In 1929, my mother’s mother was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 26 years and 11 months. Mother was eight.
Until her father could recover his senses and the means to take care of them, each of his three children was placed in the care of one of his dead wife’s sisters. Mother went to her Aunt Flossie and Uncle Bonnie and Cousin Anne.
In one night, Princess had lost her mother and a few days later, she lost her father and her brothers. The sense of abandonment that had dropped suddenly, like a heavy cloak over her small shoulders, would never leave her.
The summer after her mother’s death was like a dream in slow motion, a confused dream moving just beneath her consciousness even as, child-like, she wandered about the new house, the new yard, the new neighborhood, singing and talking quietly to herself and making playthings out of flowers and scraps of things.
Whatever sense of identity she had had until the night her mother was killed, had been replaced with her sense of being “a poor cousin living on charity.” (One day, she had overheard her aunt say to a neighbor, “When she came to us, she was in rags” and she had slipped silently outside and hidden herself in the bushes.) When her aunt took her to town to buy new shoes and dresses for school, she went with her head lowered, her cheeks hot with shame.
Added to the humiliation of her poverty, (of which she had previously been unaware), was the embarrassment of making mistakes, of breaking new and unsuspected rules, of being found guilty of vulgar behavior. Out of the confusion of these emotions and her new self-consciousness, grew a desperate need for approval, for sympathy. This need would never leave her.
She moved quietly, trying to be invisible. She straightened throw rugs behind her as she went, as if erasing any evidence of her being. Her compulsion for order, for cleanliness, for decorum would never leave her.
In this slow, confused summer dreaming, in this gradual unfolding of a new self-consciousness, the child wandered about singing and talking quietly to herself and making playthings out of flowers and scraps of things.
And September came, and September rain, the kind of light rain that chases you into the house and laughs at you at all the windows; rain that when you are standing under a tree crying, touches you all over, trying to find out what is wrong; rain that patters the roof of the garage, the garage damp and musky and your fingers clinking little bottles together on a cobwebbed shelf, the bottles filled with secret, amber medicines; rain that comes softly in the night and is gone by morning but you know that it came in the night because you are awakened by a sheeting sound as a car goes by on the street outside and then you smell it, you smell rain and prop yourself up on your elbows and look out the window and see the street dark and wet and another car passing makes the sheeting sound and you feel good, as if your mother had come softly during the night and kissed you without waking you and you squirm back down under the bed covers and snuggle your face in the pillow with a smile.
Even though she is gone, you can still close your eyes and feel her lips softly touching your ear, can still hear her whisper, “Mama’s beautiful baby.”
Even though she is gone.