A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Photo Credit: Amy Gantt
In the spring of 1992, when I was seventeen years old, I got out the purple pen I’d bought myself with the money I earned cleaning the furniture store in the tiny downtown of Wallace, North Carolina. I sat on my bed, my notebook balanced against my knees, and I chewed on my pen as I thought about what I wanted to say to her, how honest I wanted to be. And, dry-eyed, I wrote Mama a letter.
Then, shaking, I carefully folded it in thirds and sealed it in a plain, white envelope and printed her name on the outside in purple block letters. I wondered when she’d get the letter, how long I’d carry around this knot of worry in my gut.
When she called me into her room to talk, I slouched in, hands buried in my pockets, and I refused to meet her eyes. I was afraid that I’d see she’d been crying.
“I don’t even understand what this is,” she said. “What does this say?” She pointed at a scrawl of names.
“Those are,” I said. “I mean, these are the people you work with, you know, L.D. and Verna and Ray and all them. And that—” I pointed at a nearly illegible scrawl. “That says ‘an-guh-tham.’ I didn’t know how to spell it. You know, that thing you have to watch while you’re working.”
“Oh,” she said. After a long, miserable pause, she said, “So this is how you feel about me.”
“No, Mama, I mean, I guess. I just—I just wish that things were different. I thought they would be, after Daddy left.”
“I don’t see you helping out much,” she said. “I have to work. I wish I could be around with y’all all the time, but I can’t.”
“But when you are here, you just, I mean, like, the other night, when James was so upset. I mean, he’s only nine years old, and I had to go and get him to stop crying.”
“That wasn’t any of your business,” Mama said. “You didn’t even know what was going on, and when you undermine me like that it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“I just didn’t want him to be so upset.” I felt the unshed tears burning behind my eyes, and I looked up into Mama’s face for the first time. There was anger and under that, pain, and under that, the exhaustion of Sisyphus.
I sagged under the weight of what I’d done, fucked it up again.
“Are we done?” I asked.
“I guess, unless you have anything else you want to say.”
I shook my head.
First of all, I love you, and this is extremely difficult for me to do simply because I love you. However, there are some things I need to tell you. If I tried to talk to you, you would hear me, but you wouldn’t really comprehend what I’d be saying. Please read this and think about what I’m writing.
I value our friendship, but I am your daughter. That’s hard enough without having to be your best friend. I have my own life, and I really need to live it myself. You tell me almost everything, but when was the last time you sat down and really, really listened to me or asked if everything was going okay? If you have asked me, I know you didn’t really want to hear that I have been severely depressed since school started, and that I have prayed time and again just to die, to go home. I enjoy talking with you, but I have to say what I have to say in short bursts because you seem to only pause with your narratives about Brian, Ray, Verna, the jimco, the angatham, James Keene, L.D., or whoever, to catch your breath. We’re not talking; you’re talking. We used to be close because you listened but now you talk and talk and talk; and then you get angry when I am tired and want to go to bed. After I’m gone next year, don’t dump on Kevin, please. Find a friend outside of work, a female friend that you can trust and talk to. I know you’ve got to talk to someone about Ray, but that someone shouldn’t be me. I’m your daughter for God’s sake.
I know you love me, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m your daughter, but when are you going to be my mom? You’ve been my friend, my enemy, and my sister since I’ve been an adolescent, but what I need most is a mom. I wish that you had been tougher, made rules and made sure I stuck by them. You are fortunate that I am more mature than the average seventeen-year-old, because I would have really taken advantage of your inconsistencies. Be tougher on the boys; they need to know what to expect from you, always. Don’t get angry with me for wanting to go out with my friends, whether they’re the Bowdens or Ann Marie. I need friends outside of this family as much as you do. Also, don’t resent my friends. I’m not trying to find someone to take your place, but I do need a break from our family, as much as I love you and the boys. Support me, but don’t monopolize me.
