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Chapter One: Homecoming
Imogene Lavender never imagined her mother would be coming back. When she left, she said to Imogene that she was shaking the dust of Euharlee, Georgia, off her feet. She didn't even stop to pack her things. Left a dresser and a closet full of clothes, a bathroom drawer overflowing with curlers and combs and creams, and, most amazing, her prized antique trunk stuffed with photographs, letters, ticket stubs, and corsages. Locked tight, but just sitting there in one corner of her old bedroom.
Imo stood in the kitchen at dawn, coffee cup in hand, paralyzed by this recollection coming so fast and thick. Normally an act of her will, along with constant busyness, could keep this and other painful memories at bay. But today, the day she and Lou were to drive to Pamplico, South Carolina, to the Carolina Arms Apartments, to bring her mother back to Euharlee, she couldn't fight them.
In another recollection she was an apple-cheeked five-year-old. She was following her mother outside into the hushed grayness of early morning to gather eggs for breakfast. Her mother's voice floated back to Imogene as she stepped carefully along a path through beds of tiger lilies. "Look at all the tiny spiderwebs between the lilies, Imogene!" she whispered as she knelt down. "Just covered in that sparkly dew! Looks like a fairy world outside, doesn't it?" Gently she touched Imo's shoulder, turning her small frame to look out over the lawn. "See? A fairy world right in our own yard." Her voice trembled, breathless, coating the words like a soft blanket, breathing into them such awe that the lawn in the lifting fog of morning seemed to have an almost magical quality.
Standing there, Imogene clutched the egg basket tighter. She looked out at the glittering world and back at her mother and said softly, "Oh! It really is, Mama. But where do the fairies go when the sun dries the dew up?"
Her mother laughed and kissed her cheek. "Why, they curl up inside the very center of the lilies. They go to sleep and wait for the darkness to come back out. They have to keep their skin purely white."
"Yes, sugar pie. Purely white and pearly white." She held out her hand to take Imogene's. "Let's go fetch those eggs. We'll carry them on in the house and then you can help me roll out the biscuits and we'll rub one with butter while it's hot and sprinkle on a little cinnamon-sugar for you."
Imo tiptoed along, squeezing her mother's hand to say, Yes, a cinnamon-sugar biscuit would be good, exhilarated by the sharpness of the cool morning air and the sparkling fairy world.
This was Imo's first real memory, and so full of tenderness and safety that she wouldn't have minded being able to crawl back into it and stay awhile. There were no words to explain the contentedness in her heart back then, the sweet mystery of having each need met, of feeling secure and loved no matter what. There seemed no need to doubt that things would always remain that way.
Stay here awhile. Just stay in this particular moment of your memory, she pleaded with herself, determined to savor the feeling of security. Not all of your memories of Mama are sweet, so don't you go any further, Imogene Lavender. Don't you cross that line into where the pain began!
She gripped the front edge of the sink and ground her teeth together. She willed herself to focus on the amber liquid in the Palmolive bottle: "Tough on Grease, Soft on Hands!" she read. But it was too late. Her eyes were drawn to the windowsill, to a small black-and-white ceramic Holstein cow that was a cream pitcher. As she studied the jagged lines of glue at the cow's neck and hoof, her sweet memory dissolved into one that was disturbing.
Imo watched herself at eight years old perched high on a kitchen stool, sipping coffee-milk while Mama stirred grits and turned ham in a skillet. Her daddy was sitting at the small wooden table in the kitchen drinking his black coffee and listening to the radio as the county agent talked about the peach crop. He wasn't very talkative or playful in the early mornings, but Imogene was just as happy to have her mother's full attention.
"More coffee, Jewelldine," he said when the weather report was over. He had the earnest look of a man waiting for inspiration, for energy to begin his day. "Reckon I'll work down in the bottoms this morning, in the corn. Sounds like we got us a purty day coming."
Jewelldine nodded and poured coffee for him. Next, she set the boiler of grits down onto a folded towel near his elbow, stood a minute flapping her hands over the pot, then turned back to get the pot lid left on top of the stove. "Flies sure are bad this summer, Burton." She settled the lid in one swift stroke. "Shoo!" She stuck her bottom lip out. "They're pesky little things!"
"I'm putting a bounty on these flies. Penny a piece." He grinned and took a fresh gulp of coffee. "I'm gone hire Imogene here to catch 'em, and bring 'em in, dead or alive. Put the girl to work."
Mama only grunted, but Imo was pleased by this notion of herself working. She figured she could swat all the flies in the house before her daddy came back in for lunch at noon. He'd be proud and Mama would be happy.
Imo's biggest ambition was to make her parents happy, especially Mama. When her toys were not neatly put away or she was too loud and hurt Mama's head, or when Mama scowled at the muddy stains on her dresses and shoes, she was stricken to the heart. What made her take up this burden of worry, Imo couldn't quite say, but perhaps it was on account of being an only child for so long. Mama tried hard to have another baby, and she cried often about it when no more came for years and years. Then she stayed in bed for weeks on end, not speaking and barely eating, after the birth of one that died before it was born. His tiny grave had a lamb carved into the headstone. There had been other babies lost, too, and Imo knew her mama wanted a baby boy more than anything else on Earth. She said he would carry on the family name and help Imo's daddy work on the farm. The fact that no living boy babies ever came made her mother feel sad and angry.
