Lunch with Mama
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 908
First, I need to clarify a word, that word being “lunch.” I have never eaten lunch with my mother. We have breakfast, dinner, and supper; we never have lunch. The only exception to the use of that word was the school lunch menu, which she would read with me, the both of us giggling over snicker-doodle cookies.
My last mistake with those words left me dining alone one evening, and her being miffed that I had stood her up. It was clearly my mistake, and I needed to apologize for it, which I did profusely. To this day, I still perform mental gymnastics when speaking of the noon and evening meals, lest I blow it again.
As usual, I called yesterday to see if she was planning to have dinner today. We often have dinner on Saturday at Toots, a home-style buffet in Garner that has more trouble keeping it’s sanitation rating up than does Waffle House. If you saw it, you would understand completely. Rather than describe the restaurant in detail, let me just say that the always have fried fatback on the bar, and on Sunday, you will find chitlins. I think you know where we eat now.
To make that date for dinner at Toots, I always make sure Buck, my stepdad, is on the line. Mama is sliding deeper into dementia with every day. Some days are better than others are, but the downward spiral into darkness is indisputable. The doctors prescribe medication to slow her progress, but nothing will stop it. She knows it, and she asks Buck to not tell the boys.
How he lives with it, I cannot understand. My short hour on occasional Saturdays is nearly unbearable. I remain in recovery from the Saturday afternoon in which I had to introduce her grandchildren to her, and I will likely remain so for a very long time.
Like most sons, and especially the Gay ones, I do not view Mama as an ordinary woman. Our mamas love us when no one else will.
We do not know her age because her birth was not recorded, not even in a family bible, just in the memory of the one sister who testified at the Smithfield courthouse when Mama decided it was time to file for Social Security. I suppose this is what can happen when siblings are counted in double digits.
The family sent Mama to the orphanage in Middlesex at the age of three. Her mother had died. Her father was overwhelmed by all the children, and the rest of the family rejected the children because they really didn’t like the father. His apparent sin was riding a white horse to the house while wearing a military uniform, sweeping my grandmother up to the saddle, and then taking her off to marry. The rest saw him as uppity on that horse and in that uniform.
Mama learned to survive at the orphanage with the better part of her dignity intact, though at times it cost her. The girls were forbidden to use nail polish. Doing so is a sin, you know. Mama painted her toenails red and wore socks. Is there any question as to why my own toenails are often purple?
Mama tells the story of the day some old rich woman from Raleigh came to the orphanage to give all the children a silver dollar to spend at the State Fair. Such a magnanimous act, it was. The children, gathered in the dining hall, were bouncing the coins on the tables, making a big racket. The housemothers called for silence so the generous old rich woman from Raleigh could speak.
Mama told this story as true, and I have no reason to dispute her.
There she sat in the hard dining room chair after making breakfast biscuits while standing on a pile of drink crates at 5 AM, silver dollar in hand, thinking to herself at the tender age of five that she came into that orphanage with her dignity, and she would for damn sure leave with it that way.
Her words, I assure you.
She raised her hand in the silence and dropped the coin. The plinking sound riveted all attention on her, and the coin with it’s included trip to the fair was lost. Years later, she always made sure that we went to the fair on opening day to eat foot-long hotdogs. I still have recurring dreams of those visits, $25 in hand.
So today, I leave the apartment early enough to stop for flowers on the way to Toots. I selected a dozen yellow roses with a slight pink tinge. Yellow was always her favorite color, and the yard was always full of yellow roses in various shades, purchased on a Saturday afternoon from the nursery in Angier near the IGA where we bought groceries.
Along the way, I was thinking about Mama and her flowers. She was always took forever to throw out any bouquet, and I knew this dozen would sit on her table for weeks until the last petal fell, if not longer, and even then, she would be slow to throw them out and sad when she did. No matter how withered, she would speak of how beautiful they are.
Then, as though seeing the mysteries of the universe unfold before me on Highway 70 South, I understood. She does not see the flowers as they are; she sees them as they were.
And there, I believe, is how I have to see her as she slips into darkness.