Broken Glass is a memoir about some compelling events in my life. I’ve overcome a great deal of adversity and that history is a testimony! Writing is therapeutic for me and this project has healed many open wounds. When the memories surface, the words flow, and they have to be heard! That’s how this book came about. There are a total of fifteen chapters along with a prologue completed. I have only posted the prologue and the first two chapters. I am currently looking for a publisher. Please enjoy my blog and subscribe!
Betty Jean Saunders had a frightening dream. She opened her eyes and realized she was at home in bed and it was not real. She looked across the room to see if her mother and daughter were awake. It was the last Saturday before school would let out for the year. The alarm clock on the nightstand read eight o’clock am. Her daughter, Joan was sleeping soundly, but her mother had already gotten up and was making breakfast in the kitchen. Betty was in no mood to eat. She was scared to death. She got out of bed, stretched and made her way to the telephone in the den.
“Molly,” she whispered to her friend. “It’s me, B. I need to talk to you mighty bad and I couldn’t get Patty on the phone. It’s something I got to talk to you about in person.”
“Sure. Marjorie just stopped by too. Do you mind if she hears whatever you want to talk about,” she asked.
“No, I don’t care. I just need to get this off of my chest. I’ll be over as soon as I get dressed,” she replied.
It was raining cats and dogs along the way. Betty’s heart thumped. All kinds of thoughts raced through her mind. She wondered about Joan. She wondered what she had eaten the night before to cause her to have such a crazy nightmare. She was afraid for her life! She had recently undergone open heart surgery and had a pacemaker inserted to regulate her heart beat. She was born with rheumatic fever, therefore she battled heart problems for most of her life; a life that was filled with triumph, tragedy and now horror.
She turned into Molly Boone’s driveway on almost two wheels.
“Betty? What in the world are you doing out this time of day? You’re usually a night owl,” Molly joked. Betty was in no mood for comedy.
“Molly, girl I’ve got to talk to you. I had this dream and I am scared to death!”
Betty’s hands trembled and the rain poured while she waited for Molly to unlatch the storm door.
“Girl, come on in here out of that rain. What in the world is ailing you?”
Betty sat down on a couch adjacent to the television and front room window. She rocked and rubbed her hands together. She took off her wet toboggan and laid it down on the seat beside her. Margie joined her on the couch. They both worried that something terrible had happened.
“Molly,” her husband called from the back. “Is everything alright out there?”
“Yes, hon. It’s just Betty! She come by to talk a while,” she called back to him.
“Betty, tell us what’s wrong.”
“Molly, it was just horrible. Y’all know Floyd who died last year? He came to me in a dream. He was looking good, wearin’ this crisp white suit, a pair of white shoes and had a clean hair cut, but…” Betty paused and shook her head rapidly.
“Girl what,” Molly questioned.
“His eyes… His eyes shined like diamonds!” Betty got quiet after that and just rocked back and forth on the edge of her seat.
Molly and Margie waited patiently for Betty to gather herself. Her eyes began to water. Molly reached for a box of tissues on the side table and handed it to her friend. Tears streamed down Betty’s chocolate face. She was worn and weary. She worked hard; perhaps too hard. She looked like she hadn’t rested well in weeks.
The girls had never seen Betty this way. She was usually strong and confident. She was the leader of the pack. On this day however, she was visibly shaken.
“I have so much to live for. I’ve got my baby to raise. Y’all know I only want the best for her. There are some questions that I’m going to have to answer and I mean soon. She’s already asking about her period. I have to be here for that! I definitely don’t want momma raising her by herself. I want to at least make it to see her through school. I want to be a grandmother. I’ve started this non profit organization that is getting ready to take off. I have a plan for us. I’ve got to put us in a better situation. I don’t understand for the life of me why he would come to me in a dream like this!”
Molly said, “B! Now come on. Stop talking that foolishness. Why you lettin’ this thing bother you so bad. It’s just a dream.”
“No, I’ve had dreams before. This was real. I believe him. I have never experienced anything like this in my life,” Betty explained.
Margie asked, “Well did he say anything? What else happened?”
Betty stopped rocking. She took a deep breath and mustered,
“He said to me, ‘Girl, you better get your house in order, because you’re going to see the Lord!”
I was awakened by my ailing mother at 4:00 am. She startled me in a panic, and I opened my eyes and saw her sitting on the side of the bed gasping for air. “Joan, call the rescue squad! Go to the phone, baby and tell them mommy can’t breathe and that I’m a heart patient,” she managed. My ten year old body was stiff, and my heart pounded hard in my chest; almost to the point where it was difficult for me to breathe. The room smelled like Vick’s Vapor Rub. The humidifier had been running all through the day and night, as were the two oscillating fans in the room. It was hot in the house. We had no air conditioning, and with her fever, it was all we could do to keep her cool.
I fumbled in the darkness to find the long light string that hung somewhere in the middle of the room. There were few lights that did not operate without the tug of a string. In fact, the only ceiling light in the house that was actually covered by a fixture was in the living room. After my eyes finally began to adjust to the dark room I could see my grandmother (whom I chose to call Ma-ma) sleeping on the couch in the den which was just outside of the bedroom. The soft light from the lamp on the end-table was enough for me to find my way out of the room. Besides, I did not want to see my mother that way. I could hear her coughing and wheezing along with the occasional “Lord, help me.” She’d vomit in the pail next to her bed to keep from having to walk back and forth to the bathroom all night.