Sometimes Mama didn't smile all day. Sometimes she acted mad at Imogene's daddy. Today, though, Imogene was delighted when she bent and kissed him on his whiskery cheek. "I swannee, Burton. A bounty on a fly!" she said, and there was something joyous in the way she wrinkled her nose and bustled over to the oven wearing a red hot mitt on her hand to grab the biscuits out. She slid a golden biscuit onto a cheerful plate with the alphabet marching around the rim. She set this down in front of Imogene and tied a dish towel around her neck.
The three of them ate with the warm smell of sizzling ham circling the tiny kitchen, and the happy twang of Earl Scrugg's banjo over the sound of a second pot of coffee percolating. When his plate was clean and his coffee cup empty, her daddy stood, pushed back his chair, and stretched. He bent over Imogene and kissed the top of her head tenderly. "See you later, Jewelldine," he said to his wife, patting her hand. He left them still sitting at the table.
A fly settled onto the cow cream pitcher in the center of the table. Imogene studied the fly's vibrating wings. She figured she could kill that fly. Please her mama.
She lifted her hand, moved it above the cream pitcher, and held it motionless a moment to fool the fly. In one split second, she brought her hand down fast as lightning. Too clumsy, she struck the cow and it clattered onto its side, the head and one leg breaking off and cream splattering everywhere.
Imogene froze. She stared at the white puddle seeping across the oilcloth and underneath their breakfast plates. Mama loves that cow, she thought. She sought Mama's face to say she was sorry and tell her it was an accident.
Mama's eyes flashed angrily. "You broke it!" she hissed, reaching for Imo's thin arm and holding it hard.
Imo drew her shoulders up to her ears. "I'm sorry, Mama," she said finally in a hoarse whisper. "Stop, please, you're hurting me."
"Hurting you?" Mama cried through clenched teeth, squeezing Imo harder. "Hurting you? Listen, missy, you broke my lovely pitcher! Ruined the table!" She pushed her stern face right up into Imo's and whispered, "And now I will have to teach you a lesson. You need to learn how to behave!"
Imogene's heart was racing. Her mother had spoken harshly to her on many occasions, but this was the first time she had lifted a hand to her.
"Yes! I need to teach you!" Each word of Mama's threat felt like a slap.
Imo stopped breathing. "Mama," she pleaded, tangling her fingers in her hair, "Mama, I'm sorry. So, so sorry. I mean it. I promise I won't ever do it again!"
Mama didn't seem to hear. "I'll teach you, Imogene Rose Wiggins!" Mama released Imo's arm and used both her hands to press Imo's head down onto the table, into the cool cream puddle. She held her face in it for a long while, mashing it hard against the wet oilcloth.
So stunned she could barely breathe, Imo stopped resisting. Her chest ached from her swallowed sobs. Her blouse was cold and wet and the ends of her hair sodden.
Finally Mama released her, swiped her hands on the pockets of her apron, and said calmly, "Okeydokey, let's get this cleaned up, dear." She strode over to the screen door that led out onto the back porch, opened it, and shooed a fly out. "Do it immediately," she said, staring out across the yard.
Imo nodded, patting her face dry with the hem of her blouse. Clumsily she slid from the tall stool and went to the sink for the dishrag. Mama was a scary presence behind her as she washed and dried the table and the dishes and then collected the pieces of the ceramic cow.
She had never seen Mama quite like that before -- so furious, and possessed by this terrible, cruel thing that took shape and began to live in her then. After that morning in the kitchen, Imo knew her life would be different somehow. A barrier had been knocked down, one that had been the dividing line between Imo's former innocence and her new uneasy life with Mama.
Imo didn't know exactly what seized Mama at certain moments, but it seemed like she became an entirely different person. Something told Imo that nothing she could say or do would head things off during these spells with Mama. She just had to wait them out. Endure. After these fogs passed, Mama acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. You would have thought she might say "I'm sorry, sweetie. I must've lost my head," or try to make amends of some sort, but Mama blazed right on ahead with the day's agenda. Come bedtime, she turned back the covers on Imo's trundle bed and patted the pillow before tucking Imo in. She'd kiss her cheek and listen as Imo said her prayers.
"What time are we going to leave?" Lou's voice jolted Imo out of her memory.
"What, sugar foot?" Imo asked, shaking her head and looking at Lou standing barefoot in her nightgown.
"I said, what time are we leaving? I'm going to go get ready."
Imo tried to calculate the distance from Euharlee, Georgia, to Pamplico, South Carolina. "Nine-thirty or so," she said. "That ought to give us enough time. Don't wake Jeanette and the baby. We'll leave them here so we'll have room for Mama's things."
