Essay by Sally Bellerose
Photo by Dan Elman
Mom is no malingerer, but after Dad died she had a hard time getting up in the morning. She had gotten used to sleeping the hours Dad slept and couldn’t get back in the rhythm of staying awake during the day and sleeping through the night. She often fell asleep in the wee hours and slept through the morning. She asked me to call to wake her when I woke, no time too early. So I have spoken to Mom almost every day between 6 and 8 AM for the last eighteen months, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for more than an hour.
This morning in the middle of a meandering conversation I told Mom that her three-year-old great granddaughter, Kennedy, had been upset at bedtime the previous night and had cried herself to sleep in her mother’s arms. Mom was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. We decided that our beloved girl had just had a bad night. Then we spoke for an hour about the old man on Mom’s bowling team who wants to take her to Florida for a month, and about income taxes, which she hasn’t had to pay for fifteen years because she’s old and poor.
At 9 AM I said, “Talk to you later, Mom. I’m off to my writing group.”
“You know your Pepere Curley was a drunk,” she answered.
Her statement was not news, but a lure, a tug on a line of a good story. I said nothing.
“I was her age, a little older,” Mom said and I knew she was referring to Kennedy. “My aunt picked me up to take me back to Lil’s house.” Lil was her cousin, twenty years dead. “Not in a car, of course, in a wagon, must have been Uncle Joe’s wagon, an old wooden work wagon, open to the air, with sides short enough for a little girl to peek over. It was an over-night visit. They were always trading off kids. Maybe my brother was there, too. We were clopping along and we saw my father staggering down the street. He was carrying a sack under each arm because he said the sacks held him steady when he was drunk.”
Ballasts, I thought, but said, “Ah ha.”
“He never tried to hide his drinking. He was walking towards us, tipsy as all get-out. We all saw him and no one said a thing. It wasn’t like today. We were moving slow. The horse was a work horse, a plodder, and the road was dirt. There were cars, but not many on a side street in that part of town. I was worried that my father would fall in that dusty road and no one would help him up, that no one else would come along, or that someone would come along and drive right over him. When it rained, there was quite a gully on the side of that street. I waited and watched him and knew he must have seen us, but he hung his head and said nothing and no one in the wagon said anything, either. We just kept clopping toward him and he just kept weaving toward us. I didn’t cry right then, because I figured that might have made him more tipsy, but I turned around as we passed and watched him and the sacks under his arms with my chin resting on the side of the wagon. All these years and I remember my chin bouncing against the wood slat as the wagon bounced along the road. The horse’s feet kicked up little cloud of dust that blurred my view and stung my eyes and I lost sight of my father completely so I stood up to see and no one made me sit down, even though standing wasn’t allowed when the wagon was moving. When my father was almost out of sight, my aunt snapped the reins and said, “Sit.” I got on my hands and knees and crawled to the back of the wagon to watch but all I could see was a speck that I thought might be my father. When we turned into Lil’s I was mad because no one had said hello to my father. I fussed about getting out of the wagon. I thought my father was brave to keep walking down the road carrying those sacks, getting smaller and smaller, when no one in the wagon even waved hello. That night I was alright at supper. She was a good cook, my aunt. But she put me and Lil in the same bed and I cried all night. In the morning Lil told her mother. My aunt took me home and I finally got to cry in my mother’s arms.”
“It’s good to cry in your mother’s arms,” she said.
–this refers from the lines “you listened to me as a child /
and heard my dreams ” in Mindy Evans’ poem This Poem is Free