It was June, 1985 and she still sported an afro. Her smooth milk chocolate face had begun to wear the permanent look of stress and weariness. She was a 44 year-old single mother – never married: one child. She had been in and out of the hospital most of my life. However, three heart surgeries weren’t enough to make her stop smoking. The hacking coughs never prompted her to stop either. What ever pain she carried inside must have been more powerful than her will to quit.
We shared a small bedroom with purple walls. She slept on a twin bed on one side of the room. It was positioned under an old window no longer in use due to the addition of the home’s only bathroom. All you could see was the cinder block wall on the other side. I guess it would have cost more than they could afford to have the window removed and replaced with drywall. I slept on my own twin bed across the room. My side was bare – nothing on the walls except for what I was allowed to draw and write. I wrote things and drew pictures directly on the wall. Why not? Nothing was ever said. Mom always said she wanted to give me the freedom to express my creativity.
Once in the den, I did what my gut told me not to do.
“Ma-Ma! Ma-Ma! Wake up! Ma can’t breathe! We need to call the rescue squad!”
She awakened as if I was pestering her and it took her a minute to gather herself.
“Tull? You alright?” Tull was one of my mother’s many nicknames. I could hear my mother in despair in the other room. “Call the res… rescue…” She couldn’t finish her plea without coughing.
“Call the rescue squad!” I added in desperation.
For what ever reason, she dialed her daughter, Delores instead. “Aunt Reesie” was the coolest aunt in the world in my eyes. She and her three children had recently left the neighborhood and moved over to Ahoskie. She had divorced her husband and moved her children so they could have some peace. Five minutes went by before Ma-ma got my aunt Delores on the phone.
“It’s Tull. She’s not doing so good.” Ma-ma explained. She went on as if she needed her daughter’s permission to call for help.
“Momma, what are you calling me for? There’s nothing I can do. If she can’t catch her breath, you need to hang up with me and call the hospital!” She was speaking so loudly in the phone, I could hear her clearly.
My heart began to race as if a time bomb was about to go off any minute. I could feel my fists tightening and I became antsy.
“I said call the damned rescue squad,” I whispered as I fumed inside. I dared not shout that out loud, but even as a child, I understood that the inability to breathe was not a good thing. This was an emergency and we had to act fast!
Ma-ma was a 64 year old widow and mother of five trapped in a 94 year old body. She was usually the hold-up whenever it was time to go somewhere. She could paralyze the grocery line for what seemed like thirty minutes or more counting change. On this morning I had absolutely no patience for her snail’s pace.
We lived in a two-bedroom, one bath house. One old-fashioned wood heater and a kerosene heater warmed the main quarters during the winter. Fans cooled the house in the summer. It was a white house with awnings over the windows. The awning that covered the front porch was adorned with a huge “S”. We were the only Saunders around that I knew of. At least I was the only Saunders child at my school. Dorthea James was my grandmother’s maiden name. In fact the only time I heard anyone speak her first name was when she would tell it to someone if they asked. Her friends called her “Ms. Thea”.
She had her own bedroom which she once shared with my late grandfather, Clarence Van Saunders. It was filled with mahogany finished furniture. The Queen-Anne bed seemed like a throne to me. Her mattress was firm, her sheets pulled and tucked. The walls were off-white. Nothing was ever out of place. As well-kept as it was she was suddenly scared to death to sleep in there. Each night, she began to come into our room, stack four pillows on my bed and sleep with me. She had become convinced that the room was haunted. She claimed to have heard noises and seen visions of Granddaddy. So for at least two years, she shared my bed with me. There the three of us were all piled up in the smallest room in the house.
Now, Mom was sick again. This episode was the worst! Ma-ma could no longer stand the sound of Mom vomiting in the room and the scent that accompanied it, so she moved out to the couch. Although I hated it too, it meant I could have my bed to myself. I was a big ten-year-old. Usually the tallest girl in my grade, I was restricted to sleeping on my right side facing the wall for most of the night to accommodate her 5’11 200lb frame. If I moved, I got elbowed.
I couldn’t wait until morning would come. Each day she got up at 5:30 am. You would think she had to milk the cows and make biscuits. Like clockwork; she got her bath, drank her morning cranberry juice and did the laundry. The television guided her through the day. Richard Simmons, Tic Tac Dough, and The Price Is Right were mainstays. Promptly at 12 noon, she warmed her dinner which was prepared on Sunday with enough to last until Thursday. She had another glass of cranberry juice. The news at noon paved the way for the “Stories”. Then, it was nap time. If I was home with her, I had better do the same.
I could tell that Aunt Reesie was very irritated and was perplexed as to why Ma-ma had called her in the first place. She finally convinced her to hang up and call the emergency room. Through the whole telephone conversation I wanted to just scream. She never once mentioned to the switchboard operator that Mom was a heart patient, neither did she act with the urgency I thought she should have. There was nothing quick about her actions. Anger raged inside of me. Once again, I didn’t follow instructions. Mom told me to call.
“Come in here baby and help me get my clothes on. Mommy’s got to go to the hospital.” She said faintly. “Ok.” I replied. This was new. She had been to the hospital many times, but never carried away in an ambulance. I ran around the room and gathered a clean shirt and some pants for her. I quickly grabbed her shoes from underneath the bed. I gently slid on her socks and wiggled her shoes on.
