Mama Leah waited showing only the barest signs of distress for two years, expectations high and prayers fattened with gratitude. After all, she’d had everyone for twenty years, longer than many if shorter than some. Pops had gone his own way on it but then he would, he was the one who had caused it all. Or so part of the extended family determined. The others kept their opnions to themselves after the first go ’round. No one was as heated after two years passed by, though. And Pops was the type who sooner or later shrugged off all hard times as the way of things, the general luck of the working man. He didn’t mention it after the first year, when he told Mama Leah to take any other tears right out of that house, they’d had three other children in case she forgot. She made four rhubarb pies instead, then gave them away and that was that. For the moment. She could not believe he did what he did. It was a near-lethal puncture in their full lives.
But the second year of a certain date, the second actual anniversary of the event, she sat on the porch and studied the yard as if it was laid out just for the eye and soul to hunger over. Adorned with flowers every season, the expanse of rainbow hues caught everyone’s attention and gave succor to many who had all but given up on their plodding or ravaged days and nights. At least Mama Leah’s garden carried on like a dream, big and bountiful as she was, bursting with the glories of life. It gave them hope when all else felt paltry. And she shared vegetables from the kitchen garden, too; you could walk right over and snap a fat tomato or strapping pumpkin right off the vines and she’d wave at you next time you passed by. Though almost nobody did that much excepting Terry Harney. And he could be forgiven with crooked leg and lopsided face, all from jumping the train and missing.
So there Mama Leah was, leaning over the railing, head moving back and forth, making sure her plants had soaked up the daily feed of water. Then she sat on the railing, her girth settling about, her hand steadied against a corner pillar. The sun was high and it was blazes out. She had been at work all day in the yard, in the kitchen. Pops had come from the mill for lunch and lastly savored a berry crumble, then left her with just three words even if they were good ones: “sweet like you”.
“Sweetness gone sour today,” she said to herself and slapped the railing with her dish towel. Then she descended the stairs and sat under the oak and willow trees and contemplated what the date meant to her now.
She recalled shouting and heat so inflamed her head hurt and her thin shirt stuck to chest and back like another skin despite the overhead fans and a lush breeze. She recalled how Pops had stopped her from reaching out a third time to Jonas, not stopped with his hand but with that single look, the one that curdled her insides. She’d ignored him, just run after Jonas, feet stumbling, but he’d gotten into his truck and backed out with a skid, yelling as he slammed the gearshift into drive.
“I won’t be coming back with tail between my legs, no sir! I’m good and done with the lot of you!” He swiped at his mouth with back of hand but kept going. “Sorry Mama,” he called out, “done is done!”
“Jonas!” she yelled. Not once, not twice but until she made him stop and idle in that street. And he gave her a stare that was weighted with feeling, his eyes filling with tears. Or that’s how Mama Leah remembered it. It might have been the sunlight’s certain angle glinting off him, but she sure felt all those tears raging inside him despite the anger and bravery and, yes, maybe foolishness. Then he was gone, rocks splitting apart the saturated August air.
It was like a long slash across her spirit, seeing that country dirt and their misery and grief caught between his teeth, and that good head full of dangerous ideas. And in her mouth were trapped the words of love she had uttered every day of his life in one way or another and could not now dislodge as she fell into the well of grief. Oh, how things bled from her, sacred things, and she could not put them back inside, not the same.
Mama Leah sat heavily in one garden chair and lay her straw hat in the other, patting the frayed top one time. Emphasis was on saving the seat. She might sit there the rest of the afternoon. Just in case. Her dark hair lifted off her neck in a gust, a fine blessing.
It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. And she had the heart for it.
It was that August day again of the twelfth year. Time had begun to spin its tales on Mama Leah. Her big frame was whittled down enough that folks still looked twice, not sure if it was her in there. And her face, if still lit with a ready warmth, was roughed up with furrows on her forehead and lines a little like seams sewn under newly revealed cheekbones. Her hair stayed bound up now, white strays sprouting curls about her temples. Her talk was still generous, just much quieter, as if trying to not actually whisper though it felt more natural.
Pops had gotten louder when he needed to speak. It likely was worsening hearing that made him bolder and harder. Some said he just had to make some kind of statement out of his presence since he’d been passed over for the foreman’s job. Oh hell, he’d said one day at Clary’s Cafe, no one wanted to boss around his friends, anyway, he’d ride his job out another ten years and retire and get lazy and fat. Which he would not, not Pops Riddle with his knife- thin torso, that still-muscled back and arms and relentless love of work.
