When I stepped outside the bakery, flaky croissant crust fell from my mouth onto my sleeve. In my left hand, I juggled pastry and coffee to sweep away the crumbs. When I looked up, there was a gray-haired man. He smiled and said, “Good morning.” About to reply, I realized he was speaking to the teddy bear in his arms.
The old man dominated my thoughts while driving to my childhood home. I wondered where his family was, if they cared about him, if they knew his condition. He looked about the age of my mother when she was admitted to the nursing home. She kept walking around the house holding a lighted match and looking for the stove.
When I turned onto my old street, the driveway was empty. The movers hadn’t arrived and I relaxed, for a moment. Once I stood in the foyer, I froze. The energy was unsettling, mysterious, dark and heavy; it felt like someone was hiding, waiting to surprise me. Trembling, I walked across the worn Berber carpet.
Being inside brought a mixture of emotions, like dry ingredients sifted together, ready to be drowned in oil. There was sadness for the times I couldn’t visit. Happiness for dodging some of those visits. Love for the packrat in my mom. Hate towards the absurd amount of stuff she collected. Determination to preserve her life. Fear of the future now that she’d passed.
I stood in the dining room remembering holiday gatherings and joy on her face. A full house and full table. She’d dance and sing to the radio as she chopped and stirred and pulled the oven mitts from her slender fingers. When we tried to help, she’d “shoo” us away, tell us to turn on a movie or read a book. She wanted us near, in the house, not in her way.
Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter was spent around that wooden table. Family, friends, strangers, all gathered together, sitting on brown leather chairs, with a sky-high pile of food tipping over the edge of fine bone china. Dessert sat off to the side, waiting at the buffet for everyone to make a little room for more.
We’d clear the dishes, move to the sitting room, and fight over who got to stretch out on the green velour couch for a nap. The little ones pulled tattered classics from the built-in bookshelves. They stacked pillows on the floor and lounged as they read over echoes of snores.
The painting above the brick fireplace was the focal point of the house. The colors popped against the neutral palette on the walls. Everyone admired, discussed, and critiqued it. At least a dozen stories spread around town about its origin. It became a bit of a legend. Neighbors would peek into the living room from the front porch, or through an open window.
Oh, how mom loved the attention and fun of keeping her little secret. It felt invasive to pull it down now and inspect it, to look for evidence and truth. As much as I wanted to know, I didn’t. I placed it on the floor and held the top of the frame between my fingers. It swayed and knocked against my leg as I pondered what to do.
I thought about life as a child, the world my mother created for me. A simple life, sheltered from the ugliness of others. We never owned a television. Instead, Momma distracted me with activities and books and encouraged me to find the best in things. She surrounded me with beauty.
Lifting the painting in front of me, I was reminded of something she used to say. “See, darlin’ the faceless girl in the paintin’ is a symbol. Don’t you never let anyone tell you who you are.”
My mind drifted back to the old man outside the bakery. My cell phone vibrated. It was the moving company. They were stuck in traffic and going to be an hour late.
I repositioned the art on the wall and plopped down on the green couch. The basket under the armrest was full of blankets. I grabbed the cream-colored one, wrapped it around myself, and nursed the rest of my coffee. The beaded, round throw pillow next to me fell in my lap. I pressed it against my chest, peered above the fireplace, and blurted out, “Hey, Momma.”