Over the past months, I have written about various members of my family. Love ones who have made an indelible mark upon my life. Those extraordinarily strong and praiseworthy people who had little to give but gave everything and asked for nothing in return other than we, their progenies, live a life worth of dying for. There was one person from whom all our life lessons were centered. Whether she taught them directly or by example, her quiet reserve, her welcoming smile, her nonjudgmental and truly kind way of dealing with life was always unobtrusive yet always powerful. Her love for family was just as bright as a full moon on a darkened night. And like the Moon, claiming no light of her own, we saw the brilliance of her faith and although she has been away from us for many decades we, those of us blessed enough to remember her, still walk by her light and hope to leave behind us, a flicker of her life.. Please walk with me as I remember Mama.
They had been separated for over a year, but she had not given up hope. They had broken up and come back together so many times that she had lost count. Everyone had warned her that she should accept that it was over and go on with her life as he was trying to do. She was not an idiot; she knew he kept coming back because of the pressure she exerted. He was such a good man, it simply was not in him to intentionally hurt anyone and if she was going to be completely honest, it was her jealousy that caused their issues.
Each time they had reconciled and split again, her depression and desperation increased. She knew he had begun seeing someone else after their first separation. He was so much fun to be around. Men and women equally, were drawn to his easy openness and inclusiveness. Whether he had known you all his life or had just met you, he made everyone feel as if they were the center of his universe. He was painfully good-looking yet, there was not a hint of conceit in him. Being a prankster, he loved a good joke and laughter was his first order of the day. He dwelt neither on the past or any disappointments. He counted them as lessons bought and paid for and moved on. She loved all those things about him, and she knew that the moment she had told him to get out, that he would and that he would not be single long.
He had moved on, and she was stuck wishing she could rewind the past 14 months. He had met someone else and they now had a little girl. It was the life she wanted with him. She had longed for a child with him and her secret desire had been to give him a daughter. She knew that a little girl would have been the center of his universe. She could envision the love on his face as he held her but now, that reality belonged to someone else and it was all her fault for pushing him away. But, she felt that there was still a glimmer of hope, even with the baby. She knew that he was not living with THAT woman and “her” baby, so there was still a chance and she was determined to take it, no matter what it cost her.
She wasn’t certain he would come even though he had given his word. She had felt some measure of accomplishment when she determined that it was because of her continued presence in his life that he had not yet married THAT woman. However, she had to admit that all of the times he had come by at her insistence, it had always ended badly. One more time, she thought she had one more time to get him back. She would make him see that they were meant to be together and she would accept the little girl and love her as much as he did.
She waited nervously for him, watching the clock and forcing herself understand that the bad weather raging outside was the reason he was late. The rain was blowing sideways and coming down in sheets. When the storm first began she had pulled out oil-filled lamps and placed them around the room just in case the power was lost. She had begun to pace back and forth in the small kitchen, while keeping an eye toward the front door which she had left unlocked. She prayed nothing would prevent him from coming, even though no one in their right mind should be out in this weather. Just as doubt began to tie knots in her stomach, she had heard something outside the kitchen door and turned toward the sound.
She rushed the two or three steps it took to reach the backdoor and there he stood soaked from head to toe! Instinctively, she knew his mood would be as heavy as the storm raging outside. If there was one thing that would darken his mood, besides her pleading, it would be rain. He hated storms, he had once said that, they never brought anything good with them and almost always brought death and destruction in some way or another. Just her damnable luck, her last chance and along with all the other odds against getting him back, she would now have to fight against Nature too.
Suddenly, she thought of all the little things she could have done instead of pacing. She could have made a pot of hot coffee to help take the chill of the weather away. She could have had a towel warmed and waiting for him or why hadn’t she made dinner? Any of those little things could have made such a difference, could have softened those hard lines around his lips into a smile. Still, she hoped he would hear her out and give some serious consideration to what she would ask. Please God, just let him listen, she might even persuade him to stay until the storm passed, if only.
As she was closing the door a huge thunderclap rattled the house and simultaneously, lightning flashes crackled seeming directly overhead. She was right, his normal jovial, good-natured personality was nowhere in sight. He was soaked and a puddle of water formed at his feet. Even soaking wet and disheveled, he was still the most handsome man she had ever seen, and she had never tired of thinking about how lucky she had felt when she had finally caught his eye.