Their kids, Mallory, Ginny and Red, had one by one vacated the old family farmhouse–the first, Mallory, off to a two year college, then stayed in the city to their surprise but she did well for herself. A computer tech person, they said proudly. The other two migrated down the street, around a few corners in either direction. There were grandkids, one each, and the required (Mama Leah and Pops were relieved) spouses. They visited time to time and always for Sunday dinner and an hour to chat or watch a game or play games with the little ones. Ginny and Red scoped out Mama Leah with sideways glances, but gave no signal of worry. She had changed but, then, they all had, only natural. Pops saw it, too. He’d every now and then put an arm around her, give her a squeeze. She acted as if he wasn’t there at first, then glanced up at him with a mild smile, get busy again. Other than that they did okay, their kids thought, and then would ponder how that could even be.
That day they’d stood face to face in the front yard, well, passersby couldn’t help but hear much of it. Pops had told Jonas to “get out then, feed your own self, pay your own way picking a ratty old guitar in a dark corner, become regrettable.”
This came after he’d offered Jonas a good job at the mill and Jonas said he’d not stoop that low, not anymore, he’d quit his butcher store job, too, he couldn’t stand it another minute.
“I’m not gonna be chained to this worthless dump of a town, work the grind day in day out until I’m worn down to smallness, then nothing! I’m going out west, making an interesting life and I’ll be a singer for sure, never a factory rat, and not like you!”
Pops looked so terrible hard at his oldest that his eyes weren’t even his anymore, and spat on the ground. Stomped back onto the porch and turned a last time.
“You foolish, ungrateful boy, your mother and I have worked our skin off to raise this family up from the dirt, to give you more and better! Did you think a man labors hard for less than that? You want to just sing about it all? Go on. Don’t you ever throw your shadow on this house again.”
His face puffed up, beet red, he’d slammed the door behind him right after Mama Leah came around from the back, running after Jonas.
The younger children and folks stopped on the sidewalk had never heard Pops speak so eloquently, and Red and Ginny hadn’t ever seen Mama Leah lose control and holler out their brother’s name so the whole town could hear their business.
So after this, no one said his name in that house. No one dared say how they still missed him every day, big brother with his dreams, quick laugh and temper, the echoing silences that he’d once filled up with songs and jokes. His flannel shirts hung in a back closet, still sturdy and nubby to the touch, pants and miscellaneous in a box, a reprimand behind a locked door. But no one moved his leather boots from under the back stoop where they grew a thin mesh of greenish mildew, and filled with ants and spiders. They’d disintegrate before they’d ever show themselves in the dawning of day.
Mama Leah didn’t have to check a calendar as each summer drew to a close. It was an ordinary day to anyone else, but on August 24th it announced itself in her center as if ten cow bells were rung hard. The early hours of the world just vibrated. Morning sunlight passed through her skin, flashed inside her so everything felt ablaze.
She took herself from the laundry room at last and then to the weather-worn chair, removed her new sun hat and lay it on the second seat.
It had been so long, day melting into night over and over, one season turning to reveal the next, sun and moon and stars traipsing across the sky in a good rhythm. Never had she thought to be this old, fifty-two now. Leah had just been twelve, climbed the biggest maple in the side yard and boasted of her independence. She had been loud and clear. She had been possessed of youth’s unstoppable joy. But her mother fell ill, was better off and on while Leah somehow finished school, then went off to work.
And there was Pops. Horace it was then but he hated that name so when they finally got married–after he’d gotten a better job at the mill, after she’d worked front desk some years for the small real estate office, then got possession of the family house– only then she had begun to call him Pops like some others did, no good reason why though he was to become one. Her own father had gone back to Georgia relatives after her mother fell from the ladder. She had been picking apples from their own tree despite her tiredness, and so fell fast as lightning. Broke her neck. Leah had been picking some at the other tree and was struck helpless, terrorized by the scene. Her father didn’t leave until he’d chopped down that demon tree and blasted the giant stump out. With all that, she’d shrunk and paled with loss until one day she saw how she had to become all that was necessary just to be alive. And to be ready for hard things to happen. They would again, she was certain of that much.
Now it was twelve years to the day that words like bulls on the loose edged her first son way past the family circle. Beyond an embrace of its strength and affection. Maybe all Jonas could recall anymore were those added up hardships. The sloppy boots that had to be repaired over and over despite his sore feet and embarrassment, just no way to make enough money to get really good new ones. Their dinner table usually a jumble of cross talk or jabs of silence, their father at the far end who chewed on without comment as out from beneath heavy brows those eyes were sharp, questioning. And there was the dense emptiness lurking about Mill Street after he had sung karaoke, no one there to applaud but drunk buddies and those same few girls who flocked about and made him scared he’d end up captive.
That first son, Jonas, singing to her while he helped her with the back straining work in the gardens. Son of dreamy eyes, and a sudden reach of temper, a heart of a poet-warrior that found no war worth the effort. She got that much but how does a person grow up right without something true to fight for? He’d had to find it, get a firm hold on it.