Do you remember when I got my first report card this year? It was the best report card I’d ever gotten, and all you had to say was “That’s good.” And James got on the B Honor Roll for the first time and he was so proud, but you didn’t give him a pat on the back either. No matter what we do, we never feel like it’s good enough for you. Give us a pat on the back, don’t take us for granted. Before Daddy left, I asked you once if you would spend more time with us once Daddy left, and you said yes. You talked about going fishing and walking in the woods, and “exploring” like we used to do when I was small. Now it seems that you have no time for anyone but Ray. You’ve got to be uptown at 8:00 because Ray worked late. You get off at 12:00 on Sunday, but you spend the afternoon with Ray, not us. I know you love Ray, but you see him seven days a week, or if you don’t go to work, you spend the entire day looking for him. Why not take that Sunday afternoon to take us walking at the river? We need you, Mama, but you’re seldom there for us.
Every time I tell you something about a guy that I like, or a secret dream that I have, or anything like that, you laugh at me, or him, or my dream. I’m not talented enough, or he’s too old, or that’s stupid. You don’t know how much your discouragement hurts me. For example, when I told you that I wanted to take a course in acting in college, you laughed at me and told me that I would never be able to do anything like that. Mama, I love acting, not as a career, but as a hobby. Don’t destroy my dreams, my hopes, my ambitions. I need them, too. You also hurt me deeply when you say stuff like “What happened to your hair?” or “Your makeup looks terrible!” or “I hate those clothes.” Did you ever realize how much I idolized you? No longer. I am too disillusioned with you to ever worship you the way I once did. I’ve been hurt too deeply too many times. Please don’t disillusion the boys. They need a mom, as much if not more than I do. Love them, be there for them, and above all, show them what a mother is supposed to be like. It’s too late for me, but not for them. I hope we can get things straight.
“I think,” I said, furrowing my brow the way I always do when I’m trying to articulate something that’s only been an itch in a dusty corner of my mind. “I think that my mom always just kind of wanted to be a mom. She loved being a mom, and now that we’re bigger and don’t need her so much anymore, she doesn’t know what to do. So she just holds on tighter.” I was 21 years old, four months into my first real relationship with a woman, and Allie was furious that Mama had tried to guilt me into going to her nursing school graduation instead of camping along the river with her.
The truth was, I did feel guilty. I mean, really, it was just a graduation—not a funeral or something. I didn’t even see the point of my own graduation, a year off. Certainly, my high school graduation had been one big day of bullshit. The last time I saw my father, the man who had caused me so much pain, was the day of my high school graduation. He sat with Mama and her parents and my brothers, and he wept openly as I sat on the stage, glaring at him. I channeled my rage into my valedictory speech, starting with a quote about suicide and finishing with an imperative to my class to get as far from Wallace-Rose Hill High School as possible, even if—maybe because—it was home. When he disappeared again, after a dinner of fried seafood at the Magnolia Restaurant, I was relieved. I was done with that part of my life, and good riddance.
And now, Mama was finally getting her nursing degree. I had a girlfriend, who I’d already moved in with, already exchanged plain gold bands with, who wanted me to be a grown-up and listen to my partner—my new family—and not my mother, who was part of my old family.
“She needs to quit trying to control everything you do. I don’t even like hearing you talk to her on the phone ’cause I know you’re just going to give into whatever she wants.” Allie’s eyes hardened and her lips tightened in a line, just like her mother’s did when she was angry. “She’s got a problem with you because you’re a lesbian, and you need to start standing up for yourself for a change.”
Allie was right. I did need to stand up for myself. Every time I was with Mama, I fell into the same patterns we’d created over my lifetime—I wanted to please her, to make her proud, to be a good daughter and a good friend. I wanted to give Mama whatever she wanted or needed, no matter what. No matter if I had to give up parts of myself to make her happy. No matter if I had to avoid mentioning my girlfriend to keep from seeing her look of disapproval.
But I was right, too. Mama really had loved being a mom.
“Why did you quit college?” I asked Mama during one of our late-night talks after my brothers had gone to bed. I sat on the floor of her dark bedroom, my back resting against her dresser. I stared at the glow on the tip of her cigarette. She took a long drag and the glow flared, bathing her face in orange shadow. I loved these talks, and I dreaded them, too. I was a senior in high school, struggling with the emotional fall-out of no longer needing to protect myself from my father, and feeling in some indefinable way that I was responsible for keeping the rest of my family together. These talks made me feel like her equal; they made me feel like she relied on me as her equal, like a grown-up, with all the fears and responsibilities that went with it.