The truth of the matter was that Jeanette hadn't stopped fussing since yesterday morning when they'd moved her and Little Silas into Lou's room to create a spare bedroom. She'd hollered and kicked the walls and let out a string of filthy words that made Imo's ears burn. All Imo could do was hope against hope that when the girl and the old lady were face-to-face they would click, and pray that if this miracle didn't occur, then Jeanette would just learn to accept her over time.
"Alrighty, Imo." Lou smiled. She knew the real reason to let Jeanette sleep. "Where is it we're going again?"
"Going to the Carolina Arms Apartments in Pamplico, South Carolina," Imo answered, untying her apron. "Located along the Great Pee Dee River."
"She lives on a river?"
"That's what Mr. Dilly said."
"The Pee Dee River," Lou mused. "I wonder if it's as pretty as the Etowah."
Imo watched Lou leave. I don't have the faintest, she thought to herself as she sank down into a chair at the kitchen table, mashed up a crumb with her pointer finger and absentmindedly rolled it around on her thumb. She was trying to make sense of it all, thinking about what Mr. Eugene Dilly, the manager of the Carolina Arms, had said about Mama and the Great Pee Dee River.
He said they'd found the old woman more times than they could count, either swimming in the river or setting out on a flat rock in the middle, fishing with a bamboo pole. Mr. Dilly said he did not want to be responsible for a resident drowning. "We simply cannot restrain Miz Wiggins. It is bad enough," he said, "to have a patient with such a severe case of senile dementia, but during her spells of what the doctors here are calling extreme paranoia, she is amazingly strong. Crafty, too. Plus, her money's run out again. She's a month in arrears."
This was not a surprise to Imo. She and Silas had been sending money off and on for years, and since his passing she hadn't refused the old woman's demands. Thank the Good Lord in Heaven that with the money from Silas's life insurance policy, and her monthly check from social security, combined with a small inheritance from Silas's uncle Bud, they managed to get by. She had supposed she would go on sending money any time Mama called. That was the only time she ever called, when she was broke, but to Imo's mind, the checks she sent were a small price to pay for the peace the distance between them brought. Gladly she would have sent every last penny she had not to be going today.
Oh, the hole Silas's passing had left in her life. He would have been her rock to lean on during all this. He would have made things better. He always knew what to do.
Imo desperately held on to the notion that Mama couldn't be "getting even worse, if you can believe it," as Mr. Dilly claimed when he described her latest escapades. He said that Jewelldine Wiggins must be going back in time to her childhood because she was now calling him Pepaw whenever he hauled her up out of the river. "Tried to hop up in my lap oncet," he laughed. "I rode down to the river in my pickup truck when somebody said they seen her out there in the middle, up on that big ole rock, and I got her back to the bank, up the hill, and opened the passenger door for her and told her 'Hop on in and I'll carry you back home,' and then I went around and got behind the wheel and before I knew it, Miz Wiggins was trying to get in my lap! Calling me Pepaw and pouting about me making her go inside and it not dark yet. Telling me to carry her on home with me and Memaw and not to make her go back home to her folks' house. Said her father would whip her good. Course, she wouldn't fit, what with the steering wheel and all." He exploded in laughter. "Gol doggit! Was funny, it sure was. Got to have a sense of humor to work with old folks like I do. But even we can't keep your mama safe and secure no more, Miz Lavender, and I sure would hate to see her drownded. They's another place, near here, where they've got it more secure. They keep all kinds of old folks in there what have lost their minds." He chuckled again. "Want me to get the number and set up a meeting time? I know the feller who runs it."
"Let me call you back, Mr. Dilly," Imo stalled. "I'd like to talk to my pastor and seek his advice." But after she thought things through, she decided against mentioning Mr. Dilly's conversations to Reverend Peddigrew. Something about saying these things aloud seemed disrespectful toward her mother, but mostly it would make tending to it unavoidable.
So Imo bought a bit more time by sending several good chunks of money directly to the Carolina Arms Apartments, and then for quite a while, she just ignored the reports from Mr. Dilly. She contented herself with the knowledge that they were professionals there at the Carolina Arms and that the little bonuses she was adding to the checks must surely compensate them for their troubles. Wasn't providing for her mother's sustenance all that duty required as far as being a good daughter? She told herself that she'd done more for her mother than anybody else would have under similar circumstances. Lots of people would have turned a deaf ear to someone who'd done them the way Mama'd done her.
Another reason she didn't want to mention her dilemma to the Reverend Peddigrew was that commandment about honoring your father and mother. The Fifth Commandment. What did it mean anyway? Was she breaking it? It nagged at her occasionally, but she managed to keep busy enough to outrun it -- thinking of the day-to-day business of caring for the girls, the farm, the Garden Club, her vegetable garden, the shut-ins she tended to, and that precious, perfect light-of-her-life, Little Silas.
Three weeks ago Imo was standing in the kitchen making a scrambled egg for Little Silas's breakfast when Mr. Dilly called once again and said very firmly this time that Jewelldine Wiggins could not stay at the Carolina Arms Apartments no matter how much money Imo sent. A million bucks wouldn't be enough.