Their families had known each other long before either of them was born. No one in their families ever foresaw them becoming a couple. He had never ignored her; he had shown her the same amount of genuine interest he had shown everyone. They were total opposite in their personalities. She was pensive, serious, quiet, and given to melancholy. She would watch him from the edge of any group they would happen to find themselves, hoping he would sense how much she adored him,
He was the youngest in his family and was loved especially well. He and his brothers were all deeply handsome, however, she and almost every other young woman thought his parents had saved the best for last! Even as a teenager, people seemed to compete for his attention. He grew accustomed to being the center of attention although he never actually sought it. As a young boy, he would create and recite poems about different neighbors, not necessarily flattering poems nor vicious ones but, he knew reciting them would absolutely cause serious harm to his backside, he did it nevertheless because the thought of doing something slightly naughty and maybe getting away with it was just too tempting a proposition to ignore. He loved the laughter his silliness generated, and he loved making people happy.
She had come to believe that what they had gone through in their relationship was merely an extension of his boyish impetuousness and just like all the other people in his life, she was willing to forgive him anything.
She did not know how or why the conversation had turned so badly. It felt to her that she had not said more than hello and he was reaching for the doorknob!
“I don’t know why you can’t just let this go. It was your decision for me to leave, so I left.” The second I stopped begging you to put this behind us and start over, you realized I was moving on with my life and you could not stand it! “It was your jealousy that created all this, but you don’t get another chance to tell me to go. We have been over this too many times and if I had known this was why you asked me here I would not have come, especially in this weather! I took my life in my hands trying to get here tonight and for what? Everybody begged me not to come here tonight, this time I should have listened! The only reason I came here is because you said there were important papers here, I should have known when you would not tell me what they were. It’s enough, I’M DONE. I do not hate you, but you need to get on with your life because I have.
There were voices screaming in her head, “don’t let him go, if you let him leave he’s going to go to her, you have to stop him from leaving!” She rushed toward him and reached for his arm and tried with all her might to pull him away from the door! When he wrenched his arm free from her grasp, she slipped in the puddle that had formed around at his feet. White hot anger ripped through her, matching the pain she had felt when her ribs hit the corner of the cabinet. She righted herself by pulling up on the kitchen table. HE WAS NOT LEAVING! SO, WHAT IF SHE HAD TOLD HIM TO LEAVE, SHE HAD APOLOGIZED! SHE HAD ADMITTED THAT SHE HAD BEEN WRONG, SHE HAD AGREED THAT THEIR ISSUES WERE HER FAULT! The last time she had told him to leave, she knew by the look in his eyes he would not be coming back. But the same anger she felt now, she had felt over a year ago when she had seen him talking to THAT woman… He had tried to explain to her that they were not talking about anything, they had not said much more than hello to each other. The woman had been in the parking lot with her twin sister and had asked him if he wasn’t a twin also? He had confirmed just as she had that they were both fraternal twins. Nothing more had been said beyond the rareness of having a second set of twins in their small community.
She had come upon them only in time to hear them laughing. It stung her to hear that wonderful deep chest, all engaging laughter of his being directed at someone else. It belonged to her; it was his laughter that had first attracted her. He just seemed to squeeze every bit of fun and excitement from the air around him and freely shared it with whomever was nearest. She never wanted anyone close enough to him to share in his laughter, it belonged only to her; and that was what brought them here, to this stormy night. She had not heard his laughter since that night so many months ago. She knew she was pushing him too far, but she could not stop herself, not now. Then like now, it was not supposed to happen. She knew her falling was not his fault, but her anger would not yield to reason! As she pulled herself up her hand was mere inches from a large butcher’s knife, his in fact, he worked as a butcher with his father and twin brother and had left his set of knives there when he had left.
From somewhere far away, there was screaming. Terror filled, heartrending screaming! There was blood joining the puddle of water on the floor, actually there was more blood than water! Who had screamed, she wondered? How had she cut herself and how could she be bleeding this much and not feel anything? She was no longer angry; her vision had cleared. Perhaps now when he saw that she was bleeding, he would stay to make sure she was alright. But, he was lying on the floor in HER blood…he must have fallen too.
The knife that had been next to her hand when she had pulled herself up from the floor was now on the floor next to him. She checked her hands and they were covered in blood, but she saw no cuts…the last few seconds seemed like hours as pictures flashed across her mind. As her mind replayed the past few moments she saw herself screaming, and it was not her blood, IT WAS HIS! WHAT HAD HAPPENED? She willed herself to recall what she was sure she would never want to recall. She saw, rather recalled plunging the knife at his face, as he’d turned quickly away the blade of the knife missed his beautiful face and plunged just above his collar bone…THE BLOOD WAS HIS NOT HERS AND HE WASN’T MOVING! His eyes stared unblinkingly and accusingly at her. Blood was pouring both from the wound in his neck and his mouth. Her scream now played in unison with the ear shattering thunder and shivers ran through her, what have I done, what have I done, WHAT HAVE I DONE????
