Keeping Up Appearances — by Sandy Hoffman & Sherri Oliver
The summer I went to live with my aunt was the first and last time I’d see my mother cry. My mother never really spoke much when I was a child. She possessed an absolute and regal gait about her. I would watch as she would grace about the house in her robe and long baby blue nightgown in an impressive, solemn air about her. My mother was a gorgeous woman. Her long, chestnut hair was always in an elegant, coil-like a crown on her head. I would play as an audience to her in the evenings when she would let her hair down before a bath. I’d watch as she removed her large hairpins, and the coil of hair would fall down to her waist and landed with a soft thump on her back.
My mother’s hair was so unlike my own, which is long, but not as thick. Not at all like the warm chestnut I remember when we’d sit together and untangle the braid to get it ready for her to wash. My mother never cut her hair because my father believed that it was bad luck to cut a woman’s hair.
I’d wonder why she would always cut mine.
Her skin was so soft and smooth. I loved it when I would wrap my arms around her neck when she hugged me so tight.
“So I can take you all in,” she’d say.
My mother’s hands seemed aged beyond her years. I found this to be her only anomaly. Her hands were calloused and dry. She said it was from washing clothes as a young girl by hand. My great-grandmother still likes to wash clothes the old fashioned way, which meant washing clothes with lye soap.
“Lots of lye soap,” my mother would say.
There also was a time when the fingers on one of her hands were wrapped in a splint-bandage from when she slammed the bureau door shut. Even with her broken fingers, my mother always made sure that I was fed, clean, and well loved. On those long and hot summer days, she would always prepare a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemonade and a saucer that was piled high with thinly shaved ham sandwiches, that I couldn’t eat before my father had his fill first. When he’d come in from the hot sun, he’d grab a handful of sandwiches and one of the large bumpy glasses filled with lemonade and crushed ice.
“How you doing kiddo?” he’d say before walking back out the door.
The aroma of the evening’s meal would fill the house and in anticipation of enjoying it, I would help my mother set the table and sit rightly at her side and be enamored by all the steaming food assembled pretentiously on porcelain plates. We would just sit and watch the steam rise from the food until my father sat down before we began to eat.
“Great meal huh, kiddo?” he’d say.
I’d help my mother clear the table and clean the dishes before she would help me with my bath. Then she’d sit with me on the bed as my father read me a bedtime story. When he was finished, he’d then pat me on the head before leaving my room. My mother would give me a tight hug and kiss my forehead before she’d tuck me into bed.
“Good night kiddo,” my father would say before my mother would smile at me and closed the door.
One evening when I woke to use the bathroom, I saw my mother through the screen of the back porch, standing there while the wind blew through her loosed hair with tears streaming down her face as she stared into the dimly lit yard. I never had seen my mother cry before. Had I known that would be the last time I would see her—I would have stood there with her on the porch.
There weren’t a lot of people at my mothers’ funeral. Just my father, my aunt, her husband and a few people I seen at church before. Everyone would come and hug me and thanked my aunt for taking me in. I wondered why no one spoke to my father. Maybe it was because he wasn’t crying. Maybe it was also because everyone knew how my mother died, and kept it from me as if my mother’s life was one big secret. When the police began to escort my father from the church, he stopped in front of me and held my face between his cuffed hands.
“I’ll miss you kiddo,” he said before being led out the door.
Later, my aunt told me that my father was oblivious to mother’s sadness and forgot what it was that made her happy. My aunt told me that she was sorry that I’d have to grow up without my mother.
“At least now she’s at peace,” she’d say.
Illustration by: Sherri Oliver