It was now 4:45 am. The ambulance had to come from Ahoskie, which was about fifteen minutes away. As they began to bring in the gurney, I sat in the recliner near the doorway that led into the kitchen and began to reflect on the past year.
“Here we go again,” I thought.
I was tired of her being in the hospital. It was another reason for her to be away. It was another reason for me to be left alone with my grandmother.
This illness began a week earlier when she had gone to a business meeting. She came home that afternoon looking upbeat and enthused. This was a look that was new to me. “We’re going to be able to open the office soon so we don’t have to work out of the living room anymore!” She looked at me and sighed as she plopped down at the kitchen table and said, “We finally got the ball rolling!” Then she began to rub the back of her neck and struggled to move her head around. “You know momma, I can hardly move my neck. It’s stiff and sore,” she explained.
“What in the world? You better lie down and get some rest,” Ma-ma encouraged.
“Yeah, I ‘spect I better,” Mom replied. “Sitting up under that air conditioner all day will do it to you every time.”
Mom seemed to be meeting all of the time. Since she had been laid off from the local zipper plant, she tried everything from Amway to Tupperware. She finally found her niche when she started a non-profit organization called the Center for Women’s Economic Alternatives. Its mission was to provide support for underprivileged, and minority women. It was an initiative to give women the will and the know-how to make it on their own. She was so happy about the company’s progress. I saw something in my mother then that was admirable. She was determined, driven and hungry. There was this pep in her step that I hadn’t seen before. She had seemed to come out of darkness and come alive.
She and her business partner, Rebecca Robbins had purchased a used trailer to operate out of for the time being. We had seen the invention of the personal computer and they were ecstatic about having one to store the company information on. I had never seen her happier, yet I resented every bit of it.
She was always gone, it seemed. Something was always more important than being home to break up the fights between Ma-ma and I. There was no safe haven for me. After a while I began to invite the anger that welled inside me. I accepted it as a part of me. I boiled on a daily basis.
I was a true tomboy. I shot paper into a small trash can for hours in the kitchen. I used running, jumping, popping wheelies in the backyard, and jumping ramps on my bike as modes of energy release. I preferred cap pistols to Barbie dolls. I liked the Duke boys more than Punkie Brewster. I loved Wrestle Mania, and despised Shirley Temple. All of those things were coping mechanisms for me.
I wanted to spend more time with Mom, and things were going terribly wrong between Ma-ma and me. The only parenting skills she possessed consisted of verbal torture, or “cracking a whip” across your back. After awhile, I became hardened. Not the delicate little girl I was at first. The hardness was a mode of survival. I was an angry child with no regret by this time. Anger was all I knew. I would not attempt to control my anger. It controlled me. After she provoked me to raging tears, Ma-ma would always tell me,
“You ain’t nothin’ but the devil! You just ain’t gone amount to nothin’! Ain’t nothin’ gone ever become of you! You are the meanest, emptiest child I have ever seen in my life!”
When I was four or five, I’d hear it and feel sorry for what ever I had done to deserve such a verbal beating. But by this time, I had become the child she described. I believed her. I no longer tried to be good in school. At home it was “whatever”. I had come to expect a fight on a daily basis. Deep down inside I was angry with mom for not putting a stop to it. But I loved her so much. She was my best friend and I wanted her to know that I was getting the daylights beaten out of me every day and I wanted her to save me. I wanted her to save us.
She too was under stress from her mother. The criticisms, the nagging, and the constant verbal abuse about how disappointed Granddaddy Clarence would be if he could see her now was enough to drive her up to two packs of Salem Lights 100s per day. In my heart of hearts, I knew some of those “meetings” were therapy sessions with her friends. I could tell she was just as unhappy as I was. There were times when it seemed she would sleep for days. Sometimes I would catch her glaring at Ma-ma after some inconsiderate comment she’d made. She’d even look worried when Ma-ma would get after me, but she never said anything in my defense. She never would say anything at all. That made me angry too.
They would both say I was bad. I hadn’t always been that way. I don’t believe children are born bad; children who are put in bad situations become bad.
My clothes were mostly handed down. Instead of Adidas sneakers with the three stripes along the sides, my shoes had four. When other children got Atari game systems for Christmas I got a pop paddle and whiffle ball set. An only child, I learned to play well by myself. My imagination was so colorful, that I didn’t miss all the nice things other children had. All I needed was an adventure. I was a teacher, a stunt biker, and a basketball player. It was when I would have a chance to play with other children my age that my self-esteem took a blow. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times my hair was washed and cared for properly in ten years. If my grandmother actually did wash it, she would switch the vacuum cleaner into reverse and dry it with the vacuum tube. I hated the cool air that thing blew onto my wet scalp. I remember gazing at other little girls’ hair at school and wishing my pony tails were long and healthy like theirs. I had a nice grade of hair, but it was just untrained and unhealthy.
“Betty Jean Saunders? Where is she,” the paramedic asked as she approached the bed room door. My grandmother directed them into the room. She stood tall in her night gown with a bonnet on her head. She then went to change her own clothes. The lights from the ambulance flashed through the house and the radio walkie talkies blared. My own heartbeat was beginning to choke me. The light-string was pulled and the purple paint was revealed. Mom had slipped a toboggan on to hide her unkept hair. For once I wasn’t talking; for once this trip to the hospital worried me. I turned around and faced the television – not to watch it of course. In 1985, television was “off” from midnight until five a.m. I just couldn’t bear to see my mother in such misery. The continued sounds of her coughing and wheezing broke my heart.
