When I first read Mama it brought a tear to my eye. I'm a soft-hearted coyote. This is a story about a time when life was hard and money even harder to come by. Mama gave her family a dream that they never forgot.
Maureen Stirsman has been married to Tom for 46 years. They have two children, Tom & Susan, and one grandchild, Mathew. They live near Atlanta, Georgia.
Maureen has written a number of short stories and two books that she's trying to publish. "Maryann", the life of an immigrant at the turn of the century, based on her grandmother's life, and "Through it All", about couples in her Sunday School class which tells stories of the way people cope with everyday problems. Here are a few more to read:
"The Paper Route", @ Heartlight
"The Perfect Christmas Tree",@ Ancient Paths
"Mama", "Decision", "Orphan" and "The Cottage" @ NiceStories.com
Readers can contact Maureen at email@example.com for a more complete list of her published writings.
They said Mama was 'a little off'. I overheard Aunt Jennie saying it to Aunt Mamie when Mama was in the hospital getting Woodhue. I was only four years old and I thought mama was off from Barstow, New York where we lived. She was off - from our house on Maple Street, our house second from the end on the dirt road. Our house was a two story Cape Cod painted light blue, like the sky on a summer day, Mama said. The yellow shutters were like the sunshine, Mama said.
"Yes, she is naming him Woodhue. Can you believe such a name for a new baby?" Aunt Jennie said pouring strong black coffee into Mama's flowered yellow cups.
"Two sons named Daniel was bad, then Claire, that's a decent enough name for a girl, but now this." Aunt Mamie stirred sugar into her cup and sighed.
Claire, that's me. Mama said she would name me Claire, boy or girl, and Claire I am. But she always called me other names, sometimes I didn't like them, mostly I just didn't care. I should probably tell you why I had two brothers named Daniel. Daniel was granddaddy's name, Mama's daddy. So my oldest brother was Daniel. Granddaddy always called him by his full name and Mama, 'a little off' or not, never went against him. But she always wanted to call him Danny. By the time my next brother was born, two years later, Granddaddy had drowned in a canoeing accident. They dragged the river for a week but he never came up. Mama cried for seven days, then one morning she got out of bed and was scrambling eggs in the big black cast iron skillet when daddy came down stairs.
"Honey, are you okay?" he kissed the back of her neck.
She just smiled and poured a cup of coffee and went back to the eggs. She never cried again, at least about Granddaddy.
When Danny was born, she named him Daniel and we always called him Danny. Danny and Daniel were both what Aunt Jennie called, 'tow-heads', blonde as fresh cream. Their hair was straight as a yardstick and Daddy shaved their heads every summer on the day school was out. I was a 'tow-head' too, but my hair was as curly as Shirley Temple's, who by the way was my hero. On rainy days I hated it. Sometimes I couldn't get a comb through my hair but Mama always brushed it every night. She was fanatic about that. Daddy's hair was yellow like ours. That was the 'Norseman' in him. That's what Mama said. But I didn't understand that at all. We never had a horse.
I was four years old when Woodhue was born.
"Carrie will help me with the baby. She is a big strong girl."
That summer Mama called me Carrie. She had such a thing about names. Even Daddy said, "Emaline, what on earth kind of a name is that to lay on a baby?"
But Daddy never said 'no' to her and when she brought him home we had Woodhue's crib ready. She would not allow us to call him Woody - not ever. It was always Woodhue.
Aunt Mamie said it was strange, to not give him a nickname after the way she called my second brother Daniel, Danny. That was when she said, "Emaline has always been a little off."
Mama was as fair skinned as the rest of us but her hair was as black as Daddy's Sunday shoes and just as shiny. Mama was lax about many things, but not about hair. Her hair was her pride. She wore it in a long braid down her back. Twice I saw it twisted up on her head. Once when Mrs. Elcart, the pastor's wife, died and the other time when she went to the hospital when Aunt Mamie was very ill. Every night Mama sat at her dresser and brushed 100 strokes. Her hair came to her waist when it was down. She washed it every Saturday morning with rainwater from the wooden barrel at the corner of the house. She said it made it soft. Sometimes in the morning she would come to the kitchen with a ribbon holding it back. That is when I loved her the best, seeing her in the kitchen with her long black hair hanging down her back over her blue kimono. She always smiled then.
