This cold January, Mama keeps the heat cranked up to 73 and only goes outside to put out the mail. She’s down to less than 90 pounds, her weight about the same as her age, but she still glides around on her little cat feet from chore to chore, all day long, every day. By the time I get up in the morning she has already unloaded the dishwasher, brought in the newspaper and read it, made the coffee and warmed up the biscuits.
I’ve been in Galveston visiting her since Christmas day and the cold front has been here a record 18 days. It’s been gray and wet and chilly enough to get the weatherman all excited about the possibility of frost north of Houston, but not cold enough to knock the blooms off the billowy purple bougainvillea that has spread through Mama’s fence into the next door neighbor’s yard. The lemon tree has grown as tall as the house and is so heavy with fruit we beg everybody who comes to the house to take some.
Mama has been reading Rick Bragg’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee and his people take her back to the cruel days of the Great Depression and her own people.
“My brothers worked in the fields when they were five and six years old,” she says, a little disbelieving and haunted by that. She reads some more, and remembers her Uncle Charlie, the bootlegger.
“I use to go over to play with Dorothy and Ruby, my cousins, and there were always people coming over to buy something in a jar. I thought it was vinegar. It looked like white vinegar.” Uncle Charlie got ratted out by his partner in a business scuffle and landed in prison for a time, but my mother remembers him warmly. “Everybody loved Uncle Charlie,” she says. “Whenever I saw him he gave me 50 cents to go buy material to make a new dress.”
I cook everything I can think of to try and fatten her up a little. On New Year’s day we had black-eyed peas and cornmeal dumplings, then a week later we had more except this time with turnip greens and collards. Her favorite is a baked sweet potato, the after-school snack of her childhood. And grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato soup on a cold, wet night. She takes a bite of the warm sandwich and gets that far away look in her eye.
“When I was a girl we had toasted cheese sandwiches on Christmas day,” she says. “That’s the only time we had it. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.”
The Houston Rockets play basketball on TV most nights and she watches with the measured dedication of a monk at prayer. Her man, James Harden, “The Beard,” is having a heck of a season and she nods with quiet satisfaction as he gets the praise he deserves from the stingy commentators. Her faith in her Rockets is unwavering.
When the Rockets are not on, she watches college ball, but only Kentucky or Texas. Kentucky will go all the way this year, she predicts. Their legend mingles with her memories.
“The day your sister was born,” she says, “The doctors were listening to the Kentucky game in the delivery room.” She remembers our old neighbor Dean in Bowling Green and her son Don who died of ALS in his mother’s house. “The last thing Don said before he died,” Mama says, “was ‘Let’s watch the Kentucky game.’”
One afternoon I am gone a good while, walking the dog on the seawall while Mama naps. When I come home, she is not in the front room, not in sight anywhere. Finally, I find her on the floor next to the back door in the kitchen. She is wearing her pink down coat and a knit cap and fingerless mittens. She is squatting like a yogi, raising a hammer above a brick dragged in from the back yard, cracking pecans.
The woman who cleans her house on Saturdays, her friend Mary, she explains, went over to her mother’s old home place on the mainland, and found the pecans fallen off the trees and left on the ground to rot. Mary brought a bucket to Mama and Mama intends to shell them and bake little pecan pies for the men who pick up her recycling.
That night she sits and watches the Rockets, a wooden bowl in her lap. She picks at the pecans until she has two full pints cleaned. She counts that as a good day and so do I, about as good as it gets.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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