Hatteras Light

by Jayne Hunter

Mary Grace helped me pack my bag, even though I told her I could do it myself. I’ve been used to doing a lot of things for myself, but she likes helping me, so I let her. Mary Grace’s plan was for us to leave for the Outer Banks right after her official adoption of me. We’d stay just long enough to play on the beach and for me to see the Hatteras Lighthouse.

My mama always used to tell me that I was made at the foot of the Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the tallest working lighthouse in the world. When my doctor told Mary Grace that it was important for me to have some good memories of my mother, Mary Grace latched onto that lighthouse thing. Because of this, she said we’d head there right after taking care of business at the Department of Social Services.

“Look nice,” Mary Grace said when we finished packing. “We were going out for breakfast at a nice restaurant right after we sign the papers.” She then gave me a brand new blouse to wear–pure white with lots of pretty lace around the collar. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to having anything fancy, because I’m bad to mess up and spill things, but she didn’t seem to listen to me when I told her this.

Since Mary Grace had helped pack my bag, I didn’t want her to have to trouble with ironing my blouse for me. I didn’t want her thinking that adopting me was a big mistake because of all the work I’d be causing. Besides, I ironed plenty of times before for my mama, because she wasn’t good at things that required patience.

So, while Mary Grace was in the shower, I set up the ironing board and put the iron on the board and everything. I laid out my blouse all straight and ready to iron. But somehow when I walked out of the room to go to the bathroom, I must have knocked that iron right over because by the time I got back, it had burnt a big black hole right through that brand new blouse and was working its way through the ironing pad. The whole thing stunk to high heaven–smoke rising, cloth burning–and as I scrambled to unplug the iron, I knocked it onto the floor with a big heavy klunk. Before I knew it, Mary Grace was standing there beside me.

“What happened?” She had her worried face on.

I backed up against the wall, and wrapped my arms around my middle. Here it was my last day of being unofficial and I’d completely messed up.

Mary Grace pulled the iron upright, unplugged it, then turned to me. I was trying really hard not to cry so my eyes wouldn’t be all red and my nose all runny at the Department of Social Services.

“Honey, are you hurt?” she bent down and looked directly in my eyes that way she does, like she’s trying to figure out if somebody else is living inside me. She pulled my arms away from my middle and looked at my hands. Then she ran her fingers all the way up my arms, which are really pale, since I always wore long sleeves before I came to live with her. She stopped at a couple of my triangle scars up on the inside of my upper arm. Her face dropped, and she looked like she was trying not to cry.

“Were these made with the tip of an iron?” She croaked the words out, like a frog. She was biting her lower lip really hard, and I could see that chip on the bottom of her left front tooth.

I swallowed hard, and remembered my promise to her that I would be honest whenever I truly could. “Yes,” I said, “but only when I messed something up really bad.” Like now, I thought, looking at the burned shirt on the ironing board. But I didn’t say it.

Mary Grace wrapped her arms all the way around me, like she was hugging a tree, and rocked me back and forth. “Nobody can mess up bad enough for that, Tess. Nobody can mess up that bad.” She stood up and picked up my burnt blouse. Then she stuck her face through the hole and made a funny face at me. I started laughing at her, but I could feel the tears running down my face.

* * *

We got everything signed at the Department of Social Services really fast. I was glad because I was so hungry. The people down there all knew Mary Grace, and, as the lady who stamped the papers with her metal seal said, “We think the world of her.” The judge told me I was very lucky. When he said that Mary Grace stood up very straight and said, “We’re both lucky,” and looked him right in eye as if he’d said something wrong. That’s one thing about Mary Grace–she’s not afraid of anybody.

The one time she met my mama, she told me how it was going to be. “I’m not going to be mean, Tess, but I’m not going to be friendly either. If she’s got any sense at all, she’ll see that you’re better off with me, but I can’t be so nice to her that she’ll think she can just drop in anytime and see you.” She’d paused then and sat up in her chair. “Or take you back.”

When we all sat in the room with the social worker lady and my mama, it was exactly like Mary Grace had said. She was very polite to my mother, asking her how she was and nodding like it was a real shame when Mama said, “A little hungover.” Mary Grace told Mama about how she worked at the courthouse and looked after the rights of children, how she knew that she and I would fit together as soon as she met me. She told Mama how she had already started a college fund for me, and that I would have music lessons and soccer practice and lots of time with her to do things. She also told my mama that giving a child up for adoption was a brave and admirable thing.

Mama had sat there fidgeting, then asked if she could smoke a cigarette. The social worker shrugged, and Mama reached for her pack of Virginia Slims. But her hand was shaking so bad she couldn’t get the lighter to stay lit. I started to reach out to hold it steady like I had always done, but Mary Grace reached under the table and held my hand in my lap. Mama wouldn’t look at me anyhow.

