Until that moment, I never knew how much a mother could love her child. My first child was but hours old, and the power of love and the urge to protect him forever set in immediately. The thoughts that entered my mind about my son were quickly followed by an immense outrage. It was the first time I had felt this rage, and I was appalled by it. My rage was directed at the mother who didn’t want her child, the mother who would rather have alcohol than her child, who would rather have a man’s attention, the mother who used her child as a bargaining tool. That mother was my own.
Life as I knew it would never be the same again after that morning that Momma left me. Hearing the crunch of the gravel as the car pulled away would become a sound that caused my heart to race and a lump to form in the back of my throat. I wanted to run after her like a child who had gone mad and scream and cry and beg her to take me with her. I was like a child gone mad; the insanity of it all was more than I could bear.
A million thoughts were running through my 9-year-old mind. Surely Momma hadn’t left me there! Maybe Momma had forgotten something and had to go back to Grandma’s. Perhaps she had forgotten me; after all, I had been sitting quietly for a very long time. I refused to believe what my mind already knew but my heart wouldn’t accept.
And Momma had been acting strangely today, as if she hadn’t gotten enough sleep. What if she had a wreck? It had been all I could do to help her steer the car on the way to church. She had borrowed Grandma’s car, and Grandma had told her “drive carefully and no smoking in the car” as we were leaving. But it didn’t seem like she was being very careful at all. The car kept slowing down and veering off the road and into the ditch, and even though I couldn’t see over the dashboard, I knew to turn the wheel the other way. I was trying to get Momma’s attention so she would wake up and steer the car on her own. Momma’s eyes kept closing and getting stuck halfway between open and shut, and her head wouldn’t stay upright, her neck seeming to have no muscles in it to hold it. Momma held her head up long enough to light a cigarette, yelling at me to “hold the wheel!” not realizing I was already holding it.
Softening a little, Momma looked at me, “Talk to me, honey, help keep Momma awake.”
She reached down and turned the radio volume up, as if that would give her the boost she needed to hold her eyes open. “Alone Again, Naturally” was playing on the car’s AM radio, which only made Momma start to cry.
“Stupid song,” she complained, fumbling in her purse for a tissue, pulling out a very crumbled, obviously used one, “why can’t they play the Carpenters?”
Momma had always loved the Carpenters, but lately she seemed to play their recording of Good-bye to Love over and over, which annoyed me greatly, especially since the album had a small scratch right where Karen Carpenter said ‘good-bye’ making her say ‘gggooodgggooodbye’ instead.
Suddenly Momma looked like she was going to pass out, and I said nothing, afraid that maybe we wouldn’t make it to church in one piece. If Momma was so sick, why was she bringing her to church at all, and why weren’t they going with Grandma to the old people’s church in town like we always did? And why was she carrying that old suitcase with her? The blue Samsonite only closed on one side, and I noticed that my Sunday pink panties were sticking out the other side. I had looked for my Sundays while I was getting dressed for church and couldn’t find them, and Momma had seemed in such a hurry that I gave up and wore the plain white. I always wore the right panties on the right days, not like Kari Robinson, who had to wear her Monday and Thursdays all week, since Kari’s momma had 4 other girls, and they had to share the packaged 7 days of panties amongst each other.
Momma always insisted on clean panties, since you never know when you might have an automobile accident and someone would see your panties. I wasn’t planning on being in an accident any time soon, but should the occasion occur and I was to die tragically, at least people would know that I had the sense to know my days of the week.
“Poor little thing,” they would say, standing over my lifeless broken body, “but at least she’s wearing her Tuesdays.”
The parking lot was empty except for a dusty red Ford Falcon. Grandpa Joe had one just like it, except his was blue. The church was a weathered white building, with a tall pointed steeple sticking out of its pointed roof. It reminded me of those churches you always see on Christmas cards, only without the snow. As we got out of the car and walked up to the church, I could hear a high-pitched shrill voice singing, or rather, shrieking over the hum of the organ. I recognized the song as one of the hymns we sang at the church Momma and Daddy and I used to go to. But that was before. Momma and I didn’t go to church anymore. She said the church was full of hypocrites, but I didn’t know exactly what a hypocrite was, so I just listened and nodded like I agreed with her.
