A tornado tore over the hospice where Mammaw lay drugged and being fed nothing but ice. The lights went out and they rolled her bed into the hallway where people murmured in fear all around her as she passed away.
The tornado ripped up buildings all around Brookhaven, tore the tops off tall magnolias and pines. Mammaw’s house, the house in which Daddy was born and where I first became aware of the world, remained in tact and empty.
Daddy said, “That tornado was mama leaving.”
I’d been beside her earlier that day, brushing the hair back from her hot forehead. Mom and Daddy had driven to Mississippi from New Mexico and sat in chairs at the foot of the bed. Mammaw gave little incoherent pleas from her fevered dreams. Her breath came fast and shallow and I could feel her rapid pulse there in her slender neck.
I said, “It’s all right Mammaw, Daddy’s here.”
Her breathing slowed to peaceful. My dad had that hound dog wounded look, eyes welling.
I wondered did she know I meant my daddy, her son, or did she think me a sister, maybe Elsie, telling her our own daddy was there because I was thinking how the mind turns strange when we get old or lonely or go crazy and we start longing for home. I was wondering what Mammaw was dreaming. I was thinking about Elsie being found walking in the woods when she was eighty some years old.
“Elsie? Where are you going?’
“To Mama and Daddy’s house.”
Mama and Daddy’s house had been torn down for years and years, but Elsie who no longer recognized her own children stood in the spot where her childhood place had once been. She’d walked fifteen miles to get there.
My great grandfather’s image came to me from a picture I’d seen as a child sitting in a floor in a room in Mammaw’s house, the first house I ever remember being in, the home place I spent my childhood aching for. His picture had stopped me—he’d been dead since before I was born, but he looked so familiar, something like my own daddy and something so wild and hard in his eyes I couldn’t stop staring. He looked a little, maybe a lot, crazy. What I remember hearing about him is that he was full of meanness.
His skin was so dark and his hair so light. I asked my dad once, “How much Indian are we?” He replied, “Don’t talk about that, it’s as bad as being black.”
My Aunt said, “We’ll never know what happened to Mama when she was a child. We’ll never know what happened to make her like she was, so hard and untrusting.”
As my mammaw lay dying and I felt so grateful that my touch and voice seemed to comfort her in dreams, did she remember me as her only granddaughter and think me a sister at once, time losing relevance as she slipped away?
The last thing I ever said to her was, “Sweet dreams, Mammaw. Sweet, sweet dreams.” Then I drove back out on that Mississippi highway watching the clouds get darker and darker and roll in fast, wishing I hadn’t been so separate from her for so much of my growing up, wondering where I’d ever be able to wander if I was looking for home.
When I returned to Mississippi on my own as an adult I had a recurring problem in my dreams. I would try to walk and my legs would ache more and more until I could hardly take a step. I went there to spend some time at my Mammaw’s house and get reacquainted with extended family. I went there because when my mother was seventeen someone shot her in the head and she lost much of her memory. I wanted to know more about who she had been. I wanted to know why no one ever was arrested for the shooting. I wanted to know more about who had inflicted violence upon her. I went there looking for home.
I found a beautiful picture of my mother at my aunt’s. She looked so confident and pretty. I took that picture to my mother in a pretty little frame. She studied it for a moment and turned it faced down. She said, “I hear you’re going around asking about when I got shot. That’s private. It doesn’t matter what happened. What matters is that I survived.”
My first memories of Mississippi are not of poverty, though there would come a time in my childhood that we returned for a while to Mississippi when I knew what it was to be so hungry my thoughts became foggy and I could not think in school. What I remember first though is my dad driving up my mammaw’s gravel drive in a ‘57 Chevy. I loved that drive, the way you left the highway and became surrounded by trees, the wonderful sound of that gravel and earth beneath the tires, the smell of rain and shade as you rode that curve like a half moon snaking and then the garden and the house came into view. We were sitting out front, beyond the porch, by the driveway waiting for him and when he appeared in that car, I rubbed my eyes and said, “Am I dreaming?”
Mammaw said, “All of life is just a dream, a dream until you’re gone.”
Mammaw never flew but what would she think on that plane traveling to Austin with a storm outside the window, electricity bright and fast? A doctor tends to a man a few seats before me, while his wife cries and a stewardess rubs her arm. Another stewardess flips through some huge guidebook and talks on a phone receiving advice from down below. It’s a six hour flight and I wonder if we’ll have to land somewhere else, but after a time, the man must be all right because people who have been cleared and standing return to their seats. An hour must have passed with all those people standing in polite respect for the possibly dying. Then a woman passes out in the bathroom and the doctor heads back there. At the end of the trip they are both all right, being ushered out of the plane first, to continue their dreaming.
When we lived in Simi Valley, my uncle Don, my mother’s brother, someone who had traveled with us from home, who had that way of talking that I loved like music, would come by in the morning and tell me he was taking my legs to work. All day, I’d drag myself around. I’d refuse to stand. I don’t think I believed him, but I loved him so much, I let him have my legs until he came back to see me. I’d wait all day long for him to bring them back. He’d say, Come give me some sugar, baby. Come hug my neck.