"You've simply got to come and fetch your mother, Miz Lavender. You're the only family she's got. Only soul listed on her forms here."
This can't be true, Imo remembered thinking, this can't be happening. She couldn't even imagine seeing her mother, much less carrying her back to Euharlee after all this time. She asked Mr. Dilly for the number of the maximum security personal care home that he had mentioned earlier. She called, and after they quoted prices to her, she picked her jaw up off her chest, thanked them, and hung up. That night she lay on her bed and cried like she hadn't since Silas passed.
When Imo had the kitchen tidied up, she sat at the table with her hands folded in her lap, waiting for Lou to finish feeding Bingo and Dusty Red. She winced when the phone rang.
Tentatively she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Well, hello to you, dear!" It was her best friend Martha Peddigrew's cheery voice. Martha was the Reverend Lemuel Peddigrew's wife, as well as the president of the Garden Club. "How are you? I feel like I haven't talked to you in a month of Sundays!"
"Yes, well, I've just been real busy," Imo said.
"Pray tell what's been so important you can't pick up the phone and call your dear buddy?" Martha teased.
"Uh..." Imo had to think fast, "just, you know, tending to the girls and Little Silas and all."
"I see. I hope you're not too busy for a visit later on today, this afternoon sometime. I want to bring you a loaf of my sourdough bread and jar of homemade strawberry jam."
"That is so sweet of you to offer, Martha, but I've got to, uh..." Imo faltered, "I've got to run into town and pick something up and I don't know when I'll get home." This was not actually a lie, Imo told herself.
Though a part of her wanted to confide in Martha, she just couldn't bring herself to do it. Facing the vast unknown made her anxious, and she didn't quite know how to put everything into words. "We'll have to catch up later," she said, "gotta run now."
Martha sounded hurt as she said good-bye.
It didn't take ten minutes to get out of Euharlee, and not half an hour more to go down through the cornfields and vast stretches of kudzu that were Acworth and Elizabeth, Georgia. By eleven o'clock they were completely out of the farmlands and in Atlanta, heading for I-20, which would take them all the way to Florence, South Carolina.
Imo gripped the steering wheel. Pamplico along the Great Pee Dee River! All at once a vision flashed into her imagination and she saw the slippery red-clay banks of a brown body of water running beside a string of buildings that included a post office, a five-and-dime, a beauty shop, and a courthouse. Crowds of people were strolling down the sidewalk that ran between the shops and the river, and Imo's attention was drawn to the solitary figure of an old woman among them.
It was Mama. Imo strained to picture her more clearly, to make out what, or more aptly who, she was these days. This was an impossible task.
"What are we supposed to call her?" Lou piped up as they turned onto I-20. "Granny? Grandma? Tara calls her grandmother Memaw, and so does Linda May."
Oh, what a question! Imo scowled. Grandma and Granny had a certain feel to them -- loving, warm, and embracing. A granny, as well as a grandma, was someone rocking on the front porch with a lap full of butter beans to shell, or some mending, who, when she sees a grandchild, pushes aside her task to pat her lap and say "Come right on up here and let me see you, honey-child!" And Memaw was a big-bosomed woman in a checked housedress covered by an apron made from a feed sack, wrapping you in her arms between sweeping and frying up a skillet full of okra. None of these fit Jewelldine Wiggins.
"Well, Loutishie," Imo said, wondering how to explain her mother to the girl, "you know that her given name is Jewelldine Wiggins, and since she's my mother, that would make her your grandmother Wiggins."
Lou's face was serious as she contemplated this. "Grandmother Wiggins?" She frowned.
"Well, I reckon we ought to just think on that for a spell then, hmm, sugar foot? Maybe when you see her for the first time, it will hit you what you ought to call her." Imo did her best to give the girl a reassuring smile. She felt she'd managed to put on a pretty good face about things so far, but ever since Mr. Dilly's last call, she'd been literally dreading this day and hoping the way she felt inside wasn't showing. Every single time she thought about seeing Mama, her heart sped up so fast she got swimmy-headed, and now, here they were, actually on their way to fetch her. Imo had to face the facts; there was no way to sugarcoat things for Loutishie and Jeanette anymore. Give me strength, Lord, she breathed.
They spent the next thirty miles in silence, watching strings of signs for fast-food places and gas stations pass by. Imo thought, wouldn't it be nice if you could just turn your brain off sometimes and move through life unaware? Then a body could have some peace. She was still thinking of this when they cruised through a Dairy Dawg for hamburgers, french fries, and Cokes. With one hand Imo settled her drink, unwrapped her burger, and took a bite.
Of course, that's not the way life works, she mused as she chewed and drove along four lanes of thick lunchtime traffic. There were constant streams of cars just full of folks driving along to who knew what. Folks who no doubt had troubles of their own, except Imo could not imagine that any of them would face something as hard as she was heading to today.
"Sure are a bunch of people around here," Lou said in a wondering voice, almost like she could read Imo's mind.