As we opened the double doors at the front of the building, the singing stopped, and the lady who had been the apparent source of the noise jumped up from the bench and headed toward us. As the lady made her way toward Momma and me, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing any shoes, but instead was wearing pink fluffy bedroom slippers. The closer she got I couldn’t help but stare. Her hair was piled so high on her head that I was almost afraid she would fall over if she didn’t balance it just right. She was wearing lipstick that looked to be the same color of the orange crayon I had at home in my Crayola box, and her eyes were smothered with bright blue eye shadow, lined in black, and topped off with heavy black eyelashes. She reminded me of those clowns I had seen at the Barnum and Bailey circus last year.
If Momma was good at anything, she knew how to put on makeup and look pretty. Momma had blonde hair, dishwater blonde as she called it, and big blue eyes. She wore her hair like Marilyn Monroe, poofy on top and flipped out on the ends. She wore blue eye shadow, but hers was soft and lightly applied. Never would Momma have ever worn orange lipstick! Frosted pink was her color. And she always dressed real nice, like those ladies in the magazines she bought at the dime store.
“I need to see the Pastor” Momma told her before organ lady had a chance to speak. Momma’s voice sounded shaky, but I thought it was because Momma had been so sleepy on the way to church. But underneath her voice was a sense of urgency that I didn’t recognize at the time.
“Well, Pastor Hallett is studying right now, could I help you?” the organ lady said, reaching for Momma’s arm, as if she wanted us to leave.
“No, I won’t be a bother; I just need to see him for a minute – alone” Momma said, her voice sounding louder than before, but still shaky, “just a minute if he wouldn’t mind.”
The orange lipstick organ lady turned motioned for us to follow. As she padded toward the door in the back of the sanctuary, she glanced back at me and smiled. When she opened the door to the pastor’s office, all I could see was his hair looming over the sports section of the Sunday newspaper. He folded one side of the paper so he could look at us, peering at us over the top of his glasses, which were pushed down low on his nose. That’s when I saw it. His hair that had stood up over the top of the paper was really a wig, a toupee. The top part of THE HAIR was cold black, and it was thick, and it had been combed back but not flat, so that it stood a good two inches off the top of his head. The underneath hair, which seemed to have a mind of it’s own, was sticking out all over, and had a greenish tint to it’s natural gray color. Still, he seemed to have a granddad face, the kind that kids are drawn to.
“Yes?” he asked, looking questioningly at the orange lipstick organ lady.
“This woman asked to see you alone, Pastor,” she said, “She just needs a minute.”
At that the Pastor looked from me to my mother, and as the recognition of her reached his brain, he reached for her hand.
“Sandi, how are you?” he asked, as the door between us closed.
I was awakened by the sound of the pastor’s office door closing. I must have fallen asleep waiting for her to come out. When she walked out of his office, she had black streaks running down her face from the Maybelline mascara that she wore. She didn’t even look at me, she just looked past me, and her eyes had a look to them that scared me.
She took long steps, quick steps toward the same doors we had come in, and I sat still for a minute, trying to figure out what she was doing. She opened the door, and paused a minute, almost like she didn’t have the strength to walk out. But her hesitation only lasted a few seconds before she walked out, closing the door behind her. I jumped up from the pew I had been resting on and ran toward the door, thinking she must have forgotten me, but just as I opened that door, the pastor grabbed me, stopping me from following her. I began to flail out against him, trying to get away, trying to get to Momma, but his strength held me close. Panic set in as I realized she was leaving me there, leaving me with the orange lipstick organ lady and the pastor with the rug on his head. I tried to cry, to scream, to make my mouth move, my legs run, but nothing came out and my legs were like rubber.
That’s all I remember. Everything else was a blur. The mind has a way of helping us forget the most painful memories. The next thing I remember is waking up in a brown lazy boy recliner with slobber dripping down my chin, dried slobber on my cheek where I had been sleeping. It was the cold wetness of the slobber that had awakened me. It was getting dark outside, and as I tried to focus on the events that brought me to this strange place, I knew instinctively that Momma had left me, and wasn’t coming back.