying she was constipated and had been on the toilet the whole time. “You need to stop fixin’ all them starchy dinners. We shouldn’t only eat soul food.” On a particular Sunday afternoon when Mama was delirious about the white men in our yard, my son caught Aunt Carol at the top of the stairs, rocking back and forth, her head buried behind her drawn knees. She had drift back into childhood too.
I pulled into the driveway of Mama’s house, a small home that was still too big for her, located just outside of Wilmington in Castle Hayne, NC. Mama only used the master bedroom and the living room, where she watched the six o’clock news before going to sleep. She never entered the kitchen; she didn’t like the attached patio. She worried that someone could easily see inside through the sliding glass door and enter her house without her knowledge.
I was uncomfortable with Mama living so far away and on her own. Castle Hayne was at least a twenty minute drive. For the past year, I had been trying to convince Mike that we should sell her house and move her in with us. He agreed to sell the house, but every Sunday afternoon, her exacerbating dementia gave him more credence to putting her in a nursing home.
I walked over to the passenger side of the car and opened the door to help her out. She didn’t move to unbuckle her seat belt.
“You comin’, Mama?”
“Check the house and make sure nobody’s in there.” She stared ahead of her, through the windshield, toward the garbage cans sitting in front of the fence, separating her back yard from the end of the driveway.
“Did you lock the doors before we left?”
“Yes, but people get inside through that doggone sliding door in the kitchen. I told you that.”
I sighed and looked up at the darkening sky as the sun began to set just behind her house. “Mama, it’s getting late.”
“Then hurry up ‘fore it gets dark and I can’t see where I’m going.”
I took the keys from her and left the car door open. The house was quiet when I opened the door, but as soon as I entered the dining room, the grandfather clock leaning against wall croaked. The wood in the dining room table, still decorated from Thanksgiving dinner, creaked. The curtains in the kitchen ruffled, and upon further inspection, I discovered that the patio door was slightly cracked. I shut it, locked it, and readjusted the curtains. This was another issue I had with my mother living by herself. Her house was almost as old as she. An old house and its characteristic noises and quirks would frighten someone with her disease to the brink of a stroke. I needed to convince Mike to let her stay with us. We could put her in the basement. It was like a separate apartment. It had a kitchen and living area, and there was enough space for a bed in the opposite corner of the hot water heater. Mike wanted to rent it out, but if he didn’t want to be bothered with my mother or my constant nagging, putting her in the basement was his only option.
The living room was colder than the rest of the house. I turned on the fireplace to warm up the room. Mama didn’t like that she only had to push a button to get a fire. She said it lost the authenticity of crackling, burning wood, but Mama was in no shape to chop firewood, much less light it.
I returned to the car and helped her out of her seat.
“You check all the nooks and crannies?”
I guided her up the pathway and into the house. When I closed the door behind us, I noticed a change in the atmosphere. It was cooler. I could feel a draft coming from the kitchen. When I peeked inside, the curtains covering the sliding door were moving again.
“Oooh! It’s chilly in here,” Mama said rubbing her arms. She walked to the living room and lowered herself into Daddy’s old rocking chair, facing the TV. “Leena, come in here and turn on the fire. You know I can’t work this thing!”
“I’ll be right there!” I called after her. I heard the volume increase on the television. The anchor was reporting a fire at New Baptist Church.
“That’s my neighbor’s church,” Mama was saying, though I wasn’t sure if she was still talking to me. “I hope she OK.”
I raced into the kitchen, yanked the curtains open, and peered through the streaky glass into the backyard. Mama only had one tree—a leafless one that was half-dying, standing center of the yard. The setting sun had created dancing shadows across the lawn and, squinting at the tree, I thought I saw a head or two poke from behind the limbs. I slammed the sliding door shut and fumbled to lock it. I pulled the curtains over and briskly walked out of the kitchen to join my mother in the living room.
She was rocking in the chair, her eyes closed. I thought she had fallen asleep, then she opened them and frowned at me.
“You gon’ turn on the fire?” she asked, pointing in the direction of the dark fireplace.
“Yes Ma’am.” I stepped over her extended legs and pressed the button on the remote. The flames immediately came to life, dancing wildly as if they had been ignited for the first time that evening.
Mama laid her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes.
“Mama.” I returned the remote to the mantel and tentatively walked around the chair to stand behind her and stroke her gray, cotton hair. “I think I’ll stay with you tonight.”
“Mmm. That’s good, baby.” She took my hand, brought it down to her lips, and kissed it. The two of us remained in that position until the fire slowly died, the remote sitting untouched atop the mantelpiece.
Nortina Simmons has been writing since the age of three, inspired by her songwriting, guitar-playing father. Her first “poem” was a ballad set to the melody he strummed on his guitar and the slightly off-tempo beat her little brother played on his tambourine. Today, she writes short stories and poetry. Her writing explores the darker sides of love, life, and sex.
Lead image: “051712” (via Flickr user Corey Holms)