"Yessirree," Imo said. "Reckon how the Lord keeps up with everybody?" She looked at Lou's slumped little shoulders. "I reckon we know just about every soul in Euharlee, don't we?" she asked to lighten the mood.
Sadness rose up inside Imo -- a painful lump that began in her heart, moved to her throat, and then brought a shine to her eyes. She felt a twinge of concern for dear Lou. How could she make this easier on the child? Why did life have to be so hard for such a sweet girl? She had already lost her mother, didn't know who her father was, and was now on her way to get some grandmother she'd never known. A woman with a mean, dark streak no one could change -- not doctors; not Imogene's dear, long-suffering daddy, God rest his soul; and not Imogene. She had a good mind to make a U-turn and just ignore Mr. Dilly. Tell Jeanette and Lou it was all a big joke.
Things had been healing up around their house finally. Jeanette was back at high school, going to graduate and make a life for herself and Little Silas. Lou wasn't moping around so much and Imo herself was back in the groove of life. Though memories of dear Silas and Fenton Mabry were as close as the photos lining the mantel, or a walk down the dirt road to the river bottoms of the farm, Time had been a great and wonderful healer in regard to their passing.
She drove on, knuckles white on the steering wheel. How many years had it been since she'd last seen her mother? At least fifteen, because Lou was fifteen. Must be closer to sixteen. As she calculated this, forcing herself to remember, her pulse began to race and breathing became difficult. She was not fit to be driving, she told herself as she eased over to the shoulder of the highway and stopped completely to pat her chest.
"What's wrong?" Lou's eyes were wide as she laid a hand on Imo's arm. She shook her gently when she didn't get an answer.
Imo sat and stared blankly. She couldn't think. Images flashed through her brain as cars whizzed by.
"Oh!" Lou squeaked, shaking Imo harder to get an answer. "Are you okay? What's wrong?!"
"I'm okay," Imo managed finally, "just had a little spell. Things are going to be fine." She peered into the child's narrow face and somehow gathered herself together and managed to ease back out onto the highway. They drove for a long while in silence. "A whole 'nother state!" Imo called out exuberantly as they passed the Welcome to South Carolina sign. "Isn't this exciting?"
"Yes ma'am," Lou replied, with a suspicious look on her face.
When they reached Florence, Imo dug into her handbag for the scrap of paper where she'd written Mr. Dilly's directions. "Not much farther," she said, mashing the accelerator as they sped through Windy Hill and Claussen. She gripped the wheel tighter, with trembling hands, when she saw the first mileage sign with Pamplico on it. She maneuvered past an auto body repair shop, a tiny white clapboard house that read Bella's Flowers, and two barbecue shacks -- the totality of the city of Orum. "Be the next town," she whispered under her breath.
Imo's head was a tangle of excitement and dread as they entered the Pamplico city limits. The appointed time was here. She wondered whether her mother would be in the present, or be the little girl Mr. Dilly spoke of. And what would she think of Lou, her very own grandchild? Would she still be so quick to fly into a rage and spew out painful words?
Before long she spied the Carolina Arms up on a sloping hill. It was a long two-story white cinder-block building with a flat black roof and a strip of green grass out front. Behind it stretched a thick wall of pines. Imo decided that the Great Pee Dee River lay beyond that.
No turning back now, Imo thought as she pulled the Impala onto a gray half-circle of asphalt in front of the Carolina Arms. Slowly they cruised by the glass entrance, which jutted out like a hotel lobby. A small sign in the grass read "Manager/Office" and had an arrow pointing down a narrow walkway. She idled awhile until her heart stopped racing. She couldn't let Loutishie see how upset she was. She had to be a calm bulwark. Slowly she pulled in a deep breath. "Alrighty, Lou!" she said, "we certainly are in the right place!" She patted the child's knee and pulled around to park in a row of visitor's spaces.
They stepped out into suffocating heat, marched up the walkway, and pushed open double-glass doors. The sharp smell of antiseptic and a blast of cool air met them as they entered the Carolina Arms. Old folks lined the walls of the long, burgundy-carpeted foyer; some slumped in wheelchairs with their eyes closed, some leaned on walkers, and a few sat in plastic-covered wing chairs. A large middle-aged lady wearing a smock printed with teddy bears and rainbows looked up at Imo and Lou from behind a receptionist's desk. "Hello, ladies," she said, smiling brightly. "What may I do for you today?"
"Hello. I'm Imogene Lavender, and this is Loutishie, and we've come to fetch my mother, Jewelldine Wiggins." These words tumbled out of Imo by themselves. Was she imagining it when she thought this woman's eyes grew wider at the mention of Mama's name?
"Wonderful!" the lady gushed, peering hard over her bifocals at Imo, quickly straightening a pile of papers and stuffing them into a folder. "I'm Miz Johnson. You two make yourselves at home and just give me a second to get her things together here."
Imogene selected a butterscotch lozenge from a cut-glass dish and sat down on a wooden bench. She touched a plastic flower arrangement on the table at her elbow. "How lovely!" she exclaimed, pretending this was nothing but an ordinary exchange of pleasantries.