She was simply helpless, just as I often felt. I sat in the chair and looked up at the ceiling in an effort to keep the tears from rolling down my face. I thought of how limited our time had been together. I went over in my mind about how my missing her led to the beating of my life just a few months earlier.
“Ma, where do you have to go today?” I whined. “I have a meeting, baby. You’ll see why this is important later,” she continued. “But can I go with you? Please don’t leave me here with Ma-ma. She doesn’t like me and I don’t like her,” I explained.
“Joan, just mind her! Do what she tells you to do and keep your mouth shut.” I dropped my head and let out a choked up “Ok.” I was furious! I knew something bad was going to happen. It never failed. As she gathered her things, she got into the car and started it. She always parked our blue four-door Oldsmobile beside the mature willow tree in the back yard. The tree was probably about six feet from the screened in back porch. I stood there and waved goodbye to her. I wanted to make the moment last until she was out of my sight. Just then, a dark figure emerged from the kitchen onto the porch with scornful eyes and a raspy yet soft voice. I could hear the broom straws gently brushing across the cement floor.
“Joan, get in the house.”
This is where I usually went wrong. “Ok Ma-ma, let me finish telling Mommy bye. Bye Ma!” I waved as she slowly pulled the car into reverse and onto the driveway.
“Gal! I said get in the house!” Her voice was now strained and her face was frowned.
“Ok! Why can’t I say bye to my momma?” I insisted.
“If you don’t get in this house right now I’m gonna take this broom and beat every bit of the shit out of your ass!” The words pierced me like a dagger. She had said a lot of things to me but she had never cursed at me. I turned around and faced her and threw my hands up to block the broom handle headed my way. Of course Mom was out of the driveway by now and had no idea of what was happening. I fell to the floor and blocked another blow. This time it ricocheted back into her own leg. Time literally stood still. I couldn’t muster the words to explain that it was simply self defense. I wasn’t trying to hit her!
She dropped the broom and hurried through the kitchen and to the couch in the den where she kept a collection of green willow tree limbs. Instead, she opted for my plastic yellow baseball bat that she’d “confiscated” from me before. It was my toy at first. But now she used it for the sole purpose of beating me. I ran past her into my room and attempted to close and lock the door. It was a struggle, but I forced it closed. Every single door in the house had a bolt lock on it. That was just custom back then.
“Unbolt that door!” She shouted. She banged and banged. “No!” I replied. Now, I was always a practical thinker. I said to myself, “Ok you’re already gonna get it. What in the world will happen if you keep her locked out? Eventually you’re gonna have to open it.” I picked up that business of slamming the door from my television hero, George Jefferson. I mimicked him all of the time. I loved to slam that door when she was talking. I’d open it quickly to let her know I was just playing. But this time, I had to think of a plan.
I backed up toward the open window in the room that faced the driveway on the side of the house. She finally quit banging and yelling. I was nervous. For a moment I thought maybe she had just given up and returned to her sweeping on the porch. She never gave up though. She couldn’t run but she’d walk me down like Jason Voorhees to beat me.
It was too quiet. I started toward the door to peep through the skeleton key hole. I saw nothing but the television playing in the den. I thought, “She’s back out on the porch sweeping, but she’ll be back for sure!” I could feel the spring breeze coming in from the window. I went closer and peeped out to see if any of the neighborhood kids were out playing. I don’t know why, though. I was never allowed to play with other children in their yards. The only interaction I’d have with them was in the rare event someone came over to play with me. Just then, my search was interrupted.
“Bang bang bang bang!” Ma-ma suddenly blocked my view through the window ordering me to “unbolt” the door. Her fair skin was nearly red with ferocity. Her pinned plats had come undone, and her face was wet with sweat. I just knew the whole neighborhood could hear that she was after me. The only reason I gave in was the thought of what Mom would say. The fact that Ma-ma was working hard on pulling out the screen didn’t seem like a good thing either. I guess she was figuring on coming in through the window – or yanking me out of it. Mom told me to mind her. She told me to keep my mouth shut. Somehow I managed to get myself in a mess. It was entirely my fault. I was bad.
“Ok! Ok! Ok!” I ran to the door, unlocked it and went back to the bed and waited for her to come into the room. She was like a hungry bear and I was dinner. She let me have it on my arms, legs and back until she had enough. I just lay there and tried to cover myself and block the blows. After she finally walked away, I tried to cry myself to sleep. I rubbed the itching welts until they went down. She wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She went on and on about how Mom was too soft on me.
“You try to act like an angel when she’s here. All I hear is ‘Baby this and Baby that’. You ain’t no baby. You’s the devil. And beating you don’t do no good. You needs a man here that can handle you. That’s exactly what you need.”
Those words entered my ears and flowed through my blood stream like snake venom. I continued to cry on my bed and she laughed at me from the couch in the den. “You’re not so tough now are you?”
I whispered to myself, “Please shut up. Please stop talking to me. Leave me alone!” For some reason, that bat always made donut-shaped welts on my arms and legs. I felt for them and rubbed the ones on my legs hoping that the stinging would soon subside.
