Her hand was cold when I took it into mine and she flinched.
“You look pretty today” I said and waited to follow her lead. She didn’t say anything, but rocked back and forth in the chair Daddy brought out from the living room onto the front porch every morning because it was the only one she would sit in anymore. She said the other cushions hurt and that the chair she sat in now fit her better. It was made out of wood and had been repaired so many times in the 50 years since my birth that it would have served a better purpose as kindling than sitting but it was the same chair I remember sitting in so many nights cuddled close to her chest, listening to the vibrations of her songs in my ear.
“How are you today Mama?” I asked then moved away from her to the chair Daddy left by her side.
“I’m just sitting here waiting for Hannah.” She said scanning fields that spread out around the house as far as her weak eyes could see.
“It’ll be dark soon.” Mama said holding her wrist in her hand and rubbing it. She kept looking out for something that wasn’t there. She turned her head slow and leaned forward. I just wanted her to see me. Just for a moment to remember all that had been, long enough to keep her from slipping away.
Daddy pushed the screen door open and leaned out. “How are my girls doing?” He asked with a smile so fake I couldn’t return it. “Hannah?” he said looking at me when my Mother didn’t acknowledge him.
“We’re fine Daddy.”
Mama turned her head to look at him. I couldn’t see her face but I saw his and knew from his expression that she’d given him the sign that she knew him but couldn’t quite figure out how. He breathed deep when she turned her face forward and he looked over her head to me again before closing the door and going inside to sweep the kitchen floor or read a book or shower without the fear that his bride would hurt herself while he was occupied.
I could hear the shrill ring of the phone in the kitchen and Daddy’s rumbling voice saying hello. He was quiet for a minute while he listened to the person on the other end of the line then laughed so loud that sitting next to me Mama sat up a little straighter and turned her ear toward the window to listen. I wondered if she was remembering all the times she’d heard that laugh or if she’d just been startled.
“It’s probably Jack,” I said to no one, hoping Mama would respond, “he gets worried when I don’t call and tell him I made it here safe.”
I picked up a framed picture of me in a wedding dress leaned against Jack, both of us looking so young it hurt and I placed it in her hands.
“Mama, remember Jack?” I asked.
She looked down at the pearl rimmed frame but her hands didn’t move to hold it.
On the covered porch that Daddy built, one of the only places Mama wanted to be anymore, he put pictures on hooks he nailed through paint he’d always been so vigilant about keeping me from scratching as a girl. Mama’s life hung on those beams in between the screen and the world beyond it. They were the pictures she loved above all others, and all but a few were of Ireland. The one she took off the hook and held most was of her family standing on their front steps in Dublin a few days before they immigrated to America. Her two brothers were held still by her father’s firm grip on their necks, her sister smiled like she had a secret to hide, her mother looked off into the distance, eyes squinted, and Mama stood, not smiling at all.
Beside it, there was a picture of her grandparents, left behind and never seen again. All around there were snapshots of places she’d loved, one of the sea and two of the church she’d been baptized in. There was a picture of me as a baby laying naked on a blanket and one of Mama and Daddy kissing on the beach in Florida.
On the card table by her side, the place Daddy left her tea and lunch, he’d put their wedding picture, one of me on the first day of kindergarten, my wedding picture, and her Mother’s old silver hand mirror. She’d called the mirror her last link to her home across the sea, the only possession of hers that remained after a fire burnt the house down and everything in it during my parent’s first year of marriage. At her desperate plea her sister and mother gathered things for her, all the pictures she had were sent down from Tennessee with letters and well wishes and reminders that this land was home now. The blankets that covered her when she was a baby came too but none of it was what she’d so carefully chosen to bring with her on the boat trip she took when she was just a young girl.
Daddy said the fire changed Mama by severing the invisible cord that linked her to her birthplace through the scattered remnants of her belongings. When I was a child I’d listen to my parents worst fights through the thin walls as Mama shouted at Daddy and told him how he ruined her. I listened as she cried and he stayed silent and when I’d ask about the fights the next day, he’d always shake his head and tell me that she was just homesick.
I learned years later that both sets of my grandparents had been neighbors in Ireland but Daddy’s family came over first and that Mama’s only followed at their insistence and always regretted leaving home.
Mama held the mirror out for me to look into when I was little and sat perched on the side of the bathtub in her bathroom while she got ready in the morning. I dreamed that all of Ireland was covered in shining silver but she said it was green and beautiful and where she went to every night in her dreams. When I was a teenager I thought it was embarrassing that she spoke of land like a lover she longed for and could never have again but Daddy said there was magic in the land and that it took its hold on some people stronger than others, so hard, he said, that to be away from it was like being away from water when you were dying of thirst.