"I'll call Mr. Dilly," Miz Johnson said, reaching quickly for the phone on the wall while keeping her eyes fastened on Imo. "Let's get him right on up here. I imagine he's got things all ready for the final checkout."
"Thank you kindly," Imo said, reaching for Lou's small hand. She felt that this was one of those moments she would revisit time and again, one that would separate her life like the chapters of a book.
When Mr. Dilly came around the corner with his arm leading this ancient woman, Imo jumped in her seat and squeezed my hand. I stared hard at the old lady's humped back and then at her pot belly beneath what looked like a frilly Easter dress. Her chin stuck out sharply and she had dark beady eyes underneath a straw hat. She wore white gloves and black patent-leather Mary Janes.
This is Imo's mother, I thought, my grandmother. This woman standing here is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, as folks in the Bible said whenever they were relatives.
Before Mr. Dilly had a chance to introduce himself, the old woman yanked away from him and scooted forward to grab Imo's arm. "Memaw!" she said into Imo's face, "I sure have been missing you!"
"Mama," Imo finally murmured, "I've come to carry you back home to Euharlee."
"Well, where's Pepaw at then? Why didn't he come with you?" She turned her attention to me. "Hi cousin Annalea. Why didn't y'all bring my Pepaw?"
"Um, I...I..." The cat had my tongue.
"Mama," Imo said firmly, "this is Loutishie. Your Vera's daughter. Your granddaughter."
"Hello ma'am," I squeaked out. "Nice to make your acquaintance."
"Why, Annalea!" the old face looked me up and down hard, "you know you don't call me 'ma'am,' and just look at you, you're skinny as a beanpole. You aren't eating enough to keep up your strength." This said, she turned and wrapped her old withered arms around Imo, burying her face in Imo's blouse. "Memaw, you really ought to make Annalea eat more, and also you ought to have brought my Pepaw."
Mr. Dilly set a red suitcase on the floor. He smiled and pulled the woman away from Imo. "We're having one of our confused spells, aren't we, Miz Jewell?" he said gently, grasping her wrists and speaking directly into her face. "Remember, you're going home today."
"Home, home, home!" she said firmly, then clapped her hands, leaned over to me, and whispered, "Wanna play dolls when we get home, Cousin Annalea?"
I held my breath as Mr. Dilly tried to steer her away. I guess he could tell I was terrified.
"Let go of me!" She crossed her arms, pouting.
"Mama," Imo said, biting her lip and shaking her head. "Mama."
All I really wanted to do at that point was to run away fast and far, but I managed to stay put while Imo kept calling out "Mama! Listen to me, Mama!" and Mr. Dilly said "Jewell, Jewell! You're going home!" until they managed to get her settled down.
That's when I decided to call this person Mama Jewell.
All of a sudden Mama Jewell stopped fussing. Her eyes opened really wide and she nodded. "I'm ready!" she crowed, "ready to get myself on back home! I've been waiting for this day for a long time."
"Be just as soon as we get your papers together and your things loaded up." Mr. Dilly slapped the side of the red suitcase happily. Turning to Miz Johnson, he instructed her to get out a paper for Imo to sign as well as an invoice that would settle the account.
Leaning against the wall and trying not to look at any of those other old folks who were staring at us, I thought about the crazy scene. I couldn't decide whether to think it was funny or to feel sorry for Imo and be sad about it. I knew she was feeling poorly, because she kept pausing now and then to press her hand over her heart while Miz Johnson gave her instructions on the procedure to claim Mama Jewell.
Finally Mr. Dilly came back to us, looked over the papers, stuffed them into a folder, patted it, and nodded. "Alrighty. We are all good to go here!"
"Well!" Imo said.
Mr. Dilly grabbed Mama Jewell's elbow and steered her toward the front door and said for us to pull right up to the steps there. We did and he eased Mama Jewell into the backseat, darted back inside and returned to fill up the trunk with her belongings. "Going home," Mama Jewell sang. "I'm going home."
Imo clipped her sunglasses onto her bifocals and we pulled away from the Carolina Arms. All I could think about as we headed into the late afternoon sun was that when Jeanette met Mama Jewell she was going to be fit to be tied! Jeanette's tolerance level was pretty low, and I had only lately learned that there were certain times to just stay out of her way, and if I couldn't manage that, to bite my tongue and endure patiently.
Back out on the main road things got quiet and I cast a glance toward the backseat. I saw that Mama Jewell's eyes were closed and her jaw was hanging open.
"She's got the dropsy, I reckon, Lou," Imo said. "Lots of older folks get the dropsy." Then, kind of sad, she added, "Lots of older folks go back to their childhoods, too."
"You mean like when she thought you were her Memaw?"
"Well, yes. Mr. Dilly said it's senile dementia. As well as a touch of what's called paranoia, combined with Alzheimer's. Anyhow, she goes back and forth in time a good bit, according to him."
"Occasionally she'll be in her right mind," Imo said, "in the here and now and she knows who she is, but most of the time she doesn't." She scowled. "Goodness, Lou, those clouds yonder are moving in, aren't they? Looks like we may get us a sprinkle."
