For those of us who choose to worship in small churches, at least those in southwest Georgia, our responsibilities are clearly defined. There are so few of us, we all have to do most everything. Like – everything.
At Elmodel Presbyterian, at the corner of Georgia Highway 37 and Jericho Road, each woman who so chooses, whether a member or not, signs up at the beginning of each year to be the Hostess for a Month. Don’t get too excited. There is no plaque, or honorable mention in the church bulletin, or even a special monogrammed apron for the said hostess.
Once when I was working a temp job in LaGrange, a co-worker remarked that my childhood sounded like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. He was right. It really was. Mama and Daddy did everything they could to make it so.
In the field adjacent to Nanny and Pops’ yard was a fire-tower manned by Mrs. Irma Collins. Miss Irma climbed the seemingly innumerable flights of stairs up to the tiptop of the tower, where she watched, mostly in the late spring and early summer, for forest fires. She carried a small cooler with her lunch inside and not much else. It was rare that she came down from the fire-tower until time to go home.
Trucks run awfully fast on the highway that separates our house from Nanny and Pops’. So, most of the time, Mama would walk me to the road where Pops would be waiting on the other side. If Miss Irma was working in the fire-tower though, I was allowed to cross the highway by myself, only after calling to her as a lookout.
Standing on the edge of our yard, I’d call up to the little office at the top of the tower, “MISS IRMA? MISS IRRRMMMAAAA??” She’d stick her head out the window, look up and down the highway for me and shout back, “Go ahead Little Un.” I’d run across the road to Pops waiting on the swing in the front yard.
Admittedly, it was a charmed life.
I imagine it was hot. Summer in south Georgia is something to behold. Just walking across a yard makes me feel like a lit candle – melting by degrees.
She sweats through her day dress, big dark circles appear on mousey-brown fabric, soft from washing and washing again. If there had been a breeze, the wet circles under her arms, across her breasts, and the band soaked around her waistline might have provided some cooling relief, but there was no breeze. Just oppressive, thick, wet heat. No rain in sight. The dogs rarely left their wallowed ruts under the house, as summer slunk its way into fall.
It was an ordinary day – a day full of chores: cooking, washing, cleaning, churning, feeding chickens, sweeping yards, tending to hot, fussy children. An unremarkable day and yet around 140 years later, it’s one of the only stories I know about her.
“Mama, I’m hungry.” If I had a quarter for every time this was bellowed down our hallway, whispered into my ear, or declared aloud at the exact moment I finally sat down from any number of chores, I’d be a millionaire.
After nearly two weeks at home over the holidays with my boys, I’m convinced one of the reasons I am not a millionaire is because Jamie and I feed two children every three hours. They go through food like a buzzsaw through plywood.
The hamster was not my idea. The hamster was Ginny’s idea and somehow, she roped Jamie’s sister Keisha into it, too.
Colin had been asking for a kitten, but we already have a dog. Paisley, our miniature schnauzer, was bought for Jack after he turned three. Buddies for the last 11 years, Paisley follows Jack from room to room, sleeps at the foot of Jack’s bed and gets antsy when Jack isn’t home.
Colin wanted a kitten, but he is allergic. Enter hamster.
When Ginny and I were around thirteen, Mama and Daddy started giving us someday house presents: a set of pewter candlesticks, iced tea glasses, a piece of silver. I romanticized the gifts, of course, and thought of them as a kind of modern dowry.
When Jamie and I moved into our first apartment, I unpacked those someday house treasures from my steamer trunk, where they’d been stored since I was a teenager. As a new bride, there were lots of happy dreams in each candlestick, hand-carved wooden bowl and tablecloth I put on our very first mantle, bookcase and kitchen table.
When I was a little girl, Mama cleaned house by first opening all the windows to “air things out and let the sunshine in.” Then, she put a Broadway soundtrack on the record player.
I was of the age that chores were fun and helping Mama made me feel accomplished. She taught me how to starch and iron the dishcloths and pillowcases. Sometimes, she would let me wash the hairbrushes. I remember only bits and pieces of those days: how water would flick up into my face when I washed her round brown hairbrush or Daddy’s turquoise one with salt-and-pepper bristles, how the hot soapy water made the kitchen smell, the squeak of the bathroom mirror as I wiped it clean with newspaper wet with vinegar and water. I remember curtains catching a breeze and billowing out into the room.
After settling the boys on the air-mattress beside our bed, I opened the windows in our bedroom for some fresh air. It was still raining, but the gusts were less frequent. Dark as pitch, I couldn’t tell how much damage had been done but knew when dawn broke things would be different.
After a while, it was cool in the bedroom. Paisley sat at the foot of our bed, something he is never allowed to do, but he knew something was different. His chin rested on his salt-and-pepper front paws that stretched out in front of him, but his ears stood at attention, guarding us.
Thunderheads formed on the horizon as I drove home. I could see them in the distant twilight, a dark outline on the edge of lighter clouds. I was alone in the car and had Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s “C’mon, C’mon” on repeat. That song makes me remember, especially on a quiet night, alone in the car, with thunderheads in the distance. I love rain, always have. Mama says it’s because I was born during a summer storm.
My anxiety sneaks into my mind like thick, black smoke curling up from under a door. The kind that smells like burned rubber and tastes like pennies. The kind of smoke that at first, you think only you see, so you ignore it and go on about your business, but on double-take, it’s there. It’s white at first, just a warning, but as time passes it changes to grey and then slowly smutty and finally black and thick, and it’s billowing. There’s nothing I can do to stop it from coming inside. So it does. It consumes the room in my brain while I stand frozen, watching it and gasping to breathe.
Ginny and I talk on the phone every day on my way home from the office. It’s the only time I have an hour all to myself. If we wait until I get home, I’m too distracted by my mom-jobs and there’s not much continuity in our conversation. So, we relish the hour we have available to us just to be sisters.