She kept at me for several minutes. “Just mean and hateful… Can’t nobody tell you nothin’… You’re so hardheaded… Just the devil!”
Then, when I could no longer take it, I shouted, “Uggh! Why don’t you just leave me alone?” I raged! I felt like my eyes were blood shot red. It came out before I could control it. I froze. A smile came upon her face. I heard the rattling of the “sticks” as she called them. The wood floor creaked as her footsteps came closer. The cycle began again.
The paramedics lifted my mom onto the gurney and she yelled out in pain. They hadn’t raised it and she sat low from my perspective. They pulled her out from the bedroom into the den. She didn’t speak, only struggled for air. I looked at her finally. Her face was wet with sweat – as if someone had just poured water all over her. Mom seemed to let herself go through the years. I never saw her wear make-up. Her ears were not pierced, nor were mine. The only jewelry she wore was a wrist watch. She never ever wore dresses, just polyester pants and a shirt. Her shoes were usually made for comfort. Apparently, working all those years at the zipper plant brought on calluses. It was a chore for her to walk bear-foot through the house. If someone came by unexpectedly, I had to run and fetch her shoes before they could come inside. She never wanted anyone to see her feet. I realized later that she was probably clinically depressed, and couldn’t care less about her appearance otherwise. I knew she was ashamed. Although at that moment she was indeed suffering, I could see the shame on her face. Just then a local sheriff’s deputy entered the front door.
“Betty,” he called quietly. “What in the world, girl?” Mom looked up at him, hacking and shaking her head. “Can’t catch my breath, boy.” Her breathing was certainly labored. He then came over and stood in the kitchen door way behind the chair I was sitting in. I looked up at him, now with tears in my eyes. He gave me a solemn look and nodded, “Its gonna be alright sweetie.” For the first time, after all of the hospitalizations, this didn’t feel alright. As they were preparing to take her out of the house, I ran into our room, gathered some clothes and wiped the tears from my face. I tied my shoes and ran outside after her. The ambulance doors were already closed with her on the inside. There was an EMT in there with her working on her. My grandmother stood near the passenger side door of the ambulance. Our neighbor, Mrs. Elsie Anthony had emerged from the darkness. She wore a terry cloth robe and her hair was in rollers. I looked toward her house which was through the back yard, and I could see that the sun had just begun to light the eastern sky.
“Yes, Ms. Saunders, she can stay with me,” Mrs. Elsie assured Ma-ma.
I ignored it and asked the driver, “Where can I sit?” Ma-ma let me know quickly, “No baby, you can’t go. You’re going to stay with Mrs. Elsie until we get back.”
“No!” I pleaded with her. “I want to go with my momma!” Tears clouded my vision. Ma-ma got into the ambulance and put her purse in her lap.
“Joan, there’s no where for you to sit,” she insisted.
“I can sit in your lap! Please let me go! I want to go with my momma!” The lady paramedic looked at me with eyes that said, too bad kid. She pursed her lips together and shut the passenger door. My grandmother buckled her seatbelt and yelled to me through the windshield to go with Mrs. Elsie. The driver got in on her side, closed the door and turned on the siren. They drove away, and I just stood there crying until they were out of sight. Again I was angry, and hurt. I had enough sense not to take it out on Mrs. Elsie. It wasn’t her fault. She was just doing as they wished.
“Come on baby, Tony’s over at my house, so you’ll have someone to play with,” Mrs. Elsie said as she wrapped her arms around me and gently coerced my footsteps toward her house.
Tony was her grandson. He was one year older than I, but we were close friends and playmates. Mr. and Mrs. Anthony were both very nice to me and tried to make me feel comfortable.
We entered the kitchen and she offered me some cereal. I sat there and messed over it. There was a pit in the bottom of my stomach, which left little room for food. Tony was still sleeping on the couch in their living room and Mrs. Elsie had apparently gone in the back to get dressed. I felt so alone, for the first time. I resented being over there that morning. I was wondering why I had to stay there. My mother was all I had, and I was supposed to be her baby, but I had limited access to her. All kinds of thoughts and worries went through my mind. For a long time, I sat at the kitchen table and studied the room. I was seldom allowed to enter anyone else’s house or accept food if they offered it to me. Everything was in its place. It was well-kept. El Debarge’s voice sang to me through the radio that sat atop the refrigerator.
“I know just how it feels, but this times love’s for real. In time it will reveal, this special love that’s deep in side of us, will all reveal in time…”
Mom liked that song. She liked a lot of songs. That was something we both had in common. Back when I was small enough to fit in the rear window of the car, I would ride everywhere lying down with one ear on the speaker behind the backseat. People would always honk and wave at me lying in the rear window. In the late 70s, the concept of having car seats for children was just a good idea. Most of the time, Ma-ma would hold me in her lap everywhere we went.
Mom and I would sit and sing popular music on the front porch. The Manhattans’ Shining Star was our favorite. In fact I liked most of the things she liked, especially Michael Jackson’s songs.
He was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. He was handsome. He was magical. He was mine! I used to daydream that his limo broke down as they passed through town, and, you guessed it! They conveniently needed to pull into our driveway until they could get it fixed. To me Michael and music was something for Mom and I to share. Unfortunately, nothing was sacred for us. Nothing was private. Ma-ma was jealous of any time we spent alone. God forbid, the two of us share a pleasant moment that did not include her! Ma-ma made sure to tell me how the National Enquirer daunted Michael as the strangest person alive. I hated it. That was my Michael. And anything she had to say that was negative was not welcomed in my mind.