Sometimes we would hear her singing 'You are my Sunshine' or if she was in the mood, 'On the Wings of a Snow White Dove.' That was my favorite and I would stand in the doorway listening, not wanting to break the spell.
Mama did not care if we used a napkin or the right fork, or even if we reached across the table. But if we didn't say, 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you' we got the evil eye. None of us liked Mama's evil eye. It could cut you down like a knife. Woodhue would cry like a baby if Mama looked at him that way, long after he should have. She didn't care much about our grammar either, but no cursing. "God sees you," was her motto.
On our birthdays Mama cooked whatever we asked for. I planned my menu for months. The year I was six we had pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, corn on the cob, tomato soup and Mama's wonderful chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ice cream.
"You children will surely be sick." Aunt Jennie was there for the cake and ice cream.
But Mama just smiled and said, "Blow out the candles, Cherry." This week, I was Cherry.
Daddy worked on the railroad. He was the mildest mannered man I have ever known, even to this day. If he ever had his own opinion he usually yielded to Mama. Now I know- he was an unusual man in his own way. That was a day when fathers brought home the money and mothers raised the children, but Daddy spent time with us. He got down on the worn carpet and built Lincoln logs with Danny or became a horsy for Woodhue and sometimes he drank invisible tea from my tea set. On the evenings he was home he sat on the front porch and read the paper. He waited for Mama to come out and would take a harmonica from his pocket, limbered up his fingers and began to play. He played 'Flight of the Bumble Bee', 'Irish Washerwoman' and then the old hymns. He always ended with 'The Old Rugged Cross'. He said it was his mother's favorite.
I never knew my paternal grandmother, but I saw her picture in an old black album. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a bun and her face was firm, unsmiling. Her black dress was trimmed in lace. Daddy said she was a sweet woman, but I couldn't be sure, only seeing her picture.
Our picture, Daniel, Danny, Woodhue, and me was framed and stood on the player piano in the living room. Aunt Mamie had come over one afternoon to show off her new Baby Brownie camera.
"Let me take your picture, children," she said. "Go put on your Sunday clothes."
"No, Mamie," said Mama, "take them like they are, the way they live."
Aunt Mamie cleared her throat but she didn't say anything. After Mama brushed my hair and put water on my brothers' heads we sat on the porch steps for the picture. I can see us now. Daniel was twelve and skinny. He wore a white undershirt and cut off-school pants turned into summer shorts. Danny, ten, was a duplicate, but not as tall or as thin. Woodhue was three years old and wore a pink sun-suit that was mine when I was a baby. His blonde hair was combed neatly. Daddy did not shave his head yet. Mama said he was too little. And me - my curls were manageable that day. I did look like a yellow haired Shirley Temple. That has always been my favorite picture. Except for Danny, we were all barefoot. Aunt Mamie complained about that, but Mama would not relent, "No, Mamie, like they are."
Then that summer in 1939 I turned seven years old. It was that afternoon in June, two weeks after my birthday, that Mama left us home with Daniel in charge.
An hour later we saw her running down the dusty road with her shopping bag and purple crocheted purse in her hand. She was running. Mama was shouting and running. Her purple purse was open and a can of soup fell out of her bag. We all came out when we heard her.
She yelled, "Children, children, come, hurry!" She had the most wonderful, most important, most unsettling news we had ever heard.
"Daniel, get your brothers and sister ready for dinner. Tonight is a family meeting."
"What is it, Mama?" Danny took her bag. "What's the matter?"
His eyes were wide. We never had family meetings unless it was really important. They were always after dinner, and we always were to be prepared. Our hair had to be combed and our faces clean. And that night we were ready.
One time our family meeting was called to tell us about granddaddy being drowned. Another time that Woodhue was to be born. It was always important. We didn't think it was bad news now, although we hadn't had a meeting in a long time we didn't think it was bad. Mama was singing and whistling, like she was holding some secret. I begged her to tell but she would only say. "Wait and see, Shirley."
I had been Shirley for two weeks.
That night we had pancakes for dinner, my favorite. Mama didn't even burn any, except for the last three, but we didn't notice. Daddy ate them anyway. My hair was brushed and a ribbon wrapped around my head. My brothers' hair was combed and Daddy looked handsome in a clean shirt. Mama took off her apron and sat down at her place after she cleaned off the table.
"Shirley, please get some sugar for Daddy's coffee."