It was my grandmothers who gave me such an imagination. My dad’s mother, my mammaw, tried to make sense of everything while sitting on the porch. All the birds had messages she tried to understand. So did the sky. She talked about what things meant. When the sun shown and it rained at once, it would rain the same time the next day. A butterfly on the porch meant someone would die. I asked about the dirt dabbers nesting in the ceiling, but she said they were just building a home and I was grateful that though she scrubbed everything else, she didn’t tear down their homes until they were through with them. I confused those dirt dabbers with wasps, and didn’t trust that they wouldn’t sting, but I didn’t want them to lose those terrific mud homes.
When we lived in Simi Valley, there was a pool table in our house and the house would fill up with people in the evenings. My uncle would be there for sure and I’d have my legs back. I’d walk around watching the men play pool while the women talked. Other than me, I think it was a childless neighborhood. The other families not started yet or never to be. It was here that I believe I learned to be vigilant. Alone with my mother one day, I watched her have a seizure and then I waited all day for her to wake up. I stayed right beside her. I believe that this happened though no one ever talks about it. I wonder if anyone even knew how long I waited. I don’t remember seeing my mother’s seizures. My brothers have seen my mother coming out of them. She asks for water. She looks at my daddy like she knows him but like he is someone other than himself. She told my brother she sees the hand holding the gun, that she is wearing a ball gown. She says just when she will see the face of the person who shot her, a person she knows she loves, that she comes back to. My mother had many seizures back in California while they tried to get her medicine right. And maybe this is one of the reasons Daddy wanted to go back to Mississippi, something more than wanting to go back where his mama lived, to take me back some place where I didn’t have to be vigilant.
We went back only to leave again and spend our lives traveling. Mammaw did lament his leaving Mississippi and let it be known. I wish your daddy would come home, mammaw would always say to me. Why won’t he come home? Every time he tried to go back we’d sink back in to poverty. Something made him restless. Sometimes he’d stand in the kitchen looking out the back door with full eyes. I’d imagine what he was remembering. I saw him once sitting on the porch swing holding his father with a look of horror on his face. When he saw me he said, “Go on, baby, don’t look. Go on to the other side of the house. Papaw’s sick.” Papaw had had a stroke.
We were living in New Mexico when Papaw died and Daddy hated that he had been away. He almost killed us all in the car driving so fast to get to Mississippi. We rode right up on a bridge abutment sideways and instead of flipping it felt like something lifted us and set us right back on the road to Mississippi. Later, watching him stand in the doorway of that farmhouse he grew up in, I wondered if he was missing his own daddy. Maybe he was remembering the woman he always told about who came to that kitchen door. “She always came to the backdoor,” he’d say. “She was as good to me my own mama. She wouldn’t have come to the front door if you’d asked her. That was respect. That’s just the way it was.”
Then he’d tell of the day that woman never came back and he’d gone through the woods to her house to see what was the matter. He describes the thin boards of the house, how he peeked through a crack in the wall and saw that woman laid out of the kitchen table, head draped back over the edge, staring out at him with dead horrified eyes, a bullet hole in the center of her forehead. He gasped and fell back. I always imagine it as one of those terribly humid days with the locusts calling and the sun burning the air. He made himself look again. He says he watched the sheriff talking to the coroner. He watched them pull the dress back down over that woman’s legs and say, “Death by natural causes.”
Maybe these were some of the memories that filled him with anxiousness in Mammaw’s kitchen. I saw Mammaw watching him once and frowning. He was standing in the kitchen looking out the back door. He couldn’t stay sitting. Something ate at him inside and it hurt Mammaw to watch. She took it personally. Mammaw said, “He cain’t wait to leave.” My brothers tell me he has switch scars all over the back of his body and thighs, that that’s why he doesn’t like to be seen even without a t-shirt.
Dad had a collection of cars outside that house in Simi Valley, even an Edsel just to have it in the collection. All I remember growing up in trailers was junk scattered in the yard. When he decided to go home to Mississippi, he gave the cars to the neighbors. He left our house and stopped making mortgage payments until the house in Simi Valley was repossessed.
The night Mammaw died I sat outside a house in Mississippi. We’d gone to the farm, but none of us had been able to go inside Mammaw’s house and face it without her. I walked around the yard, looked at the sandstone my papaw used to sharpen knives, the laundry shed, the chicken house, the barn. Everything decaying on that beautiful land where my family had lived for over a hundred years. My uncle would soon sell it all. He’d stayed close to home and wanted some compensation for all his taking care, so he took everything and left his brother and sister nothing but memories. He walked around in the yard spouting Bible verses. I thought how Mammaw always spoke in terms of nature, Papaw in terms of the Bible.
The night after she died, I sat on a porch in Mississippi. I thought Daddy was probably right about that tornado. I looked up at the strange blue moon in the sky. I had never seen a blue moon in my whole life.
Mammaw told stories all the time, and finally on her sick bed she told a story about me. She told me how I snuck up to the chicken house and eased the door open, how I tried to sneak my hand up under a hen and fetch an egg. “You came flying out backwards with chickens and feathers a flyin’. It was the funniest thing I ever saw.” As a child I scattered seed for them with her on that earth I loved to feel beneath my bare feet. “Biddy! biddy!” I sang along wearing a sun bonnet she made. I practiced wrinkling my chin when I laughed. I put my hands on my hips. I emulated her every move.