Mama talked about home some days now and sometimes she thought that she was there again. She’d call out for her friends, the horse she left behind, and for people whose names I didn’t know, until she realized where she was and cursed the red dirt of Georgia and its woods and trees. Daddy would watch in silence then open the door for her to come inside and lay in her bed and cry until she fell asleep.
“You should ask him about Hannah.” Mama said not looking at me. “He should be looking for her.”
The doctors told us there was nothing to do but let her go and agree with the reality her fleeting mind was creating. To try to dissuade her made her frustrated at best and at worst terrified. There were glimpses of Mama and when her head came up from the deep rushing water and allowed her to really see what was happening. She sobbed and apologized and held onto Daddy until she didn’t know who he was again. So I told Mama that Hannah went to spend the night at a friend’s house. “I’ll pick her up tomorrow morning and bring her back home.”
“And who are you.” She snapped at me and I breathed in.
“I’m the girl that loves you.” I told her and took her hand.
“You’re a little too old to call yourself a girl don’t you think?” She said looking at me from the top of my head to my scuffed shoes.
“You should polish those.” She pointed down and I laughed and she smiled a smile that looked almost like Mama.
“My Hannah always has scuffed shoes too.” She said then described the five year old version of me in startling detail. She’d lost who I was at some point in the past six years but she remembered who I’d been.
I stood and walked the length of the porch, looking at pictures I passed along the way. I touched the frames that stood on the ledge and held one of my grandparents who looked so much younger than my mother did now.
I heard her stand and walk up behind me.
“I used to be her once” My mother said pointing at a small picture in a rectangle frame. She was young then, younger than I could ever imagine her being. Though the picture was black and white I could see her hair shining in the sunlight. She sat on horseback, gloved hands resting on the horn of the saddle before her. I remember her telling me she had to leave that horse behind when she left Ireland with her family. She said she cried for days on the boat ride over and by the time she reached Canada she didn’t know if she was recovering from seasickness or a broken heart.
“Wasn’t I beautiful” She said looking at the life she’d lived long ago, she rubbed the side of the picture with her finger and closed her eyes.
“I miss my home so.” She whispered.
The skies above turned deep blue all of the sudden and the clouds were whiter than they’d ever been. The wind blew through the fields making the tall grass dance through the screen and I looked and saw that Mama was back.
She put her hand on the back of my arm and squeezed like she used to when I wasn’t paying attention in church and she tried to smile but cried instead. I let her hold on to me but didn’t move for fear of shattering the moment that felt like thin glass. She raised her head and turned to where the long stretch of gravel driveway led away from the house through empty fields where cows once grazed and I once ran and disappeared into a cluster of trees.
“They said I could pick one moment to keep.”
I didn’t know what she meant and feared she was slipping away again, but I didn’t question her.
“Do you remember the day you learned to ride your bike?” Her wet eyes met mine.
I did and pointed to the grass just beyond the porch. “Right there.” I said and she nodded and looked away from me.
“Right there. You were five and your Dad was going to be home late from work that day so you and I ate dinner on a blanket outside.”
I remembered the pimiento cheese on white bread like it had just been in my mouth and the way the hard grass pricked up through the thin blanket and poked my bare legs.”
“When he pulled up he had a new bike for you in the back of the truck.” She smiled and added that they couldn’t afford it but that had never stopped Daddy.
I remembered how it sparkled in the last surge of daylight and said, “It was blue.”
Mama laughed. “Your Daddy put you on it and held on to the back of the seat while he pushed you along until you yelled for him to let go.”
“He didn’t want to do it.” I remembered.
“He thought it was too soon,” She said and closed her eyes, “but you flew.”
It had been years but I could feel the lift in my soul and the exhilaration of wind rushing past my ears, throwing my hair behind me in streams and I tried to remember the last time I’d felt that way about anything else.
“Your Daddy watched you pushing on the pedals, rocking side to side as you climbed up the hill then looked at me with a smile I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.”
I hadn’t fallen that first time on the bike and it always brought me a great sense of childhood pride. I fell a lot after, even broke my arm riding too fast down a hill that was too steep, but that first ride in orange light as summer bled into fall was perfect.
“That’s the moment I picked.” She said and handed me the picture she held of her old life, and her old horse and her beloved home.
“Above all others.”
Callie Armstrong © 2014