Through some act or mercy an ambulance had been called and the attendants had worked there on her kitchen floor trying to stabilize his bleeding. They’d cut away the vivid blue shirt he had been wearing to reach that awful gaping wound. Somehow they had managed to staunch the blood flow but could give her no assurance as to his chances, he had been bleeding too long and had lost a lot of blood. It had taken them much longer to arrive because of the storm. If he were to have any chance for survival at all, they needed to get him to the hospital without delay!
She never heard anything more. She did not know if he was alive or not. Four hours passed and she, unable to do anything else, drove to the hospital. There was no patient there by his name! He had to be there, maybe he was still in the operating room; he had been brought in because of a knife wound. Could she please check with someone else? The bored and bothered receptionist, explained to her that no patient could reach the operating room without first being registered and since she was the one to register patients, she would know if there was a patient there by his name, and there most assuredly was not! Refusing to be put off, she asked the receptionist to please check her register just in case she had been away when they brought him in. The receptionist told her there had only been two patients that evening, and they were ambulance attendants who had been involved in an accident a few miles from the hospital. Darkness surrounded her, the screaming started again and she heard footsteps running toward her then they too, faded in the darkness.
When she came to, with the aid of smelling salts, she was yelling, HE WAS IN THE AMBULANCE, HE WAS IN THE AMBULANCE!!!! As the nurse and doctor attending her tried to calm her down, she pleaded for their help. She explained that the person she had come looking for had been picked up over 4 hours ago with a knife wound to his neck. She told them that two ambulance attendants had picked him up from her home and was to have brought him to the hospital. The doctor and nurse exchanged worried looks with each other. He instructed the nurse to stay with her as he went to check the condition of the attendants. One, the less seriously injured had been taken to surgery to set a broken shoulder, and had awaken sufficiently enough to question. The doctor relayed the story he had just been told and waited rather impatiently for an answer to come.
The doctor ran back to the lobby telling to the receptionist to call the Sheriff quickly! When the Sheriff arrived, the attendant confirmed the woman’s story. A patient had been onboard before the crash. It was confirmed that he was a stabbing victim. Concern and fear registered upon each of their faces. The Sheriff ran from the hospital pulling on his rain slicker and hat as he went, “when would this damnable rain stop,” he wondered. Reaching the car, he radioed his deputy, the one who had first come upon the accident scene and told him to walk the area around the crash site; there was a patient missing.
With flashlight in hand, the deputy walked about a 25-yard diameter around the crash site and finally came upon what appeared to be the body of a male Negro, approximately 30 years old, face down and thought to be deceased. He had been thrown from the back of the ambulance at impact and had landed several yards and down in a ditch from the actual crash site. The deputy had happened upon the crash scene with no reason to believe there had been a patient onboard and because both attendants had been rendered unconscious, no one knew until the woman had come to the hospital, that a patient was missing.
Miraculously, he still had a weak pulse. No one could explain how he had lived so long after having been stabbed and thrown from the ambulance. The doctor had said he was fairly certain he could have survived the grievous stabbing had he not sustained the additional injuries suffered in the crash. He died 2 days later.
Mama was as close as one could come to an Angel on earth. Born in the first generation of freedmen, she had many reasons to be bitter about life, but she spoke evil of no one or nothing. Her sweet kindness would not allow her to even kill an insect. She had seen so many killings in her life that she felt every life, even that of a insect had value. She would catch any wayward insect who had found itself trapped in her home and release it back outside from which it had come. All of God’s creatures had a right to live and since she had not been given the power over life she had no right to exercise strength over death, neither did anyone else.
Mama had suffered through any number of painful losses. Beginning with the death of her first son. Killed in his late teens by his cousin over a woman who had meant no good to either of them. Nothing was ever done to the man who had killed her son primarily because she could not bear to have her cousin, the man’s mother, suffer the same loss as she. So, she had swallowed her pain, prayed, and trusted God to bring happiness back into her life.
The love of Mama’s life, Papa, had loved her son as his own and had raised him as such. Even when she had become pregnant with their first child together Mama had never seen Papa treat them any differently. And so, they had four children together. A son born in 1919, a daughter three years later in 1922 and 3 years later still, twin fraternal boys in 1925. Many who had known her for years said the laughter had left her soul when her son was killed. Although she often wore a smile, the warmth of which could melt ice, no one could remember hearing her laugh. That was, not until her youngest, impish, nothing too outlandish for a laugh son, the youngest of her twin boys was born. Her prayers had been answered and laughter returned and stayed, until the early weeks of October 1954.