That’s the way Mama is. She’d talk all the time about she would kick somebody’s butt if she just had the five minutes it would take to do it, but when she was actually face to face with anyone but me, she’d just light a cigarette and sit there looking nervous. Mary Grace is just the opposite; she’s sweet almost all the time, but when someone does something wrong, she’ll right up and say call them on it, without bragging about it ahead of time.

I sat there looking at Mama, wondering if I would ever see her again. She looked smaller than ever, and tired as usual. I felt for a minute like I would throw up, but Mary Grace squeezed my knee under the table. She’d told me it wasn’t my job to take care of my mama, but I still felt like I was deserting her, as she sat there needing a cigarette and pretending to study the wood on the table. I wondered if she was thinking she’d miss me like I would miss her.

Just the same, I felt better after the papers were all signed and stamped. I think Mary Grace did too, because she smiled at me a lot at breakfast and told me to order anything I wanted.

* * *

We stopped at a gas station on the way to the beach. Mary Grace told me to change into more comfortable clothes in the bathroom, while she got us some snacks and drinks for the road. When I came out of the bathroom, I saw Mary Grace coming out of the store carrying a couple of brown paper sacks. For just a second, I got that feeling like there’s a clump of dirt in my throat, remembering all the times I’d seen my mama coming out of some store with a brown paper sack and knowing right then that my day wasn’t going to be any good. But then Mary Grace smiled and pulled a Dr. Pepper out of the bag to show me. She knows Dr. Pepper is my favorite. She’d also bought me a Reese’s Cup.

When we got to the hotel, Mary Grace let me bounce on the bed for a bit while she unpacked our bags and put them in the drawers. I’d never stayed in such a nice hotel before, and I’d sure never had my bags unpacked.

I got tired of bouncing on the bed and so I laid back and closed my eyes. Mary Grace lay down beside me, and she closed her eyes too. I could smell her perfume–it smelled a little like vanilla ice cream–and I could hear her breathing. I wanted to hold that moment in my mind forever, but I wondered if I’d be able to do it, since it’s not very exciting to tell people about.

We lay there for a while, then Mary Grace sat right up. “We’ve got to get to the lighthouse before they close, or we won’t get to go in,” she said. She seemed to think seeing the lighthouse was a pretty big deal, so we got up and walked down the beach.

From where we were staying, we could just walk along the beach to lighthouse. As we got closer to it, I could see why Mary Grace thought it was so great. The lighthouse really was beautiful, tall and reaching past the seagulls, its black and white stripes twisting up like the peppermint on a candy cane. Everybody on the beach couldn’t help but keep looking back at it. Between that tall lighthouse and the huge green ocean, I felt really tiny, but in a good way. Mary Grace held my hand, and we walked up the walkway to the lighthouse.

“Good,” she said. “We’ve got time to climb it. Maybe even see the sunset.”

“Climb it?” I looked at Mary Grace. I thought she was crazy.

“Oh come on. It won’t be so bad.” Then she walked right in and climbed a couple of the steps on the spiral staircase inside. She motioned for me to follow, so I did. It seemed to take forever, so many steps winding up inside the tower. Our voices and our footsteps echoed all the way up, making it seem like we were climbing to another world.

When we finally got to the top, Mary Grace had to lean against the side for a while, so I walked around the deck. You could see forever, and the people on the ground looked like crabs skittering on the sand. It was really windy and I could barely hear anything but the ocean and the wind. My lips tasted really salty and my hair felt kind of sticky, but still I felt really clean.

“Come look at this,” Mary Grace yelled. She was standing at a telescope you put quarters in to use. She was moving it around like she was looking for something special. I went over next to her.

“There,” she said, and she moved me so I could look into the telescope where she was pointing it.

I could see out into the middle of the ocean, and right there, way past where the waves were breaking, was water crashing like it was hitting rocks, splashing straight up into the air, sometimes pretty high.

“That’s Diamond Shoals,” Mary Grace told me. “They’re sand bars, and the cold water from the Atlantic meets the warm water from the Gulf Stream right there. They bump right into each other, and it makes that splash.”

I looked into the telescope again and watched the water crashing into itself, putting up a fight. I could hear the seagulls screeching at the people on the beach and the wind whipping around me. Then I looked farther out and I could see way beyond the splashing, to where the whole ocean was spread out smooth and flat, as if it was going all the way to the sun.

Jayne Hunter is a writer and attorney living in North Carolina.  She has recently finished her memoir on her first year as the mother of twins, and plans to begin work on a novel in the spring of 2003.