I nodded, knowing she had closed the discussion on Mama Jewell. It gave me a funny, scary feeling to think Mama Jewell could be different ages and not realize it. She sure seemed harmless enough as the young girl. I wondered how it would be when she came back into her right mind and was her true self.
I soon found out. Half an hour later she snorted real loud. She lifted her head and closed her mouth. Then her eyes opened so wide you could see whites all around. She turned her head this way and that and she like to have had a fit when she discovered the seat belt fastened underneath her pot belly. You'd have thought she was being kidnapped and tortured by the way she started yelling at that point.
"What in tarnation is going on here!" she bellowed, grabbing at the seat belt and flailing her little bird legs around.
"Hungry!" Imo said. "Mama, are you hungry? You must be hungry. I'll pull over at this Shoney's and get you some supper," she offered, slowing down a bit.
"I want to know just what is going on here. Where in heaven's name are we going?" Mama Jewell looked wildly around, her hands still clutching the seat belt buckle. "I surely didn't want to go nowhere. Where's Mr. Dilly at? He said -- "
"He said for me to come and fetch you, Mama," Imo said. "You've been misbehaving."
Judging by the way Mama Jewell bit her lip, crossed her arms, and scowled, I knew she was thinking. She looked flustered, like she was trying to decide exactly who she was. Finally she leaned up, grabbed the back of the front seat, and looked hard at Imo. "I know who you are," she said finally, pointing a bony finger at Imo, then she turned toward me, "but I don't know you, little girl."
All this time I had been real quiet, praying Imo wouldn't start crying or having one of her heart-racing spells.
"Well, who are you, little girl?" Mama Jewell tapped my shoulder.
I turned to meet her eyes, dumbstruck.
"Tell!" she insisted.
Imo came to my rescue. "This here's Loutishie." She blew out a long whoosh of air. "Now, Mama, she's Vera's girl. Your own granddaughter. We've talked about Loutishie before. You remember."
"Turn back around here to me, girl," Mama Jewell demanded, "so I can get a better look at you."
I clamped my teeth together, turned, and looked at her as respectfully as I could.
Her eyes bored into me. "You must favor your father's side," she declared, then made the ugliest face you could imagine, scowling and thrusting out her old spotty lips. "'Cause you sure don't look a thing like my Vera did." She sat back and crossed her arms and I heard her add "that little tramp" under her breath.
I couldn't decide if not looking like Vera was good or bad for me in Mama Jewell's eyes. One thing I did know, and that was the fact that I did not like this version of the woman one tiny bit. As we drove along, I decided I'd try and do her like I did Jeanette when she was disagreeable. I would ignore her as best I could.
It was near dusk when I saw the familiar red and white of the Dairy Queen sign that was a mile from our road. Mama Jewell was asleep again and Imo and I rode in silence. The anticipation of our homecoming sat between us like a big fat person we couldn't see around. I was filled with horror and excitement. What would Jeanette think when she came face-to-face with Mama Jewell? Or, more to the point, what would she do?! They both obviously had a chip on their shoulder, along with a strong sense of self-entitlement.
I grabbed hold of my cool door handle even before Imo eased the Impala underneath the shed. What I wanted was to get out of there and run to the sanctuary of my room. Then I remembered I didn't have a room to myself anymore.
"Hold your horses, Lou." Imo reached for my wrist. "I need you to help me tote Mama's things in. Hopefully she'll just stay asleep while we unload and then we can get her inside. Mr. Dilly gave me some tablets that help relax her and I reckon I'll give her one soon as we can get her into the house. Buy us a little time anyway."
"Yessum," I said.
Imo hefted the red suitcase out of the trunk and I followed along behind her carrying a clothes bag and a small vanity case. We made several more trips back and forth to unload the car, and thankfully Mama Jewell's old chin stayed on her chest as she snored away.
When we roused her enough to ease her out, one on either side, steering her by the elbows toward the house, she was silent. Her eyes were open wide as silver dollars, looking to and fro, but she made no move to pull away or protest. Thank you, God, I breathed. You know what a hard time Imo's having, so would you please keep this woman quiet until she gets to her bed and then let her go right on back to sleep for a long, long time.
I spotted Jeanette with Little Silas sitting in her lap. They were on a quilt spread out over the floor of the darkened den, watching a rerun of Diff'rent Strokes. Light flickered from the TV onto Little Silas's sleepy-eyed face.
As Imo fastened the dead bolt, Jeanette pointed the remote at the TV to silence the laugh track and spun around to face us. Imo and I steadied Mama Jewell there in the kitchen.
For just a moment, the five of us were frozen in time. We all just stared. I decided Mama Jewell was thinking she was in a dream and would be waking up any minute to find herself in Mr. Dilly's lap along the banks of the Great Pee Dee River.
"This here is Imo's mama," I said finally, feeling a strong need to break the silence.
"No shit, Sherlock," Jeanette set Little Silas down gently, folded her arms across her chest, and studied Mama Jewell.