When we were all ready and even Woodhue was quiet. Mama pulled a black coin purse from her pocket. It was a black purse like Daddy used before he got the wallet for Christmas two years ago. We just looked at her. She was so happy, we held our breath.
"Daniel, do you know what I have here?" she asked my brother.
"It looks like Daddy's coin purse," my brother said, not imagining what was special about it.
"No, sir! No sir, indeed!" Mama said. "This, young man, is a coin purse that I found today coming home from the store. This, young man, is a coin purse full of money."
"Mama, where did you find it?" asked Danny.
We were all on our feet and spoke at once. "How much money, Mama?" I said.
She just smiled waving the coin purse over her head.
"Tell them, Emaline," said Daddy, leaning back in his chair.
Woodhue was bouncing on his high stool and Daddy put him on his lap.
"Well, sir," she said. "One hundred dollars, that's how much."
"One hundred dollars?" Daniel said. "Mama, that's a fortune!"
"It's a lot of money, son," said Daddy.
"Whose is it, Mama?" asked Danny.
"No body knows, silly," said Daniel. "Right, Mama?"
"Right, Daniel, nobody knows. I found it - is all. Coming home I found it on the side of the road," Mama beamed.
"Let me see it. Can I hold it, Mama?" I said.
She held the black coin purse out but did not turn it loose. I peered inside. Sure enough it had a roll of green bills inside like I had never seen before. All of us looked.
"A hundred dollars, Mama! What are we going to do?" I said.
"Well we have to find out who it belongs to. Right, Mama?" said Daniel.
I was beginning to get annoyed with my eldest brother.
"Oh, yes," she answered. "Oh yes, of course we will have to find out who it belongs to."
For the next seven days we read the lost and found in the newspaper and held our breath until at the end of that time there was never an ad about a lost coin purse.
On the evening of the eighth day, which was Sunday, Mama and Daddy called another family meeting. We all had our baths the night before in the galvanized tub in the kitchen, where Mama heated the water on the stove. I was always first because I was the only girl. When I was out of the tub, my brothers took their turns and Daddy carried the dirty water outside.
Mama looked on the faces of each of us. Her own face was shining. We all knew no one had claimed the money. Each one of us had been praying it was so. Mama reached out and touched Daniel's hand on the one side of her and mine on the other.
"We get to keep the money!" she proclaimed.
Danny yelled, "Whoopee!"
We were all beside ourselves. One hundred dollars was a lot of money in 1939. Woodhue looked at Danny bewildered.
"Woodhue, do you hear that we have one hundred dollars?" Daniel, always the more logical, down to earth one of us, said, "Mama, are you going to get something for the house?"
"Mama, can I have a doll?" Selfish me! I had been hoping for a 'Betsy Wetsy' doll for my birthday but I only got a monopoly game and two red ribbons. I could have bit my tongue for being so selfish. "Mama, I'm sorry. I don't need a doll. I am sorry I was so greedy." I tried not to cry.
"Shirley, sweetie, that is not being greedy. You can have the doll if you want it. Each of you can choose something. You can each have one wish, every one, even Woodhue."
Mama tossed her long braid over her shoulder and kissed Woodhue on both of his chubby little hands.
After that we all went out to the porch and Daddy played the harmonica to the beat of the squeaky porch swing. Danny and Daniel tossed an old softball they had found somewhere. Woodhue sat next to the porch digging a hole in the soft black dirt with an old kitchen spoon. As for myself - I sat on the step, already searching my mind how to spend my wish.
The next meeting was scheduled for the following Sunday night. Mama made a special banana pudding with graham crackers for the occasion. Daniel and Danny put their Sunday shirts back on and their hands were clean. Woodhue was wearing Danny's cut-off's from when he was his age. Daddy was handsome as always. He put the final bite of pudding in his mouth and the last sip of coffee. I wore my Sunday shoes and my good dress. It was such a special day. But Mama - Mama was her most beautiful. Her hair hung loose, glistening down her back. She put her blue silk kimono on over her white slip. Her hair was pulled back with a blue ribbon. The ribbon was the exact color of the kimono and that of her eyes.
"Mama, are you sick? Why are you wearing your kimono?"
Mama raised her hands in the air. "No, Danny, I am not sick. This is the prettiest thing I have to wear and since this is special occasion I want to wear it."