Mama Leah had her children and her gardens and a marriage. But not all her children and so not all of her marriage. Only her gardens were ever faithful. These things wore on body and soul some days.
She let her hair down, let it gently scrape her neck, a bare hint of shoulders, swing under her top and between her shoulder blades until that skin recalled a hand of her husband’s, sweetness or desire. She shook the heavy weight of it, gathered it back in the clip. There was no good breeze, only the heat, only the heavens above like a giant blue eye. She watched the street, waved at walkers and cyclists who looked her way, murmured soothing greetings if they stopped. Told them to pick flowers or veggies if they liked. Bees buzzed about her head, deciding if they wanted to commune with their old friend until fast they zipped back to business of honey in blossoms. The afternoon slipped away; her eyes shut halfway. She could make out a thin glimpse of tree limbs, and it was restful to think of a world defined by such.
Yet Jonas wasn’t coming. Not this day, no. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. But she had less heart than she expected.
Another, then another and more robust, thundering, glistening Augusts maximized and spread out their verdant beauties like a buffet until finally it was twenty years after that first day.
Front, side and back yards were stippled dark and light as sunshine played among trees, crowds of flowers, rounded bushes. Pops was holed up in his garage workshop repairing a three-legged wooden stool and tinkering. Mama Leah was upstairs resting after canning more peaches. He’d check on her soon, make sure she wasn’t having one of her spells. Red and Ginny had warned not to say that; she had heart trouble, not any passing “spells.” But Pops preferred thinking she’d lie down or get up any time she pleased. Nothing stopped her long. She’d had a bad time of it the last couple years but it was another year and she dealt with it, was strong, stronger than he was. Though he had no physical fault lines that he knew of–he didn’t stop to think about it, just a fool’s pastime to ponder such things. He–they–kept going. If there was something broke you patched it; it’d last a long while, maybe forever. Mama Leah knew. She repaired much, even people in her way. Pops was a tough one but soon he’d retire, then she’d have less to sweat each day, less to worry over alone.
Sheer whiteness with edges embroidered in serpentine vines swelled with air, went slack, billowed and deflated, and were sucked against the screen. She knew what day it was. She lay in her sun dress with arms outstretched, bare legs and feet splayed. At the windows maple and oak leaves shook, a soft, innocent sound. Mama Leah felt she must count blessings: heart beating one more day, healthy children and grandchildren (three now), food on the table and in pantry, her garden. A husband who came home every day, gave her a kiss on a cheek, loved her in his way.
Oddly, the gardens flourished better than last year, even the years before. It was as if the more she longed for her son, the more earth offered up its consolation. She sometimes wept over the flowers pulled close to her chest–she wept nowhere else–and they took those into their lives and gave her spectacular petals, sturdier stems, deeper roots. It showed her a future of more abundance and some days it was unbearable, that span of beauty, but she would not stop, could not resist caring for all things that grew like magic from the simple toil of her hands.
The open door to the sleeping porch let in perfumed wafts of air. Late afternoon’s caramel light hovered, a canopy of delicacy near suspended over the bed. Her damp skin shivered, ears were attuned, her mind clear.
It was that time when the day answers your flesh with a sigh and you succumb to the pause. The spirit looks up and sees the veils between bitter and sweet, love and loss, and the essence of it all just fills you up. It is the moment you wait for even if you don’t realize it, that frisson of energy hissing in your veins, a tiny suspension in eternity.
She rolled to the edge of bed, got up, went to the screen door and pushed it open. There was a song drifting by. It came from the trees so Mama Leah stepped into the sleepy day, parted silvery hair from her face and surveyed treetops, then the yard and finally the grassy earth below her.
She remembered, and took one deep breath and released it. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She knew this to be truth and she had the patience. But she found she had so little heart for it as the past year had rolled by; the organ had roiled and ached in her so long, it’d had to be finally cut into, and things rearranged, and then stitched back up.
She pulled up a chair and patted the empty one, anyway, and watched the street and its people, heard birds tell tales, then crickets faintly begin as the sun sank lower without complaint. She could have stayed til dinner but that she had to cook it. So she stretched out her legs, pointed naked toes, thought of pearly nail polish, how she sometimes missed the simplest silly things.
Then appeared a candy apple red car, just made its way into their driveway and parked nice and neat. Music turned up too loud, a door flung open, and the person who emerged strutted across the yard like a man who had found a miracle, arms opened wide to land and sky and house.
To his mother looking down in disbelief.
Mama Leah yelled, “You–thank God in Heaven!–came home, Jonas! You’re home again!”
“Yes, Mama! With my songs, Mama, you hear that music? My own songs!”
Mama Leah rushed downstairs and every step she screamed for Pops and he burst from the garage just as she exited the house. Before they knew it, they were all three thrown together, stunned. Humbled. And about to be freed.