“Well, I didn’t really want to go to college,” she said, “but Grandmama and Granddaddy told me I had to. So I went to UNC-Greensboro, about as far away from home as I could get.”
I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t really see me in the dark. I wasn’t surprised that Grandmama and Granddaddy expected her to go to college—they were probably surprised it was even a question. They were both college-educated, and as far as I knew, Grandmama had worked her whole life as a teacher. Grandmama’s mother hadn’t gone to college, and when she left Grandmama’s abusive father, she worked hard to make sure that all three of her daughters went to college. They needed to be able to take care of themselves, not to rely too much on someone else to take care of them. Granddaddy was from a highly-educated family of lawyers and businessmen, people who read and worked hard and did everything right, always.
There was no way Mama was going to get away with skipping college, in their minds.
“I met your daddy while I was at UNC-G,” Mama said. She sounded a little wistful, a little sad.
“But he didn’t go there,” I said. “How did you meet him?” Daddy was six years older than Mama, and he’d only managed one year of Bible college before he dropped out. I knew the story of how they’d met from Daddy’s point of view. He’d told me on one of those mornings when he’d invaded my bedroom. He’d bragged about how he could get any college girl into bed, and when he saw Mama on the tennis courts, he had to have her.
“I met him at the tennis courts on campus, not long after I got to Greensboro, and we just started going out. I told Grandmama and Granddaddy that we were going to get married. They were not happy. But eventually they agreed, when we threatened to elope to South Carolina, but they said I’d have to wear Aunt Linda’s wedding dress. They wouldn’t buy me my own.” She took another drag of the cigarette, and I listened to the familiar hiss and crackle. She exhaled and smoke swirled through the darkness. “They made me promise I’d stay in school, but I hated it then. I tried going to a technical school for graphic arts, but I hated that, too. I just wanted to have a baby and stay home and play with you, so I did.”
She was nineteen when she and Daddy got married at the First Baptist Church in Wallace. She was twenty when I was born. I’d counted the months so many times, hoping I’d find out that she’d been pregnant when she got married, that there was some compelling reason for her to marry him. Something other than love. But she wasn’t. I was born almost exactly a year after they said their vows.
“I almost left him,” she said quietly. “When you were a baby. Things were bad, and I just couldn’t put up with it anymore, so I packed up all our stuff and put you in your carseat and started driving back to Wallace. But then a Kenny Rogers song came on the radio, and it was so sweet, about all the things he missed about the woman he loved, and I started thinking about what I’d miss about Daddy, and I just turned around and went back.” I heard the shrug, the it is what it is, in her voice.
I thought about what my life would’ve been like in that alternate timeline. I wondered what made her want to leave then, but when things had been really bad for so long, she still grieved when he finally packed his things and drove back to his hometown. Had he hit her? Had he had an affair with a woman who was younger and who hadn’t just had a baby? I’d never know. If she’d left, my brothers never would’ve been born, and I thought about whether I would have given them up for the chance to grow up without an alcoholic monster for a father.
I wondered what it would have been like, just me and Mama, a team against the world.
Mama stayed home with us until I was eleven, and she threw herself into being the kind of mom she had wanted to be when she dropped out of college. We played in the yard of whatever house we were living in and made up games. We walked to the library once a week during the summers to get books. She brought home butcher paper from the grocery store and taped it to the wall so we could draw murals in crayon and magic marker and watercolors. She showed us how to turn over rocks to play with the roly-polies who lived under them, and she made us promise never ever to play with snakes or spiders, not even baby ones. She took us exploring in the woods, and she organized Saturday afternoon bike trips around town, the smallest kids strapped into seats on Mama’s and Daddy’s bikes.
When we misbehaved, she’d swat us with her hand, and when we really misbehaved, she’d spank our bare legs with the flyswatter and tell us how disappointed she was. She dealt with tantrums by ignoring us, and with disobedience in public by embarrassing us or pretending to leave us behind. When we were good, the world was full of love.