"You are beautiful in anything you wear, Emaline," said my daddy. His eyes sparkled when he looked at her. "Let's begin."
Then we all had a chance to tell what our wish was. Danny said he had been thinking all week.
"What is it, son?" Mama asked.
"Well, Mama, I would love to have a pony."
"A pony?" said Daddy. "Do you know how to take care of a pony? Horses are a lot of work."
"I think he does, Will," said Mama. "A pony it is."
Then she looked at me. I had struggled all week from thinking about Mary Jane shoes and lacy socks, to a Raggedy Ann book to piano lessons, although I didn't think on that long. Finally I settled.
"Mama, could I have a Betsy Wetsy doll, please?"
Mama laughed. "Sure you can, Cindy."
"And, Mama, would you mind calling me Claire?"
I could not believe I said that to my mother. Her face fell just the least little bit for just the least instant.
"Sure, honey. Sure, Claire."
"What about you, Woodhue?" said Daddy.
We all had been trying to influence Woodhue with things we wanted, a train, candy, and games.
"What, Woodhue?" Mama asked. "You have a wish too."
"A real shovel." We looked at our baby brother. "A real shovel so I can dig a real hole."
Mama and Daddy laughed until Daddy pulled his hanky from his pocket and dabbed his eyes.
"Daniel, what about you?"
Daniel had been quiet through the whole meeting.
"Well, Mama, this is my wish." And he took a paper from his pocket, stood up and began to read. "I, Daniel Parker, wish for a rubber ball for Woodhue, an electric train for Danny, and for my sister Claire, a Betsy Wetsy doll."
That minute I could have kissed my older brother. I felt such a love for him I didn't think possible. He was the most unselfish boy I ever knew. Mama cried a little then too, besides Daddy.
"What about you, son, what do you want for yourself?"
Daniel read from his paper again. "And three white hankies for Daddy and a blue dress for Mama, and a box of candy for Aunt Jennie. If I could," he cleared his throat. "I would like a bike. I saw one for sale that Jimmy Curtis had before he got his new one for Christmas. It is just three dollars, Mama."
Daniel sat down. I thought he was going to cry.
Mama looked at Daddy and he said, "Okay, son. Done! My word, you are the most unselfish boy I ever knew."
I knew it was true. The next week we had an unheard of third family meeting in a month. Danny smelled like a horse but no one seemed to mind. He was as happy as a new father. Woodhue had a new ball and shovel as well. His fingernails were heavy with dirt, but he was happy and Mama didn't mind. Daddy blew his nose on one of his new hankies. And Mama had her hair down; shiny against the finest blue dress to be had in Barstow, New York. I was so busy changing the diaper on my doll I hardly noticed when Daniel called everyone outside to see him ride his new bike. Daddy and Mama stood on the step, arms around each other, her black hair like a cloud around her shoulders. Daddy put the hanky back in his pocket and I could see the bulge of his Christmas wallet.
Then Mama began to sing. "I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away."
Today all these years later, with my marriage, three children and five grandchildren part of my life, I look from the upstairs window of my mother and father's home. Daddy has been gone these thirteen years and Mama was just taken to a nursing home. I have dreaded this day all my life. My brother Woodhue stayed to help me with the upstairs rooms before the cleaning people come to ready the house for the new family.
"What's this, Claire?" my handsome tall Norseman brother asked. "It was stuck in the back of the drawer."
"It looks like a coin purse, Woody," I said. I felt the soft black leather and clicked the gold clasp. "Woody, remember the money Mama found? Did you ever wonder where that came from and how one hundred dollars could go so far? Besides the things we wished for, everything we did and bought for years came from that one hundred dollars."
"Didn't we buy Aunt Jennie a box of candy, too?"
It was Aunt Jennie who said Mama was 'a little off'. I carefully wrapped the picture she took of us that day and put it next to my purse.
"You go down, Woodhue. I'll be there in a minute."
I heard his footsteps on the treads of the stairs and I looked for the last time out of the window. In the distance I could see a tow-haired boy in cut-offs riding a shiny new bike and shouting. "Look at me, Mama. Look at me!" I looked once more in the mirror and my blonde hair was white, but my eyes are still the color of Mama's. And I remembered how beautiful she was that day in her blue robe in the kitchen scrambling eggs and singing.
"Good bye, Shirley," I said into the mirror and closed the door.
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