"There'll be no cursing in my home, missy," Imo piped up.
Mama Jewell suddenly sprung to life. "I'm home?!" She wrenched her arms free from me and Imo, and boy, was she strong. "Why, I surely am home!" she said as she flew over to the window behind the sink. "But somebody's been doing some redecorating in here. Where are the lacy curtains? The shamrocks along the windowsill?" She skipped forward into the den. Her hands flew out in the darkness, automatically and precisely reaching for the light switch. The adjoining den/kitchen lit up in bright fluorescent light.
Startled, she peered hard at Jeanette. "What's this girl doing in here? Father always sends the kitchen help on home directly after they finish cleaning up the supper. Like to get them home to their shanties before dark falls." She turned her attention to Little Silas. "That little colored baby shouldn't be in here either. Let me get someone to tote it on home."
Jeanette was on her feet in an instant. First she just stood there, looking stunned, then her face turned furious. "You senile old warthog!" she snarled, stamping her foot so hard that Mama Jewell jumped. She slid her hands under Little Silas's armpits, scooped him up, leapt forward, and held him up close to Mama Jewell's face. She waved him around a little. "Let's get a few things straight around here! First of all, I ain't no kitchen help, and second of all, this here's Little Silas and his daddy was an Indian from India. So don't you never ever say one more ignorant word to or one word about my boy, and don't you never, ever lay one of your ancient, warty fingers on him neither!"
"Goodness gracious me!" Mama Jewell blinked and her hands flew up to her mouth. "Why, Father never allows the kitchen help to talk back." She stood taller, pointed at Jeanette, and in a condescending tone said, "You'll lose your position here, young sassy, if you don't watch your tongue."
Jeanette strode right up to Mama Jewell and she poked her pointer finger into her chest. "I don't take no crap off of nobody, and you can go to hell!"
Mama Jewell's hands flew up in the air. "Mother! Father!" she screamed. "The kitchen help's rising up! It's a revolt!"
"I done told you I ain't no kitchen help!" Jeanette hollered. "I ought to -- "
Mama Jewell bristled. "I've a good mind to tell Father to carry you out behind the woodshed!"
Jeanette got this wild look in her eyes and she bounced on the balls of her feet with her free hand curled into a fist.
"Jeanette," I pleaded, "stop. Don't. Look at Imo over there."
Imo had collapsed into a kitchen chair at this point, with her legs in a spread-eagle position. Her mouth was open in an O and a vein throbbed in her temple.
"She's having one of her spells," I said. "Please just let it go with Mama Jewell."
Jeanette sighed and bit her lip. "Oh, all right," she said reluctantly, backing off a bit.
I sidled over next to Mama Jewell and stroked her arm. "There, there, now," I murmured. "Everything's going to be okay. You're with family now."
At last Imo came back to herself. "Thank you, Lou," she said.
Mama Jewell turned to Imo. "I need to tell Mother or Father about the sassy kitchen help."
"Your folks passed away a long time ago, Mama," Imo said. "Let's get you on into bed right now, and tomorrow we'll all get a chance to talk. We'll also introduce everyone properly." She scowled over at Jeanette.
"But Mama," Jeanette's voice was quavery, "she disrespected me and Little Silas! Didn't you hear what she said?"
Imo looked back and forth between Mama Jewell and Jeanette, and I had the feeling she was wondering which one of them to pacify. "You'll just have to learn to overlook some things, Jeannie," she whispered. "I told you she's not well." She tapped at her temple with her finger.
"Stick her crazy ass in a crazy house then," Jeanette muttered as she whirled around and huffed off to our room.
I stood there thinking how Imo told us we didn't have enough money to send her off. I swallowed hard. How in heaven's name were we all going to survive in this house together?
"Give me a hand getting her to her room and into bed, will you, Loutishie?" Imo tilted her head and gave me a pleading look. Her shoulders were drooping, like the oomph had been knocked right out of her.
With all that had just transpired, I was pretty wiped out, too, and my feet felt glued to the floor.
"Please, sugar foot?" Imo pleaded. "And then would you look in my handbag and fetch those tablets for Mama that Mr. Dilly gave me? He says she has to be lying down to take one."
Somehow I got my feet moving. As we were on our way to her bedroom, Mama Jewell turned to Imo and she said, "Listen, I need to talk to Burton."
"Daddy's passed away, too, Mama," Imo said matter-of-factly.
"No, no, no," Mama Jewell cried, her knees giving way. Imo and I both staggered under her weight. We looked at each other helplessly.
If I can just get a tablet in her, Imo mouthed to me and I nodded. We managed to drag her to the bed and quickly Imo administered the tablet.
It didn't take long and Mama Jewell was out. I put my arm around Imo's shoulder. "Everything will be better in the morning," I told her.
"You're my right-hand man, Lou," she said. "I don't know what I'd have done without you today. And surely, with the good Lord's help, the two of us will be able to manage things."
I swallowed the knot in my throat and nodded.
Copyright © 2004 by Julie Cannon