Her precious baby boy, the one who had taught her again to laugh freely, the one who would not leave the house until he had teased her laugh from her, the one who it seemed God had sent to prove she was worth healing. She absolutely loved all her children but there was something special about him and it did not inspire feelings of jealousy among his siblings. On the contrary, they loved him with such fierceness that any punishment he might have earned, they would take for him. He never took advantage of their love for him, he just wanted everyone to be happy and he’d do whatever he thought was needed to make laughter reverberate around their farmhouse, even if it meant trouble for him. And his Mama laughed, just thinking about him made her laugh, until that day, October 11, 1954. The day she learned he had died, 22 days before his 29th birthday.
Mama’s laughter was turned off yet again. I had been born the youngest of 5 the summer before my Uncle died. Since I fell into the same birth order as he, he had seen fit to dote upon me, the youngest child of his only sister. Oh, how he loved teasing her. He often drove her to distraction but the love between them was unmistakable. I was but 2 months and 2 weeks old when he was killed or as his death certificate stated, suffered an accidental death with other significant condition-namely-stab wounds. Be that as it may, Mama mourned, and Papa and his boys fumed.
There was talk and threats of revenge. My deceased uncle’s twin brother and his eldest brother would not listen to reasonable pleas to rethink their plans. But, with Papa not joining his voice to the chorus for calmer heads, they felt emboldened by his silence. Mama rocked and prayed. She did not try to keep busy or present a stoic face, she simply rocked with her arms hugging herself and prayed.
Papa and his remaining sons sent word to anyone they trusted to carry a message that the woman who killed their son and brother would be left alone as long as she stayed away from them. And if she valued her life, she was not to show her face at the Wake or Funeral. If she did, they warned, her destiny would be decided by a fate far quicker than the one my uncle suffered.
Shotguns and rifles had been cleaned, oiled, and loaded. The long guns were to be the accessories to their mourning suits. Surely the woman would not dare come knowing no one would protect her! No one had shown any empathy for her, no one wanted to hear her side of the story, if indeed one existed. Her family members, including her Mother and Father, warned that she would be taking her life into her hands if she had any notion of going near his family. (…and so, began the tradition of loaded weapons attending the funeral of family members. I would not do myself any kindness by admitting to whether I have continued this tradition. However, since it has been more that four decades hence, I will admit that upon the funeral of my second twin Uncle in 1978, I did carry forth the tradition, I had thought perhaps a need might have presented itself. Beyond that, I claim nothing.)
The day of the funeral arrived and as the crowd assembled in the church’s yard, preparing for the possessional inside, a car pulled over just to the front of the church. The window was slowly rolled down and there appeared the face of the woman. Papa and his sons turned toward the car and aimed their weapons directly at the passenger window where she sat. All three were prepared to fire and would have had not Mama stepped from behind her husband, her daughter and two remaining sons and put herself between the long guns and the woman. In defiance of every human emotion she walked toward the car that carried the woman who had for all intents, killed her laughter by killing her son. For the second time in her life, a woman was responsible for taking away a son and her lightness of heart. Many in the crowd wondered if she too carried a gun, perhaps a revolver in her purse. Everyone braced themselves for what was surely about to be a showdown between Mama and the woman who had set in motion a chain of events that claimed her son’s life, but the woman had been warned, no one dared move.
There was created an unnatural hush, a hush quieter than that which usually attended funerals as Mama reached for and opened the car’s passenger door. As the door opened, the woman seemingly had a moment of clarity and shrank back from Mama’s reach. Mama offered her hand and helped the woman exit the car. Once out, she became beside herself, openly weeping in agony in the face of the unimaginable mercy and grace of which Mama offered her that day. Through the quietness everyone could hear the moment Papa’s broken shotgun snapped into working order and was brought to the ready.
Mama, all of 140 pounds and stretching desperately to reach 5’4”, stood defiantly in front of the white hot anger and pain of the remaining men of her family. No one spoke as Mama’s wrapped her arms protectively around the woman’s waist and positioned herself directly behind the casket bearing her laughter and followed it inside the church.
Oh, how I would love to claim to be like my grandmother. How I desire to be able to allow the wonderful attributes of Christ to shine through me as Mama did. Her DNA makes up as much of mine as Papa’s, yet I have to work at forgiveness even though I have been forgiven. I must work at being merciful even though I have been shown mercy. I wish I were as caring, as faithful, as prayerful, as trusting and as strong as Mama…but, I am not.
Mama…to be continued.