The Middle Distance 11.28.14: All The Light We Used to Have
Nearly every wall of my mother’s house is lined with tables, bookcases, or a chest with drawers. And every time I come for a stay, I go through all of those drawers, one at a time.
Before the sun is up, Mama picks up the morning newspaper from the front porch, then pads down the carpeted hallway and pulls my bedroom door closed so I can sleep a little longer and she can fix her breakfast in peace. She feeds the dog a fried egg and makes a half pot of weak coffee, then reads the Galveston Daily News from front to back, clipping a recipe or a coupon if there’s a good one.
Eventually I join her for coffee and read the paper, then we talk about the weird news of the day. Yesterday it was a story about a mysterious glowing fireball in the sky, hovering offshore then heading north, spotted and photographed by at least two islanders though no photo appeared with the story.
My mother works around the house or in the yard and I go to yoga or do computer work somewhere in town, then we reconvene at 11 for The Young and The Restless, the soapopera we’ve watched together for forty-something years. This week Jack is withdrawing from his pain pill addiction and a man everyone believes is dead is packing his bags for Genoa City. We nibble on grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, then my mother goes down for her afternoon nap.
My mother’s house has metal storm blinds on the outsides of all the windows, so even on the sunniest afternoon it is dark and quiet inside. This week the windows have been rattled by thunder and lashed with rain, typical Gulf coast winter weather. While Mama sleeps, I rummage through the drawers.
In the end table drawer next to the couch, a painted wooden box from Mexico with a hinged lid. Inside is Baby Harold, a two-inch long, hard plastic, flesh-colored baby doll holding his arms up. My daughter, who’s now 36, got him out of a gumball machine when she was five and made him blankets and clothes out of Kleenex. In the same drawer, score cards from Magic Carpet miniature golf, an ongoing competition between one of my sons and my nephew, proof of who’s the current winner.
In the drawer of an old piece of furniture my mother calls her wash stand, I find a cousin’s laminated obituary and a folded program from a funeral at the Glendale Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, my grandmother Louise’s. I’ve seen it a hundred times since her 1963 funeral when I was nine years old, but this year I notice the birth date, 1905, and do the math. The year Mammaw died she was the age I am now, and I had thought her impossibly old for as long as I’d known her. In brittle white envelopes,next to a chubby pair of bronzed baby shoes, two familiar soft pelts that always give me the creeps: my little sister’s braid and my ponytail, shorn and handed over by the hair stylist to my mother with great ceremony when we were school girls. I touch the ponytail, still curled into a neat corkscrew, and am surprised by its silky texture.
A drawer filled with old black and white photos: Jaunty snapshots of handsome boys in the mid-1940s, my mother’s friends, Blackie, Jaybird and Preacher. Shots of Mama and her girlfriends with finger waves and plucked eyebrows and rouged lips, all dressed up and posing for their pictures.
In another living room drawer, two recently signed and witnessed documents — a Do Not Resuscitate order and a Medical Power of Attorney.
The rain finally eases up. When the grass dries a bit I’ll chop back the hibiscus in the front yard that has grown as tall as a small tree this past year, its long limbs gone limp and heavy in all this rain. Earlier today a violent flash of lightning knocked out the power temporarily. My mother calmly lighted the oil lamp with the glass chimney that she always keeps ready on the wash stand. She adjusted the wick.
“I can’t believe this is all the light we used to have,” Mama said, retreating to her childhood for a minute. “Just one of these in every room, and the light from the fireplace. That’s all we had.”
When she gets up from her nap, we’ll have a cup of tea and a cookie. Then we’ll pass the rest of the afternoon, waiting for sunset.
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