My cereal had gotten soggy, yet I forced it down, not wanting to be disrespectful to Mrs. Elsie who was nice enough to feed me. I put the bowl into the sink and floated into the living room where Tony had been sleeping. He awakened and turned on cartoons. “Hey,” he said dryly as he sat up and wiped the crust from his eyes. He slid his feet into his slippers and moved over so I could sit down.
“My momma’s in the hospital.” I said as I plopped down beside him. “I know,” he said, never looking at me. From that point on, we sat there saying few words and watched “Tom and Jerry.”
I always looked forward to playing with him. We played everything from hopscotch to tackle football. He lived about two miles away, although sometimes he would ride the bus home to his grandparents’ house. We always got along fine, except for one incident. I had to consult my mom on this one. Now, I was the neighborhood bully, and I had my way with any girl that wanted to tussle. I’d beat up my playmates if they tried to go home before I was ready for them to leave. But Tony was taller, meaner, and stronger than any girl I had ever fought. For some reason, he had started to pick on me on the way home from school. He talked about my four-striped “Adidas” and called me a tomboy. All the children on the bus thought he was hilarious, at my expense. I couldn’t handle the teasing. It did the same thing Ma-ma’s teasing did to me; it made my blood boil. Still, I knew I couldn’t beat him out right.
“What? Now I know that boy ain’t messing with my baby. Ya’ll been playing all these years, and now you want to fight, huh?” Mom was upset.
I was tired of being picked on by the others all of the time. “Well, Ma? Why I gotta wear Bo-bos? Why can’t I wear Nikes like all the other kids? Her eyes opened wide, and her face softened. “Baby, I can’t afford some of the same things your friends have. I’m doing the best I can.” I quickly replied, “Well can’t Aunt Reesie buy me some?”
She ignored the question and added, “Anyway, it’s nothing to fight over!” She sat down in her recliner, lit a cigarette and lowered her tone. “If he picks on you tomorrow, and puts his hands on you, you kick him right in the shin bone!”
“The shin bone? What’s that?” I was clueless. I was certain she was gonna say to kick him in the crotch!
“It’s the bone in the front of his leg.” She showed me by touching hers. “Kick him in the shin bone and I guarantee you he’ll never mess with you again. He’ll drop right to the ground.”
The next day, we were at it again during the bus-ride home. Sure enough, Tony started picking, and teasing me about being a tomboy as soon as we boarded. He picked about my shoes again too. He had everyone on the bus singing the Bo-bo’s song. “Bo-bos! They are some cheap snea-kers! Bo-bos! They cost a dollar ninety nine! Bo-bos! They are some Bo-bos…” I was embarrassed. I could have sworn I saw the bus driver crack a smile too. I stood up pointed my finger in his face, and told him to leave me alone or else, as we arrived at my house.
“Or else what?” he asked after we got off the bus. There we stood in my front yard, huffing and puffing at each other like pit bulls. Even the driver waited to see “or else what?” I was scared to death. Tony shoved me by my shoulders and I stumbled backwards. So this was one time I was gonna obey my momma. I dropped my book bag and tried to remember Mom’s instructions. I grabbed him by his shoulders and drew back like a field goal kicker. “Bam!” Right in the shin bone! He fell to the ground and screamed, clutching his leg in his hands. The rest of the kids on the bus went wild cheering and barking like dogs. The bus sped off as he sat there rocking back and forth. In an instant, he got up from the ground like a fire-breathing dragon and drew back to punch me dead in the face.
“You better not lay a finger on her, son!” Mom had been at the front door waiting all the while. I could hear the theme song to Superman playing in my head.
“But Ms. Saunders, she kicked me in the leg!”
“Yes, I saw that. And I also saw you push her first. Now, if I hear of you picking on her again I’m gonna tell your momma, or whip you myself!”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied as he limped through the yard to get to his grandmother’s house.
I ran inside and Mom hugged me and said, “I don’t condone fighting, but you have the right to defend yourself.”
Tony and I quickly buried the hatchet. He surely didn’t try me anymore. I didn’t rub it in either. I guess we had mutual respect for each other from then on.
I was worried about my mom since I hadn’t heard anything by that afternoon. Tony and I were playing with toy trucks in his room when Ma-ma stuck her head in the door. “Come on Joan. Let’s go on home now.”
When we got back to the house she began packing our clothes. “Go in there and get your bath. Denise is coming for us to stay with Aunt Reesie tonight.” Denise was Aunt Reesie’s middle child. She was a junior at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. School was out, and she had come home for the summer. Denise was like my mother. Whenever it was time for school shopping, my mom would just give her the money, and she would take me and buy my clothes. She would often “rescue me” by coming to pick me up for weekend visits with them in Ahoskie. She’d always wash my hair and use a real blow-dryer with warm air. Once, I had gotten the flu. Denise came all the way to Murfreesboro with grocery bags filled with orange juice, chicken noodle soup, crackers and Ginger ale. I simply worshipped her.