When I was eight, I learned the word “recuperate,” and I felt guilty that I wanted so much for Mama to pick me up and hold me. But after her fourth child was born, Mama had to have a hysterectomy, and that meant she couldn’t pick up any of us until she was done recuperating. The four pregnancies and her return to childcare duties too soon after each one meant that her uterus dropped and pressed on her bladder, making her incontinent. She put a clean towel down everywhere she sat, even in the car to go to the grocery store. While she was in the hospital, Daddy bought her a new car that she hadn’t leaked on, a used brown station wagon that, he assured me, would not need me to pound on the starter to get it to crank, and wouldn’t need to be driven backwards when the transmission fluid leaked out, either.
We stood in the parking lot around the new car and waved at Mama, up in her hospital room. She tried to smile, but I could see the pain and desperation in her face. Later, I heard the arguments. How were we going to be able to make car payments when we could hardly afford rent and utilities and clothes and groceries and diapers?
By the time I was a senior in high school, thinking of college as an escape rather than a sentence, we didn’t have to worry about Daddy’s impulse purchases, or the loans he’d take out at the pawn shop, or the bills he claimed to pay and didn’t. And, finally, Mama was going back to school.
“I tried to go back to school sometimes,” Mama said, stubbing out her cigarette. The smell of burning filter filled the room and I wrinkled my nose. “Every time I’d try, though, Daddy would get all pissy. Supper wasn’t cooked on time, or the laundry wasn’t finished, or y’all needed more attention. He’d get mad every time I tried to do my homework. So I just gave up.”
“But now you can go back,” I said.
She’d decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she was going to James Sprunt Community College in the fall. “Just basic stuff the first year, English and math and history and stuff. I’ve still got to work to keep a roof over y’all’s head,” she said. And she did it, too, working long shifts at StevcoKnit on the weekends and at nights, while going to school full time. When she couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork, the shift work, and the mom-work anymore, she asked for a layoff. The company was already cutting back on their staff, and they agreed. She and my brothers lived on unemployment and student loans, and she got her degree in three years.
I was right when I told my girlfriend that Mama had loved being a mom, and she did try to hold onto me too tightly, to tell me how I should live my life. I responded by arrogantly pushing her away. My phone calls with her were fewer and farther between, and I tried not to call when Allie was around. When she was, though, Allie listened intently for any hint that I was giving into Mama. “And why do you always have to call her?” Allie asked. “She’s just trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty again. She ought to call you if she wants to talk to you so much.”
I asked Mama why she never called me, and she sighed deeply.
“I don’t want to bother you,” she said. “I don’t know what your schedule is like, and I don’t want to disturb Allie, either.”
When Allie left me for a woman in my master’s program, I called Mama before I told anyone else, and even though I’d pushed her away and disappointed her in more ways that I could count, she immediately offered to leave right then and drive the two hours to Raleigh to bring me home.
“I can drive,” I said tearfully. “It’ll be good for me. Maybe I can clear my head some.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
When I got to the clinic where she worked as a pediatric nurse, we walked out the back door to the nurses’ smoking area, and she held me tightly and let me cry. She listened, not interrupting, not telling me that it was for the best, or that she’d known all along that it would never work out. She just held me.
It was the fall of 2007, and Mama was dying. My husband and I had flown home for my brother Kevin’s wedding reception, and we helped Mama with the preparations for the brunch she was hosting at the newlyweds’ home the morning after the party. She dragged the cord for her oxygen tank around the kitchen, while she mixed up eggs and showed me the recipe she’d found for pumpkin pinwheels.
“I keep tripping over your leash,” I told her, kicking the clear plastic tubing out from under foot.
She laughed. “It is a leash, isn’t it?” She pulled it off and lit a cigarette. “I need to go pick up some stuff, some more cigarettes and soft drinks and stuff. Y’all need anything?”
“A drink,” I muttered.
“You’ll have to get that yourself,” she said with mock seriousness, her eyes sparkling. “I don’t buy ‘adult beverages’.”