The day I got out of school for the summer, which was about three days prior to my moms hospitalization, I got off the bus and to my delight, my aunt’s white Buick was parked in the front part of the driveway. I went into the house with hugs for her. Instead, Denise sat in a chair next to my mom who was in obvious pain. “What else can I get for you, Aunt B? Are you comfortable?” she asked. She had taken Mom to the doctor earlier and they hadn’t long gotten back. His name was James Fuller or “Dr. Jay.” Mom and Ma-ma thought he was God’s gift to medicine.
He had prescribed her some medicine for asthma days before. “This is the “beatingest” thing I have ever seen! He done gone and gave me the wrong medicine. No wonder the mess won’t doin’ no good!” This time he treated her for bronchitis. She had a humidifier. The two fans we owned were set up in our bedroom. She went in and lay down on the bed. Just then, Aunt Reesie and James (her boyfriend) walked in. Her oldest child, Don, and her youngest child, Jasmine quickly followed. In my mind, I thought, “Oh God. She’s sick again.” We had no air conditioner, and it was the hottest June I can remember. Everyone was wiping sweat.
“I sho’ do wish some of that air could blow this way.” Everyone in the room glared at Ma-ma with a look of disdain. How could she say such a thing? There Mom was sweating, water running down her face like a faucet, and she was only thinking of herself. No one responded.
I went into the room and sat with my mother. She coughed and hacked. I thought of how just months ago, we had returned home from the grocery store. She got out of the car and headed to the back porch. She was coughing with such force; the sound seemed to reverberate through my little body.
“Ma-ma, she needs to stop smoking,” I said from the front seat. Ma-ma always sat in the back seat so she could always see me and hit me if I needed it.
“Umm hmm,” she agreed. “I don’t know why in the world she won’t leave them cigarettes alone.” Mom had always smoked, for as long as I could remember. She woke up in the morning and smoked. She used the restroom and smoked. She watched television and smoked. She sat on the porch, watched the cars pass by and smoked.
“Stay here. I’m going to try to talk to her.” I urged.
“Yeah, you go ahead, because she won’t listen to me,” Ma-ma responded.
I ran up to the porch and grabbed her arm as she fumbled the keys to unlock the door, coughing all the while.
“Mommy, I think you should stop smoking. You cough like that a lot, and I don’t think it’s good for your health.”
She jerked away from me and barked, “Joan, leave me alone!” She rarely responded to me that way. The coughing scared me. It wasn’t a regular cold cough. It was full of phlegm. It was consistent and rattling.
“Mommy, please! I love you. Don’t you love me? I don’t want anything to happen to you!” I begged and pleaded with her.
“I said shut up and leave me alone about it, now!” She finally turned the key and opened the door. She went on through the kitchen and turned on the den light and sat down in the recliner. By now Ma-ma had come up behind me and nudged me to go on into the house. I whispered to her, “She wouldn’t listen to me either.” I heard the television click on. We entered the den as well, and a trail of smoke met us at the doorway.
There was no smoke this day though. Only coughing, vomiting and perfuse sweating. She looked over at me and peered at me as I sat on my bed with my feet flat on the floor. She sat up and said, “Joan, I need you to pray for Mommy. I’m really sick. This isn’t good baby.” I was a child. I looked at her and smiled. “Yeah, ok” I thought. She continued, “Joan, I’m really serious.” I was embarrassed to pray in front of her so I went back into the den and sat in a chair just outside of the room. Everyone else had gone out onto the front porch. I didn’t take her seriously. After all, she was always sick. This was just another time to me.
That was all I could think about during the ride over to Ahoskie with Denise. What if this had happened because I didn’t really pray like she asked me to? When we got to Aunt Reesie’s house everyone had the look of worry on their faces. I paid that no mind and went on about things as usual. We’d always go back home soon, and Mom would be at home, with her gall stones in a bottle, a new pacemaker for her heart, or lots of cotton and gauze for her pulled teeth.
After two days had gone by, I hadn’t spoken to my mother. I heard Aunt Reesie tell Ma-ma that she had been transferred from Roanoke Chowan Hospital to Norfolk General in Virginia. She had been there before and had her heart surgeries there. Ma-ma would speak to her on the phone, but I was never allowed to talk to her.
On the third day, we were back at home. I stood in the kitchen, cooking bacon at about 8:30pm. My friend Sharon, who lived down the lane, had just knocked on the back door and stuck her head inside. “My momma sent me to ask if ya’ll need anything.”
“Naw, we’re fine. My momma’s gonna be coming home soon I hope. Me, I’m just cooking.”
“I see,” she laughed. “Aren’t you a little young to be cooking?”
“Nope,” I boasted. “I cook breakfast for my momma all the time. I can cook bacon, eggs, grits, make coffee – you name it!”
She was twelve years old. Mom had recently been upset with her for telling me some classified information. On my birthday that past April, I told Sharon I had turned ten. “For real? It’s about time for you to start your period.” Totally oblivious, I said, “My period? What’s that?”
“It’s when women have blood come out down there,” she explained.
“Ewe! That’s nasty! My momma didn’t tell me that! My momma don’t have no period!” I was disgusted.
Sharon laughed and said, “Yes she do! Ask her.”
“Ok, so what do you do with the blood then?” I pushed.
“You have to wear a pad, girl.” She replied. I thought about that flowered box Mom always kept in the bathroom closet. I wondered if that was her box of pads.
The phone rang, and it was Don calling to speak to Ma-ma. “Joan, cut that stove off and get ready. Don is coming after us,” Ma-ma called in to the kitchen. I was happy about that. Sharon yelled into the house, “Hey Ms. Saunders!” Ma-ma responded likewise. She explained the reasons for her visit and my grandmother instructed her to “Tell Kathy I said thank you.”
Don soon arrived, and we loaded up. I sat in the back seat of the Buick and rambled on and asked if anyone knew when she would get out. He said little or nothing. “No,” he’d say every now and then.
We got to the house and went inside. My aunt, Grace and her boyfriend had arrived from Maryland. Jasmine was scheduled to graduate from High School the next day. So the family had started to filter into town. Uncle Johnny, Mom’s only brother and his wife Louise were there as well. Whenever my mother’s siblings came home I was ecstatic! We hugged and kissed everybody.
“Have you talked to my mommy,” I asked Aunt Reesie. “Yes,” she replied. “She said she loves you very much, and she misses you.”
“I want to talk to her. When can I talk to her?” I was serious. I missed her. Not to mention, things were stressful being alone with Ma-ma those three days.
“Hey, come on ya’ll, let’s go for a walk outside,” said Jasmine to Denise and I. We walked around the neighborhood and talked about school, and college. I kept reverting the conversation right back to my mother.
“Man I’ll be glad when she comes home! I can’t stand it too much longer without her.”
By now we were approaching the neighborhood park. We went inside the gates and sat on the see saw. The night sky had not a cloud in it. It seemed as though every star in the galaxy was shining down on us. The cool night air was soothing.
“Joan,” Denise called to me. “I’ve got something to tell you. “What?” I asked out of impatient curiosity. “Joan, come here,” she motioned to her side of the see saw. I sat down beside her and nestled into her outstretched arms. She wrapped them around me and held me tightly. She took a deep breath. Jasmine was standing up beside us. She placed her hand on my shoulder and nodded to Denise to go on with her words. She hesitated, and in one sentence shattered my world.
“Joan, your mommy passed away tonight around 8:30.” Her voice quaked. I pulled away from her.
“Denise, stop playing,” I said with a half grin-half smirk on my face. I looked back at Jasmine whose face was soaked in tears. “Jasmine, why is she playing with me like that?” I begged. “Denise, that’s not funny. You shouldn’t play like that. She looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “I love you. I would never play about something like that.”
I looked into the night sky searching for an answer in the stars I had admired just seconds ago. The sky that I thought was so beautiful was now ghastly and grey.
I leaped to my feet and cried out to the world, “No! Mommy, No!” I was in shock. I hyperventilated. Denise was shorter than I, and she struggled to keep me standing. They both pulled me back down onto the see saw and rocked me and shushed me. I had never cried so loudly before. I had never experienced that kind of pain before. My mommy had gone on without me. She left me. Some of the neighbors had come onto their porches and turned on the lights to see who was screaming. We exited the park gates and walked back toward the house. I was still shouting. The two of them decided to pull me into the back seat of James’ car which was parked on the street and closed the door.
“Denise, why? What happened?” I was desperate.
“She was so sick, that she went into a coma. Her heart couldn’t take it, and it just stopped beating.” Denise rocked me and held me tightly.
I finally began to calm down some and I managed; “Now I don’t have no parents. I don’t have no daddy, or no momma.”
Denise took my face into her hands and wiped my tears. “Don’t say that. You’ve got us. You’ve got me, Don and Jasmine. You’ve got mommy and James. We’re going to take care of you. That’s what your mommy wanted. Jasmine rubbed my back as I sobbed. Just then, Don flung the door open and asked, “Ya’ll alright?” His face was wet. I cried out again. “Naw.” Denise sighed. She closed the door back.
“He knew!” I felt betrayed for a second.
“Yes he knew, he just had to bring ya’ll here so we could tell you.”
I felt so guilty. I was cooking and laughing. I babbled all the way over to Ahoskie, and my mommy was dead. I still felt like it was all a dream. I was still waiting for them to say, “Gotcha! We’re just joking!” Those words never came.
We finally got out of the car and I staggered toward the house and through the kitchen door. I expected everyone to be in the same places they were minutes earlier. I expected them to be in the same spirits as they were before. Aunt Grace and Uncle Fred sat at the kitchen table, hand in hand, shaking their heads. She quaintly dabbed the tears from her cheeks with a napkin. I looked to the left and saw James standing with his back to the sink doing the same. My eyes moved around the room until I found Ma-ma. She sat alone in an easy chair across the room from James. Aunt Reesie was next to her in a folding chair, holding her hand. I walked over to them feeling numb. Aunt Reesie stretched out her arms for me and motioned for me to sit in her lap. I began to cry loudly again. Ma-ma was crying too. It made me feel strange, because I had never, ever heard her cry.
“Hush now, Boopses. You’ve got to be strong for your mommy.” Boopses was my mom’s nickname for me. Aunt Reesie tried her best to calm me but there was no use. I got up and sat next to Ma-ma. For the first time in a long time, we embraced. We needed each other. I had just calmed down outside only to enter the house and find her hysterical. Just then she said something I never expected to hear.
“Lord, Tull! You done gone on and left me! Oh, Lord, what in the world is gone become of me now?”
I thought to myself, “What’s gonna become of you now? What about the rest of us? What about her sisters, and brother? What about her nieces and nephews?” Quite frankly, at the thought of the two of us going back to that house to live alone, I wondered the same thing for myself.