I stuck my tongue out at her.
She left me in charge while she went off to the store, and I royally fucked up the dough and had to start over.
“What am I supposed to do again?” I muttered at the print-out Mama had given me. I was modifying a recipe that looked like it was supposed to work and didn’t. Or maybe I couldn’t follow directions. The fear of her disappointment flooded through my body, and though I laughed with Richard at the gooey mess, I felt the old hysteria building. It had to be perfect. I could not disappoint her.
When she got back home, I admitted my mistake and showed her the mound of doughy crumbs. “It wouldn’t roll up. It just kinda did… this,” I said, waving my hand vaguely.
She teased me about not being able to cook, and picked a lump of dough off the top. “It tastes good, at least,” she said. “Do you think we’re gonna have enough?”
“I think so,” I said, pointing to the rolls of cake and frosting that were more or less behaving themselves. “What do you think? I can go get some more pumpkin if you think we need to make another couple of batches.”
“Nah, that looks fine,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of food.”
When we got to Kevin’s house, more than two hours from Wallace, I helped Mama unload all the food she’d made and all the decorations—the candles and faux fishing nets and seashells and sand dollars and beach-themed plates—she’d brought for her perfect brunch.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked.
“Nothin’,” Mama said. “I’m gonna decorate when we get back tonight, and there won’t be much to do in the morning.”
“So what time do you want me and Richard to be here tomorrow?” I asked.
She shrugged, and one of the earpieces of her oxygen tube fell off. She fitted it back with a practiced motion that reminded me of just how sick she was. “Whenever. I told Kevin it was from nine ’til about eleven, but people can just drop in whenever they feel like it.”
“Okay, that sounds good,” I said.
Richard and I got to Kevin’s the next morning around quarter to nine.
“Where have you been?” Mama hissed. “I still haven’t got the decorations up yet, and people’ll be here any minute!”
“I, well. I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. “I thought you had everything under control.”
“I just wasn’t expecting you to sleep all mornin’,” she said.
I clenched my fists and put them deep in my pockets.
By the time we got back to Mama’s house, pain and exhaustion lined her face.
“I guess we should start packing up,” I said to her. “Do you want me to get you anything first?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Can you go get me a Diet Sun Drop? And I’ll change clothes and feed the dog, and then I can sit down and rest a minute.”
“Sure,” I said.
When I got back from the kitchen, she was still standing up, wearing one of her knee-length knit nightgowns, waiting for me. “I wanted to give you this,” she said. Her mouth was in a line, her blue eyes flat.
“What is it?” I asked, taking the envelope from her. I looked, and recognized my purple handwriting. “Oh,” I said.
“So now you have it back,” she said. “Now I need to just sit down and have a cigarette. I am tired.”
I slouched back through the house, burning with remembered humiliation and fear, wondering why she had given the letter back. Forgiveness? To remind me, when she was just months from death, that I had hurt her? To show me what a stupid kid I’d been? To remind me of all the disappointments, all the anger, we’d experienced over the years?
When Allie left me eight years before, I’d fallen right back into Mama’s orbit, with her on the periphery of all the decisions I’d made. She had cast her shadow on every memory, creeping into all my dark nights and standing beside me through all my fuck-ups. She gave me advice when I worried I’d gotten an STD, she reassured me when I didn’t get interviews for jobs I thought I wanted, she teased me and laughed with me, and cheered for me when I moved to Boston. Somehow, simultaneously, she saw me both as her baby and as myself, even as we repeated the well-worn grooves of our fears and our failures and our love.
And, I decided, that’s what she was doing when she handed back the letter, just as she had always done—just being there, being my mom.
Some names have been changed.
Amy Gantt grew up in rural North Carolina and moved to the Boston area eight years ago. She writes grant proposals for a university, and she writes true stories about her life, particularly about family relationships and how those relationships don’t end, even after death. She is currently working on a memoir about caring for her mother as she died of ovarian cancer, and when she loses her nerve, she recites the words tattooed on her left arm: “Remember your name, Do not lose hope. What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. […] Trust your heart, and trust your story.” Email: amygantt74[at]gmail.com